Filmmakers don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story

I was pleasantly surprised to find in the post, one day twenty years ago, a clipping of a published article of mine and a cheque for a certain amount. The following article got published and it’s about film and history. On retrospect, it’s not a thorough article as I could have cited some filmmakers that seem to follow historical fact closely, which would have been the exception, apparently. For my article, it’s about the right to tell a story versus the facts of history. I interviewed three people on the subject and two were producers, one a teacher of history. Here it is as it was published.

By Peter Veugelaers

If you want to see a film with accurate history, see a documentary.

That is probably the advice most filmmakers would give.

Grant Bradley, a producer from Daybreak Films in Auckland, says the point of The Patriot “was about being prepared to stand on principle, behave honourably, even when the other side doesn’t, and the desperate futility and waste of war; All pretty good things to say really.”

“I don’t really give a toss if it may not have been accurate. That wasn’t the point.”

Films such as Elizabeth, Braveheart and Seven Years in Tibet have been cited for inaccurate historical portrayals in major or minor details. Filmmakers, as Mr Bradley points out, want to entertain for a profit, tell a story to a mass market and to enjoy, experiment, and develop the art form itself.

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However, a portion of overseas historians analyse and comment on films with an historical bent, coming out with publications such as Film & History, where new releases are reviewed.

Does it matter if the historians are concerned? If the films are for public consumption, then why aren’t the public complaining?

Mark Sheehan, a Secondary School Head of Department History teacher, states that what happens in universities with academic historians are quite often apart from what the popular consciences actually are.

The discipline is specialised and a lot of historians are unable to get their work widely known or present their work in a popular format. Academics do not tend to get a lot of coverage that is needed to put a lot of historical films in context, he says.

Phil Wallbank, producer of television series Dark Knight, says: “At the end of the day there is a great judge and jury called the public and if you upset them in any way then they won’t go.

“The public will decide if you make a $100 million out of a project.”

Recent films set in the past have been a mix of the true and authentic and the manipulated.

In Gladiator, the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, and his son, Commodus, are portrayed realistically and the Roman regalia is reliable.

The correct weapons, helmets and horses were used in the battle scenes in Braveheart but William Wallace’s affair with Isabella would have been impossible. Isabella did not marry Edward until two years after Wallace’s execution so the “lovers” could not have met.

A battle scene from Braveheart. Was it historically accurate?

The first thirty minutes of Omaha Beach warfare in Saving Private Ryan was exceptionally close to the actual event, according to veterans.

So, not all historical films are being furiously head hunted.

Mr Wallbank thinks “we are being advised and controlled quite often by minority interests and groups that for some reason believe they have the right to say what’s right and what’s wrong without difference to the consumer. What people want is entertainment.”

Mr Wallbank asserts filmmakers or storyteller’s rights to “whatever we think is right”.

“In this wonderful free democracy that we have we’re able to give a variation on a theme and maybe fact; put another spin on it so to speak.

“It’s entertainment more than education. You can buy dramatisations of events that are true interpretations of that piece of history. Or you can buy something a little more entertaining that might have a little editorial license on the story and its embellished and it becomes a better yarn.”

Mr Sheehan points out “most people don’t read history books” and most of a moviegoer’s views on history tend to come from feature films.

Photo by Nicole Berro on Pexels.com

In this sense, he says, a film that portrays fictitious elements in a real historical setting or omits or changes historical fact can be problematic.

However, Mr Bradley notices that films like The Patriot often drive people back to the real history and it will raise interest in the subject.

“If the fundamental values of the film are good, and the point of the film is valid, then why are we worried about the specifics of an historical event?”

Mr Sheehan says filmmaking and history are quite different things and judging a film “solely on historical merits of what it actually gets right is not necessarily valid.

“To expect a film to be perfectly accurate in all things sort of misses the point. I think films are about storytelling. It’s the way we tell stories in the 20th and 21st century. It is the most common way we tell stories about the past.”

Mr Bradley explains the filmmaker’s job is not necessarily to be an historian, “unless that’s what they choose to be and that doesn’t often happen.

“History is not always good drama. A filmmaker usually has a different set of objectives,” he says.  

However, Mark Sheehan believes in a commitment to truth as far as is actually known.

The major flaw in Braveheart, according to Mr Sheehan, is its incompatibility with a sense of time and place. The main theme of the film is Irish and Scottish Nationalism but this is rooted in 18th century history, not the 12th century, as depicted in Braveheart. It is this capturing the flavour and essence of a period that is important for Mr Sheehan, more so than the details.

Mr Sheehan thinks in an ideal world you would have filmmakers who would have consulted with historians and make entertaining films that were historically accurate. He enthusiastically recommends French film East-West and BBC production Regeneration as excellent examples of “historically very accurate and entertaining powerful bits of drama.

“If you think of how historical films are made today, they tend, in many cases, to have a greater commitment on the whole to getting things right historically than 30 or 40 years ago. A large part, I think, is the movie going public now demand a much higher rate of authenticity in film.” 

Published 2000, Otago Daily Times, Copyright Peter Veugelaers 2000

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