For many people watching historical films is the only access to history that they have. But watching this ‘Hollywood History’ isn’t as bad as you’d imagine. True there’s some really historically inaccurate films out there, but most directors would feel committed to the history behind the story. One glaring error in Hollywood is the perception that cannon balls explode. They didn’t. They don’t. But in many scenes in countless movies cannon balls race across the sky, crash into something – and explode. In reality, portraying what damage a cannon ball would have actually done may be too gruesome for film.
Professional historians, like movie directors, pluck from the evidence that they can muster and condense it down moulding it into meaning. Professional historians thrown in primary sources – bits of evidence from the past to liven up their work and to paint a picture. A director of historical movies has moving images to portray his ‘evidence’. According to Mark C Carnes from Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, Hollywood History is different. ‘It fills irritating gaps in the historical record and polishes dulling ambiguities and complexities. The final product gleams and it sears the imagination.’
Furthermore, he admits that it was historical films that drew many people, now professional historians, to history in the first place. But a key difference remains, a historical thesis, let’s say, presents a theory and is lavishly full of ‘evidence’ to support the theory. But movies, like drama and fiction, are made to inspire and most fundamentally to entertain. To drew people to the cinemas to watch the movies.
Saying this, movies should not be a substitute for history. We should not accept everything that is portrayed on the scene in front of us. The people making them have their own agendas – whether they are aware of them or not. You should never fully accept their claims, nor dismiss them entirely for being what they are – a powerful way of visualising the past.
But movies, can and do provide a stepping stone into individual investigations into something someone may no very little – if nothing – about. Gandhi (1982) may inspire you to read An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments With Truth, or when watching the eagerly awaited Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, it may inspire someone to read the story behind the film. The same goes for every historical story told by Hollywood.
So, we shouldn’t take what we see on the silver screen for granted neither should we accept it as law. Hollywood History is plagued with inaccuracies and ambiguities. Where they is a gap in historical knowledge the director fills it. Sometimes he distorts history altogether, other times he misses the inaccuracies entirely. And at other times he bends history, like the romp scene between Queen Elizabeth I and her court favourite Robert Dudley, to make it more visually exciting, to make the characters of history more exciting and ultimately more human. This is not to say that this didn’t happen. We simply don’t know. And with artists as well as directors artistic licence is used – and often, sadly abused.
This is a brief precursor to a series of blogs that I’ll be doing where I look into and investigate the historical (in)accuracies of some of the most (and least) famous historical movies to grace our screens and capture our imagination and our attention.
* Hollywood History is a generic term that is used in Past Imperfect to simply represent movies made for cinematic release. ** But it’s alliteration and it’s catchy.