How many times have you sat down to watch a historical film and left thinking ‘ how much of that actually happened?’As someone who loves History and Films, Historical Films are a genre I have always loved watching. The vast majority of us go into these films knowing that they are not 100% accurate. We know that Hollywood focuses not on giving us fact, but entertaining us and sometimes that means enforcing certain story arcs or conventions to do so. I mean these films usually come with the catchphrase ‘based on’ don’t they? But how much truth are we actually getting? Really, if they are marketing this as a historical film shouldn’t most of what we are watching be accurate? I think many people would be surprised at the how much these films change from what actually occurred in real life.
Now I’m not saying that all Historical Films are fabricated, there have been many that have tried to stay as authentic and accurate as possible. Films such as 12 years a slave (2013), Stalingrad (1993), and Come and See (1985), are recognised as some of the most accurate portrayals of history in film. Of course you can never have a fully accurate film, but these are said to capture the essence of the time and story they are trying to tell. We also have the complete opposite of the spectrum, with films like The Imitation Game (2014), Braveheart (1995) and Mary Antoinette (2006), which are regarded as pretty inaccurate films.
Braveheart is one that people find particularly shocking, especially because of its success. It was directed and starred in by Mel Gibson and tells the story of Scottish Rebel William Wallace. It went on the win 5 Academy Awards including ‘Best Picture’ and ‘Best Director’, as well as many other awards throughout award season. In researching this film I was surprised to find more inaccuracies than I initially thought. Some of its major errors include William Wallace being depicted as a peasant as a child, as he was actually believed to born into aristocracy and already knighted by the time of the famous battle in the film. Another being the costumes worn by the Scotsmen and the English. Kilts were not worn by Scotsmen in battle until the 17th Century, and as the film is set in the 13th century it makes it pretty inaccurate. The biggest inaccuracy however, besides the fact that a few characters and events were fabricated, is the fact that the bridge at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, is in fact missing from the scene. These are only a few of the many historical inaccuracies hidden within this film, which I know for me has made this film slightly less appealing overall. But why despite these inaccuracies this film went on to receive global recognition.
Another film I found to be pretty inaccurate is actually one I personally really like, The Imitation Game. So I was pretty devastated to find out that this film is actually pretty inaccurate. This film came out in 2014 and tells the story of Alan Turning, the mathematician who helped crack the enigma code in ww2 by effective building the worlds first computer.It too was nominated for a number of awards including Best Film, and winning Best Writing Adaption. Turning was played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who despite the films flaws did an amazing job, and got nominated for an Oscar. One of the films major inaccuracies is the fact that Alan Turning is credited as the only person to crack enigma, when in reality polish mathematicians were a major part in this process and may have even cracked it before the British. Another is that the machine was never called ‘Christopher’ after his childhood friend, nor was the character Cairncross a spy for Russia. Many of the story arcs such as Turning writing a letter directly to Churchill asking to be in charge, as well as the group arguing if they should stop an attack with the information gained from enigma, is all false. In fact it was never up to them to make those decisions, and the brother of the mathematician they were trying to save didn’t even exist.
What I’ve found interesting tis the fact that Historical accuracy doesn’t seem to impact the awards or recognition these films seem to get. In fact it seems that a ‘moving historical story’ seems to usually get nominated for the big awards, despite their accuracy.
However not all films are this inaccurate, in fact many even have historians present in the research and timing process to make sure they are staying true to History. Downton Abbey, which although is not a film, is famous for having the well renown historian Alastair Bruce as their historical advisor, as many films often do. He has been said help actors from things like the way they hold themselves in a scene, to helping them understand the historical implications for certain actions and motives.
A film however that does stay closer to the more factual side of History is The Kings Speech. This movie also went on to be nominated and win many academy awards such as Best Film, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. It was praised for the way it depicted the ways in which the King Struggled with his stutter and the ways it impacted day to day life. The film also used the same historical speeches said by the King in real life, and even imitated the way he spoke them at the time, as well the many techniques he used to calm his speaking. The relationship he developed with Logan Lerman, the speech therapist, is said to be pretty accurate too, as well as many of the character portrayals. As I said earlier however, no historical film can be 100% accurate. The film was criticised for making the Kings stutter more dramatic than it was in real life, as in reality he was able to have more control. However historians generally agree however that this movie has served the story and people very well in this adaptation, and that people will actually learn more truths than lies in this film.
So why does Hollywood choose to alter the stories and lives of the characters it chooses to showcase? I believe it comes down to fact that people want drama over truth. People would rather watch an inaccurate entertaining film, than one that is more factually correct. That’s what documentaries are for right? I believe not! I mean I do understand why they do it! I get that sometimes all the details of what actually happened can be pretty dull for the average movie goer, so the creators make up plots or characters to help give the film more structure or appeal. And to an extent thats ok, I mean a film is a creative interpretation of what happened right? But when a film ends up being a completely different version of what actually happened, to the point that its unrecognisable, I don’t think it has the right to be classed as a Historical Film.
I feel as an audience we understand that not everything can be 100% historically accurate but I feel as though film makers hold a certain responsibly to give justice to these people and their stories, to tell them as accurately as they can. Because people are more likely to sit down to watch a film rather than a documentary on the topic, so these are the inaccuracies and truths that will become the common knowledge of what happened. This only nurtures this culture of misinformation that we are currently living in, and this needs to change.
Hopefully this will teach you to be more critical in your thinking surrounding historical films. I believe that as a society we should be more aware of these inaccuracies that are being fed to us as fact, and to be taught to question the information we are learning through not just films, but the media in general. So next time you go to watch a historical film I hope you think back to this article and ask yourself how much of this is really real? and how much of this is just another hollywood fabrication?
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