Watching Mel Gibson charge the English in his kilt and seeing medieval gladiators battle it out with villainous emperors, tends to satisfy our cathartic cravings for alpha dominance. But if we swear by our DVD collections, comprising just of these period action-dramas, we may be lacking the most important tool of them all; historical knowledge.
Learning from film is a concept many forget to consider. It’s an art form after all, and creativity normally doesn’t follow the rules. But it still might come as a surprise to some that man’s favourite films of this past century have all been hugely inaccurate. Braveheart, Gladiator, The Last Samurai and The Patriot are all based on real historical events, but they somehow seem to compromise the truth for entertainment.
Film historian Dr Sheldon Hall says it’s typical for screenwriters and directors to want to alter history. He believes the biggest Hollywood blunder with historical inaccuracy comes from the 2004 film King Arthur. Dr Hall says: “The film concludes with Arthur making a ringing declaration of freedom for the people of Britain, despite the fact that the film is set at a time and in a place where the concept of freedom had no meaning.”
He finds it frustrating that the historical alterations have become a creation of Hollywood filmmakers. Hall says: “The inaccuracies are explained by the fact that the film was financed and made by Americans, for whom the rhetoric of freedom is ideologically central.”
Dr Hall still defends the institution of film however, and the considerable liberties they take with history, by putting it down to the nature of the game. He says: “Most filmmakers see themselves as artists and entertainers first, and only secondarily – if at all – as historical commentators.”
Then we take Zack Snyder’s 2007 action blockbuster 300, which was said to be loosely based on the Spartan’s Battle of Thermopylae. Emphasis on the world ‘loosely’, as the film manages to leave out how the Sparta’s fought the Greeks aswell as the Persians. But get script writer Frank Miller in a corner and he’s quick to admit his many historical faults, but believes the inaccuracies help excite some interest in 480BC.
While some may think that overriding history for commercial success is a modern concept, pointing the blame at Hollywood alone would be an even bigger inaccuracy, because the idea of re-writing history stretches as far back as the 17th century to the work of Shakespeare.
Cultural Historian Jeffery Richards says not only is it a longstanding trend to dramatise history for art but that it would be technically impossible for filmmakers to show the exact ‘truth’ in their restricted time frame. He says: “There is a limit to the amount of history one can include in a two hour film, particularly if it is covering 20 or 30 years. They can never convey full historical truth because of the demands of the medium.”
For that reason, films tend to always be about when they are made and never about when they are set. Jeffery adds: “The drama often demands that characters are merged and events telescoped but we must remember that films don’t have footnotes, so it’s easy for viewers to be misled.”
It seems filmmakers are faced with conflicting dilemmas when it comes to developing historical accounts. They might wish to preserve the integrity of the original story and leave audiences feeling informed, but accurate history could simply be read from a textbook, so filmmakers have an obligation to engage audiences. While that sometimes includes tampering the truth and altering the accuracy, we hope conscious film-goers are savvy enough to distinguish fact from fiction and dispose of the in-between.