Last time I laid out an argument that there is no such thing as an historically accurate movie because film requires far too many concessions to literary devices such as plot and narrative and main characters. Film has to be highly selective about which moments it will include and which it will exclude, because to include them all would be too boring to viewers.
But let’s put all those cinematic conventions aside. Let’s concede the need to make our hypothetical historically accurate movie watchable in the short space of 2-3 hours, and to offer a coherent and satisfying narrative to the viewer. Even with all of that granted, it’s still impossible to make a truly historically accurate film. Let’s get back to Braveheart to see why.
In our accurate version of William Wallace’ life story, we’d need to find actors who closely resembled Wallace, or could pull it off with the help of make-up and prosthetics. So we’d need to find actors who were a little shorter than Mel Gibson and who have less than flawless skin, teeth and hair. Of course, less physically attractive stars probably mean less success at the box office, which is why American film stars are always absurdly good-looking people. Who really wants William Wallace kissing with a mouthful of crooked teeth? More seriously, we’d have to actually know what Wallace looked like, which we don’t. So once again, we have to make concessions. We can’t expect our actors to actually look like the people who they are portraying.
Additionally, the script would have to be written at least partly in Scots English, which most audiences would find unintelligible, and the actors would need to use appropriate accents as well. Most Hollywood films employ a subtle convention of having the characters speak English even if they’re supposed to be speaking Old Norse or Latin or French or whatever. Again, it’s a concession to the needs to the viewers, especially since Hollywood assumes that Americans won’t tolerate too many subtitles. Historical films do occasionally acknowledge this convention in some way, but other films can be completely inconsistent about what language the characters are speaking.
The question of what William Wallace looked like is actually a far bigger problem than it seems on the surface. For a film to be truly accurate, it would have to stick to the known facts. But no historical subject is so well-documented that we can actually make a film about him or her without employing an enormous amount of speculation, guesswork and invention. Often we have only a faint idea what a particular person looked like. More seriously, we usually only know a small fraction of what they said to other people, and we almost never know what they were wearing. So in the scene when Wallace has his council of war before the battle of Stirling Bridge, we don’t know how many people were there or where it happened. We don’t know what he actually said. And we don’t know what clothing he was wearing when he said it.
If I sit down to write a historically accurate book on William Wallace, as a historian, I have an obligation to be clear about which facts I can know for certain (or with relative certainty) and which ‘facts’ I’m speculating about and what I’m using as the basis for my speculation. If I have no sources that physically describe William Wallace, I cannot offer a physical description of him because that simply isn’t historical. I have to be bound by the limits of what my sources tell me. And if I don’t know what he looked like, I can simply say that we don’t know what he looked like and leave it at that. No scholar will fault me for not describing him if we have no information about his physical appearance. (This is a common problem with popular history books by non-scholars; they frequently offer descriptions of their subject based on little to know real evidence.)
But a filmmaker doesn’t have the luxury of glossing over the things we don’t know about Wallace. The filmmaker has to decide whether Wallace was short or tall, thin or fat, slightly built or muscular, because he can’t not decide. He has to cast an actor to play Wallace and that requires him to decide which actor will best capture what the filmmaker thinks Wallace was like physically. And when the filmmaker films that council of war, he can’t have all the actors naked because we don’t know what they actually wore; he must clothe his actors in something. A truly accurate film about William Wallace would give Wallace exactly two pieces of dialog, because we only know two things he said or wrote; one is a letter offering German merchants safe conduct in Scotland, and the other is a rather uninspiring battle speech. But a film in which the main character says almost nothing is going to be a very hard sell to most modern audiences, and so the screenwriter has to invent his dialog. All of these are entirely reasonable things to do (which is not to say that Randall Wallace did a good job of making things up), but the moment the filmmaker decides that Wallace was wearing brown at his war council, the filmmaker has abandoned historical accuracy for fiction.
A further problem, which I’ve mentioned elsewhere, is that in some situations, historians have more than one possible way to recreate the historical events. Different sources often give contradictory versions of events. One source says someone was at a particular event, while another source says he or she wasn’t at that event. Or a sources fails to mention the participation of someone who would logically have been involved. When I’m writing an historical work, I have to note the discrepancy in the sources and explain which source I am going to believe and why. If I simply choose one version of an event without explaining my choice, other scholars may rightly criticize me for being sloppy or making unwarranted assumptions. But film-makers can’t do that. They have to settle on a version of events that makes sense narratively, and they cannot tell the audience that there was another way to reconstruct the events, unless they want to get into a Rashomon-style scenario (which would actually be sort of an interesting approach, I think). Murder mysteries sometimes do this, giving us the same crime committed by multiple possible killers as the detective reconstructs the events of the murder. Our historically-accurate Braveheart would have to do this multiple times for no dramatic pay-off.
So my point is that historically accurate movies are impossible, because making films requires so many assumptions about what was said and done and worn that historical accuracy becomes literally impossible, at least in any way scholars would understand the term. Instead we need to think about historical scholarship and cinema as two different ways of exploring the past, both with advantages and disadvantages of their own.
While I complain a lot about the inaccuracies of various films and tv shows, it’s not because I think they need to be 100% accurate. It’s because I think they’re being inaccurate about stupid things they could easily have been more accurate about. Reign, before you say anything, take off those damn high heels and that sequined strapless dress and put on something more period. And wear a chemise under it, for God’s sake! Do you want to chafe your nipples off?
I love the way Mel Brooks dealt with the language issue in To Be or Not to Be. (1983)
“Ladies and Gentlemen: In the interest of clarity and sanity, the rest of this movie will not be in Polish.”
I really enjoy your dissection of accuracy and understand the objections you’ve put forward regarding how a 100% historically accurate movie is impossible. Nevertheless, just because film is an essentializing medium this doesn’t mean that a “historically-minded” depiction is not worth pursuing. I agree that movies choose idiotic facets to be inaccurate about which is why I particularly enjoy movies that go that extra length when it doesn’t matter.
My question to you is which “historical” movies have you enjoyed from an accuracy perspective? Examples for me (speaking as just a history fan) include The Beast of War (1988) overall but also for forcing a Cuban actor to speak Pashto and depicting the pantomime needed to fill the gap. The New World (2005) was impressive for the language used and many other details but also more importantly for the overall tone depicted. My favorite line of the film was when a Native American brought along a bundle of sticks with him on his voyage to London in order to provide a count of the number of Englishmen he encounters. There are a lot of details I loved about HBO’s Rome (2005) but as illustration I adored that clothing had was slightly frayed instead of straight and immaculate edges.
What’s on your list?
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Nacim, thanks for the kind words! I entirely agree that accuracy has real value in historical film. Just because total accuracy is impossible doesn’t mean that filmmakers shouldn’t take it seriously. My third post on this, which I hope to get up tomorrow, will talk a bit about that.
My favorite film from an accuracy perspective is still the Lion in Winter. Its major inaccuracies are, in my view, relatively small, and it does such a wonderful job capturing the essence of high medieval politics that I can easily overlook them. I did rather like The New World when I saw it years ago; I’ve thought about reviewing it here. And you’re right that Rome did a very good job trying to capture elements of Roman culture that have generally been ignored; my favorite element was the man who reported the news; he made very odd gestures which are actually quite in line in ancient ideas about public speaking.
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