A lot of our access to history is through films. Gladiator. The Deer Hunter. Elizabeth. Saving Private Ryan. All good films. But is this particular access to history enough and is it okay?
From minor to major historical inaccuracies, it is important to remember that some scenes are pure conjecture or simply changed altogether, and from artistic license I can appreciate this.
But does Hollywood and others have a responsibility to teach us truth? It doesn’t have to be the whole truth and nothing but the truth, some things can be tweaked. But it shouldn’t contain major inaccuracies especially if the film or tv show claims to be based on a true story.
In the film Elizabeth it depicts a scene where Queen Elizabeth I is shown to be less than England’s Virgin Queen, by showing a sexual romantic relationship with Dudley. Other films invent characters altogether.
Historians are governed, try as they might not to be, by their personal thoughts and about the times they write in. History is generally, and stereotypically written by the victor. And there is a whole branch of the study of history called historiography – of why people wrote in the certain ways that they did – what influenced them. The same can be said of directors and screenwriters.
Directors and screenwriters are also governed by the same impulses as newspapermen: to sell. And if invention gets bums on seats in the cinemas to watch their film then they’ll do it right? The issue I have comes from the level of invention and the amount of the story altered. A primary example of this – which drives most, if not all, historians round-the-bend, is the mythological story of the romantic relationship between Captain John Smith and Pocahontas. According to a letter by Smith written nine years after to Queen Anne of England, Pocahontas did save his life in the new world of America in 1607. But no evidence exists that they went onto have a romantic relationship – nor a relationship of any kind; and this is not even including the fact that Pocahontas would have only been ten years old at the time of John Smith’s landing at Jamestown in 1607. But time and again directors and movies makers overlook this crucial inaccuracy and make a movie out of it, claiming it to be, like Terrence Malick’s The New World in 2005 (starring a fairly laughable Colin Farrell as John Smith) based on the true story.
Audiences get annoyed and can feel cheated when movie makers change key parts when making a movie based on a book. Those in the movie industry have an artistic licence that shouldn’t be taken too far. Can you imagine if they’d gone against the ending of the final Harry Potter novel and Voldemort had been triumphant instead of Harry? No. So why do historical films, which importantly claim to be true stories, appear at times to be exempt from this? I don’t honestly mind if attention to detail items are changed or overlooked – the breed of the dog for instance at the beginning of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator starring Russell Crowe, didn’t exist yet. But it isn’t a super integral part. But adding characters, changing truths, and relying on mythology are not ok.
Many people in the world don’t read history. Many people don’t study it at school, or doze through their lessons, thinking that the study of the past is not important. But some of them may watch historical films, even if it is just to see for example the rippling oiled bodies of the actors in 300.
And that may be their only access to history. And honestly I think that these people are in the majority. So should movie makers have some sense of responsibility to tell the story as it really was? They needn’t be worried about changing things to make the film more exciting. How does the popular saying go? Truth sometimes is stranger than fiction.