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.