In this Oscar weekend, and with two historical movies and one contemporary "factual" movie up for Best Oscar, I thought we'd look at historical movies and ask the question: Why is it that screenwriters and producers feel that a movie “based on actual incidents” or calling itself “historical” is allowed to play fast and loose with the facts?
I can tell you straight out that any book that purports to be based on “actual events” or any other historical novel for that matter, can’t get away with a cavalier attitude about throwing facts around. Our readers expect adherence to what actually happened, using real people of the past as accurately as we can. It’s our contract with the reader. Oh I know that I must get some things wrong. It’s the littlest things that usually trip up an author. But the brushstrokes of historical detail, the events, the people, the culture, the mores, are all as accurate and authentic as I can get it.
Don’t get me wrong. I know that books made into films have to go through significant changes to get them to the screen. After all, you only have about two hours to present the story. Sometimes characters have to be combined, time-shortened, events left out. It’s understandable when you are a talking about two distinct formats of storytelling. But what I’m talking about is a complete retelling of historical facts, twisting it all to conform to a set idea about a script, rather than manipulating plot to suit history.
So let’s take a couple of examples of movies from the past that have tried to depict real people and events. Let’s begin with The Wind and the Lion, starring one of my favorite actors, Sean Connery as a Berber bandit, and Candace Bergan as his hapless but not helpless kidnap victim. It’s a sweeping romantic saga in the tradition of Rudyard Kipling or any Warner Bros. classic with Errol Flynn. It’s based on the Perdicaris Incident from 1904 when an American citizen was abducted in Tangier by the Berber bandit Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli or Raisuni. A true international incident, getting President Teddy Roosevelt involved by sending seven warships to the region, with all the adventure and tense international politics one can think of.
Except that the real Perdicaris wasn’t a woman at all, but a man, Ion Perdicaris. And he had renounced his American citizenship years earlier for that of Greek citizenship. Perdicaris began to sympathize with his kidnapper, just as Candace Bergan’s character does in the film, only you get a sense of romantic interest with the fictional Eden Perdicaris rather than the male camaraderie Ion Perdicaris had for Raisuli. This is taking a giant leap from fact to fiction. Why not just change the names, then? Change all of it that might relate to the real incident? I suppose it's to sell tickets. The producers get that added value by being able to say that it was based on real incidents, though now the public is duped into thinking that this really happened as shown in the film.
Another fatally flawed film is Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. Surely created with good intentions, it tells the story of the heroic William Wallace who seemed to come from humble roots and fighting against the seemingly insurmountable English forces for freedom for his Scottish countrymen. A stirring tale, full of battles with knights, in-fighting with the Scottish lairds, amid the background of the ruthless King Edward I’s court. And it is a good story. The real story is good. But what they did in Braveheart was tell their story the way they wanted to.
Where to begin? First, small things. “Braveheart” actually refers to Robert the Bruce, who became King of Scots, not William Wallace. Second, there were no kilts and no belted plaid. Five hundred years too early for that. Blue woad on the face? Striking imagery, but about 1,000 years too late for that. The Jus Primae Noctis that King Edward supposedly invoked, meaning that the English knights could sleep with Scottish women the night of their wedding thus impregnating Scottish women with Englishmen, is pure myth. It never happened. And finally, probably the most obnoxious fantasy of all, Princess Isabella married to King Edward’s son--the eventual King Edward II--is depicted in the film as having an affair with William Wallace. She intimates to the dying King Edward that she is pregnant with Wallace’s child and he will eventually sit on the throne, so there! Except that at the time, Isabella was still a child of about six and living in France. By the time her son (the eventual Edward III) was born, Wallace had been dead seven years.
Even recent films like Lincoln and Argo have their historical flaws. In Lincoln, for instance, a film that Mr. Speilberg said could be used for teaching in the schools, plays the fast and loose card. In the scene where the states are voting on the amendment to end slavery, they depict Connecticut as having two delegates vote against, when they all voted for. A seemingly small thing, but not to those in Connecticut and Connecticut schools. In Argo, the Canadians get short shrift when it was really them spearheading the deception that gets the Americans out of Tehran. The English are depicted as wanting nothing to do with it, when they indeed had a lot to do with helping the Americans. No car chases at the end, but plenty of real drama to choose from. Recent history obscured by Hollywood splash. Even Zero Dark Thirty, the Get Bin Laden film suffers from over dramatizing events that didn't happen, the controversial scene about CIA using torture to get their information on where Bin Laden was. Still producers feel a little twisting of history serves the plot. But what about history? Directors are fond of saying that they must embellish to make it exciting. I say, they ain't trying hard enough with the real facts.
Why am I complaining? I mean, I've enjoyed lots of movies that aren't accurate. Just sit back, munch the popcorn, and don't complain, right?
It wouldn’t be so bad if people didn’t get their history from movies. But I hate to think that there are people walking around believing that Edward III was fathered by William Wallace, or that the Raisuli gave a female Perdecaris the eye when such things are not history. School kids are already bombarded with strange “truths” from school districts trying to inflict “Creation Science” into their classrooms, as if there is a choice about scientific fact. Let's not give history the heave ho, too. After all, philosopher and poet George Santayana warned us that “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Doesn’t it seem that we should concentrate a little more on history to avoid the pitfalls?
Ah well. Just sit back, enjoy the movie. But please. Don’t believe everything you see.