Do You Care if a Movie is “Historically Accurate?” I Don’t – Here’s Why

While I have movies on my mind, I am going to confess something that may shock you: I don’t care if a movie is “historically accurate.”

I’ve endured countless debates and conversations with friends about which movies are “accurate” and which are not. I’ve read lists published by web sites touting the alleged accuracy of some movies while vilifying the inaccurate. I do not suspect that these debates will end anytime soon, and honestly, they shouldn’t. But, I do want to say a few things about the movies and historical “accuracy,” and why, ultimately, it does not matter.

Most importantly, true accuracy is impossible. No matter how hard I try, or anyone tries, we will never truly be able to perfectly re-create a past event in the human mind. Even a person who was there to witness an event cannot recreate it. That person might come close, but he or she will always be inaccurate. Think about a battlefield, for example. Eyewitnesses to battles attempt to tell it as they see it, but by virtue of position, they cannot relay everything. They are very occupied with the important business of surviving, after all. Ever been in a high stress environment? How well do you remember anything about that environment? What about a low stress environment like a baseball game? Think about the last time you swung a bat in a game. Did you get a hit? What was the count? How many outs were there? Can you name everyone on your team? How many people were in the crowd? What was the umpire’s name? You might then say, well, the umpire’s name is not really important. What’s important was that I got a hit. That’s exactly how a movie producer would see it. Because…

Historically accurate? Not with those fillings in your molars, Gerard Butler!

When a person makes a movie, it is less about interpreting evidence and more about story. A historian would do his best in the example above to identify the umpire. How could the umpire NOT be important to a historian? After all, he’s the only person who determines whether someone is out or safe. Surely, who that person is – and his background – is important to interpreting what really happened that day. But if we were to make a movie about that baseball game, we would not start with the umpire’s life story. That’s because the story would be boring, and movies are made for entertainment purposes. Movie producers are challenged with, among many things, the limits of time, speech, and traditional (three act) storytelling structure to portray an event from history. Choices have to be made to streamline the most important storytelling elements while setting aside less important evidence. In the movie 300, for example, we know that there were more Greeks fighting than the 300 Spartans featured (there was no less than 5,200 according to Herodotus), but the movie is centered on the Spartans, their characters, and their actions. So when the fighting starts, the additional Greeks are barely depicted, if at all. There’s actually a lot more that I could say about 300 in particular, but I’m not going to beat a dead horse. Because…

Audiences are already aware that the movie is inaccurate. That’s right. Let’s not underestimate the intelligence of the average movie-goer. Sure, there are plenty of people who have not taken advantage of the opportunity to learn history. But the audience for a movie based on history is more likely to know at least something about the material depicted in the movie. These viewers are already accustomed to the liberties that movie producers take with history, and they know not to take the movie as the definitive source material on a historical event. In fact, for many, a movie serves as a spark to learn more about the time, people, places, and events in the movie.

Gee, thanks for the box, Pandora. I can open it, right? Nothing bad’s going to happen?

The story serves as a gateway to learn more about the material. Think about when you were a kid. What made you want to know more about a particular subject? Did you see a documentary about it, or a movie, or even a cartoon? For me, it was the The Mighty Hercules cartoon that inspired my interest in mythology. I watched the adventures of Hercules on New Orleans’ WGNO-TV in the afternoons, and I went to the library to find actual books on Greek myths shortly thereafter. Even as a kindergartner, I was smart enough to know that the cartoon was based on source material. I knew someone drew the cartoon, and whoever that was based his story on actual myths and mythological characters. Let’s give people a little bit of credit here, and not assume that they are going to believe everything they see on the screen, without questioning it.

Fess Parker Davy Crockett > John Wayne Davy Crockett > Billy Bob Thornton Davy Crockett

One of the things people SHOULD question about movies, but frequently don’t, is what the movie says about the time in which it was made. Movies about historical events give us the opportunity to see well-known stories told over and over. The movie itself becomes a capsule of the time, place, and people who made it. For example, if we watch the 1960 version of The Alamo, we will see a Davy Crockett character who is much more in line with the folk hero version of Crockett than the flawed hero presented in the 2004 version. This would indicate that the producers of the 2004 version thought the audience of the time would relate to a more conflicted hero than the icon (portrayed by John Wayne) driving the 1960 version. Perhaps the 2004 version’s producers had a more cynical view of heroes, reflecting a social attitude of the 21st century.

This scene made me so mad, I wrote a thesis.

Inaccuracies in history-themed movies even inspire historians to set the record straight. I saw The Eagle on Netflix a while back. It’s not a bad movie. I enjoyed it. But I noticed something I doubted very much about it. Near the beginning of the movie, Channing Tatum’s character is wounded by a scythed chariot. I was immediately suspicious. I wasn’t aware that there were any scythed chariots being used in Great Britain at that time. I did the research, and what do you know? There wasn’t. I based a paper on that research, and that research also later helped me write my master’s thesis about Julius Caesar’s invasions of Britain.

In conclusion, take it easy on Hollywood, and stop giving them so much importance. Movie producers, writers, and actors never will have the final say on how events and people are remembered by history. That burden is actually up to you. If you want to let Mel Gibson’s version of William Wallace be your version of William Wallace, then I can’t stop you. But you will be settling for something less than you should, and I think you know that. If you want to truly understand someone or something better than you do, seek out opportunities to get closer to the subject. Read journals, letters, newspapers, and contemporary evidence. Visit the battle field. Tour the battleship, submarine, or aircraft carrier. Talk to veterans about their experiences. Talk to your grandmother about her childhood. Go to that traveling exhibit at the art museum. Go deeper than what you see on the silver screen!

Copyright 2017 Copperkettle Media LLC

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