Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Hysterical Historical Portrayals

I must start by giving credit to “The Muse” over on Inspired Day by Day for tweaking my brain cells into action on this one. She recently did a post about watching Amadeus with her youngin’s and discussed some of the license that the screenwriters used with that movie.

So it got me to thinking about all the movies that are “based on actual events.” Well, loosely based is perhaps more accurate in most cases. As I told “The Muse”, I tend to get agitated/aggravated/angry/pissed-off at the deliberate insertions of inaccuracy in the name of “art”. I think Hollywood is the worst culprit, but fiction writers have sometimes traveled this road too.

I see nothing wrong with taking a purely fictional character and inserting that character into historical events, even in close association with real historical figures. Some examples are the Horatio Hornblower series, set in the Napoleonic War era, or the Bernard Cornwell series about Richard Sharpe, also set in the Napoleonic War era. (Both sets of books also became TV series.) In both cases the fictional title characters interact with real historical figures. However, their interaction does not alter history or the actions of the historical figures.

Fabricating history in the portrayal of historical figures is an entirely different matter. The most common manipulation is the insertion of a love affair between historical figures where there is absolutely no evidence of such an affair. Some examples: Braveheart, the love affair between William Wallace (Mel Gibson) and Queen Isabella (Sophie Marceau)…there is no evidence that they ever even met, Kingdom of Heaven, the love affair between Balin (Orlando Bloom) and Queen Sibella (Eva Green)…they were acquaintances, but nothing more, the HBO mini-series Rome, the love affair between Atia (mother of Octavian played by Polly Walker) and Mark Antony (James Purefoy).

In all three cases the real story of all six historical figures, or what is known, is fascinating enough. Why does Hollywood feel this overwhelming urge to insert something that is complete fabrication? If viewers could be counted upon to treat all such renditions as fantasy, then perhaps the damage would not be so great. However, I’ve been party to discussions with otherwise educated, seemingly informed people who effuse on the historical accuracy of such films. They believe that those portrayals are historically accurate.

To this indignity add all the other glaring historical inaccuracies in each of these films and it becomes frightening that this is how many Americans seem to learn their history. If such films piqued interest so that the viewers then retreated to study the real history, then they would redeem themselves. Sadly, it does not seem that many Americans bother to check up on events portrayed in movies.

Still I can’t leave this topic totally negative. I commend two films to everyone for their historical accuracy at virtually every level. Obviously private discussions are fabricated, but do not take away anything in terms of historical accuracy. Both films prove that the real life stories can be brought to film without the nonsense and still be entertaining as well as informative.

First, I highly recommend the recently concluded HBO mini-series John Adams, an outstanding adaptation of David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning book by the same name. I'd put it on your "must read list". The mini-series will be released on DVD on 10 June 2008.

Second, I recommend the movie Amazing Grace, the story of William Wilburforce (starring Ioan Gruffudd) who fought for the abolition of the slave trade and the abolition of slavery within the British Empire. Amazing Grace is currently available on DVD.


Stephen Parrish said...

I watched "A Man for All Seasons" way back when it first appeared on TV, and to this day believe it to be one of the best films ever made. Paul Scofield won the best actor Oscar and deserved every ounce of it.

Imagine my surprise when I later read that Oliver Cromwell didn't prosecute Thomas More, as depicted in the movie; Richard Rich did. Given Rich's early relationship with More, leaving him as prosecutor (in other words, not distorting reality) provided heaps of opportunity for high drama. Why make the switch?

Sometimes changes seem for the best. The movie adaption of "October Sky" eliminated two of the six real-life boys involved, because six protagonists were too unwieldy. But the producers were careful to say the movie was based on a true story.

Charles Gramlich said...

Great topic, and "sometimes" a pet peeve of mine. I wouldn't mind so much the inaccuracies if the movies made it clear up front, before the opening scenes, that some liberties have been taken with the history. It's when they completely fail to differentiate history from fiction that it bothers me.

J. L. Krueger said...


Yeah, but "A Man for All Seasons" was still a classic. Methinks you meant Thomas Cromwell. And Richard Rich did him in later too.


I think those cases are even worse when their promotional material touts the "historical" nature of the film too. Thanks for visiting.

Erica Orloff said...

A pet peeve of mine, too.

In some cases, I know it's to give us a "feel-good" movie when they change things--or to add more drama. Like the Depp's film FINDING NEVERLAND. There's certainly ample room for academic discussion that Barrie was a pedophile. Even if he wasn't . . . the boys in the movie mostly went on to AWFUL ends. Just awful, including one committing or suicide over, supposedly, a gay love affair. They were mentally just all over the map . . . alcoholism and so on. Soooo, we like our sweet version on film.

I can think of dozens of other films that sort of give us the rosy view of what happened, or made it seem as if the underdog got a decisive win--when perhaps it wasn't quite so decisive.


Erica Orloff said...

Well, now that I got started . . . another one came to mind. WALK THE LINE. I thought Phoenix's performance was as good as ANYTHING I have ever seen in film. But if you read John Cash's first wife's biography, not published until after his death, you certainly get a far, far, different picture. People pain John and June Carter Cash as this incredible love story--and I don't take that away from them AT ALL. But he broke up his marriage . . . and according to more unbiased observers, June Carter Cash relentlessly pursued him, too . . . and was a bit mroe callous over the fallout of ending his marriage. We all, I suppose, like to reinvent our pasts to put us in the best possible light, which I why I often blog about what "truth" is . . . a very difficult thing, truth. There is none. Depends on who the party is in each scenario.

Stephen Parrish said...

Methinks you meant Thomas Cromwell.


The Muse said...

Hey J.L., thanks for the plug! Okay, you said: frightening that this is how many Americans seem to learn their history. Yikes and how true! I could only imagine my teen going to her music teacher and relaying all the "facts" from the movie, had I not been there to distinguish fact from fiction.

I agree with Charles about the upfront disclaimer. I've seen things at the end of credits that say something like any similarities to persons or situations is purely coincidental and not intentional. Who really sits through the credits to see that?

Every movie I watch is gone into knowing theatrical license has been taken. I wish more people would take heed and do the same. Not only with movies, but with television, Internet, and radio also!

J. L. Krueger said...


I tend to disagree on truth. There is truth and it isn't subjective. I met you, or I didn't. I punched Stephen in the nose, or I didn't. What may differ is people's interpretation/perception of what they witnessed, but the actual truth is what it is.

J. L. Krueger said...


Don't mention it...I'm happy to plug blogs that I like.

Eldest daughter wrote a history paper last year using a movie as her prime source. Luckily for her, I recognized it when she asked me to proof it for her. Perhaps it was unlucky because I made her redo the paper with sources that I "encouraged" her to select. Which meant additional reading on her part. ;)

A corollary on the believing movies, Internet, TV, radio is the tendency of people to believe almost anything if it is "written". More so if it just happens to align with their belief system/politics.

Ello said...

I agree with Charles - poetic license is fine as long as you are letting th audience know up front that license with historical facts has been taken. That way you don't have some poor dumb shmuck walking around thinking Ghengis Khan was actually a white dude. heh heh.

J. L. Krueger said...


Oh you mean like when John Wayne played Ghengis Khan in "The Conqueror" with Susan Hayward and Agnes Morehead and his "Mongol Horde" of Native Americans? Yep, a really bad movie.

At least these days that kind of casting is rare. Instead we have midget-size guys like Mel Gibson being passed off as nearly seven-foot tall William Wallace.

Caryn said...

I agree. I'd far rather watch something that's either entirely fictional or entirely historical than something that's a mix of both. It's why I generally won't watch fictionalized biographies of historical figures, no matter how entertaining they look.

J. L. Krueger said...


If I know up front that a movie isn't going to be "accurate", then I don't mind so much. It's the ones that claim to be accurate portrayals, but aren't that anger me.

girl with the mask said...

I do often like the history/fiction crossover though... it does have its place. Look at Captote with 'In Cold Blood', he started a whole new genre by fusing the two things.

I suppose you can't blame Hollywood for 'creative licence' in such matters though... that's what gets the audiences. But some sort of disclaimer would help, wouldn't it?

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