Fri
Sep 4 2009 2:54pm

Alternate Alternate History

Any historical movie is, in a way, an alternate history. I’ve never seen a film that didn’t fudge at least one thing here or there, or re-write this or that for the narrative. Some films take this further than others: a favorite of mine, Elizabeth, conflates at least three different conspiracies, fiddles with ages, and maps several people’s histories onto other people’s histories, for the sake of a smaller-scoped film and simplified plot. Then there are movies like 300, which may as well be fantasy.

I am a huge sucker for any even vaguely historical-looking film. But what surprises me is that without fail, the made-up and invented history is far less interesting than the actual history. Actual history is fascinating. It’s absurd and sexy and hard to believe and thrilling and compelling all at once. Why junk the real story of one of the world’s most fascinating rulers for some ridiculous romance plot with a swashbuckling Sir Walter Raleigh (Elizabeth: The Golden Age), or replace the story of an emperor who got strangled in his bathtub with some juvenile take on American-idealized politics (Gladiator)? Why turn a fascinating mystery about Shakespeare’s sexual proclivities (Dark Lady, anyone? Not to mention the Fair Youth?) into a totally conventional romcom (Shakespeare in Love)?

I could list historically inaccurate movies all day (Scotsmen in Braveheart shouldn’t have been wearing kilts! Woolly mammoths did not live in the desert in 10,000 BC building pyramids!), but why dwell on the negative?

What are some of your favorite historically accurate films? What do they get right?


Torie Atkinson longs for a historically accurate take on the Romans. Please? I’ll make you some dulcia domestica...

50 comments
Jason Henninger
1. jasonhenninger
I remember thinking the French film Danton seemed pretty realistic. And The Lion In Winter (the 1968 version) felt realistic, even though it was a fictional take on things. Plus the acting is great.

My dad, who is a nut for Roman history, read an early script for Gladiator and said that is was pretty accurate. Then, when the movie came out, he was deeply disappointed with what had been done to the script.

Personally, I long for an accurate movie about pirates.
Marcus W
2. toryx
Boy, I loathe Gladiator.

I can't say I can even think of any historically accurate films. I really liked Frost/ Nixon and Milk, Braveheart and even Shakespeare in Love. But as you say, they're not particularly accurate.

Hmm. Maybe someone will mention a film that is particularly accurate and then I can weigh in on that.
Rajan Khanna
3. rajanyk
I can't think of any either. Though I wish I could.
msanborn
4. msanborn
HBO's "Rome" doesn't make the cut?
msanborn
5. JeffC
It's easier to list the failures than the successes. (That said, Band of Brothers succeeds very well.)

Moreover, I suspect that in film & TV, you get better accuracy from fictional stories set in real world locations than you do from any would-be re-telling of actual events. In this category, Deadwood is easily my favorite. It weaves in accurate depictions of real events (such as the generally accepted narrative for the death of Wild Bill Hickok) with fictional ones. It adds a great flavor touch by sprinkling in names derived from real people and places (the Bella Union, Hearst, etc.).

It's better this way. Hollywood feels the need to spice up real life too much (realism dies the instant casting of the beautiful begins). But I suppose it's not just Hollywood. Shakespeare did it too. The real Henry V and the one in the play are very different gentlemen.

-Jeff
Torie Atkinson
6. Torie
@ 1 jasonhenninger

YES a real pirate movie! I was thinking about during Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Real pirates are just as fascinating as their fictional counterparts.

@ 4msanborn

Not a chance. The timeline and the events are a muddle, and there are lots of wildly ridiculous details: people getting married in churches, etc. My Latin professor was one of their historical consultants (even Gladiator had one, doesn't mean they listen!). I remember she came into class amused one day because "the Romans did not conceptualize the color pink! There was no pink!"

We all have our tipping points. :)
Kage Baker
7. kagebaker
LOVED the HBO miniseries "Rome". It played a bit fast and loose with some of the details (like making Atia a major player) but I have never seen an alien culture's mindset so perfectly represented.

My main complaint was that some of the garden scenes showed Amazon parrots and macaws, when all the Romans could possibly have known were African Grays... but then I'm a parrot enthusiast...
Kage Baker
8. kagebaker
Torie @ 6:

But... but... the scene with Lucius and Pullo rafting off the island on corpses full of "plutonic aether" was so cool...
msanborn
9. CaffeinatedGuy
It wasn't so much that 300 might as well have been fantasy, it blatantly WAS fantasy.

Let's face it, it had as much historically accurate material as, say, Hackers.

Hackers being historically accurate in that people actually did use Floppy Disks.
Del C
10. del
Oh dear. You're not going to like Desperate Romantics, aka "Pre-Raphaelites Gone Wild", or "Carry On Ruskin".
Andrew Gray
12. madogvelkor
How about "Apollo 13" or "Saving Private Ryan?"

"Black Robe" seemed realistic too.
Laurel Lyon
13. laurellyon
"I Claudius" seemed pretty realistic to me, although of course it is based on a novel.
Jason Henninger
14. jasonhenninger
@9

I would have enjoyed 300 more (well, enjoyed it at all) if it had dropped any pretense of being historical and just been set on another world instead. Then we could say, "Hey, look, big muscular action film based loosely on Thermopolae!" rather than, "Are you fucking kidding me?"
Leigh Butler
15. leighdb
I dunno, I kind of like it more where they play with history. Case in point: Moulin Rouge!.

But then again, offhand I can't think of a historical film that didn't take at least a few liberties, so maybe that's why.
Bill Siegel
16. ubxs113
The Big Lebowski. It may not have really happened, but it definitely captured the historical moment.
Doug Browne
17. dejaffa
"The Return of Martin Guerre" got the feel, and the look, down to the chickens, IMHO.

It's French, available with English subtitles.

For those unfamilar with it, this is the actual historical story on which "Somersby" was based.
msanborn
18. CaffeinatedGuy
@14

I think that the story of the battle of Thermopylae is a good one, but I felt like 300 went so far in the Westernising of the Spartans and the extremeness of the Persians as to be, well, dumb.

And they took out all the damn Sodomy!
Iain Coleman
19. Iain_Coleman
Flame and Citron is a pretty accurate tale of the Danish resistance in WWII. I read up on some of the history after watching the movie, and all the most implausible bits of the story were real events.

The film features a femme fatale type character, who has relationships with resistance fighters and German officers. In real life, this woman was also bisexual, with many female lovers during this period. The filmmakers omitted this aspect of her character, because they thought the audience would find it too implausible.
Iain Coleman
20. Iain_Coleman
@13

I, Claudius is an interesting case. The story is based on Suetonius, being essentially an imaginative fleshing-out of his history of the lives of the Caesars. So it is pretty accurate to its source material, but whether you'd consider it historically accurate depends on how reliable you consider Suetonius. I'm no classicist, but the last I heard most classicists didn't set much store by Suetonius as reliable history. I, Claudius is still a great story, though, and a first class TV serial.
Ken Walton
21. carandol
One of my favourite historical movies is Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. It doesn't actually have any historical characters in it, but it does a very good job of showing life on a British naval ship during the Napoleonic wars.

As for 10,000 BC, it was worth sitting through any amount of tosh for the joy of seeing the pyramids being built by mammoths. If you're going to get your history wrong, you may as well go the whole hog!
Ken Walton
22. carandol
@12 Apollo 13 is an historical movie? Damn, I feel old. I remember the original! :-)
msanborn
23. Herr_Flick
@ carandol

I guess you won't like me mentioning "All the president's men" then :)
René Walling
24. cybernetic_nomad
I know right away what film I would choose: Tora, Tora Tora probably the most accurate historical film ever made.

That said, there is something to be said for films set in a particular time period, but that do not focus on the big events of that time. Take Dante's Matinee for example.
p l
25. p-l
@carandol, 22: Ha ha!
It's interesting that most of the movies getting points for accuracy are about history so recent that living people remember it.
I'll suggest Inagaki's Samurai trilogy starring Toshiro Mifune.
There's certainly some artistic license - both in the movies and the novels - but nothing popped out like Commodus dying in the arena, or Scotsmen wearing kilts a couple centuries too early.
msanborn
26. Raptor
Tora Tora Tora is slavishly accurate, to the point of being quite a bore to watch.

I, Claudius is an excellent novel, but it's a novel that is based on (as someone mentioned) Suetonius' propaganda pieces. Consider if Karl Rove wrote a history of the Bush administration, or David Axelrod wrote about Obama's. Suetonius was asked by the Roman emperor to write a history of the Julio-Claudians that could be the "official" history.

For Roman movies, one could probably do worse than Spartacus. Any Roman movie where they wear their swords on the left side should immediately be discounted. The handles on Roman shields were vertical, rather than the later European horizontal, meaning that a hasty centurion would stand a good chance of slicing his wrist open whenever he drew a sword from his left side.
j p
27. sps49
I dunno, there are so few accurate movies. Tora, Tora, Tora and Midway may be accurate, but could've used the editing Band of Brothers received.
Kate Nepveu
28. katenepveu
_Apollo 13_ is interesting if you read the book it's based on; it gets the atmosphere just right but it changes a lot of the sequence of events to create more "drama", where "drama" = "making people dumb enough to forget about foreseeable problems until the last minute so they can scramble around cinematically."
msanborn
29. strudey
This talk of historical accuracy is all very well, but as every good student of history knows, all history is story, just like film. It tries its very best to base itself on sources, but in the end these are always on some level fallible; or if they're not, the writer of the history certainly is. So what you're asking is for films that really really closely follow the commonly or academically accepted story... and I honestly can't think of any.
Erik Smith
30. ArabiaTerra
Quite a few war movies are pretty accurate. Downfall, about the last days of Hitler in his bunker is pretty good. The only problem I found with it was: nobody heard the shot when he killed himself.

Saving Private Ryan depicted the beach assault accurately, but the rest of the film was fiction. Tora, tora, tora was great. The Longest Day wasn't bad and The Dambusters was close.

The Battle of the River Plate was pretty accurate as far as events went, only let down by the fact that they used an American cruiser to represent the Graf Spee (understandable, in those pre-cgi days).
David Pucik
31. Notmaker
In the case of Red Cliff, John Woo's wonderful Three Kingdoms period piece about the Battle of Chi Bi (the Red Cliffs, naturally), I think the contraction and romanticization of the story is more due to trying to fit as much of the events into a coherent story that was less than 4 hours long.

That, and the accuracy of the Three Kingdoms history is very much up for debate. I'm sure there is no historical basis for Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu having a jam session/guitar duel with a pair of Guzheng string instruments, but it was very amusing to watch.
msanborn
32. Stormy70
300 was based on a graphic novel, which makes it a fantasy movie. The film makers weren't going for historical accuracy. I think the trip to the Oracle might have given it away that it was a fantasy film. I view most movies based on real historical events as fantasy anyway, which keeps my enjoyment level high.
René Walling
33. cybernetic_nomad
p-1 says: "It's interesting that most of the movies getting points for accuracy are about history so recent that living people remember it."

Maybe it's because there isn't enough information missing about anything older that we don't feel we can authoritatively say "it's accurate" take Quest for Fire for an extreme example...

Stormy70 says: "300 was based on a graphic novel, which makes it a fantasy movie."

Since when does graphic novel = fantasy?

Yes, 300 is fantasy, but not because it was a graphic novel. There are tons of graphic stories that are not fantasy.
msanborn
34. Brian3
Danton is certain historically well-informed; it gets a really surprising number of background details right. But Wajda did take intentional liberties with his story in order to make parallels with the struggles of Solidarity against the Polish government of the time. It's a good film, and I have a copy of it a few feet away.

As for 300, Frank Miller claimed, while writing the graphic novel, that it was meant to be a Spartan's eye view of the war with the Persians, with attendant wild fantasy and vilification of the enemy. Alan Moore had his doubts. Personally, I found it a Big Dumb Comic that I imagine made a Big Dumb Movie.

People who do try to stick close to the facts typically end up claiming that they found they couldn't, if only because telling things as they actually happened would sound too implausible. While I find this mostly a reminder of how fiction tends to falsify the world by making things too neat, this is actually a reasonable point -- if you told most stories the way they actually happened, to the extent we do know the facts, events would seem haphazard and arbitrary, and characters too inconsistent. Tora, Tora, Tora is the only case I;m aware of where someone really did try to play things straight.

As for Apollo 13, I haven't seen it, because it looked too punchy in the trailer, what with Failure Is Not An Option and all. From what I've heard, it was basically an honest attempt, but it's almost harder to take something if it comes close but compromises the story in order to dramatize it. A bit like the Uncanny Valley, where a cartoon that looks too much like a human being will make you feel weird because it triggers the responses you'd have to a real human being but is subtly off. You start grumbling the equivalent of Newspapers Never Get It Right.

A quick rant about Seabiscuit the Movie. It was based on an excellent book by Laura Hillenbrand. The movie got everything wrong that Hillenbrand got right, so instead of telling a direct, unsentimental story that involved you completely with some tough, independent characters, the movie immediately established a sentimental distance from soft-focus events that happened a long, long time ago. For example, Red Pollard left home early because he wanted to race. In the movie his family tearfully abandons him to the racing world because it's the Depression and they have too many mouths to feed, therefore making him a victim rather than someone who chose his own way. This particular distortion depended upon an alteration of the facts, but I imagine they could have gone a long way towards reducing everything to safe movie cliches even if the facts were basically right.
msanborn
35. Foxessa
You mean ... Birth of a Nation isn't historically accurate? Who knew!

Saracasm gear shifted to 'scream!'
p l
36. p-l
@33: Right. Films using such recent history have such a huge advantage (in some cases, the events depicted were themselves filmed as they occurred) that it's not really fair to call them "historical movies" in the same way that Spartacus and Chushingura are. That's another great and I-think-accurate historical film, by the way. Chushingura. Borges even wrote a short story about it.
Joshua Hammett
37. jhammett
Here's one I don't think anyone mentioned yet.
Zulu. Its mostly true to the actual events.

Great movie with a younger Michael Caine in his first role and real honest to goodness Zulu's playing the part of the Zulu's. Takes place during the Battle of Rorke's Drift in 1879. The movie is from 1964.
msanborn
38. B-B
Later research (from Japanese primary sources) show that the film Midway was based in part on a Japanese face-saving book on the battle. So there's fiction there. The book "The Shattered Sword" goes a lot way toward finalizing what happened.

"Paths of Glory" seemed to get WW1 in the trenches right.

I think the ones about well-known historical events succumb to Hollywood's idea of the way a story is supposed to go. And who is to say them otherwise? It's a story. It isn't a newsreel. I view a lot of these as "this is the director's version of that story".
msanborn
39. Paul the Ex poet
To my knowledge, "Patton" was reasonably accurate, as were "Tora Tora Tora" and "Midway."

I think the worst thing "Gladitor" did was imply that killing the Emperor restored the Republic. The Roman Republic was never restored, so the movie gives the false impression that violence worked as a tool for societial improvement. I remember the first time I saw the movie, I reacted the way I would to any action flick, but the second time I watched it, I found the whole thing incredibly sad; I even felt sorry for Commodus, a failed, wannabe hero whose father despised him.

I had a medieval history professor said the two best movies for understanding the mind set of the Middle Ages were "Lion in Winter" and "Monty Python's the Search for the Holy Grail." So you don't have to sweat the details to get the main ideas.
Iain Coleman
40. Iain_Coleman
"Monty Python's Life of Brian" is the most historically accurate depiction of 1st century Judea that I have ever seen.
Pelumi Adefope
41. GenghisCan
I second "Tora, Tora, Tora!" and "Midway." They're both basically about the same period, the Attack on Pearl Harbor and the Pacific Campaign. Great acting and story.

My favorite historical film would have to be Kingdom of Heaven. It has enough action to catch the male crowd's attention and enough romance to draw the female. Plus, it has Liam Neeson in the beginning. Need I say more. It stays fairly accurate to history except for some names and Balian/Orlando Bloom's role. However, what really sold me and got me hooked on the film was the superb acting of the King of Jerusalem (who wears a mask for all but 5 seconds of his screen time). I didn't know who the actor that played him was until after I had seen the film a few times. Low and behold it was Edward Norton who automatically became one of my favorite actors.

As for historical films in general, unless they are fairly accurate I will forever hate them unless they have gratuitous amounts of action to make up for it (like 300). Hey. I'm a guy. Case in point: Alexander. Alexander the Great is one of my favorite historical figures of all time yet I hated the film and the fact that Angelina Jolie was only there for eye candy.

Anyhoo, this is way longer than I planned so I will bid you all adieu.
Torie Atkinson
42. Torie
Good point about story. There are really two kinds of historical movies I'd like to see more of: accurate depictions of events involving real people (Queen Elizabeth, actual pirates like Blackbeard, the Romanovs, the Battle of Actium--all things sufficiently interesting that you wouldn't need to make anything up to create drama); and fictional stories that get the details of the period right.

It doesn't have to do both. But I'd like to see a movie do one or the other.
David Pucik
43. Notmaker
Anyone with more historical knowledge of the period seen Mongol about Genghis Khan's early life?

I just saw it on Netflix, and greatly enjoyed it, and while the history is certainly simplified, it actually seems fairly accurate from what little I know of Genghis Khan's life. I was wondering if someone with more knowledge had an opinion.

Some might be a little turned off by the complete lack of foreshadowing of the brutal and bloody campaigns of terror he was later responsible for, but in fairness, the film is part of an intended trilogy, and that aspect may be dealt with later on.
Karen Walters
44. Wrenza
Zulu took liberties, especially with the characters of the men. Hook apparently had a good character instead of being a villain and the mastermind behind the defence was the swiss bloke.

Bridge on River Kwai has its moments, but its still got liberties taken. I quite like the Great Escape, it got most of the main points right.
Iain Coleman
45. Iain_Coleman
The British WWII drama series Tenko and Wish Me Luck, both created by Lavinia Warner, are (as far as I can tell) pretty historically accurate fictions.

Both tell the stories of women in wartime: female prisoners of the Japanese in Tenko, and female SOE agents in occupied France in Wish Me Luck.
msanborn
46. EmmetAOBrien
Paul @39: Imply that killing the Emperor restored the Republic ? When we get that look over at the head Praetorian and him ostentatiously resettling his sword to leave us in no doubt at all where the power now lies ?

Arma imperium it got right.
Rob Munnelly
47. RobMRobM
If you don't like Apollo 13 (and I did), perhaps look to "The Right Stuff" for historical accuracy. Tom Wolfe seemed to keep artistic license in check and the movie covers a good chunk of his excellent book.

I love Zulu as a movie (it was my mother's favorite) but always questioned how closely it stuck to history. Ditto for Patton.

Rob
p l
48. p-l
@43: Some might be a little turned off by the complete lack of foreshadowing of the brutal and bloody campaigns of terror he (Genghis Khan) was later responsible for...

My reaction when I saw Mongol was to wonder if there wasn't a bit of implicit propagandizing on behalf of the Mongolian people... i.e. leaving out all events that made Genghis seem less than heroic. After all, the only city we're told that he lays waste is the one that imprisoned him, and he specifically spares the monks who treated him well. All in all, a fair-minded guy, that Genghis! Or so one might think, if one had slept through 6th-grade history.
msanborn
49. Brian3
Thinking about it a bit more, I think that the issue isn't literal faithfulness to the facts. In general, you can't go about things that way in telling a story, anyway. Sinclair Lewis once put a lot of people into a room and recorded their conversations, as a way of researching the way people actually talk. He thought, going in, that he'd imitate spontaneous speech in his novels. What he found was that some 75% of what people said was filler and context-dependent verbal gestures, and that you couldn't possibly write dialog like that.

Telling a story is inevitably a matter of selection and of shaping. What I find myself caring about is where that comes out. Is art being used to tell the truth as someone understands it; is it being used to grind an axe; is it just being used to mash everything down into pablum and enact cliches?

As for "truth," yeah, that's a bit problematic, isn't it? "Tora, Tora, Tora" was scrupulous about trying to tell the truth, and did very well at it, but, in general, what makes something a story is that you're relating to the way people interpret events, and not just laying out raw data. You're not going to be objective. History isn't going to be completely objective, either, but at least there are standards in place that help to keep everyone honest. If someone's telling you a story, they're not going to linger over the parts no one's sure of, and they're not going to invite you to debate the evidence.

One film that did make an attempt to be honest was "Public Enemies." It did conflate at least one series of events, from what I've read, but that's fair enough, as long as it doesn't lead to overall distortion. (It isn't critical to understanding Dillinger to sort out just what gangsters in the background got killed in what fight.) Otherwise, from what Michael Mann has said, he did his research and tried to put it into the movie. He tried to stick to the facts and to show them in the context of what it was like to live at that time. The results could be argued over -- he did romanticize Dillinger, for example. But what's striking is that, in the service of representing the history, Mann abstained from imposing too much of an interpretation onto the material. And that's exactly what critics complained about most. What point is being made? What moral are we supposed to draw from this? And isn't this a terrible story, full of all kinds of arbitrary events?
David Pucik
50. Notmaker
@48:

That's why I'm curious about how they're going to portray those events in the next movies in the planned trilogy.

Genghis Khan's reputation is mostly based on the Mongol invasions, which take place after the ones depicted in in the film.

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