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Films: History & Historical Fiction

Written by Damien

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Films about history are everywhere, new and old - real and imagined. From made for TV movies like Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula (2000) and Attila (2001), to big-budget Hollywood releases like Troy (2004) and Kingdom of Heaven (2005). Even TV and Hollywood films that focus on a mythological story can qualify as, at least, quasi-historical -- films such as Jason and the Argonauts (1963/2000) or The Odyssey (1997).

And with the recent revival of the historical film genre (Troy, King Arthur, Kingdom of Heaven, Alexander, Gladiator) comes a whole new generation of people prepared to complain about everything from inaccuracies in footwear to the misplacement of ancient cities. This trend seems an unfortunate side-effect of an otherwise wonderful occurance - the resurgence of historical and fantasy films (as the two are most certainly related). The issue is that otherwise excellent movies are pre-destined to be bombarded with minor criticisms -- and as is usually the way, the smallest problems have the loudest voices. Such naysaying can be detrimental, and can cause people to avoid going to see a film - depriving them of the opportunity to enjoy it.

In light of the apparent revival of the historical film genre, it may be prudent to really break down what a historical film is, and what it is not.

What is a historical film? Well most importantly, it is historical fiction. That is, it is a completely fictional account of character or event that is somehow based in this world's real history. That is - historical fiction is just that - a fictitious account of history. Balian of Ibelin was probably never offered kingship of Jerusalem, but he existed. Achilles may or may not have existed at all. Maximus probably didn't exist - but Rome did, and she had many gladiators with untold stories. The key to a historical film is to cast an interesting event over a historical backdrop, with characters that are at once both real and imagined.

What a historical film is not is an even simpler question. A historical film is not a historical study. A historical film is not a scholarly thesis or dissertation on an actual historical event. To drive the point home -- a historical film is not a factual account of a historical event. The most pressing opposition to many historical films are those patrons that went into the film expecting a perfect recreation of a past event. Of course, these people were simply destined for disappointment.

With that in mind, however, film-makers should not feel they have a license to screw up a historical film out of laziness. There are two kinds of errors one can make in a historical film. The first type of mistake is the small historical inaccuracy. 18th century earrings in one scene of a 5th century B.C.E. film is a good example of this. Or perhaps the usage of a style of sword or helm not really invented until a few centuries after the film's timeframe. These mistakes don't seriously impact anyone's enjoyment of the film - and in almost all cases they are only noticed by those with plenty of historical knowledge. The second type of mistake that can be made is the egregious kind. While small historical inaccuracies are part of historical film-making, no film-maker should get away with letting the audience catch a glimpse of Robin Hood's Rolex, or the medieval soldier's Adidas running shoes.

However, barring gross stupidity on the part of the film-makers, most, if not all, errors in a historical film should be of the 'small historical inaccuracy' type. Thus, movie-goers, including those of the scholarly type, should not feel it necessary to point out each and every inaccuracy in a historical film. We should be happy that enjoyable, exciting films are being made about time periods that interest us. If criticism must be made over inaccuracies, it should be deferential -- simply pointing out the inaccuracies and letting it go.

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