Tag Archives: Movies

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

So… About that “Ben-Hur” Remake…

Along with this summer’s star-crossed remake of Ghostbusters, 2016’s remake of Ben-Hur failed to challenge its predecessor(s) for the title of “best version” of a revered work. I admit that when the movie was announced, I was in the “no, thanks, not interested” category of movie-goer, being a huge fan of the 1959 version of Ben-Hur – my favorite movie of all-time.  When the trailer for the new film came out in early 2016, my position was unmoved. I was discouraged by the amount of CGI work in the trailer, and figured this would be a Ben-Hur for the short-attention-span crowd.

I viewed the movie last night, and I admit that I was wrongly arrogant to think that the movie could not be told another way, or updated for modern audiences. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the movie. It’s not perfect of course. In fact, I thought the writing was a little too loose with modern phrasing, including some particularly groan-worthy lines about being “progressive,” “fighting the good fight,” and “keeping the faith.” But the movie differs from the 1959 version in a couple of key ways, and that’s what I want to write about.

“You can find them… in… the Valley of the… LEPERS!” (Ouch)

If you haven’t seen the movie yet, and don’t want to be spoiled, turn back now, because I’m going to talk about the ending of the movie. In the 1959 movie, Messala is mortally wounded in the chariot race, and dies cursing Judah. He spits out the fate of Judah’s mother and sister (they are lepers) as he fights for his last breath. It is a dagger of malice that holds up after repeat viewings. Messala goes to the Underworld with hate in his heart for Judah, who only learns to forgive Messala through the example of Christ. This is true meaning of the story. Judah learns to forgive, after years of hatred for Messala. “… I felt his voice take the sword from my hand,” says Charlton Heston’s Judah, as he reflects on the lesson learned through Jesus. The sting of this revelation is that Judah, in the 1959 film, did not learn to forgive quickly enough. His best friend-turned-enemy, Messala, dies before he can forgive him. As human beings we know this particular pain. We have all lost someone at some point, before we could say what we wanted to say to them. But Judah had a lot to say. The moral here is to be quick to forgive, even if your enemy doesn’t want to be forgiven.

The 2016 version of Ben-Hur takes a different approach. In this version, Messala lives.

Why can’t we be friends?

I was surprised to see that he does not die. I expected the same scenes as the 1959 version. In this most recent film, Judah is inspired to seek out Messala after viewing Jesus’s death. He forgives Messala, who is physically broken, and who initially resists him at sword point. Messala eventually breaks and drops the sword as he embraces Judah, also forgiving him for their years-long conflict. When you look at this scene closely, it is actually a throwback to the 1959 quote “… I felt his voice take the sword from my hand.” But what makes this scene so powerful is that it is not Jesus who takes the sword from Judah’s hand, but Judah, following the words of Jesus, who takes the sword from Messala. In this way, I think that this remake actually improves upon the 1959 version, because this is not God taking the sword out of a mortal’s hand. This is a man taking the sword from another man, through the example of Christ. God is all-powerful. If He doesn’t want you to have a sword in your hand, He can and will see to it that you don’t. What makes forgiveness the most powerful of all human acts is that it requires humility and vulnerability from both sides. Forgiveness doesn’t originate from a position of power. The lesson of this movie is not just to forgive quickly, but to forgive totally.

What follows in the 2016 film is nothing short of incredible, as Messala is welcomed back into Judah’s family, who all forgive him. Esther forgives Messala for killing her father. Judah’s mother and sister forgive Messala for throwing them into a prison, where they contracted leprosy. To be honest, I felt that this part of the movie, which carries the right message, lacked the dramatic tension of the earlier scene between Judah and Messala. I think this was a missed opportunity for Messala and the others to show their renewed love for each other, and how that came about, rather than have it told to us via Morgan Freeman. Still, it’s rare to see something like this in a movie for modern audiences. I applaud the choice.

After watching the movie, I had a thought related to medieval history, and I’m going to start exploring it. We all know the influence of the Christian faith on medieval Europe. Or do we? The central tenet of Jesus’s teaching is forgiveness, and treating others as you would have them treat you. So why was medieval Europe plagued by cruelty, violence and friction among classes, races, and religions? How could a faith spread like wildfire across a continent, with its central message taking a back seat? Who is actually being faithful, and who is just doing it for show?

If there’s one thing that can be said about the 2016 version of Ben-Hur, it’s that the characters aren’t just going through the motions. The pace might be accelerated, the writing might be a little cringe-y, the ending might be close to ridiculous – but as Mother Angelica once said, “Unless you are willing to do the ridiculous, God will not do the miraculous.” I choose to see the miraculous in 2016’s Ben-Hur, and I hope you do, too.

Copyright 2016 Copperkettle Media LLC