What constitutes a historical inaccuracy in films?

Discussion in 'Movies' started by David Baranyi, Sep 13, 2003.

  1. David Baranyi

    David Baranyi Stunt Coordinator

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    After reflecting about "The Passion" thread and the upcoming film, "Luther," I had been thinking about historical accuracy and films. Here is what I am thinking:

    We understand that historical movies are based on actual historical events, so of course there will be liberties taken. At the ending credits, there is always a disclaimer that states that. However, when do we consider something a "factual error"?

    An example:

    a) In "The Untouchables," government agent Elliot Ness is depicted as a man with a wife and children. The real life Ness did not marry until the 1940s. The idea that Ness was married with children in the 1920s would be considered a factual error, but since "The Untouchables" is a film loosely based on actual events and persons, it is not.

    If a film is "loosely based" on actual events, then any instances of historical factual errors do not exist? Does having the disclaimer at the end of the film excuse a historical film of its historical inaccuracies?

    Any thoughts on the issue?
     
  2. MarkHastings

    MarkHastings Executive Producer

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    In Titanic, Jack mentions Lake Wissota that didn't exist at the time the ship sank.
     
  3. Ricardo C

    Ricardo C Producer

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    I'm lenient when it comes to films that portray events of which no reliable records remain. For example, I can accept the fictional constructs in Braveheart because so little is known about the real William Wallace. I can forgive the liberties Mel Gibson is taking with The Passion, since even the four gospels don't coincide on all the details. But something that really gets my goat is when films about recent history still feel the need to alter historical events for which we DO have visual (photographic or filmic) evidence, as well as first-hand accounts from witnesses, or from the players themselves.
     
  4. david stark

    david stark Second Unit

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    I take all films as works of fiction. Films that are based around historical events usually pick an event and then come up with a total work of fiction around it. I love some films (such as the untouchables) that are based on historical events, but I don't think that for one moment there is a grain of fact in any of it. If you watch a film like that (or Braveheart, U-571, Saving private ryan, ...) looking for historical accuracies you will spend the entire film hating it for not being accurate.

    I go to the cinema in general to watch works of fiction and thats how I treat them no matter what they claim to be. Occasionally you will get documentaries at the cinema (bowling for columbine), but even those you have to take into account the heavy bias of the director/producer.

    I think the disclaimer at the end is to try and stop people from sueing the film makers in case a real person is portrayed in a bad light (didn't the family of an officer from the Titanic sue the makers of Titanic?). If it goes to court they can just say look it's a work of fiction.
     
  5. andrew markworthy

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    Interesting question.

    I think that there are some fictions that are excusable:

    (a) where for the sake of plotting altering relatively minor details will make a more coherent story but where the main results are unchanged. E.g. in Apollo 13 having one flight director throughout (in fact, there were three who took turns)

    (b) where something historically anachronistic is used because the contemporary motivation or behaviour would be utterly lost on a modern audience, but which conveys the same basic message. E.g. practically anything concerning sexual body language or sex-related conversation.

    (c) trivial anachronisms in the setting and dialogue that would take too long to explain to a contemporary audience and have no effect on the plot. E.g. using 'hello' as a greeting pre-1850; a mediaeval dining scene in which people are eating using forks, etc.

    Where I think anachronisms are inexcusable:

    (a) where there is an unfair appropriation of glory. E.g. Objective Burma and U-571 are ones that a lot of Brits find objectionable.

    (b) where there is a major twisting of facts to suit the principal plot outcomes, because it makes a more convenient tale. I guess what counts as 'major' will differ between individual people. My pet peeve is Chariots of Fire, that grossly simplifies several key scenes and motives. The movie is interesting, but it ain't what happened. Likewise (and sorry, Ricardo!) Braveheart.

    (c) Things like costumes where you may as well get it right since it can have no effect on the comprehension of people who don't know but a major effect on those who do. E.g. Jane Austen dramatisations in Victorian dress, mediaeval epics with the women in 18th century ballgowns, etc.
     
  6. John Watson

    John Watson Screenwriter

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    Historical inaccuracy. Pretty much anything not closely based on documentary evidence (and not just the evidence not already known to be forged) is "fictional". I suspect a good number of "history" books are poorly researched or deliberately biased. Interpretation of the evidence is just as fraught with fancy.

    Memories and knowledge are very frail versions of reality. Most people can't tell you what they had for breakfast, but they'll tell you that in a meeting 3 months ago so and so said exactly something. Individual's versions of reality often seem to coincide with furthering their material well being, or covering their personal asses. That's why lawyers have to challenge people so hard in courts, where the facts may be so important in removing reasonable doubt, and reaching some crude approximation of justice.

    The old observation is that history is written by the victors. As for movies (or any communication) where earlier times are recast to conform to current "understanding", and respect the capacity of contemporary audiences, and there is not a hint of realization that earlier people could have seen things differently, I get depressed. Demi Moore movies about witch trials come to mind.

    As for Hollywood cheerleading, and misappropriating glory, or shaping a world where it is conceived as normal and desirable to drive massive SUVs, yech!

    Guess I'm an anachronism [​IMG]
     
  7. Runar_R

    Runar_R Second Unit

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    The one thing that bothers me about some movies "based on" historical facts, is one of the points andrew points out. That is unfair appropriation of glory. U-571, as mentioned by others, really bugged me even though to be fair it did not really claim to be a movie "based on" historical facts. Here we have a hugely interesting real story about how the allies got their hands on the enigma-machine. A very important part of the history of how WWII was won. And U-571 mixes all these important real-life stories together to make an mindless action-movie. To me that cheapens the memory of what was done. And I think it could have been fairly easily avoided. Instead of them capturing the enigma-machine, create some parallell type of machine (the "eagleclaw" or something) and have the fictional characters fight and drown bravely over that instead.
     
  8. Steve_Ch

    Steve_Ch Supporting Actor

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    I did not see the movie myself (non do I intend to), but didn't Oliver Stone's JFK had a lot of people up in arms when it was released?
     
  9. Dan Rudolph

    Dan Rudolph Producer

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    Change that to Oliver Stone's ______ and you have the idea.
     
  10. Chris

    Chris Lead Actor

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    Well, the reason why "JFK" had a lot of people up in the air is because it did, literally, change the events. By reframing the way in which the carravan was moving, Stone provided a different look at the event, for sure, but it was a complete fiction.. Stone also fictionalized trial events, changed court happenings, compressed time, altered settings and locations..

    Basically, he turned it into a great "What-If" "Outer Limits" episode..
     
  11. Dave Hahn

    Dave Hahn Second Unit

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    Real Name:
    Dave Hahn
    I have to agree with David Stark, films that are not documentaries are works of fiction. A film in the genre we're discussing is known as a "period piece," or, and here it is, "historical fiction."

    I'm afraid I'll have to disagree with Andrew Markworthy on two of his points. His first; "where there is an unfair appropriation of glory," would disqualify some of the best films ever made. One that comes instantly to mind is Lawrence of Arabia. In the Special Features section of the Special Edition DVD director Steven Speilburg goes into this at some depth. I believe he said something like, "I don't think a film with so many historical inaccuracies would make it to the screen today." Indeed, there are many, many historical inaccuracies regarding T.E. Lawrence, the Arab peoples, and the British and Turkish soldiers, officers, and armies at large. Yet this film is beloved by most if not all film enthusiasts.

    Not to pick on Sir David, but The Bridge on the River Kwai disgracefully whitewashes the deprivation and horrors practised by the Japanese on the POW's and civilian prisoners while building the railroad to Burma.

    I love both Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai far too much to allow these issues to interfere with my viewing pleasure.

    Likewise, I always find myself enthralled with John Boorman's Excalibur, even though I'm aware that the sixteenth century knights prance about in medieval dress armor. Thus I must agrue against Andrew's second point, "Things like costumes where you may as well get it right since it can have no effect on the comprehension of people who don't know but a major effect on those who do."

    I think this all boils down to the director's use of "theatrical license." If the director is well liked or respected, (Sir David Lean), or if the film is well received, (as both of his aforementioned films were), then any historial inaccuracies are forgiven, the director is granted his "theatrical license." However, if the director is not liked or respected, (Roland Emmerich), or if a film is not well recieved by a particular audience, (The Patriot in Great Britain), then the director is not granted said license.

    I believe that it's all artistic license. Sir David used it in Lawrence of Arabia and Roland Emmerich used it in The Patriot. In both films the directors knowingly altered known facts, or invented new ones, all in favor of improving the telling of their story. Both films contain historical errors. You can not fault one film for having them and ignore them in another. That would be hypocritical.

    The difference, the real question is how well they used thier historical liscense. The Patriot contained many historical inaccuracies. Lawrence of Arabia contained historical inaccuraces. The difference is in the craft of the director.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that you can't go around denouncing U-571 because it contains historical inaccuracies without also denouncing Lawrence of Arabia and just about every other period piece ever made. What you can do is to say is that in one case the director was very talented while in the other, the director sucked. [​IMG]
     
  12. Seth--L

    Seth--L Screenwriter

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    In general, any film that deals with "historical events" should be viewed with a great deal of skepticism when it comes to what they have to say about history.

    Amadeus is another film that's pretty much pure fiction.
     
  13. Dome Vongvises

    Dome Vongvises Lead Actor

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    For all of its dramatic liberties (eg. British Officers ordering the execution of captured soldiers), The Patriot is fairly accurate. A lot of people [​IMG] during a lot of the sequences, particularly the "rolling" cannonball sequence. A lot of people also don't realize that cannonballs didn't explode back then either. Artillery fire mainly consisted of firing a ball that would bounce and shred through ranks of infantry.

    But when you consider the director/producer combo at the helm, I'm not surprised at the lack of credibility.
     
  14. Dan Rudolph

    Dan Rudolph Producer

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    Everything in Amadeus that's verifiable is true (except for Mozart actually being left-handed). The things that aren't verifiable weren't made up for the movie. Most of them coem from rumors around Mozart's time. SO it's pretty close.
     
  15. Chris

    Chris Lead Actor

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    Some films truly do make a serious effort.. but obviously, they take dramatic liberty.

    But there are a few films that I've thought of as closer to reality then others.

    Just remember to never take whatever you see in film as fact.. if it literally isn't a documentary (and even then, in some cases, even if it is) it isn't necessarily so..
     
  16. Daniel J.S.

    Daniel J.S. Stunt Coordinator

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    Uh, no. As someone who has studied music history, I assure you that most of the movie was complete fantasy. There is no historical evidence to suggest that there was a rivalry between Salieri and Mozart to the degree that we saw in the film (he was hostile to Mozart however). The implication that he killed Mozart is a very old story with no basis in fact. The film claims that Salieri commissioned the Requiem while in disguise, but it's well known by now that it was commissioned by a servant of Count Walsegg, who hoped to pass off the piece as his own at his wife's funeral. Several times we see Mozart and Salieri standing in front of an orchestra conducting. This was not done until the 19th Century. If Mozart were going to lead a performance, he would have done it from the piano or as the principal violinist. The film will also have you believe that Salieri was a hack composer. Ask any music scholar and they will tell you that he was a very fine composer. Shaffer turned Salieri into a mediocrity to fit the themes for the play. In a nutshell, this film takes anecdotes from Mozart's life and mingles them with a completely made up story.

    EDIT
    There were cabals in Vienna that resented Mozart and sought to undermine him. Whether Salieri was part of them is debatable. I take that whole aspect of the story to be pure speculation.
     
  17. Dan Rudolph

    Dan Rudolph Producer

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    It may be completely made up, but was largely made up by gossip-mongers quite a logn time ago with the filmmakers filling in the gaps. SO we have a movie based on rumor and speculation rather than actual history, but that's not the same as complete fantasy.
     
  18. Seth--L

    Seth--L Screenwriter

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    Just to add onto some of the facts that Daniel J.S cleared up about "Amadeus":

    Mozart was not always a few dollars away from being a pauper. In fact, during his life time he was in the top income bracket in Vienna, along with lawyers and doctors. The only people that made more money than him were members of the royal family. In the last years of his life he did have some financial problems, but that was because the Austrian Empire was at war and no one was spending money on the arts. Had he lived through the war, his wealth would have rebounded.

    While Mozart was known to enjoy toilet humor, the way he acted in front of the Emperor is total fiction. He did not have any self control issues as the film claims. Speaking of the Emperor, while he did tell Mozart that Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail had too many notes, he was joking. The Emperor was quite knowledgeable about music.

    Die Zauberflote was not Mozart's final opera, La Clemenza di Tito was.

    Both Don Giovanni and Le Nozze Di Figaro were hits in Vienna and Prauge. (The film also seems to leave out Cosi Fan Tutte which came after Don Giovanni .) Don Giovanni has nothing to do with Mozart's father.

    And since the film is so much about his operas, where's Lorenzo Da Ponte, librettist of Le Nozze Di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi Fan Tutte and who even worked with Salieri?

    Here is a detailed essay about the fiction in Amadues:

    http://www.mozartproject.org/essays/brown.html

    So to recap, Mozart was not a starving artist, was not under appreciated, was not a troll constantly undercut by his own arrogance, was not killed by Salieri, and Salieri did not commission the Requiem.

    Anyway, doesn't anyone pay attention to the fact that Salieri is telling his story from a mental institution?
     
  19. David Baranyi

    David Baranyi Stunt Coordinator

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    Seth, I think you intend to spell pauper. A pauper is a person who is impoverish.
     
  20. Garrett Lundy

    Garrett Lundy Producer

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    Star Wars: Everybody knows that Darth Vader was in reality more of a pewter coloured, not black. George Lucas justed wanted him to be that much more sinister looking.
     

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