So I’ve said a couple times that there is no such thing as an historically-accurate movie, and it’s time for me to start explaining what I mean by that. And let’s use that most irritating of historical movies, Braveheart, as an example to illustrate the issues involved.
Let’s say we want to make a movie about William Wallace’ rebellion, and unlike Mel Gibson, we want to make it 100% accurate. As far as we know, Wallace started his rebellion in 1297 with his killing of Sir William Heselrig, and it reached its final conclusion when he was executed in 1305. To be 100% historically accurate, our movie would have to be 7 ½ years long, because the moment you start compressing the time scale of the film, you’re no long being historically accurate, since you’re omitting a lot of time. You’re editing out an enormous range of actions like Wallace bathing and getting dressed, Wallace have boring conversations about the weather, and Wallace taking a crap. But in doing this you’re declaring that some actions, like Wallace combing his hair, aren’t important enough for the viewer to have to sit through. That’s a reasonable judgment call, but strictly speaking you’re departing from history, because he has to have done all these things, hundreds of times over. So right away, you can see why historically accurate movies aren’t really possible. This sounds like a tiny, niggling issue, and it is. But I think it’s an important issue to acknowledge.
So let’s make a concession to watchability and agree that we’re not going to expect our audience to sit through all the times when Wallace was sleeping and eating, and riding across the countryside and so on. We’re going to compress the time scale and just show the important events, the ones that matter to the story of his rebellion. But here we run into another problem. To really tell an accurate account of Wallace’ rebellion, we need to include everyone’s story. We have to include the actions of the William Wallace and Andrew Moray and all their lieutenants and soldiers and other people who helped them. And we’re going to have devote equal time to all the English players in the events. Remember that historical events themselves don’t have a perspective or point of view. Edward I’s decisions and actions are every bit as important to telling the story as Wallace’ decisions and actions are, and to exclude them is going to fundamentally misrepresent the events. From a purely historical point of view, Wallace isn’t the ‘hero’ of the rebellion. History doesn’t have ‘main characters’ and ‘supporting characters’. His individual soldiers are as much the center of the events as he is, and the same is true for Edward I. Indeed, for the men who died at the battle of Stirling Bridge, that moment is more important in their lives than in Wallace’ life, so an argument can be made that Wallace is far less important to the story of Stirling Bridge than the men killed fighting there.
But obviously we cannot tell all the stories of all the people involved in all the events of the rebellion. That would just be impossible, even if George R.R. Martin was writing the script. So we must again make a concession to watchability. We have to decide to focus on a small number of people, simply to make the material manageable. So now we have to make a judgment call about whose stories matter and whose stories don’t. We have to designate some people to be main characters. Again, this sounds like a small point, but it’s actually a big step away from history, because as I said, history don’t have main characters and supporting characters. Nor does it have good guys and bad guys. Edward I may be a villain in Wallace’ story, but Wallace is a villain in Edward’s story, and in Sir William Heselrig’s story, for that matter. But let’s decide that we’re going to tell Wallace’ story; he’s going to be our main character.
History doesn’t have a plot. That means that even if we omit all the boring moments of Wallace tying his shoe laces, we still have to include everything else that’s directly part of the rebellion. A simple battle, like the battle of Stirling Bridge, doesn’t just happen. It’s made up of dozens of smaller events, like Wallace and Moray raising forces, marching to Stirling, discussing strategy, taking up their position and waiting for the English to arrive. And that’s just the pre-battle stuff. But that’s still an enormous amount of stuff to film, so again we have to make a concession and decide just to film the most important stuff. But in doing this we’re leaving out lots of important stuff, like the military decision-making and the deals Wallace had to cut in order to get the troops he needed. So at this point we’ve deviated substantially from history and what we’re filming is really only a subset of events that we’ve chosen, somewhat arbitrarily, to call ‘the really important events’.
Furthermore, Braveheart illustrates another problem with historically accurate films. In his depiction of the battle of Stirling Bridge, Gibson claims that the turning point of the battle was when Wallace tricked the English into making a cavalry charge into a Scottish pike unit. (That’s absolutely not what happened, but let’s pretend for a moment that it was.) Wallace would have made the decision to use that tactic in a meeting before the battle. And Gibson shows us that meeting, but he cuts the scene off at the moment when Wallace first has the idea. This allows Gibson to give the battle a surprise twist by not telling us the Scots will use spears at the battle (that, and some camera work where the spears aren’t in the scene until they magically appear on the ground just when they’re needed). But the decision to use that tactic would be a “really important event”, because it was that decision that made the difference in the battle. Gibson has skipped that moment because it makes the battle scene more dramatic. (He pulls the same trick in his depiction of Falkirk, where the decision of the Irish mercenaries to switch sides is entirely unforeshadowed.) This is entirely false from the standpoint of historical accuracy. An historically accurate movie doesn’t get to have surprise twists in it, because history isn’t written like a murder mystery. The facts are laid out in chronological or themetic order, not in a way that elicits surprise from the audience. (This is something a few of my students need to learn when they write term papers.)
My larger point here is that even movies that genuinely strive for historical accuracy aren’t anywhere close to true accuracy because they’re trimming out all sorts of stuff in order to make the film conform to a set of rules that we’ve agreed upon as to how movies are going to be made. The Hollywood film style we’ve been trained to accept as natural requires every scene to have some degree of plot advancement in it, and all those scenes of Wallace eating lunch don’t advance the plot. Hollywood has trained us to accept a limited viewpoint that privileges certain characters over others and certain facts over others, and these cinematic rules don’t leave much room for genuine historical accuracy. There’s no such thing as an historically accurate movie, because ‘historical accuracy’ and ‘watchable movie’ require drastically different approaches to the same material. What people are really asking when they ask “Is this film historically accurate?” is “Is this film historically accurate within the arbitrary conventions for making a movie I would be willing to spend time watching?”
Part of the issue here is that most movies conform broadly to the general rules of narrative literature. They have main characters and supporting characters, protagonists and antagonists, plots, and themes. History doesn’t have these things. Every real person is the main character of his or her life story, and a supporting character in the life stories of those around them. To designate one person as the main character is to a considerable extent to step away from history and toward literature (although, obviously, historical biography does have a main character in its subject). To tell William Wallace’ story from his point of view is to make a moral judgment that Edward I was a ‘bad guy’, which inherently privileges one side of the conflict. While that was a popular way to tell history in the past, modern historians generally try to be more even-handed on this issue.
Similarly, plots have to have a clear trajectory, with action that slowly rises toward a climax and eventually arrives at a resolution. But history doesn’t work that way. There is no ‘plot’ to history. Wallace’ story was not a simple linear progression that began with the English brutally conquering Scotland and raping Scottish women and ended with a triumphant shout of freedom during his execution. The story of his rebellion began long before Wallace was born, with the turbulent history of Scotland and England generations before, and his failed rebellion was simply one moment in that long conflict. But it wasn’t a plot; it was a series of events that did not have an overarching plot imposed by an outside power.
So to sum up, history’s ‘rules’ are entirely different from cinema and literature’s ‘rules’, and a movie that honestly tried to adhere to historical rather than literary rules would be entirely unwatchable by most people’s standards.
But even within these somewhat arbitrary rules for how a cinematic narrative is constructed, it’s still not possible to make a historically accurate movie, for reasons I’ll get into in my next post.