I recently watched the movie Anonymous, a historical thriller with an intellectual twist. The premise is that Shakespeare’s plays may not have been written by Shakespeare at all, but by a contemporary, the Earl of Oxford, and that Shakespeare was an illiterate drunk, a liar, and a murderer. The movie makes clever use of Shakespeare’s works and motifs, as well the historical details of Elizabethan London, to craft a smart and suspenseful tale about the man we think we know as William Shakespeare.
Just one problem: it’s all a lie.
Historians have long since debunked the Earl of Oxford theory (he would had to have written A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he was nine), so the film is really just a clever piece of historically inspired fiction. Which is perhaps not surprising, given that the film was directed by Roland Emmerich, known for popcorn films such as 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, White House Down, and Independence Day. From the perspective of Emmerich’s past work, Anonymous is some very high-brow filmmaking.
Nevertheless, critics panned Anonymous. Not because it was poorly made: it might be one of Emmerich’s best films. (It certainly gives me hope for his slow-gestating Foundation trilogy, if that project ever sees the light of day.) The reason people hated the movie is that it seemed truthful, when in fact it was not. Lying about history is something of a crime in our culture, one that irks no group so much as it does the scholars—and there are more scholars of Shakespeare than of any other storyteller in memory. So despite its good intentions, Anyonymous sank on account of tarnishing the Bard’s good name.
The entire episode reminded me of another controversy: the one surrounding the 1995 movie Braveheart. If you haven’t seen this historical epic, you have not lived; please go and watch it right now. Mel Gibson’s Braveheart tells the story of Scotland’s great hero William Wallace, a rebel who raised a homegrown army to challenge the tyrannical British crown, and who sacrificed everything he loved in the name of freedom. The movie was a tour de force at the box office, going on to win five Oscars (including the award for Best Picture), and remains one of the most beloved historical films of all time.
Braveheart is an excellent movie. My six elements of a story world are met in spades: fascinating world (13th century Britain); compelling characters (Wallace, Longshanks, Robert the Bruce); gripping plot (he woos a Princess?!); resonant themes (“Freeeeeedoooooom!”); top-notch execution (the Academy awards); and the whole project had X-factor/originality, perhaps due to writer Randall Wallace’s personal connection to the material. Braveheart still stands as the definitive Hollywood film about Scottish history—you could argue that its influence is hinted at, as kind of an echo, in the very title of Brave, Pixar’s 2012 animated film set in a similar historical version of Scotland.
My own relationship with Braveheart could be called love at first sight. In part, that’s because I never saw the proverbial bride until the wedding; while Paramount was running trailers in theaters across the country, I was busy graduating from high school. There were finals to pass, speeches to write, friends to say goodbye to—so when I walked into the movie theater that fine June evening, I sort of figured Braveheart would be a movie about the world’s first cardiac surgeon.
After forty-five minutes of William Wallace leading the lovely Murron into secret forest clearings, I changed my mind: clearly this was a classical romance. Only once the local magistrate sliced her throat did I figure out that these Scots were going to war—and from there forward the movie had me by the bollocks. Three hours later, I left the theater in tears of grief; two months later, Mel Gibson’s blue-painted face hung over my bed; and eighteen years later, I’m still writing about it. To this day, I don’t watch many previews, because I love walking into a good film that I know nothing about.
But what I didn’t know in 1995 was that a controversy was brewing over this film. You see, for all its sweeping depictions of medieval Britain, it turns out the film was wildly inaccurate. Dates were wrong. Events were fabricated. Characters were presented out of context. And the kilts. Don’t get the experts started about the kilts. As recently as 2009, The Times of London called Braveheart “the second-most inaccurate historical film of all time.” It even beat out 10,000 BC (which, like Anonymous, was directed by Roland Emmerich).
Now, what does this mean for my teenage love affair with Braveheart? Did Hollywood pull the wool over my naïve young eyes? If I’d known about the historical mistakes in advance—if some caring history teacher had pulled me aside and given me a dire warning about my weekend plans—would I have avoided this three-hour cinematic lie?
The answer is no, and here’s why.
Great stories are about worlds, characters, events, and themes. They’re about reversals and betrayals, mistakes and redemptions. Great stories touch our hearts and stir our souls, and they reveal deep truths about human life. What great stories are not about—and never have been about—is facts.
Stories do, of course, contain facts. Star Wars, for instance, owes its existence to certain facts of astrophysics (e.g., planets exist), but is otherwise fiction. Harry Potter draws its humor from certain facts of British life, but there is in truth no Hogwarts. (I think.) Even so-called historical films are actually just a blend of fact and fiction: James Cameron very faithfully recreated the Titanic for his eponymous blockbuster, but the story of Jack and Rose is a fib; and while Schindler’s List is grounded in the facts of the holocaust, much of the story was made up for cinematic purposes. That is not a Hollywood conspiracy; it’s just the nature of storytelling.
Where we get confused is in understanding the nature of history. History is not a thing of facts and dates. (Sorry every history teacher I ever had.) Knowing certain historical facts can be helpful, but what matters is understanding the essence of our past. We talk about learning history so that history doesn’t repeat, but this is not a function of names and places. It’s about understanding trends and currents in the flow of time. I’ve always felt the best history teachers are ones who are great storytellers.
This brings us to another idea, which is the grey line between history and mythology. History is often written by the victors and/or the historians, and no matter how “accurate” they might try to be, they’re only capturing one perspective on a given period or event. History starts to become mythology as soon as the ink is put on the page—names and dates might be accurate, but what really happened, and how it happened, and what it meant, are an interpretation. (Julius Caesar might be a historial figure, but he is also a myth. How else could Dante have put Brutus and Cassius in the mouths of Satan?)
So while scholars are free to rigorously debate the details of Scottish independence—not to mention the questionable authorship of Troilus and Cressida—I think the true significance of the two Williams has to do with their place as mythical figures. These men became legends. The details of their lives are not so important as the virtues for which their names became known. Any story that brings attention to their tales is just another piece of the mythology.
So despite the controversy over Braveheart, I still believe it’s one of the greatest films ever made. The story is deeply moving, powerfully told, and I don’t give two mirrors on a leather shoe if the kilts are from the wrong time period. Similarly, I really liked Anonymous, and it doesn’t bother me that the events didn’t actually happen. Both the facts and the lies about Shakespeare’s life added to my enjoyment of Shakespeare’s legend.
Because in the end, what we remember are stories, tales, legends, and myths—the intangible essence that makes history meaningful. Serious scholars might find that frustrating, but that’s how storytelling has always worked. Historical films often don’t mesh with historical fact. But it’s okay. As long as it’s a good story well told, the experience still matters. In fact, it might even be myth in the making.
Brad Kane is a writer in the entertainment industry, focusing on storytelling in movies, TV, games, and more. If you enjoyed this article, take a second to like his page on Facebook and/or to check out his blog. He also has a new Twitter account that he is trying to remember to use.