How Important is Historical Accuracy in Films?

Mel Gibson in Braveheart.

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.

Maximus in the 2000 film Gladiator.

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.

Scottish soldiers ready for battle in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart.

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.

Chris Pine in the film Outlaw King.

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.

Mel Gibson and Andrew Garfield on the set of Hacksaw Ridge.

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.

Work Cited

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.

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41 Comments

  1. Sean Gadus

    This is a really interesting article and the films that were used in articles were well chosen. Braveheart is a really good case study for historical inaccuracies and they affect how opinion of a film.

  2. Amyus

    As someone who has worked on several films in which historical accuracy was treated as little more than an inconvenience to the producers, I was delighted to help in the editorial stage of your article. It brought back some amusing memories. Sometimes one simply has to bite the bullet and think of the pay cheque. That having been said, you’ve made your points very well and I agree with Sean Gadus’ comments re the film choices you used. A great read and thank you.

  3. msnfrd

    Enjoyed the article. Sometimes the historical inaccuracies can be a jumping off point for people to do more investigation themselves, so maybe there’s value in that. I teach a world history of sport course, and use lots of films to communicate a sense of things, but relate the inaccuracies to current perspectives and misunderstandings. For example, I love to pick apart “A Knight’s Tale” but try to point out how the intentionally modern things in it are meant to communicate to the audience how much this was “sport” to people at the time.

  4. I’ve been thinking about history a lot recently and I’ve come to the conclusion that it simply isn’t real. Sure, things happened. There were battles and wars, births and deaths etc but those were just things which occured. History on the other hand is about interpretations and a narrative, in that it is just our impression of what actually went on. It is only at best a partial retelling at other times completely and utterly wrong. History isn’t real, it’s not true so let film makers tell the stories they want. They almost certainly going to be more accurate than some of the text books I learnt about Churchill thirty years ago in school.

    • I’d personally get my flawed history from academics who’ve studied it properly than from a few business men who will create the history that’ll make them the most cash.

    • You seem to seek harsher censorship when it comes to theatre though.

    • There are two sides to that approach, though, especially when it comes to the deliberate use of known inaccuracies to support dramatic impact on a public which is perhaps completely unfamiliar with the events or circumstances in question.

      In an ideal world we would all be able to distinguish between when we are watching fiction and when we are watching an attempt to document and present fact, but we know that is not so.

  5. We can all look forward to the future biopic” trump the stable genius ” a fusion of comedy and horror sure to be a bigly success starring a random drunk as DT and a blank sheet of paper as his trusted vp

  6. Luann Ly
    0

    But historical accuracy is boring. Movies shouldn’t be boring.

  7. I can’t help feeling that many of the world’s problems are due to the fact that people prefer a good story to a story that abides closely to what we can know of the facts. That’s how bad politics works.

    Historical narratives that adopt the approach that the story is more important than the facts certainly play into this human weakness.

    I suspect the same could be said of religious narratives – yes, they are compelling and deeply human on a level of storytelling – but to go from there to claiming that they are ‘the truth’, in a literal sense, is a long stretch. If a story is not the literal and provable truth then it is not the truth. It is a story.

  8. Stephanie M.

    Ah, now this is an interesting topic, and one I’ve wrestled with off and on for years.

    A bit of background: I grew up with a history buff dad. And when I say history buff, I mean the kind who would critique the history/social studies curriculum at school, turn family dinners into history lessons/lectures, and in general, hated Hollywood’s historical depictions of just about anything. At its best, this meant he had to comment on it. At worst, it meant a full-scale rant. I once had to watch Thirteen Days for an AP Government class’ extra credit (yeah, I know, nerd), and…it didn’t go well.

    So, I’m not ashamed to say I kind of inherited my dad’s nose for historical BS. Pocahontas still makes me cringe, and I can’t do 13 Days for obvious reasons. I stay away from war movies because after a certain age, war movie = “family movie night.” And if I’m watching a period piece and spot some historical BS, I may mention it.

    That said, sometimes I do go the opposite direction, as in, “Okay brain, shut up and watch the movie.” And yes, this does make it more enjoyable. I’m not going to get on board with Lincoln being a vampire hunter, but Braveheart? Kilts aside, I’m always up for hot men with accents. 😉 History deserves respect, but that doesn’t mean we can’t respect cinematic art, too.

  9. Scharina

    Interesting article with a gigantic question to answer. I think there are a lot of factors which contribute to a film being successful, but I don’t think it could be at the cost of the history. I think there’s a certain respect to have for culture and history and be accurate in setting; that shouldn’t take away from plot or character, because history indeed is just narration of events by different people. In the context of Braveheart, it wouldn’t have cost them much to at least have the costumes right. We however live in a time where history and culture is inconvenient and nagging, so filmmakers can afford to butcher it without cost.

  10. I blame Mel Gibson for everything. Braveheart was arguably the most inaccurate movie ever made.

  11. Historical films tell us more about the present than they do about the past. And what we can conclude is that audiences these days know very little about history and care even less.

  12. Interesting piece. I tend to find myself watching historical movies all the time. There is a difference between such films as “Green Book” and “Vice” and others such as “The Favourite” and “Mary Queen of Scots” – the first two are well within living memory and NEED to be as accurate as possible so as to be worthwhile watching, otherwise they are merely propaganda. The second two are liable to more flexible interpretation as there is not enough information as to what actually happened, however the rabbits in The Favourite and the non-meeting of the Queens in Mary Queen of Scots those MIGHT add amusement or dramatic tension but are just lazy, a crime in storytelling.

  13. This is a really cool article, I hadn’t previously considered the idea of how the retroactive discovery of inaccuracies could spoil somebody’s experience of the film. I also really liked your point about the more slight film inaccuracies (for the sake of pacing and dramatic effect) being a sort of new form of mythology.

  14. Really enjoyed reading this article – interesting questions were raised – some food for thought .

  15. Jacquie
    1

    I garnered most of my knowledge of prehistoric man from the Flintstones movie. Please don’t tell me it contains historical inaccuracies?

  16. Obviously no film can be completely historically accurate, but there’s a certain level I need to enjoy a film. I watched the recent Churchill biopic with Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour. I couldn’t stand it because of the numerous historical inaccuracies.

  17. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, certain historical events occurred.

    Are we suggesting that they might not have been accurately portrayed?

  18. I think there’s a fundamental dishonesty in misrepresenting or falsifying history, because you are leveraging the authenticity of historical events to give your film heft.

    If you want to play with the story, why not change the names and locations, and put clear blue water between reality and fiction? Film makers don’t do that because they want to eat their cake.

  19. All of Shakespeare’s “history” plays are historically inaccurate. They still get performed, though.

  20. OkaNaimo0819

    I think it depends mostly on the subject or person that is being portrayed. The more well-known it is, the more the director and crew have an obligation to at least some historical accuracy. Especially if it’s an account of an historical event.
    With that being said, most casual viewers don’t care. When it comes down to it, they usually just go for the actors, not a history lesson.

  21. I am completely sure that historical films are now very relevant. After all, it is they who can give us an idea of what the life of people was like many years ago.

  22. I think if they are more accurate to what we consider the historical truth, it will be just that , more accurate but a movie is a form of entertainment so its hard to find blame with an inaccurate history film if its enjoyable ( ex 300)

  23. Great analysis of all the movies mentioned. I completed agree with your conclusion that marketing plays an important role in packaging the films for the audience. It definitely plays a role in their reception and how far the viewers will commit to find more about the real matter.

  24. I think this is a difficult topic, and there were issues with this about Hamilton as well. I think it comes down to the viewer and what each person wants.

    Also, I think you produced quality work, and I appreciate that you drew on other people’s ideas, and gave them credit, to enhance your argument.

  25. This was a good read, and I think it’s an interesting idea to ponder. I faced the same question after watching The Greatest Showman because the storytelling was on point but the accuracy was not necessarily there. Your question “Does history matter if the movie is awesome?” encapsulates my inner debate. I still haven’t fully made up my mind one way or another, but it’s a great topic to discuss!

  26. It may be important to make a distinction between “actual historical truth” (does such a thing even exist?) and the “spirit of the truth.” Case in point: “Hidden Figures.” When Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) rails at her boss (Kevin Costner) for having to endure a slew of indignities–including being forced to use separate bathrooms and even a separate coffee pot–the audience cheers, and the room full of white engineers is silenced. It’s a great moment dramatically, and it certainly illustrates in real terms the kinds of obstacles that African Americans were forced to put up with. But did it really happen? Does it matter? Whether or not the real Katherine Johnson blew up in her boss’ face is less important, as far as I’m concerned, than whether the movie captures the spirit of the time. It is, after all, a movie and not a history class.

  27. I think this issue is a central one as movies, popular culture reinforce common myths that a social group/society has and therefore it is the use of history rather than the abuse of it that is central. Of course, this is long understood as we are a culture of historicists – who think that we can rationally just as a scientist reconstruct the past and move past our bias and subjectivities as the past is uncovered as we do a dinosaur. This is Lessing great ugly ditch and the point of Nietzsche’s little read work ‘The abuses and use of history for life’ in which he directly engages with these ideas. History is more about us than them. And consumed in the media, it is certainly making the filmmaker the most dangerous ideology out there.

  28. I hate to be a cynic, but the answer to a film like this will be about the money. A motion picture is an expensive endeavor, and if the history isn’t going to attract eyeballs, I can’t imagine the true version of the story will make it through the many stages of production.

    Let’s look at Disney’s recent Togo. Togo is a film that prides itself on correcting the false historical account set out in the animated film Balto. In some ways, the whole point of the film is to show that Balto wasn’t the hero of the Diptheria epidemic the way it was reported.

    But, even the Togo screenwriters played with history in order to generate the most satisfying ending they could without breaking viewers’ suspension of disbelief.

  29. TLDR; Watch the Other Boleyn Girl

    Really great read. I’m glad to find someone who loves the Oxford Comma as much as I do.

    The question here lies: If every piece of history is incorporated into a film, is it more a textbook or an entertainment piece? I’ve grappled with this question for many years as I have been an avid movie lover since my angsty teen years (long ago). I try and stray far from any sort of historical movies due to the overwhelming amount of information, most of the time, packed into just an hour or two. Spoiler alert: I’m not a big history gal. Though, is this ideology problematic because of my willingness to compromise knowledge for cinematic bliss?

    Thinking these two concepts could never EVER overlap, I was forced into watching the Other Boleyn Girl for a grade school project. Kind of heavy for a sophomore in high school… but nonetheless, my preconceived notions regarding HISTORICALLY ACCURATE films changed. I may be one of the only people in the world that think this, as rotten tomatoes gave the film a whopping 43%, but I g-damn love this movie! The historically accurate portrayal of the Tudors and all the drama that unfolded during their reign was thrilling to watch.

    This doesn’t necessarily answer the originally posed question about the importance of historical accuracy in film, but I guess my point is — you just have to find the right film. Viewership is a very key piece in the grand scheme of things and as long as you can connect with a historical-based film, you’ll be able to understand the whole story instead of just what the director is choosing to show you.

  30. Dani CouCou

    You make some really good points. I know a historian who was absolutely horrified at the idea of having Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart meet up in the film Mary Queen of Scots, when in reality there is no record of the two ever meeting up.
    I think that it will be very hard for historians to enjoy a film based on true events when that film departs from historical facts and moves into fantasy and myth. The interesting thing is that even reputed and knowledgeable historians don’t agree on certain events, especially when so much time has passed in the interim.
    Personally I enjoy watching films that aren’t too faithful to the historical accounts because they show imagination, passion and are opening the discussion for new ideas and interpretations of a specific source text.
    I myself have enjoyed Braveheart to the point where I wanted to learn more about the actual man behind the myth.
    Watching a historical film is always a good occasion to put Google to good use and find out more about what really happened compared to what you’ve just seen.
    I recommend the YouTube channel called History Buffs, it’s full of very good analyses of films based on true events.

  31. Amelia Arrows

    It depends on the genre.
    If it is a true historic film, it should be accurate, even if that time period had a lot of social issues. Historic films allow us to remember the crimes of the past so that we may prevent it from repeating itself.

    However, if the film is loosly based on history and has more fanatsy elements or is used as a comedic effect such as the Pirates of the carribean, I think they get a bit of leeway when it comes to acuracy.

  32. I personally believe that films should be historically accurate, these days, television is used as means of entertainment but also information. By misconstruing the information in regards to history, is giving many people false concepts of what may have happened in the past.

  33. While historical inaccuracies for recent well-known events can be jarring, I think it’s also worth noting how the film is marketed towards viewers. If a film promises to tell a true, historical story, then it should be as authentic as possible. On the other hand, if it’s simply depicting a fictional story set in the past, then the filmmaker’s priority should be telling a compelling story while maintaining some degree of accuracy, rather than being authentic down to the last detail.

  34. An interesting article tackling a topic that enjoys relevance across film industries all over the world. The fact that History is an extremely dynamic subject open to interpretation has allowed the film world to take their own spin on a historical event. The degree of liberty afforded to the filmmakers and determining a boundary line for the same is indeed debatable. From an Indian perspective, historical accuracy in films/TV shows is a very active issue, and historical inaccuracy is often taken very seriously, to the extreme, and is dubbed “historical distortion” by the media. This distortion has included inserting dance sequences, changing character graphs among other things. Indian communities are known to be extremely proud of their shared history and any “distortion” made by a filmmaker on grounds of a creative license, has evoked widespread protests by the communities these films deal with, including the actors and directors receiving death threats due to their association with that particular film. But then most of these films go on to do very well at the box office, proving, for better or for worse, that dramatising historical events in order to make the film palatable to the typical Indian audience works very well. After all, there’s a reason why these films get made the way they are in the first place.

  35. As a viewer, I never expect a story to be a perfect display of history because they are two very different things. Stories incorporate the depiction that the writer wants to be seen, they have a job to entertain and use specific measures to do so. With history, I feel that it is best experienced through reading, documentaries, or through things like a historical TV series. In turn, I feel like the two subjects do not go hand-in-hand. Nonetheless, I can always appreciate when the two are combined, but I feel like it is an added bonus rather than a requirement.

  36. Dr. Vishnu Unnithan

    Movies play a very important role in educating the masses about history they might not be otherwise very inclined to learn. I personally feel that with the technology currently available where it is possible to recreate almost everything, filmmakers must try to stay as historically authentic as possible.

  37. Samantha Leersen

    As someone who studies history, I can confirm that this is a WIDELY debated topic.
    I think even the inaccurate films have value in the study of history. In several uni classes we were shown snippets of films. While they couldn’t be used as scholarly sources for an assignment, they did give us an idea of the ‘vibe’ of that time of history. Whether it be the amount of security surrounding an event, the roles given to women, even just roughly what that time and place looked like. It is a medium that is easy to learn from for many.
    I think films can be valuable in this way, as long as they are NOT trying to pretend that they carry absolute historical truth.
    I’m glad you covered this topic, your article was very enjoyable to read!

  38. Joseph Cernik

    A very good article. I’ve written on nuclear strategy over many years and to see movies that address nuclear bombs or technology and realize that what we see on the screen is not matching with the reality, makes one wonder what is believed. If a missile is fired from a silo (assuming it actually leaves the silo in the first place) and then the guidance system does not work properly so instead of striking somewhere overseas, it blows up Chicago, does not fit with most images movie viewers have. Jeff Daniels as Joshua Chamberlain in the movie, Gettysburg (1993) looked better on horseback, probably than the real Chamberlain who might have had diarrhea at that actual real moment.

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