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Historical accuracy in films

Teaching.jpgA previous discussion about the first 9/11 movie, United 93, brought up a number of quite relevant points. First we discussed if it was too early, and we turned to the example of films coming out from World War II, and that turned us to talk about modern War films such as Pearl Harbour, U-571 and other such historically inept movies.

It was also pointed out that perhaps United 93 isn't that accurate anyway, taking as it does outside conversations and using them to create the timeline of events and thereby what happened on that plane.

It's not just this film either, there's many others and with all this inaccuracy are we in danger of preaching the wrong message? Of incorrectly educating by stealth the general public and changing our understanding of history?

On a story about Andy Garcia's Lost City Bullet in the Head summarised that films should not be used to depict historical events and that films such as these become interpreted as fact.

That is very true. For I remember reading a survey where teenagers were polled and the results showed that they believed the events in films, such as those mentioned above, to be actual fact.

This is worrying, that Pearl Harbour and U-571 are rewriting history in the minds of our younger generation. Is the message "Based on actual events" or "Inspired by a true story" not enough anymore? Are these too misleading?

I even find films such as Saving Private Ryan as slightly inaccurate, for they focus on the American involvement in the war and as a result the greater effort and sacrifice by Europe and Britain is overshadowed. U-571 portrays the capturing of the Enigma code machine from the Germans, an act carried out by the British, not the Americans, and Pearl Harbour presents a quick, decisive and quite large attack against Japan when in fact it was small and quite unsuccessful.

So what should films that depict actual events, use real characters or even dramatise themselves on something real be asked to do? Is carrying a stronger message enough? Do they need to carry some explanation of what actually happened or highlight which parts of their story aren't factually correct? Or do they need to do something much stronger and not touch historical events?

I saw an interesting feature on the Tears of the Sun DVD which could help correctly educate in these types of films. There was an option to watch the film with overlaid subtitles giving you facts about real objects, people, places and events on which the film touches. Would that work? Obviously not in the cinema.

Yet there's a large grey area here as well, what about films such as The Da Vinci Code? They don't present fact or talk about historically proven events, they do touch on widely accepted beliefs and understandings and incorporate those in their fictional story. Or what about films such as Braveheart that twist and bend the timeline of history to fit in with the dramatical storytelling? Are these lines too grey to make a judgement on?

What other films take liberties with historical accuracy? Either in a small, seemingly unassuming way, for the right causes, or are totally flying in the face of all that is good and right? What can, or should be, done?



So how close was Cameron's Titanic? Some bits spot on, some under discussion, and I don't believe for a second that there was a "Jack Dawson" on board.

Alive is one of my favourites, but had a very biased viewpoint, in that they never covered events off the mountain (deliberate) and did not show the struggle encountered by the two how walked into the valleys for help - they had a couple of days trying to persuade people they were not mad - none of this was shown.

Artistic license has to be reserved in order to show something from a particular viewpoint (remember every incident happens from a seperate viewpoint for everytone there, so one's truth may not be another's), to eleborate a story or bring a story in, or just to save time. The only exception I would hold to this is if the intent is to be 100% accurate and thus have a documentary in its purest form. In that respect artistic licence should not exist.

As for warnings, the Peugeot 806 front seats can be turned around to face the rear, so that a table can be placed for four passengers to sit around. In the manual it states "do not turn driver's seat whilst driving". A bit obvious, but there for those who can't use more than one brain cell at once (probably because they have a time-share on it). Same thing applies with film warnings over and above what we have just now IMO.

If movies are can´t be faithful to literature, they can´t be faithful to history.

Well, in fact, history is never faithful to itself. We spend most of our time revising it, watching it from new points of view.

If youngsters, instead of starting some degree of curiosity out of watching films, confound them with the real events, it´s their problem. Nowadays, education is so degraded that this is the least of the problems.

Anyway, there´s lots of excellent historical movies, old and new, which would be very useful to teach the matter.

I dont think movies should always BE all that historically accurate. But I do think that they have a responsibility to be truthful in letting the audience know first off if they're not accurate.

I mean, it wouldnt have made Braveheart any less an astounding film if they would have had a disclaimor at the beginning saying "fictionalized from historical events" or soemthing like that.

For a great laugh, check out the Christian Slater movie "churchill" and watch it completely make fun of movies like this.
it's hillarious.

Pedro says, "If movies are can´t be faithful to literature, they can´t be faithful to history." Exactly! And I couldnt agree more.

The question here is, are there actually films out there that are historically accurate? There's probably none. If you watch a film that is based on any historical event, why would you believe everything that is told as fact? Shouldnt you at least have some doubts? Shouldnt you be resposible that if your bruing to learn some more you go straight to your library and do research? Or like what I said in a previous post, take it with a pinch of salt?

Certain films that are being made with a bit of history in it will have its own agenda, political or what have you, so why be sucked into it? It's only a movie, sure it may have been inspired from real events but as a viewer, what does it really want from you more than paying for your ticket and a bag of popcorn? Maybe a little enlightenment for the two hours that you are watching it, and then what? After watching, you go home to reality and worry about your own troubles, these will be the least of my cares.

Movies are fiction - even documentaries give a particular view of events, and editing can be used to distort the the relative truthfulness portrayed.

It is therefore foolish to accept movies as historical documents. I hope movie-goers don't accept the Harry Potter films as fact - so why should they expect "Pearl Harbour" or "Saving Private Ryan" to accurately depict what really happened?

I think this raises more questions about the gullibility of the audience than the ethics of filmmakers: movies are there to entertain - to tell a story - and we shouldn't expect them to educate.

"Bullet in the Head summarised that films should not be used to depict historical events and that films such as these become interpreted as fact."
... That’s not really what I meant, I am a big fan of period set movies and adjusting history to increase fun factor is something I have no real problem with at all. How ever I think its time to admit that "Just a movie", does not mean we will not be influenced, even those of us who try and give it some more thought after viewing are influenced by what we watch. People are always ready to accept films can be responsible for a positive change, just look at the praise for Crash and Brokeback Mountain, but if you say they can have the opposite effect people get scared that if it’s admitted it’s tantamount to a call for censorship (Which I am not arguing for). Now I don’t believe watching a single movie or video game can turn a normal person into a serial killer or anything like that, but movies DO affect our view on history, politics, race, cultures and religion. For many the only things they know about certain historical events and places on the map are that which they have gained from film or television. While I respect creative licence, I do believe an artist of any kind including film makers also have artistic responsibility art can be very powerful, especially the motion picture. Nobody would make propaganda films if it wasn’t. My problem is more with intentional bias or historical laziness, not with someone who is purely adjusting history in an admitted fictionalisation to make their film more enjoyable.

Let's just be happy if these idiots (meaning people who think movies are acurate) learn anything. So they think americans got the enigma code, at least the know there was an enigma code, they think braveheart painted his face and was a farmer, at least they heard of him, and if they whatch titanic, maybee they rermember it sank 1912 (and btw. @ Lee there actualy was a Jack Dawson on board, he is buried in canada).
And movies like "The Da Vinci Code" realy are way to far out there to be taken for real. yes of course the touch on real subjects, but so does "Jurrasic Park", and as far as I know, nobody thought that was real.
Pearl Harbour is in fact problematic. the wrong depiction in that movie realy distorts an important historical fact (not like who had sex on the titanic), but even then, lets just be happy the kids stil know what happend in pearl harbour at all.

The problem isn't the films, they were made to entertain us, the problem is the kids.
Hell like someone mentian even History is not accurate. History is written by winner. If Hitler had won against the British etc etc, how do you think History would of been written? Instead of "Hitlet murdered Millions of Jews" it would properly be something like "Hitler saved the German from the Jews"
I watch a film even one with "Based on true story" knowing its a film not fact. Based on true story could mean only 1 person in the movie was alive and real the rest of the people were made up.

Lets just say movies are not real and leave it at that. I seriously doubt that anyone important that saw a film would immediatly interpret it to be true. So a small kid might believe it, it doesnt matter. The worst that would happen is he might brag to his friends about his history knowledge. Eventually he would be corrected by someone.

Luke - Yeah, the Mrs pointed Jack Dawson was on board out to me. It was, according to her, a mistake on Cameron's part, he just picked a name that wasn't supposed to be on board.

Lets take a moment to think of a life without ignorent fools..
now lets start trying to make our society and school actually try and teach kids something so they don't go round in their ignorent little bubbles thinking that desperate houswives is a documentary!
I think this should be changed b4 "making films stick to historical fact"

seriously, they aren't innacurate, your just asking movies to show what you want to see. Let me explain. Okay, so you've done your history and you know that americans weren't the only ones on the beaches on June 6th 45. So then you go look at saving privatye Ryan, and because you feel so smart your expecting them to actively show that other nationalities were involved. 2 limits to your thought: nationalities were not mixed but grouped. Statistically it is very propable that americans just meet americans depending on the route they take. It's like those guys going to see mission impossible and say it's not realistic. Has it ever occured that the title designates what the movie is about: impossible? If your going to see an action movie, expect the guy to get up after 10 shots. Judge the movie on how could it depicted action. At age 6 I was doing such comments but I stopped at around 8.
My 2 cents, feel free to shoot back,


Matt, Theres a big difference between inaccurate and just plain stupid. eg. Transporter 2 note: if a car jumps between two buildings, hits a bunch of metal things and isn't dented. thats stupid - not inaccurate and yes its probably impossible, but still stupid.

Luke, believing what you are watching does not make you an idiot. How many undiscovered insect species are there? if i showed you a short movie of an insect you had never seen, do you:

a: believe me thats is a real insect(and therefore make you an idiot, because you shouldn't believe what you watch)
b: don't believe its an insect(because you shouldn't believe movies?)

ok, so thats a simplified example and i can hear everybody saying "whats this guy on about".

What i am trying to say is:
The main facts in a film MUST be accurate, i.e. the titanic was ship that hit an iceberg and not, lets say, a truck that hit a pothole. And those facts will be believed by people(and why shouldn't they).

However, when we get to the grey areas that affect entertainment and ultimately sales of tickets/dvds/etc thats when i get annoyed with poetic license et al. Sure, some of the things are impossible/unblievable and just plain made up out of thin air(and need to be to be entertaining), but lets try and stick to at least the correct nationality or size of a dinosaur or basic physical attributes.

Who creates that grey area? indeed who does.

We do thats who. thats right me, you and all the other movie goers decide what should be in films. and we do this by getting up and leaving cinemas or not watching crap in the first.

cash is the only medium that hollywood and friends use as a gauge to what they will release.

wow, this is something i thought of a lot of times.

i don't mind tiny details changed. but i always wondered what is the point of using a real person's name in a movie if you're gonna change everything that is known about that person and twist it around? take a look at 'elisabeth' - good movie, no doubt, but the historical accuracy is down the drain.

i mean,yeah, some things it's stupid to pick on - like the color of clothes, the buttons should be on the right side and the hair should be this color. but then there's things that matter like the fact that william wallace died in 1305 and edward iii was born in 1312 and even suggesting that the two are father and son is ludicrous.

then there's the tudors - them i simply don't get. out of the two sisters henry tudor had, they only kept one, mary, but gave her the name margaret (the other sister's name) and then married her to the king of portugal instead of france. i never truly understood why portugal is a better choice then france. such changes make no sense at all, not even in terms of audience/money (which i suppose justify the william wallace/edward iii thing). so why are they done?

i don't even care if people believe it's the truth or not. i simply don't understand why it's done.

First off, great post.

"I think this raises more questions about the gullibility of the audience than the ethics of filmmakers: movies are there to entertain - to tell a story - and we shouldn't expect them to educate."

Exactly. The sad thing about this is that a lot of people are quite gullible. Most of them aren't going to check the facts, and some of them might actually think the whole thing is true. Part of that is because movies can be quite powerful.

The main thing for movie makers is that they want to entertain an audience. Documentary makers have a way bigger responsibility. Whenever a movie is based on actual events, I like to check how accurate it was. I love the documentaries they add on DVDs, which (in case of a good producer) explains why they changed certain stuff in order to make the movie more interesting.

I watched Valkyrie a while ago, and was intrigued. I had heard about the attempt made on Hitler's life, but I didn't know the specifics. I was very happy to see they added a near 2 hour documentary about the history of germany from 1930-1985, focussing on the German resistance. It really gave an in depth view on how important this act of resistance was, and is, for the German people.

So the bottom line is that movies (including those based on real events) are ultimately made to entertain people and make money. And -hopefully- people get engaged to read up on the actual events, and get the right picture. For those who take a movie literally, that's too bad, but they need to wisen up themselves. After all, the more you regulate, the dumber people get.. there are way too many laws already, imo..

It's certainly a great move when studios add in documentaries like that to either correct their entertainment version of history, or to educate around the story.

However I don't think it's too bad if people take away the wrong message because pretty soon the wrong message could be seen as the right one.

I don't propose regulation, but some common sense, making these films factual doesn't mean that they won't be entertaining any more - if U571 had seen the British, as they did in history, recover the device would it have been less entertaining?

Rewriting history in film has to be carefully considered, because there are gullible people out there and the percentage is growing. Either they need to be educated more, or the films tell the true story, and still remain entertaining.


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