Drama vs. Facts: Historical Accuracy in War Films

Essential Question: Why do the majority of historical war films diverge so heavily from reality?

We’ve all seen the “based on a true story” tagline in Hollywood films. Lots of drama, romance, action, and thrills. According to Hollywood, it all happened for real! However, anyone who has done even basic research knows that many of these true story films are twisted beyond reality, or based on a flat out lie. In many ways, it seems like Hollywood makes up its own reality, especially when it comes to history.

Our villains are turned into heroes, defeats into victories, and our two protagonists fall in love and ride off into the sunset every time. Yet, the history books tell us the opposite. Real life doesn’t happen like in the movies. So why do films change the story so often?

Possible Explanations

The modern myth

We tend to gravitate towards traditional stories of heroes and villains. Anyone familiar with the writings of Joseph Campbell knows about his theory of the journey of the archetypal hero. Everything from ancient folklore to modern reporting uses this narrative. Essentially, westerners are weaned on the stories of brave heroes fighting the good fight against evil and rescuing the damsel in distress.

We see the same myth-making with war stories as they’re passed on to future generations. When grandpa was a young man he joined the army to go fight the evil Nazis. He returned home as a hero and now he’s part of the Greatest Generation. This is not to suggest that grandpa joined a worthless cause and that we’re over-emphasizing the need to oppose fascism and genocide, but let’s ask ourselves what grandpa really did during the war. Perhaps in reality, grandpa was wounded early on in his first battle and then immediately shipped home to spend the rest of the war in a hospital. He never even fired his weapon at the enemy before he got hit. Or maybe grandpa spent the war at a desk typing reports. He never even saw combat. But to little Jimmy, grandpa is a war hero who fought in WWII.

Have you ever played the telephone game where one person at the front of the line tells a story to the person behind them, and by the time it reaches the end of the line, the story is totally different? Similarly, memory does funny things as time goes on. Survivors’ stories can often drastically change with age and as they’re passed from person-to-person. I certainly don’t mean to discredit personal accounts, but as stories are passed down, and no effort is made to accurately document them, then the details can get shifted around. The volume of bullets gets larger and the explosions get louder. What started off as a dogfight with 3 enemy planes eventually turns into 4, and then 3-6 enemy fighters. Eventually the story takes on a life of its own and becomes a sort of myth, when in fact the reality was that it was all very routine.

Need for drama

This is related to the idea of the modern myth. As you do historical research, you’ll occasionally find that the reality is far more mundane, uninteresting, or anticlimactic. The characters or events seem flat and don’t follow the arcs that moviegoers are used to. That action-packed battle at the end, in reality, wasn’t a decisive victory. Those legal proceedings, in reality, didn’t even go to trial. That love affair, in reality, didn’t end tragically. However, people like clear character and story arcs. Similarly, directors, writers, and studio executives often feel the need to make films that appeal to a wide range of audiences in order to get the biggest returns at the box office. This is why so many films have the same character and narrative tropes/cliches that we’ve all seen before. Subsequently, these films are very conventional and “safe” because they insert drama where audiences would expect it. Effectively, all historical films are dramatizations and can only approximate the reality, but to what degree and what liberties they take with the amount of dramatization varies.

Poor or nonexistent research

The laziest reason for historical inaccuracy is simply people not doing their homework or doing very sloppy research. Their facts can also be based off of flawed assumptions and myths. All modern naval vessels are battleships. All fighter jets get within visual range to dogfight with each other. All infantry weapons can fire on full auto which negates the need to aim, and they have bottomless magazines. All Germans in WWII were Nazis, the Waffen-SS were elite military units, and dozens of war criminals escaped to South America following the war. The list goes on. Take your pick. Wild stories and gossip reinforce these misconceptions to the point where people start to accept these things as fact without digging deeper.

Time constraints

This is very straightforward. Films often need to compress events into a certain running time. All those events, in reality, took place over several months rather than days.

Values dissonance

This is something that is constantly changing and can happen when the historical values or mores presented in a film conflicts with what modern Hollywood or audiences deem appropriate. This means that societal or character values/beliefs would be offensive to modern viewers, so they’re made more sympathetic. In reality, our German protagonist was a fervent Nazi who wasn’t sympathetic toward the Jews, and in fact, was complicit in war crimes. In reality, the patriarchal attitudes at the time would never have allowed the female protagonist to do what she did in the film.

Reality is unrealistic

Sometimes the actual events were so outlandish and that one-in-a-million occurrence really happened. Yet, audiences would never believe it because Hollywood has effectively conditioned us to believe is certain tropes and conventions. For example, people carry around gold bricks like they’re nothing. Getting shot sends people flying dozens of feet backwards. Bodies pop like balloons when exposed to zero atmosphere. The list goes on and on.

Much of these Hollywood tropes are simple exaggerations for visual or audible effect. In reality, those big gold bricks are very dense and heavy. Firearms and bullets don’t defy the laws of Newtonian physics, and your body won’t pop if you’re immediately exposed to zero atmosphere (from 1 atmosphere). Yet, people expect the opposite because we see it in the movies so often.

Politics

Whatever your personal leanings are, Hollywood is very firmly in the liberal camp. Invariably it chooses, or creates, sappy stories designed to tug at our heartstrings or otherwise appeal to a very liberal sentiment. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but understand that Hollywood has a very particular political/emotional bias. Look at the Academy Awards and examine the films that have won Best Picture. Most of them are dramas, romantic-dramas, and occasionally epics. These are all genres of films that rely heavily on emotional weight.

The point is that a story will often be written so as to appeal to our emotions, even if it flies in the face of logic or accuracy. Characters and events will be changed to make them more or less sympathetic to modern viewers and to foist some emotional baggage on the audience. Our heroes are always stalwart champions of noble causes and possess no serious flaws. Whatever flaws they do have, they’ll learn their lesson over the course of the film and change for the better. Similarly, the villains get their comeuppance, in the end.

Another problem with Hollywood politics is the danger of whitewashing or misrepresenting minorities or events. In reality, that person was a virulent racist. In reality, those two people were not bitter rivals, but close friends. In reality, that character wasn’t Caucasian, but African-American. When taken to an extreme, some people interpret this misrepresentation not as artistic license on behalf of dramatic storytelling, but as political or racial whitewashing done by the Hollywood executives.

Why is Historical Accuracy Important in Films?

I once heard a quote that said, “People go to the movies to feel; not to understand.” Movies themselves are entertainment. We like the drama and thrills of action, horror, romance, etc. We understand that movies are fiction…they never really happened. The problem when you’re dealing with historical content in movies is that it somewhat negates the above quote and expects people to both feel the drama and understand the factual occurrence of the events it depicts. The trick is to portray things in a subtle fashion and not pound people over the head with a preachy, social message.

It should be noted that we’re not discussing censorship or propaganda which try to force a certain viewpoint, and as far as I know, there are no laws in the U.S. that denote what constitutes historical accuracy in films (if there were, then Hollywood might be a far more boring place with their First Amendment rights violated). More often than not, it probably boils down to what historically-based films the studio executives think will make lots of money at the box office. It’s always about the money for them, right? Furthermore, historians themselves sometimes disagree on the same event or person, so it’s up to the writer and audience to determine which version to accept.

Alex von Tunzelmann (2019) opines that learning to navigate the sea of real and fictitious information in films starts with education and the studying of history. “If we learn to think critically as individuals and as societies, we can make better judgments and decisions. We cannot only survive complexity, but embrace it,” (para. 13). This is easier said than done when school social studies curricula force students through hundreds of years of history at a breakneck speed with little time to go into depth on any one topic. Not to mention the age old problem that “history is boring” to so many students. I would know…I’m a high school history teacher. I can’t spend the whole semester going into depth on the voyages of Christopher Columbus when we need to get through the Renaissance by next month! The only classes that go into serious depth on certain topics are those in higher education. However, Tunzelmann is right in that learning to think critically and discern fact from fiction begins with education.

Movies can vary in historical accuracy and they certainly can be entertaining, but generally speaking, they don’t present a very well-rounded or deep view of history. It’s much quicker and more convenient to watch a 90-minute film than to take a few weeks to read a 500-page book. The danger here is deriving your view of history solely from an entertainment medium like movies or video games. Historians certainly do not use those things as sources in their writing. It may seem silly to an adult, but I see it a fair amount in teenagers. “I saw ____ movie and played ____ video game, so I can tell you all about ____ topic.” Another variation is, “God, that [history] movie was so boring,” so they come to conclusion that the associated history is also boring. This is not meant as a blanket evaluation of all teenagers, but when a student is more concerned with being entertained (usually by their phone) then they tend to take a dim view of the historical details and the necessary work required to get a comprehensive understanding of them. Thus, I frequently have to remind students to consult more reputable sources. Whether they do or not is up to them.

Others like Greg Jenner believe that historical films, accurate or not, serve to encourage public fascination with historical topics, provided that historians can respond appropriately (as cited in Tunzelmann, 2019, para. 14). Jenner does have a point. Any person with half a brain in their skull knows that entertainment products are not to be taken as fact, but they can expose people to new and interesting ideas. Yet, one of the dangers of inaccurate representations is the risk of offending certain people. For example, the museum of Auschwitz took issue with a scene in the Amazon TV series Hunters that depicted a deadly game of human chess occurring at the infamous Nazi concentration camp. They said that such scenes promote “dangerous foolishness and caricature,” and encourage Holocaust deniers in addition to being disrespectful of the camp’s some 1.1 million victims (as cited in Scislowska, 2020, para. 2). In another example, Canadian Senator Romeo Dallaire, the former commander of the UN mission in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide had this to say about the film Hotel Rwanda:

I think the only value of ‘Hotel Rwanda’ is the fact that it keeps the Rwandan genocide alive, but as far as content, it’s Hollywood. When people use the term Hollywood in a pejorative way, (it’s because) they produce junk like that.

(as cited in Ostroff, 2011, para. 6).

It has further been noted that:

While the 2004 film painted [Paul] Rusesabagina as the savior of more than 1,200 people who escaped certain death at the UN-protected Hôtel des Mille Collines, Rwandan groups have since accused him of revisionist history, genocide denial and profiteering off the refugees he sheltered.

(as cited in Ostroff, 2011, para. 7).

So there’s certainly a line somewhere between minor inaccuracies and misrepresenting history at the expense of tact. If you’re going to be tackling a historical subject such as a traumatic event (e.g. a genocide), then there’s definitely no need to make something up or otherwise “revise history” for the sake of drama because there are plenty of dramatic (and horrific) real-life stories out there already.

So this raises the questions of, if movies are entertainment products meant to be consumed and felt on an emotional level, then why is it important for historical films to be accurate to the facts? Should we sacrifice historical accuracy for the sake of drama/artistic license, or should we maintain historical accuracy at the expense of drama?

If we’re going on the assumption that we watch “based on a true story” films with the intention of both feeling the drama and understanding the events, then I would argue that it is important for movies to make a solid effort to represent the facts with reasonable accuracy. History is a story based on facts. Even history books can be arduous to slog through. Poorly written ones come off as preachy and pedantic, as well. However, when told well, the factual evidence can be extremely dramatic. There’s plenty of fiction out there already and historical fiction can be just as entertaining without compromising accuracy.

Much of this goes back to my opinions expressed in my post on Don’t Cheapen History. It’s important that we honor the memory of both people and events. Both good and bad. History is filled with heroes, villains, and everything in between. Excessive pandering to a particular bias can run the risk of looking like propaganda. In contrast, a well-told, accurate story can portray different perspectives of the same people/events and let audiences come to their own conclusions.

Arguably, the bottom line is that it starts with educating yourself and not blindly accepting fictional representations as fact. Movies may not need to be historically accurate, but people do need to understand how to think critically and distinguish genuine sources from entertainment. If you only care about being entertained, then don’t draw your historical knowledge solely from films. If you want to be knowledgeable on a subject, then you’ve got to put in the effort to learn it properly and from reputable sources.

What we don’t want is for the entertainment value to supersede the historical value of a work based on history. In doing so, you revise history and sacrifice facts for political/social agendas simply because it’s convenient or “safe.” The reality is that history is replete with people who have just as many virtues as they have vices, and you can’t just retreat into your “safe space” to rewrite the narrative every time you encounter something that offends you. We should take the time to learn about history…warts and all.

Learned About it in School

Believe it or not, I once taught a class focused on historical depictions in film. Now sorry to burst your bubble, but the students didn’t just sit around and watch movies all class. I only showed a small number of films and the rest of the class was research oriented. So I got to thinking, what if we extended this premise to go deeper into history? This will have to be an elective course, but we’ll call this hypothetical class “Fact or Fiction: Military History Through Film”.

Let’s suppose that we pick some historical battles that are frequently depicted on film. The students spend some time researching the actual engagement(s), and then watch both accurate and inaccurate films depicting those battles. After they watch the films, then they need to write a compare and contrast essay analyzing the films and how accurate/inaccurate they are.

For example: the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor

  1. Research the actual attack. Timetable of events, commanders, units, vehicles, etc. Create a 20-30 slide presentation outlining your learning.
  2. Watch the films Pearl Harbor (2001) and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970).
  3. Write a 5-10 page essay comparing and contrasting the depictions on film. Focus on the timetable of events, depictions of personnel and vehicles, targets destroyed, and outcomes of the operation.

Just imagine how well the students will be able to synthesize their learning of real history with the depictions on film. Do you think they’ll be able to retain the actual information better, or do you think they’ll still find history boring?

Criteria – What Makes a Film “Historically Accurate”?

There are many factors that contribute to historical accuracy in films. A film can be accurate in one area, but completely fictitious in another. It’s unfair to expect 100% accuracy in a historical film. Even documentaries don’t get things 100% right. So let’s assume some reasonable degree of leeway as we break down some possible criteria for accuracy in war films.

  • Accurate depictions of the historical events (battles, tactics, strategy, political discourse, etc.). Did the events depicted actually occur or were they made up for dramatic effect? The Germans did not bomb Pearl Harbor!
  • Reasonably accurate depictions of historical people (personality, actions, physical resemblance, etc.). Obviously difficult if the person is long dead, but is the depiction of them reasonable to what we do know about them? An African-American Woodrow Wilson who raps and beat boxes would look awfully strange.
  • Accurate representations of hardware, either genuine, mock-ups, or CGI (weapons, vehicles, uniforms, etc.). When it comes to war movies, people usually have the sharpest eye for this. However, it’s understandable that some hardware simply doesn’t exist anymore, is prohibited to civilians, is monetarily impractical to acquire, or is extremely rare. Yet efforts put towards making things accurate goes a long ways towards audience immersion. A modern Challenger 2 main battle tank rolling around the Somme in WWI would really stand out.
  • Accurate depictions of settings, either actual locations, stand-ins, or CGI (geography, climate, time of day, weather, etc.). If you’re going to film at the actual pyramids of Giza then you better shoot only facing south with the desert in the background. Otherwise, from any other direction, you’d have to digitally remove all those modern buildings surrounding them.

What it all amounts to is how much effort the filmmakers put into creating a faithful and respectful tribute to the events and the people. If the tone of the film is serious, then the hard work, research, and attention to detail pays off. Otherwise, the film better be clearly fictional or fantastical in its premise.

With the case of the above criteria, I’ll consider a war film to be accurate/inaccurate if it attempts to portray historical events and people. I’m not including historical fiction. A film could fail the criteria if it depicts fictional events amidst a broader historical context or if it depicts historical events, but with fictional characters.

It’s also worth noting that these criteria exist on a sliding scale and aren’t absolute. As mentioned, we can’t expect 100% accuracy, so a handful of inaccuracies in any area do not automatically invalidate a film. It’s when a film blatantly distorts the timeline or historical facts/figures that it begins to raise eyebrows. If it no longer resembles the actual history, then it’s probably fair to say that it’s no longer about the history, but rather about a fiction.

Examples of Historically Inaccurate War Films

Let’s look at some historically accurate/inaccurate war films.

Note: We’re only looking at war films here. This is not meant as an extensive list and there are many other historically accurate/inaccurate films out there.

Pearl Harbor (2001)

Dear God, where to start with this travesty! Gordon Prange turns over in his grave every time they show this turd on TV. The technical foul-ups are too many to count. Obvious modern stand-ins for the ships, a skewed and jingoistic portrayal of history, and cardboard characters. The only accurate thing about the film is Kate Beckinsale pulling off a pretty good American accent.

Enemy at the Gates (2001)

I’m not an expert on the Battle of Stalingrad or the Eastern Front, but the whole story of a sniper duel is obviously contrived and more or less based on Soviet propaganda. Yes, Vasily Zaitsev was a real Soviet sniper, but the existence of a Major Erwin König is dubious at best, despite Zaitsev’s claims.

Jarhead (2005)

I’ve never fought in a war, but I’ve heard that the only thing accurate about this film (and the book it’s based off of) is that it captures the long periods of boredom in war. Based off of Anthony Swofford’s own (supposed) experiences as a U.S. Marine Scout Sniper during the Gulf War, the film depicts his unit as a bunch of rowdy misfits and undisciplined yahoos. It seems that every other incident in the film (more so in the book) is either ratcheted up to 11 or based on the many urban myths in the military. Naturally, Swofford was at the center of all of these events, and don’t forget that he was the baddest Mother F’er of them all! To many Marines, Jarhead comes off as a long and fictitious tirade from a whiny former Marine who’s upset that the Marine Corps didn’t given him everything shown in the recruiting commercials. So, he made up a bunch of fabrications. All in all, it’s a fictitious and silly portrayal that has almost no bearing on the reality on what Marine Corps Scout Snipers really do and who they really are.

Braveheart (1995)

This movie can’t even get its dates correct, much less anything else about the historical period, characters, or battles. It just might take the cake for one of the most historically inaccurate films ever! In fact, the only thing accurate about this film is that it’s based off of fables and tales surrounding the historical William Wallace. Never mind the actual history. If anything, the viewer might get an idea that the Scottish fought a war for independence against the English in the 13th century and there was a man named William Wallace, but that’s about it.

The Patriot (2000)

Director Roland Emmerich took a shot at American history and missed widely. While set during the American Revolutionary War, this film goes to great lengths to portray the British as incredibly unsympathetic and downright evil in some cases. Several of the main characters are composites of historical figures and the final battle in the film is also a mix of the historical battles of Cowpens and Guilford Court House. You could pretty much classify this film as historical fiction.

300 (2006)

Let’s see…this film is based on a Frank Miller comic book series that portrays the Battle of Thermopylae, but all the characters (particularly the Persians) appear to have come out of some mythological fantasy realm. At the time, Frank Miller comic book adaptations were in vogue and Hollywood was going for that film noir look that made Sin City memorable. At least you can enjoy watching Gerard Butler scream, “THIS IS SPARTA!!!” at the screen.

Examples of Historically Accurate War Films

Das Boot (1981)

Based on Lothar-Gunther Buchheim’s novel (and own experiences) aboard the German U-boat U-96, this film (and the book) could technically be considered semi-autobiographical. While there are several differences from the actual history of the real U-96 and the characters are given fictional names, this film makes the “accurate” list for being a technical masterpiece. It’s pretty much the most accurate submarine film out there…the gold standard of any submarine film, modern or otherwise! The film was shot in sequence to capture the changes in hair growth and pale skin of the actors. Numerous models were used for the exterior shots, and the interior sets were pretty much a 1-to-1 recreation of an actual Type VIIC U-boat. As a result, the film captures the miserable conditions, claustrophobia, and terror aboard these iron coffins during the Battle of the Atlantic.

Funny enough, Buchheim denounced the film as a cheap action flick that lacks the anti-war message of his novel. However, audiences disagree and say that this is one of the most realistic depictions of the ugliness of WWII submarine warfare out there. You’ll definitely be glad you weren’t serving aboard a U-boat after seeing this movie! There are several versions of this film. I’d recommend at least seeing the Director’s Cut which clocks in at ~3.5 hours long. The Original Uncut version (from the TV miniseries) adds another 90 minutes.

We Were Soldiers (2002)

Say what you want about Mel Gibson and his weird, racist rants, but We Were Soldiers mostly gets it right…about 75% right. The film portrays the Battle of Ia Drang in November of 1965 in the early days of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. In particular, it shows the action at LZ X-Ray which pitted the U.S. Army Air Cav’s 1st battalion/7th Cavalry under (then) LTC Hal Moore against some 4,000 North Vietnamese Army troops. The late Hal Moore consulted on the film and has said in interviews that the film is “mostly” accurate. The final heroic bayonet charge up the mountain didn’t occur and the film completely omits the second half of the Battle of Ia Drang at the nearby LZ Albany where LTC McDade’s 2nd battalion/7th Cavalry got mauled in an ambush. Obviously this was done for reasons of length and to keep the character focus on Hal Moore.

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Mel Gibson directed this one. The story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who served as an Army medic in WWII and received the Medal of Honor for his heroism during the Battle of Okinawa. While a bit on the preachy side, and giving Doss almost Jesus-like qualities, the film is a fairly accurate portrayal of his experiences on Okinawa at the Maeda escarpment AKA Hacksaw Ridge.

Midway (2019)

I’ve already written a detailed review of this film. In short, I was surprised that director Roland Emmerich made an accurate movie detailing the first 6 months of the Pacific War, and of course, the Battle of Midway in June of 1942. Sadly, this was not a big hit at the box office and definitely appealed more to naval historians. Given that Hollywood largely focuses on the European Theater, and at a time when WWII is practically turning into myth, this film is a Godsend for historians who study the Pacific Theater.

Gettysburg (1993)

This massive 4.5 hour epic was partially filmed on the actual Gettysburg battleground and used many Civil War reenactors as extras, which explains why so much of the clothing and equipment is accurate. While it’s not 100% accurate to history, the production used several Civil War historical advisors to ensure authenticity. The prequel Gods and Generals was released in 2003, although it flopped critically and at the box office.

Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)

If you’re not a masochist, then forego watching Pearl Harbor (2001) and instead watch this! A joint American and Japanese production, this film is based off of Gordon Prange’s research into the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and portrays both the American and Japanese perspectives with fairness. As a result, the film is extremely accurate and made extensive use of models and special effects that still look decent to this day. Yup, 30 years before Michael Bay ruined it, there was already a far superior (and accurate) movie about the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Downfall (2004) AKA Der Untergang

While famous for the Hitler rant Youtube parodies, Downfall accurately portrays Adolf Hitler’s final days in his bunker during WWII. Although somewhat controversial for its more humanistic portrayal of Hitler, the film doesn’t touch much on what’s going on outside of Berlin or on the Holocaust. Personally, I would argue that while Hitler was basically the personification of evil, it’s important to remember that he was still human. I don’t mean to imply that he was in any way deserving of our sympathy, but I appreciated the more human portrayal of him (expertly done by actor Bruno Ganz).

Schindler’s List (1993)

Not much needs to be said about this Steven Spielberg film. While it has its supporters and detractors in the Jewish community, and no doubt there are a number of inaccuracies, it still stands as a horrific portrayal of the Holocaust and the valiant efforts of Oskar Schindler. When people think about Holocaust films, they tend to think of this film.

Why Didn’t I Include _____?

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Probably the foremost example of the “gritty and realistic war film.” In my opinion, Saving Private Ryan kicked off a whole slew of WWII films that followed its aesthetic example of realistic and brutal depictions of warfare. Plot wise, it’s very loosely based around the story of the Niland brothers, but with fictional characters. The battle scenes are visceral and the hardware and costumes are a visual treat. However, it’s really just historical fiction.

U-571 (2000)

Well…the soundtrack is good, and I do enjoy the themes about the burden of command, but that’s about it. This film distorts history a great deal, is heavily biased towards the Americans, and the British were not terribly pleased with it either. Tony Blair called the film, “an affront to British sailors.” However, it’s not really based on any single historical submarine espionage mission. Again, historical fiction.

The Last Samurai (2003)

Regardless of your feelings on Tom Cruise, his couch jumping Scientology cultism, and the white savior trope, I don’t consider The Last Samurai to be a recreation of historical events. It’s really more of a historical fiction piece set against an extremely romanticized depiction of Japan during the Meiji Restoration. It’s an idealized and heavily truncated depiction of the Boshin Civil War and the Satsuma Rebellion. Cruise’s character of Algren is based on French Captain Jules Brunet, and Watanabe’s character of Katsumoto is an obvious fictionalization of Saigo Takamori.

To be honest, I really enjoy the film despite its overly-romantic view of the samurai and Meiji era Japan. The cinematography and music are excellent. I personally opine that Cruise’s character, Algren, is not the last samurai of the story, but rather, Watanabe’s Katsumoto is. We last see Algren appear before the emperor wearing his U.S. Army uniform and then return to the village in western clothes.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

This film nearly made my list of accurate war films. The overall historical backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars is correct and there was an actual HMS Surprise, but the events and characters of the Aubrey-Maturin series from Patrick O’Brian are fictional. It’s a great throwback to classic sea adventure films and has incredible attention to detail. The more I learn about the production of this film, the more I appreciate the hard work then went into making it. An excellent example of accurate historical fiction. I’ve yet to read any of the books, but from what I’ve heard, they’re so accurate in terms of both technical detail and vernacular that there are entire supplemental books which have been published just to explain the jargon and historical context that the series exists in.

Dunkirk (2017)

While historically accurate in many respects, the characters are all fictional or composites. Less of a history lesson and more of an exercise in film making. Director Christopher Nolan set out to make a narrative based on the audience experiencing of an event from 3 different perspectives with emphasis on visuals, sounds, and music.

When is it Acceptable to Diverge from Historical Reality?

In spite of my ranting, I don’t feel that deviating from fact is always wrong. Many ancient myths and legends have some basis in fact, but embellish their stories to make a point. My problem lies mostly with marketing a fictionalization as hard fact. So when is it acceptable to alter the historical record when making a piece of entertainment?

Historical fiction

Creating a fictional story and characters set against a historical backdrop is nothing new. In fact, when the writer has done their research, then the work can be very entertaining without running the risk of condemning the memory of actual people and/or events. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World did this right. Dunkirk was good, too.

Alternative timelines, science fiction, or fantasy

Basing a story off of hypothetical scenarios, science fiction, or fantasy is obviously done for entertainment value. Of course, the Axis powers didn’t win WWII and take over the world as shown in The Man in the High Castle. No, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier didn’t get mysteriously transported back in time to just before the attack on Pearl Harbor as we see in The Final Countdown. But, they sure make for entertaining premises.

Condensing a timeline

To streamline extremely complex narratives is also understandable. That five hour boardroom meeting, while interesting to the historian, is not an essential detail for the overall narrative. The details can be trimmed down provided that the audience knows the historical outcome.

Parody

They say that parody is the highest form of flattery. A work done for comedic effect and not meant to be taken seriously is understandable. However, the creators must tread carefully to avoid appearing as insensitive.

As a meta-example, the movie Galaxy Quest hilariously depicts the premise of broadcasts of a Star Trek-esque TV show being interpreted by aliens as real “historical documents” of the crew of a starship.

Once Upon a Time…

If a film maker is going to be taking extensive artistic license with the material, then instead of “based on a true story” they should be using “inspired by real events and people.” The semantics are slightly different. Inspiration implies a more fictional interpretation. At the end of the day, Hollywood is Hollywood. Film makers will forever be creating their own interpretations of reality and moviegoers love the classic film tropes. Sure, films are silly in their depiction of reality, but they’re meant to entertain us. That being said, if you’re going to be basing a serious film off of history, then there’s only so many good reasons for portraying a wholly different reality.

We shouldn’t be taking historically based/inspired films as a source of genuine knowledge, but they can serve to peak our curiosity. However, don’t fall for the easy (and intellectually lazy) path of letting sensationalism dictate your understanding of history. Put some leg work in, do the research, let the history tell the story, and let the facts serve as the real drama.

References

Ostroff, J. (2011, December 29). Romeo Dallaire: Senator Slams ‘Hotel Rwanda’ Film As Revisionist ‘Junk’. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/12/29/romeo-dallaire-hotel-rwanda_n_1174607.html.

Scislowska, M. (2020, February 23). Auschwitz Museum upset at scene in Amazon series ‘Hunters’. Retrieved from https://apnews.com/6fe4bdab3c11363ca1432a59492bb19e.

Tunzelmann, A.V. (2019, February 1). Rewriting the past: do historical movies have to be accurate? Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/feb/01/rewriting-the-past-do-historical-movies-have-to-be-accurate.

2 comments

  1. Excellent analysis, Tim! Hollywood is constrained by the movie format and by being Hollywood, with all the bias which goes along with that. Look at what HBO did with Band of Brothers and The Pacific.

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