how to watch a historical film

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One of the things that I have been doing recently in my writing about film and art, is thinking a lot about how we watch historical movies. Research shows that once we become adults almost all of the knowledge we actually have about history comes from cinema and television programs. Television programs might be documentaries but could also be series such as Reign or The White Queen – or even shows which combine fact and fiction such as Outlander or Black Sails where real historical characters interact with completely fictional characters in real-life historical events. In movies such as Mary Queen of Scots or Braveheart, the research done by historians and the evidence of historical artefacts are recombined with fictional drama inventing scenes and relationships which never happened in real life but which allow satisfyingly dramatic narrative.
My question is, how can we enjoy this kind of filmed entertainment while also maintaining a realistic grasp of the historical events of the past?

Historical films are eternally popular and filmed entertainments depicting the lives and intrigues of the English Tudor Dynasty are some of the most celebrated. One of the first movies ever made was The Execution of Mary Stuart, in 1895, while a decade later Sarah Bernhardt starred in Elizabeth I (1912). By the time sound came in at the start of the 1930s, already at least a dozen Tudor themed historical films had been released.

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How much “history” was in these historical films? Like in today’s historical films, not a lot. Unfortunately, the approach of film is usually “let’s not spoil a good story with the facts.” This is an important caveat to history films that we must establish straight away. While historical films satisfy audiences and fulfil our desire to experience the illusion of witnessing the past, very few of them adhere to the historical record. Does this mean we should ignore them, or discount them when we look at Tudor – or any – history? Actually, that is not really possible. If we look at the list of Academy Award nominees, we will soon see that historical films are strongly represented, and often win. The biggest stars have won their Oscars for playing historical characters: for example, Judi Dench as Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love. Add to that the huge box office receipts and the popularity of historical television series, and we have to acknowledge that, however much we might value proper history, we cannot afford to ignore the broad influence of the historical drama.

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The Death of Elizabeth I by Paul Delaroche

Movies shape most people’s ideas about the past, communicating what many might think of as historical information. But this is often not really information at all.  Often history films are based not on history books but on novels (for example the Mark Twain fantasy The Prince and the Pauper, or the works of the popular novelist Phillipa Gregory such as The Other Boleyn Girl). Many history films have been based on plays, like A Man for All Seasons. They use history as a backdrop to explore psychology or human relations, notions of justice and loyalty, or even social issues.

 

Another difficulty with history films is that they often don’t take into account that historical research is dynamic, and uncovers new evidence and ideas all the time. They often only tell one part of a bigger story, and in doing so, skew the historical narrative: for instance, films about Elizabeth Tudor emphasise the English navy’s defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, not the expensive failure to finish off the Spanish naval force a year later, which gives an incorrect impression of the English-Spanish conflicts in that period. They also often contain anachronisms, especially when historical characters voice ideas and attitudes that were not present at the time depicted in the film.

 

If we are serious about learning about and understanding history, we cannot and should not avoid history films, since they are popular and influential, but we need to look at them critically. We must begin with the assumption that historical films are not accurate, but they may have degrees of accuracy. Material accuracy is the easiest part: getting authentic-looking sets and props and using portraits to develop realistic costume designs. The story is where it gets more difficult. All films involve choices about who or what to keep in the story and what to leave out, for reasons of time, budget and to keep the audience’s interest. Time is manipulated, several different persons are combined into one character, and so forth. The main character has to continually fascinate the audience. Often the appearance of a specific film star is important and as a result, the character may neither look nor behave at all like the historical personage. Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth the Golden Age is a good example, and so is Katherine Hepburn in Young Bess, or Anthony Hopkins as Picasso in Surviving Picasso. All gave great performances os does the fact that they do not resemble the actual person at all even matter?

 

Complicating the problem is that the historical record contains all kinds of unreliable rumour, gossip and polemic, which can provide an interesting route for the film-maker to go down, as in the film Anonymous (2011) which explores the idea that the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) was the real author of Shakespeare’s works. This is indeed a discussion that a few literary scholars have had, but it is completely unproven, and so Anonymous, though entertaining and quite convincing in its material depiction of 16th century London, is completely fictional.

 

Of course, Shakespeare himself was one of the great pioneers of historical fiction himself. His versions of Scottish history in Macbeth, or the intrigues of the Plantagenets, or the fate of Julius Caesar may not be accurate from the historian’s point of view, but continue to shape many peoples’ views of what the past was like. And we don’t go to see Julius Caesar to learn about the machinations of the ancient Roman politics, though no doubt Shakespeare has permanently coloured our ways of seeing both Caesar and Antony.

 

So, historical films reflect the issues and concerns of the time in which they were produced, and they use history to do this. But they also engage with the historical record, and it is interesting to notice where and when they leave truth far behind. It is always worthwhile to ask yourself how the presentation of characters and incidents in films  colour our perception of the real-life people and events. Separating fact from fiction is an exciting process, as you discover that, in the end the truth is (almost) always more fascinating than the fiction.

 

©Gillian McIver

 

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