The Danger of Historically Inaccurate Movies

by Vincent Yam

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Photo by Lou Levit

People do not like taking me to historical movies because I am a historian. Oddly enough, most people seem to believe historians ruin films and spoil their enjoyment. They tend to make concessions for the filming process and know that I will find a lot of errors in the movies. Movie-goers reason that “this is a movie, it is not meant to be an accurate representation of history, that’s for a documentary or a book.”  However, historical inaccuracies in films can have a dangerous impact on their audiences, and there are two factors that make them far more dangerous than historical inaccuracies in most other types of medium.

Firstly, the historical movies have a greater appeal than objective scholarly books and articles, or well-researched popular history books. Most people do not read academic history texts and engage in the research. Neither do I expect people to start doing so. Yet many people rely on history to inform them about their own identity, as well as cultural choices or preferences. Furthermore, films that deal with history can be incredibly popular. The latest Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, Black Panther, which surpassed a box office of 1 billion US dollars, used the history of African slavery to inform its narrative to great effect. Thus, this issue, combined with the next issue makes historical inaccuracies in movies quite dangerous.

The issue in question is that historical films, whether they are relatively accurate, or clearly intended to present a stylized version of history (talking about you 300) are engaged in the act of “memory making.” In short, memory or myth making is the re-packaging and re-presentation of history for a contemporary audience in a way they can remember quickly, and in a way that is useful to them. For example, Hitler tends to be remembered as a racist mass-murdering former leader of Germany because public discourse employs him as a historical example of the effects of extreme racism.

So what do films do to our “memory”? Well because they repackage our “memory” of historical events, and because this “memory” is something that we use more frequently, often as part of our national identities, historical films have the potential to actually change how we think about ourselves and how we act in the world.

Even the most accurate of historical movies have to re-package history for their audience to some extent. For example, Gladiator is a fictional story, but the historical environment it was set in (The Roman Empire) is seen by most as quite accurate. Yet, for obvious reasons, the characters spoke modern English because viewers would not understand them if they spoke in Latin, the common language in the Roman Empire. Even movies striving for accuracy cannot completely recreate the time-period. Filmmakers need to re-package history in a way that audiences can process and remember their movie and how great it was. The problem is sometimes they go too far, or repackage it in a way meant to stay with the audience, but not stay true to the history.

James Camerson’s 1997 historical-romance film, Titanic, is perhaps the most financially successful historical film ever and exemplifies the effect films have on public memory. For those who have never heard of it, the movie is set on the luxurious “unsinkable” ship, Titanic’s maiden (and final) voyage, where it collides with an iceberg and nearly seventy-percent of its 2,200 passengers and crew die in the accident. In the midst of this, a pair of star-crossed lovers race to survive this disaster.

Moreover, despite the inclusion of a fictional love story, Titanic is an incredibly accurate historical film. Cameron ensured that most of the sets and costuming were near-perfect recreations, or at the very least, historically-based on designs from the actual ship. The actual sinking of the ship was based off of historical accounts, combined with scientific evidence from the wreck. Cameron made several mistakes, and took several artistic licenses, but every decision made, excluding the love story, had some historical basis.

The film led to huge interest in the ship and its wreck, but there were also other side effects that show the impact of even a few historical inaccuracies on a wide audience. One of them was that lots of people started to spend money on weddings inspired by the Titanic and in areas associated with the Titanic. This was because after the movie, lots of people associated the ship with romance. In fact, Titanic weddings are something of an industry, and a simple search on the internet will reveal that even the museums (such as Titanic Belfast, built near the slipways that launched the ship) displaying Titanic relics and artefacts run weddings. This historical movie and its fictional love story has led the public to associate the historical tragedy and ship with romance, and created a new industry that remains strong until today.

So, if these are the widespread effects that may occur if a movie is mostly historically accurate, what happens if a historically inaccurate movie receives a wide audience?

The problem is that for the most part, I cannot give quantitative or even a substantial amount of qualitative evidence for this part of my argument. What I can do is point to my previous example of Titanic and its effects, and then show you a case of a very influential film that misrepresents history.

The films I choose to highlight in particular is Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning movie, Braveheart (1995). Braveheart depicts medieval Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace who leads a rebellion against the English after they kill his wife after unsuccessfully trying to enforce the medieval custom of “jus primae noctis”. “Prima Nocta” as the film calls it, is the right for the lord of a land to sleep with his subject’s women on the first night they are married. Wallace successfully wins a major battle and raids England before being defeated (thanks to betrayal by the nobles of his countrymen), captured and then executed, becoming a martyr in the process.

There is so much wrong with Braveheart I would recommend you watch the Youtube video, History Buffs: Braveheart, which does a much better job of laying out how inaccurate the movie is than I can. Suffice it to say, the movie suggests British are terrible, Scotland is great and free.

Now, one can successfully argue that one can never figure out if such historical inaccuracies will lead to people having misconceptions about history.

However, we do know that popular historical films do have an effect on people, and that they do move them enough to influence their actions. In an article on Braveheart and Scottish national identity, Tim Edenser noted that the film was estimated to bring in an additional 16 million pounds in tourist revenue. Furthermore, 80,000 paying visitors visited the William Wallace Monument and museum in 1993, the year of the film’s release, compared to 55,000 the last year. The most worrying aspect of Braveheart’s impact is in Edenser’s examination of the dialogue in newspapers and editorials after the film. Some were worried about the film’s historicity. However, others were enthusiastic about the film reinvigorating the myth of William Wallace and of a heroic Scottish past.

Thus, it stands to reason that if there are people who applaud Braveheart’s attempt to craft a heroic version of the Scottish past that is based more on fiction than truth, then the movie did change people’s ideas about history, their past, and thus, their identities. Moreover, we also know that this very inaccurate historical film was able to influence people’s social and economic decisions. Of course, this is hardly a phenomenon that is unique to historical movies. If any piece of popular media gets significant enough – for example, the Harry Potter franchise – it will lead to people re-orientating themselves around the ideas expressed in that work. However, unlike a fictional work, the inaccuracies of historical movies can be avoided or mitigated, and are also inaccuracies. They are not true.

Thus, if people can be influenced to make purchases, and think about themselves, based on what they saw in a movie that presents untruths, then historical inaccuracies are very dangerous indeed.

 

Vincent Yam is a Master of Arts in History Graduate from the University of Western Ontario, and a Bachelor of Arts with Honours in History Graduate from the University of British Columbia. He specialized in the Second World War history and Canadian Memory. He is a researcher for the Museum of Vancouver’s upcoming Chinese Canadians in Vancouver and British Columbia exhibit and will start as a Curatorial Assistant in April.

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