Recently seeing Elizabeth: The Golden Age has got me thinking about historical films in general. I'm personally not of the opinion that an historical film necessarily has to be "historically accurate." History is history and a film is a film, and if a film skews history in it’s effort to tell a story, I think that’s okay. After all, Shakespeare's history plays aren't exactly accurate to history, but that doesn't make them any less great, perhaps because he focuses more on the larger, universal truths of human nature than on textbook analysis of events. And I think that's what makes a good historical film as well - not the literal recorded truth of events, but the deeper exploration of the human psyche.
Most films set in times past play at least a little fast and loose with events, or sequences of events, and the characterization of historical/biographical figures. In and of itself, that doesn't bother me, but it does bother me when filmmakers mess around with history and then market the film as being "the truth story" or "based on a true story" or some other such nonsense and then expect its viewers to ignore its inaccuracies. There are three things about true/historical stories that really bother me, even when they appear in otherwise wonderful films:
1. The Americanization of World War II: I’ll preface this by saying that I’m not arguing against the U.S.’s overwhelming contribution to winning the war, nor am I arguing that those contributions shouldn’t be celebrated on film. But it bothers me when Hollywood producers take a true story about, say, those fighting in the British forces but rewrite it so that it’s about Americans (see U-571); or retain the part about it involving British soldiers but plunk an American in the middle to play the loner/anti-hero (The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Escape); or include lines suggesting that the war didn’t even matter until the U.S. was involved, as Pearl Harbor does when, during the bombing, one character turns to another and states: “I think World War Two just started.” I’m sure the people who spent the last couple of years being slaughtered across Europe would be pleased to know that the conflict has finally begun.
2. Depictions of race relations during the American slavery era: I admit that Gone With The Wind is… problematic (at best) in terms of its depiction of slaves and slavery, but at least the film had the balls to portray the O’Haras as having owned slaves, and as having believed in their right to continue doing so. It might not be pretty or pleasant, but at least it rings true since, after all, the American Civil War wouldn’t have taken place if some people hadn’t believed that to be their right. In a film like The Patriot, the hero runs a plantation in the South but doesn’t own slaves, instead employing free black men to work his land; in Cold Mountain slaves are briefly glimpsed working in the background and the lily-white Southern Belle heroine openly expresses herself as being against slavery. I understand that it’s an uphill battle to make a character likeable if they’re also portrayed as having owned slaves, but if you’re going to go to the trouble of setting a story in a particular era of time, I think it’s okay to make your characters a product of that era. Sure, there probably were people living in the South during the time of slavery who recognized the conflicting nature of founding a nation on the principle that every man is created equal, and on the right of men to own slaves. But given the prevalence of slave ownership during that time, one has to imagine that such attitudes were a) few and far between and/or b) thought but not practiced. People (even good people) owned slaves in the not-so-distant past. Either accept that, or stop making movies that take place before the end of the Civil War.
3. Throwing the girls a bone: I like it when women are portrayed as having active roles in action movies, mostly because you (still) don’t see a lot of that. However, don’t dress Keira Knightley up like a Celtic guerrilla warrior and tell me that this is the “true” story of Camelot (in fact if you’re going to include Lancelot in the story, the word “true” should never even come up in the first place). I have no problem with seeing women portrayed as being able to kick ass, and in certain instances in history that would in fact be accurate (in depicting perhaps Joan or Arc, or Boadicea), but when a woman warrior (especially one who looks like she’d be knocked on her ass by a light breeze) is dropped into the story as sidekick/love interest for the hero in order to appeal to a female audience (and to the male audience, given what these women invariably look like), it insults us all. I know it sucks that history is dominated by “great men” doing “great things” but… sometimes that’s just the way things were and I really don’t want to see another movie where a woman is introduced as a total badass giving the hero a run for his money, only to end up simpering in his arms by the end.
I know that all these things are designed to make films more marketable, but they really put my teeth on edge. I don’t care if a film is historically accurate as long as it’s good. So, if you’re a filmmaker who plans to make an “historical” film, please rely more on your story and the actors bringing it to life, than on a focus group guided ideas of what has to be included in order to make the film palatable (and please, for the love of God, do not have your characters spouting wink-wink-nudge-nudge lines like one of the many found in The Patriot, most notably Mel Gibson’s assertion that “It’s a free country. Or at least, it will be.” Fuck. You.)