How Important is Historical Accuracy in Films?
The past is a fickle beast. It is researched, studied, argued over, recorded, and everything in between, with the age-old criticism being that only the victors ever really get a say. It is certainly hard to argue with that last point, and it is more than likely that historians will never be able to nail down all the facts without some inaccuracy or historical bias.
But what happens when you combine history and Hollywood? Now, that could cause some problems. Can a Hollywood film get the history right and make a decently entertaining piece of art? Certainly, there have been attempts, but maybe none of those previous questions really matter. Maybe the only question that matters is this: does history matter if the movie is awesome?
Gladiator, a film about a Roman general turned common gladiator after the murder of his family and his subsequent enslavement, is undoubtedly a beloved movie, but it is not free from historical error, and many of the movie’s major plot points are based on embellished historical moments, or ones that are flat out untrue. However, based on the movie’s 87 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it appears that moviegoers are indeed, sorry for the joke, entertained.
It is quite possible that it is exactly this film’s lack of historical accuracy, aside from the general historical setting and character names, that makes this movie so great. For fans who love history, this film will immerse you in a time when the coliseum was the pinnacle of entertainment, and men fought to the death, all in the name of Roman glory. The beauty of this movie is that it gives the viewer an interesting story in a time period that is still largely talked about in today’s day in age. Whether you love history or not, it is hard to argue the emotion and intensity this movie brings to the screen, allowing history and story to coexist. Maybe that is the ultimate goal of filmmakers when it comes to these “historical” films, blending our knowledge of the past with an entertaining story.
The Importance of Audience
At the end of the day, one of the key elements of whether a movie’s historical accuracy matters comes down to each specific audience member. One person may watch Braveheart, a classic tale about a Scottish revolution led by the legendary William Wallace,and love the kilt cladden-Scotsmen, feeling that it adds to the feel of the movie. On the other hand, another viewer may hate the depiction of kilts in Braveheart, finding that it does not represent the time period or the real men who fought against the English crown.
Maybe that’s a bad example because I do not think anyone with even the slightest knowledge of history was happy about the kilts in Braveheart. However, with that said, Braveheart’s 85 percent audience rating score on Rotten Tomatoes would imply that most people just want to see a good movie, regardless of the history. Obviously, Braveheart relies more on real historical figures than Gladiator does, and many people see William Wallace as a Scottish icon. It’s possible that an audience members preconceptions of the Scottish legend may impact how they watch this movie, but just as Gladiator adds a level of wonder to the gladiatorial figure, so too does this film increase the wonder that is William Wallace.
Often times, films like Braveheart, have the ability to distort how we as audience members view actual history, taking for granted that filmmakers would have changed certain facts or embellished certain points. But just as oral and written history distorted true historical facts to make a story as grand and exciting as possible, so too is the film industry “improving” on real historical events for entertainment purposes. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it is natural to embellish stories and make them better. Anyone who has ever heard their friend tell a story they know not to be entirely accurate understands just how easy it is for facts to get muddied, making a real story that may just be mediocre, great.
But movies with a fair amount of historical accuracy have succeeded in the past. Outlaw King (yes, another movie about Scottish rebellions), although not as famous as a movie like Gladiator, was a popular movie that premiered on Netflix in 2018. This movie, although not perfect in its history, was generally seen as being a good representation of Robert the Bruce, certainly a more accurate depiction of the Bruce than Braveheart’s was. Outlaw King’s representation of Scottish clothing, culture, and battle has typically been seen by critics as showing Scottish culture correctly, but also in a way that was exciting to watch.
Here we have an interesting problem, where movies that are more historically correct and ones that are not, are both enjoyed. Maybe the issue is not historical accuracy, but the time in which a movie is released.
Braveheart was wildly successful upon its initial release, and it has maintained that popularity over time; however, it has also been harshly criticized. Audience members were swept away with Braveheart’s story, and it was only after having left the theatre, did people start to read articles, books, and other sources about Braveheart’s inaccuracies, which may have ruined the movie for some people, but most likely, not all.
In the same vein, did finding out that Outlaw King was more historically accurate make the movie retroactively better for audiences? Unfortunately, Rotten Tomatoes does not have a tool to measure that feeling.
Responsibility (or Not) to History
Do filmmakers have a responsibility to the history they are portraying? Is it important to accurately represent the people and events being depicted in movies or can that be sacrificed for the good of a compelling and interesting story?
Does Commodus in Gladiator deserve to have his death portrayed correctly? Or does Desmond Doss, the war hero from Hacksaw Ridge, deserve to have his story told to the letter, regardless of the issues that would most likely cause with the movie’s pacing and enjoyability?
Certainly, movies should not be seen as legitimate historical resources, but some audience members, and anyone who has googled the accuracy of a movie based on real events, know that many viewers demand that the “truth” be told in movies.
Hacksaw Ridge, a film about a World War 2 soldier named Desmond Doss who won the congressional medal of honor even though he refused to bear arms is another example of a film that plays with history. Hacksaw Ridge’s errors were not as egregious as Braveheart; however, fans of the movie who visited the famous Hacksaw Ridge site were disappointed by how much smaller it was in real life. Hyperbolizing and expanding on the truth is almost a guarantee for any Hollywood movie, but there is something to be said about overemphasizing aspects of a story, and how that warps the way we view real people and events. In this case, it is hard to blame the creators of the movie for making the site larger, but there is speculation that Mel Gibson and his team did not even visit the real site, instead creating their own version of it in Australia.
Maybe it does not matter that the World War 2 site is totally and completely identical to the real location, but it certainly changes how we view the real history, and like the tourists who were disappointed at the real size of Hacksaw Ridge, fans who discover their historical movie is riddled with lies and inaccuracy are oftentimes left saddened by the reality of the situation. Again, this goes back to the idea of turning history into legend and whether or not that is a bad thing.
Where Does This Leave the Viewer?
It is quite possible that history fans should leave their expectations at the door and focus entirely on the enjoyability of a film, allowing the truthful historical depictions within those movies to be added bonuses. So much of a film’s success has to do with timing, the market that film is coming out in, and so much more. Adding in history can at times play a factor in the success or failure of a movie, but whether or not it should is questionable.
Going even deeper into this issue is that history itself is often divided on certain topics and events, therefore, further splintering what can even be considered “true” in movies. At the end of the day, or rather, at the end of the movie, it all comes down to each individual audience member and knowing that a movie can simply be a great story or a great representation of history in art and that both of those movies can be enjoyed.
Or, maybe historical films are just the natural process of turning truth into myth, and myth into legend.
Land, Graham. “8 Historical Inaccuracies From the Film Gladiator.” History Hit. August 9th, 2018. Web.
Livingston, Michael. “Medieval Matters: The Many Sins of Braveheart.” Tor.Com. Tor Publishing. Thursday, November 29th, 2018. Web.
Livingston, Michael. “Outlaw King Is a Lot Smarter About History Than Braveheart.” Tor.com. Tor publishing. Thursday, January 10th, 2019. Web.
Graham-Harrison, Emma. “On the real Hacksaw Ridge, a voice is heard: beware the fake glamour of war.” The Guardian. Sunday, February 5th, 2017. Web.
What do you think? Leave a comment.