Historical movies

why a good story is more important than the facts


Ridley Scott’s 2005 epic film Kingdom of Heaven about the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187 has been widely criticized by historians for its lack of precision. Even when the film was still in production, Cambridge historian Jonathan Riley-Smith called it “nonsense” and “Osama bin Laden’s version of the story,” while Michael Haag wrote that “Scott is basically revising history, or rather making it up.” He concludes his examination by declaring that “there is nothing which has much to do with historical facts”.

Regardless of what historians thought, the film won critical praise – Rolling Stone said “Scott offers thrilling entertainment” – and took in over $ 211 million at the box office. New York Times critic Manohla Dargis described the film as “a conspicuously fair and impartial account of one of the least fair and unfair chapters in human history.”

So who was right? On the one hand, professional historians – or critics and the public? Rather, it comes down to the question of whether filmmakers should educate their audiences or entertain them.

Light, camera, action

Cinema can only go so far as to create an absolutely accurate representation of the past. At the most basic level, historical accuracy is impossible due to the nature of the realities of film production, such as the use of actors, costumes, and sets to recreate the historical narrative. Even if these achieve a consensus of accuracy among historians, these aesthetics only create an illusion of the past.

Filmmakers need to rework an episode of the story to become a marketable narrative that will appeal to audiences and provide financial return to investors. In the Kingdom of Heaven DVD’s “Definitive Edition”, screenwriter William Monahan explained the need for writers to compromise the story: “You use what plays, or can be made to play, and you don’t use not what does not work. “

In her 2007 book History Goes to the Movies: Studying History on Film, film scholar Marnie Hughes-Warrington recounted historian Natalie Zemon Davies’ frustration in trying to work with filmmakers. Collaborating with the directors of the historical film, Le Retour de Martin Guerre, Daniel Vigne and Jean Claude Carriére, Davies complained that “aspects of the story have been compressed, altered or even omitted”.

According to Hughes-Warrington, Davies “wondered if the film was capable of handling and conveying ‘the uncertainties’, ‘the maybe’, the ‘maybe’.” In other words, there are limits to how historical films can create a narrative that will satisfy historians.

Magical medium

But where will the public get a better taste of what life could have been centuries before it was featured in the news? As the American medievalist and film expert, A. Keith Kelly said: “What no copy in centuries of writing has been able to accomplish for an appreciation of medieval warfare, films like Braveheart and Henry V of Branagh can accomplish it in a matter of minutes.

In other words, despite the film’s limitations in providing the requisite factual detail, the medium can provide audiences with an experience that gives the appearance of historical authenticity.

Braveheart: thrifty with the truth.
20th century fox

It would take an entire article to detail the historical inaccuracies of Mel Gibson’s 1995 blockbuster Braveheart. Politics is oversimplified into a consumable tale of Good Scots vs. Bad English. But that blatant lack of historical precision didn’t stop the film from winning five Oscars (including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography) and winning over $ 210 million at the box office.

Not a lesson

Documentary film may provide a deeper level of scrutiny, but the assumption of historical accuracy is still problematic. Documentary makers have to compromise on accuracy and detail to build the desired “narrative”. For example, the documentary Crusades: Crescent and the Cross, focuses on the First Crusade, the rise of Saladin and his conflict with Richard the Lionheart and ignores the rise of the conquering Mamluks. This creates a narrative that describes the Third Crusade as the culmination of the Crusades – which in fact continued for 100 years.

But it’s just too simplistic to say that the public can’t tell fact from fiction. Two studies – one from the United States and another from Australia – suggest that people are more likely to trust the books and the work of academic and museum historians than they are to believe in films or television shows. television.

So even audiences don’t expect filmmakers to educate them – and the numbers show that historical fiction pays off when the movie is an enjoyable experience rather than an accurate narrative. A historical film is not a history lesson, but a historical fiction, which offers a level of authenticity that situates a story in a commonly perceived historical reality.

If the public doesn’t expect 100% accuracy, then why bother comparing these fictional accounts to the work of historians? It’s not necessary for the box office or critical success – but good historical films can inspire people to find out more about the time period depicted. And comparing the difference between historical fact and cinematographic fiction allows the viewer to analyze not only what the filmmaker perceives over the period, but what the filmmaker uses to tell this historical reality. After all, as we have heard before: “You use what plays”.


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