Do Hollywood Historical Inaccuracies Matter? — (Yes they do.)

Words: Jo Elliott

As a History graduate, the announcement of a new “historical drama”, fills me with both delight and dread. I’d say in equal measure, but the dread usually far outweighs any delight at the idea of seeing one of my favourite periods of history brought to life. Why do I say this, you ask?

Well, because by and large, however enjoyable a historical based film or TV show may be, they usually bear little to no resemblance to the actual historical events.

For someone who studied history, like me, this is very frustrating. Usually, because filmmakers will make up events in order to add more drama. This is despite the fact that much of the history they are covering is dramatic enough without their additions!

Filmmakers take such pains to get technical information, like legal or medical issues right, so why does History matter less?

Does it matter if Hollywood gets history wrong?

People watch TV or films to be entertained. Most people aren’t going to care about the tiny minutiae that filmmakers get wrong. Obviously it’s good to get people who wouldn’t otherwise be interested in history engaged with a topic.

However it is dangerous when people take Hollywood’s version of history as historical fact. It may leave them with a very skewed, or even false version of the events portrayed. Most casual film viewers obviously do not have the same knowledge as a historian or even a History student. They probably won’t be as discerning when it comes to inaccuracies. Is it a dangerous thing that Reign’s Mary Queen of Scots has brown hair rather than red? Not really.

However a film like The Greatest Showman, whilst a brilliant musical, is pretty shoddy when it comes to the real history of P.T. Barnum. Barnum was not as the musical would have you believe, a champion of all those who were different. In his early career, he exploited an elderly black woman, Joice Heth, who he claimed to be 161 years old (she was not). He even carried out a public autopsy on her after her death for money.

The cast of The Greatest Showman

Much of his early career was built on the exploitation of non-white people, playing on racist stereotypes in order to pull in punters.

Granted, The Greatest Showman is a musical and doesn’t claim to be a historical biopic. However, viewers whose only knowledge of Barnum came from the musical would have an incredibly idealised vision of Barnum. They would be completely unaware of the more problematic aspects of his life.

This is where Hollywood historical inaccuracies can fall into dangerous territory, as they can give people false and misleading impressions of historical events and people.

The difficulty with history is that it is ever changing

Historians are constantly discovering sources which change their views on different events or people. There is never one correct view of history. Our understanding of the past is consistently evolving. This does mean there is some room for interpretation of the facts. So filmmakers do have creative freedom with the way they choose to present the facts they have.

However there is a big difference between interpreting the facts based on evidence, and flat out making stuff up. For instance, historical record is pretty certain that Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I never met in person. Yet many movies, including the recent Mary, Queen of Scots (2018), show the two meeting.

Supposedly it’s meant to increase the drama, having the Queens have a face to face confrontation. But the fact that their lives and fates were so intertwined without ever meeting is key to the events which resulted in Mary’s execution. Many historians believe that had the Queens met, the execution may never had happened. It’s one thing to change a hair or an eye colour here and there, but not a key historical event like that.

Mary and Elizabeth’s knowledge of each other came purely through their letters and their advisors (who had their own motives) which definitely coloured their perceptions of each other.

Showing the Queens meeting gives viewers with little historical knowledge, a very distorted picture of the actual relationship between the two. It does not fully convey the complexities of a relationship conducted purely through letters and third party information.

The past matters

Admittedly, I may be particularly nit-picky about these things, but the past matters. The past informs the present. Had history unfolded in a different way, then our current lives could be completely different. Even the smallest changes could have had a massive impact on how events unfolded. Hollywood film inaccuracies may just be small moments in a fictionalised version of events, but if there is one thing that studying History has taught me, it’s that the small moments matter.

Also, no matter how dramatized, historical films portray real people. No matter whether they are long dead, still alive, or still have living descendants, we owe it to these people to tell their stories as accurately as possible. We will never know exactly what things were like in the past. However we should endeavour to be as accurate as possible with what we do know. Dramatic license is all well and good, but this should never come at the expense of misrepresenting the people whose stories you are trying to tell.

Next time you watch a film

So the next time you are watching a historical film, take a moment to consider what that film is telling you. Look into the lives of the real people, don’t just take what a Hollywood film tells you as the truth. It might just be a movie, but Hollywood films giving false information about the past does matter. It allows people to receive inaccurate and potentially damaging information, without question. The stories of real people are important, and they deserve to be told right. The assumption that history needs extra drama added to be worthy of the big screen is not only wrong, it’s insulting.

History is filled with people who did incredible things, and if we are going to tell their stories, then we owe it to them to make sure that they are told properly.

Originally published at https://capechameleon.co.za on February 26, 2020.

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Jo Elliott

Jo Elliott

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