I’m in one of those moods ever since I saw Wonder Woman last week and did two posts on it, so we might as well talk about historicity in films again while I’m on a role.
When it comes to film making (and art in general), historical accuracy is often fighting an uphill battle against the workings of the narrative. I’m actually quite glad that I have degrees in both History and English as historical films often fight an inner battle over my enjoyment of the craft and the implications of sacrificing truth on the alter of the three-act structure.
I admit that I have muddled the terms in the past, especially when talking to people without getting my thoughts sorted at first, but historical accuracy and historical authenticity are really two different things that apply in different situations. Getting them right might help both critics looking at these films and general audiences in what to look for in a film. Pretentious to think this will have any influence on anything, sure, but self-deprecation aside:
Historical accuracy is a term that I prefer to use, when I remember to order my thoughts first of course, on films that are directly based on a true story or depict historical events. In a film that generally means that the story is presented as it happened, that the people behave correctly, and so on. Something that is very much fact based and can be proven by historical records. If your movie (or any form of media in that regard) gets this wrong, you immediately fail because you are perpetuating lies or spreading them. Portraying “the truth” is a tricky business as well, as there really is no such thing as a singular truth, only different narratives of which a majority of people agree in their interpretation and framing of. In regards to how far you can bend the truth to service the bigger picture and narrative cohesion in service of, I’m more forgiving of this than others, I often find (shocking, I know) because I believe this applies to the big picture much more than the small one. Tora! Tora! Tora! is a good example of a film so accurate to history that it becomes a slog to sit through for a casual audience. It’s a great piece of art, but I can see where it may overreach for a general audience. Of course, in the case of the small picture this can often lead to a snowballing effect where the historicity suffers a death of a thousand cuts. Best is to let reality speak for itself and make minimal changes. Depending on the story you wish to tell, I will often prefer to fictionalize the story as is. This perfectly leads into:
Historical authenticity is something that will go hand-in-hand with historical accuracy when you are portraying the actual history on film and are trying to be as faithful to the truth as you can. When working with a fictionalized story, it is of the utmost importance to at least get the framing right. This is something that makes, for instance, The Last Samurai very interesting to look at. Based on real events, it does fail to portray the actual history, but at the same time manages to immerse you in the world and the end of an era that the samurai represent when the last of them die out. This is not accurate to actual history, but will at least convey the feelings and values of the era. Had the film fictionalized more events and tightened its focus a bit more, I believe there would be less to criticize. Authenticity can range from portraying the values of the era, to general politics and events happening in the background which inform the actual events. It’s what differentiates history from historical fiction.
My favorite example of historical fiction happens to be Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series. Sharpe is, obviously, not a real person, but he is kind of the Forrest Gump of the Napoleonic era crossed with a healthy dose of James Bond. Very much a man of his time with the values and values dissonance that is associated with. Another example is the Master and Commander series or the Hornblower series. Using fictional characters inspired by real events, one can have their cake and eat it too, getting a more narrative friendly story to work with, while still immersing their audience in the world with little to no changes necessary.
Two other great examples of recent years that also fall in the realm of historical authenticity are the new Wolfenstein series of video games and The Man In The High Castle adaptation airing on Amazon Prime Video. Both show alternate history scenarios where the Nazis and Japanese Empire won WW2 and while both are ridiculous in their own extent, from the ability to invade and conquer the continental United States to the existence of Nazi moon bases and giant death robots, they use their scifi settings in combination with the authenticity of oppression and horros committed by the Axis powers during the war and how horrifying a victory would have been. While it doesn’t help de-mystifying the Nazis, it does reaffirm the horrors of the regimes in times when Holocaust denial and the rise of a new version of fascism are very much prominent in our present.
In the end, I am very much okay with both approaches. My problems lies with the media presentations of those that half-ass either approach. Mass media like television and film have a responsibility to the truth in these cases by being the primary and most wide-spread forms of art and entertainment that we consume. We’ve seen this in the last few years in regards to certain political figures and movements like Trump, Le Pen, and Brexit, where the truth was buried under layers and layers of lies. Our history matters, especially because it can teach us some valuable lessons to deal with our present. And right now, I think we need to be aware, and vigilant, of that more than ever.