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Ok, so I’ve explained why the concept of an historically accurate movie doesn’t work, here and here. But this would seem to contradict the purpose of this blog, which is to examine the historical accuracy of films. How can I criticize films like Braveheart for being inaccurate if true accuracy is impossible?

The point I am making is not that there is no reason to be interested in historical accuracy in film, but rather that “Is this film historically accurate?” isn’t really the right question to ask. All historical films are inaccurate; that’s just a given. The question we should always be asking instead is “why is this film being inaccurate about some things and not others?” This question asks us to analyze a film, the intentions of the screenwriter and the director, and the overall message the film is offering to the viewers.

In other words, if all historical films are inaccurate, what matters is not whether they’re inaccurate, but where. What parts of a film does the director care to ‘get right’ and what parts does he not care about, or actively desire to get wrong? There is a big difference between getting the costuming wrong or simplifying a complex series of events on the one hand, and, for example, claiming that a basically patriotic man was in fact guilty of treason and cowardice because he was gay. In the first case, the intent was to appeal to a teen audience, in the second case, the intent was to keep the film from getting bogged down in obscure details, and in the third case, the intent was simply to gin up third-act drama rather than tell the real story.

Braveheart offers an excellent example of the importance of asking the right question. One of its biggest inaccuracies is the decision to introduce Princess Isabella into the story, despite her being 2 years old and living in France at the time of the movie. If you simply ask whether it’s accurate, the answer is simply no. But if you ask why is she included in the story, why the film has chosen to be inaccurate on this issue, you very quickly start realizing that the romance between Isabella and Wallace goes beyond simple romantic window-dressing and is in fact the reason Wallace can die triumphant at the end of the film. Wallace wins by knocking up the princess. And that, to my mind, is the key to understanding the whole damn film. It’s a movie about sexual conquest, not military conquest.

A Simple Thought Experiment

Hollywood has trained audiences to think about historical accuracy largely in terms of costuming, weapons, and sets. They want the audience to think that a historical film ‘looks right’. Let’s leave aside the fact that they usually get a lot of those details wrong; what matters is that they give an impression that the clothing, the locations, and the violence seems correct. For example, one element of Braveheart that got some publicity was how they achieved the stunts during the Battle of Stirling Bridgeless; Gibson claimed (and I see little reason to doubt him on this point) that someone from an animal welfare organization objected to the shots of horses being impaled because the man assumed that the shots had to have been achieved by actually killing horses. On the DVD, Gibson explains that he had to show the man the mechanical horse they used and how they had made the scene look realistic enough to fool audiences. The point of Gibson’s anecdote is that he was extremely concerned with accuracy, and his concern was so great that he was able to fool someone whose job is to monitor animal welfare. In other words, “see this movie, because I did a really good job being accurate.”

I find it very striking that audiences apparently want a sense of accuracy about violence, but not about plot. They cheerfully accept absurd plot developments (like Isabella being way too young and way too far way to have an affair with Wallace), but will complain if the sword fighting looks too fake. (Compare contemporary film violence to that from the 60s, for example, to see just how much effort Hollywood has put into improving the realism of its violence.)

Imagine for a moment a film in which the emphasis was on accuracy of the plot, but not on accuracy of the costuming or weaponry. Picture William Wallace running around in a 20th century British military uniform carrying an AK-47 but engaging in fairly accurate political maneuverings.

Most people would react to that poorly, I suspect, because Hollywood trains us that accuracy means specific things and generally excludes other things. But theatrical and cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare employ this device fairly frequently. Instead of setting his Richard III in the 1480s, like the historical Richard III, or in the 1590s, when the play was first performed, Ian McKellan set his version of the play in the 1930s, depicting Richard as a would-be fascist dictator. A particular favorite detail is the arrangement of 16th century poem “Come Live with Me and Be My Love” as a sort of Swing-era piece. The famous “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech becomes a political speech. It works beautifully, and while the setting isn’t faithful to the play as Shakespeare envisioned it, it works marvelously and offers a wonderful comment on the politics of both the 15th and the 20th centuries while still being true to the spirit of the play. This is a film making careful, clever use of its choices about historical inaccuracy.

So being historically inaccurate is not inherently a bad thing. All films have to do it to some degree. My goal in this blog is to illuminate the various inaccuracies that films employ and then discuss what the choice to be inaccurate means for that film. Hopefully, this can educate people to be more critical film-goers and maybe, in my wildest dreams, to demand a slightly higher calibre of historical film.