Historical Movies between Description and Distortion

Nov 2016
I would like to raise a basic problem of historical movies, which seems so delicate that the main purpose of such films, namely to represent real history in a lively manner, seems highly illusory. In other words, the only things that can be approximately authentically reproduced are costumes, architecture and other ´requisites´. With ´historical movie´ I mean above all movies referring to real historical figures and events, furthermore movies like "Barry Lyndon" with an imaginary content, but claiming historical authenticity as to the mentality, customs, costumes and so on of the given time.

The problems begin with the reconstruction of historical events, which can only ever result in an interpretation, and continue, even worse, with the characterization of historical persons, which can also only happen interpretatively. The rule of thumb can only be like this: The way historical characters are represented in movies differs inevitably from their real being.

No one can look into the mind of other persons so no one can really know these persons. So how should it be possible to authentically represent a concrete person in a movie centuries or even millennia after his or her death? Even if the person is well documented, e.g. Hitler, it is impossible to represent him in a movie in an authentical way. Bruno Ganz achieved a great physical similarity, yes, but the movie as a whole failed for several reasons, as did even more the movie with Robert Carlyle, who couldn´t even achieve any physical similarity, what is most fatal for such a project since personality and physical appearance cannot be separated. And how can Hitler be authentically represented in a movie if there is no consense among historians when and why Hitler started to be an anti-Semite?

There are now two ways to deal with such problems: One lets oneself uncritically be carried away by the cinematic events (the receptive mode of presumably most viewers) or one is constantly thinking about whether and to what extent the cinematic character deviates fundamentally and/or in certain situations from the historical character, measured by how it is described in scientific sources, which can of course themselves be flawed, but with the difference that uncertainties of interpretation or data situation can be pointed out there, but not in the film.

However, the problem as a whole cannot be solved by a critical reception, because this requires historical knowledge that more than 90 percent of viewers do not have or do not have to a sufficent degree. This means that in over 90 percent of cases such films create a false image of historical characters, which goes hand in hand with the illusion that they are now "familiar" with them. If one had the possibility - assuming a time machine - of juxtaposing the cinematic and historical characters, there would most likely have been grotesque differences, as they also exist between different cinematic representations of a certain historical character, see Ganz and Carlyle.
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Jun 2018
New York
When I watch historical films I go in expecting something that is not all that accurate and an interpretation of the events taking place. I go into historical films like I go into contemporary accounts, you can't trust that the events being depicted are completely true, there is probably a bit of bias thrown in to make the authors side look better and from there you go and find other accounts to compare and contrast.

One of my favorite historical films in "Kingdom of Heaven", is it accurate? No, its a story set within that time period that interprets the events in a grandiose way. Another favorite of mine is "Arn- The Knight Templar", a movie that while I believe is closer to what the time could have been like, compared to "Kingdom of Heaven" is just as much an interpretation as the other movie of a similar time period. What ends up being the most important to me, historically, in these films is the costumes and how the setting is portrayed. Those are the things I am most critical of, the story and characters are okay with being portrayed as they are as well as it is done well and with respect to the source. There is no way to ever know how long dead people really acted in life through written accounts after all, we can only guess.

What you get at is something I have thought about when going on some movie binges. And I think you either get to the point where to accept that how the movie is won't be exactly how it was in life and you learn to enjoy the movie for what it is. Or you gripe on every inconsistency and make yourself miserable for doing so. (I had done that with a TV where the costumes and sets were great, the main plot was interesting, but a man cutting through chain mail and flesh and bone almost made me turn it off.) Personally I end up in the middle of what your last two paragraph's say because if I take all historical movies (or shows) critically I can end up missing some pretty good shows.

Tercios Espanoles

Ad Honorem
Mar 2014
Beneath a cold sun, a grey sun, a Heretic sun...
If I want history I'll read a book written by a historian. If I want to be entertained, that's what movies and popcorn are for.
Apr 2016
Raleigh, NC
Every account of events has a point of view and an interpretation, including the nightly news report of today's events. We don't really know how anyone thinks or reacts. Our ignorance is quite probably greater dealing with times we don't live in. How were people's lives shaped differently from ours because they didn't have good light after sunset? Very different physical circumstances, but we're the same species as our forebears, and we both face similar psychological processes. That's why we still read Plato, for example.

Whether you agree with L.P. Hartley that "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there," or with William Faulkner that "The past is never dead. It's not even past," there is value in seeing things with points of view and interpretations.
Nov 2017
There are movies that distort worse than others, that's fore sure. Apocalypto for example should be shown as an example of racist stereotypes of Mayans elevated to absurdity. Mayans in that movie are mostly naked hunter-gatherers living like savages, are dirty, disgusting and stupid, and are portrayed as grotesquely violent in ways that no normal Hollywood movie would of Europeans. The way they talk Mayan - which still exists in many dialects, by the way - is also clearly exaggerated so as to make it sound like gibberish and gargling sounds. It's one of the worst movies I've ever seen and it's mainly because it distorts Mayan history.

paranoid marvin

Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
In most cases, the purpose of film makers is to get their film made, to have it appreciated by viewers and critics, but most of all to make money. There's no point in trying to make a movie if no-one will fund it (or go and watch it) and if it takes a Brit sub to become an American one in order to get the film made then so be it.

If you want historical fact then read a text or watch a documentary; if you want to be entertained then switch off your brain for a couple of hours and watch a movie. Because whether it's inaccuraces, plotholes or continuity errors, most movies have them.