Historic films: Stranger than fiction?

13 October 2003
History a la Hollywood: In Braveheart, Mel Gibson's William Wallace is the son of a farmer when he was in reality the son of a knight, one of the many of factual errors in the film.

Potted history: "Feature films are the vehicles through which the vast majority of people gain their understanding of the past." - Prof Vivian Bickford-Smith.

Feature films like Braveheart might play fast and loose with facts, but the historic film can fuel useful debate and inform new generations of past injustices. They're also mightily popular at the box office, says Professor Vivian Bickford-Smith.

We've all sat through one. The marathon historic epic of the ilk of Braveheart, 1996 Best Picture Oscar winner in which steely eyed Mel Gibson plays the defiant William Wallace, the local hero who rallies the Scots against England's "pagan" King Edward 1, aka Edward the Longshanks.

Enthralled audiences didn't notice that the belted plaids and kilts Gibson's Wallace wore became the preferred (if not draughty) dress of Scotsmen only 300 to 400 years later. Nor did it matter that the saga was shot in the wrong part of Scotland (the west and not the east). Or that his romantic trysts with Princess Isabella (following the death of the wife Wallace never had) could never have been as she was in reality only five at the time. How accurate are these filmic regurgitations of history and how should we view them? For the most part, says Professor Vivian Bickford-Smith, with a large pinch of salt on your popcorn.

If you want complete accuracy, don't look to the broad genre of historical epic, he says. Historic films have fascinated the UCT historian for some time, as reflected in his recent inaugural lecture with the rather catchy title: "Oh dear, that Viking is wearing a gold wristwatch": How should historians engage with feature films? (The title refers to the 1958 film The Viking, starring Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas in which one of the Vikings wore a gold wristwatch.)

The answer perhaps is that these films offer something between entertainment and education. So while Bickford-Smith may have no problem with Latin teachers dispatching their pupils en masse to see Gladiator for its potted rendition of old Rome in the time of Marcus Aurelius Caesar, he believes cinematic versions of history offer a different kind of history to the printed versions born of thorough research and augmented by footnotes, explanations and contextual comment.

During his undergraduate years at Cambridge 30 years ago, film was never used to teach history. "Film is still seldom shown in history courses at Cambridge, yet almost everywhere else it is now frequently used, especially following the introduction of video in the 1970s," he added.

Though documentaries may have remained the genre of choice, feature films have become a popular way of introducing sometimes distant periods and places, for example, The Return of Martin Guerre for 16th century France, Cry Freedom for South Africa in the 1970s, or Bickford Smith's bete noire, Braveheart, for 13th century Scotland.

In a sense, the historian's dilemma is summed up neatly by the following critic: "If I wanted to learn about history I wouldn't be going to see a movie starring Mel Gibson, with the tagline 'All men die. Not all men really live' would I? I enjoyed every inch of Braveheart and if I wanted a history lesson, I'd go see Gods and Generals, which was a horrible film - which just goes to show that historical accuracy can sometimes break a film and not make it."

Perhaps lack of accuracy in celluloid history should also be weighed against the seductive power of film to inspire. A rather bizarre example of this is the report that noted that Chechen rebel groups in the 1990s reportedly said Braveheart had inspired them to fight for freedom.

Historical films have served all kinds of purposes. Bickford-Smith refers to "path-breaking scholar in the field", Jeffrey Richards, who argued that British feature films of the 1930s served the political needs of the country's ruling class.

"Feature films in pre-television days of mass cinema attendance not only provided an anodyne safety valve of escapist entertainment, they also promoted 'ideological consensus'," said Bickford-Smith. "Most obviously in this respect, historical epics of Imperial swashbuckling derring-do fostered national pride which transcended social divides."

Other historians believe that because feature films are so popular, they reflect the attitudes and shared values of the societies and periods that produced them. "Most famously, one can show that American science fiction films of the early 1950s reflected the contemporary McCarthyite paranoia about the communist peril," the UCT historian cited. "They did so either by having the Russians overtly behind the threat from outer space - in films like Flying Saucer (1950), Red Planet Mars (1952) or Invasion USA (1952) - or, more commonly, by using hostile aliens as a metaphor for the Red Menace."

He says science fiction films in later decades continued to reflect changing concerns in America: in the late 1970s films like Piranha (1978), where the US breeds super-killer fish for use in the Vietnam paddy fields or The China Syndrome (1979), which dealt with the threat of nuclear spillage. "More recently, following the advent of the AIDS epidemic, advances in genetics engineering were reflected in films like Outbreak and Gattaca, which reveal contemporary fears of uncontrollable viruses and Brave New World revisited."

Historians like Bickford-Smith explore feature films for pointers to social values and attitudes, and have often been interested in how such films have been used to generate ideological consensus, and vice versa. "But it has been difficult to gauge how feature films have been received by audiences," he added. "Newspaper articles or box-office figures are often superficial, peremptory or unsatisfactory."

But historians have been more successful when they have confined their focus to a smaller geographic community. For example, District Six. "We know from Professor Bill Nasson's work that not only were American films more popular than British ones, largely because of their faster pace and perhaps because of the lack of Imperial connections, but that some working-class residents of District Six named their children after American movie stars. We also know from Jack Lewis's documentary on the life of a District Six hairdresser, Kepwie, that hair styles were copied from Hollywood movies, and gangs took their names from the cinemas they frequented (Globe gang, Casbah Kids, etc)."

Bickford-Smith points to another more controversial engagement historians have had with the feature film, one in which the approach attempts to analyse feature films as attempted history. History films take a number of forms; films about people (Gandhi, Lumumba); films about fictional characters and events set in a realistic historical context, like the Vietnam of the 1950s in The Quiet American, or the 1976 South Africa in Dry White Season; and a small minority of films that say something of the nature of history itself, like Manchevski's meditation on the legacy of Macedonian history, called Before the Rain.

Many professional historians agree that such films should not be taken seriously. "Firstly, most are hopelessly inaccurate. They also relentlessly alter, distort or falsify the nature of people and events, not to mention language, mannerisms and dialogue."

Braveheart is riddled with falsifications. "Sharon Krossa, a historian of medieval Scotland, has counted 18 errors in the first two minutes of this Mel Gibson romp," said Bickford-Smith. It is filmed in the wrong part of Scotland. The narrative says that King Alexander is dead when he was alive in 1280 when the film opens; it has Scotsmen wearing belted plaids and kilts, which were only invented in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, respectively, and it makes William Wallace, Braveheart, the son of a farmer when in fact his father was a knight. Wallace also captures York, which only fell to the Scots 80 years after he died.

Also (horrors!) you can apparently see a white van in the background during the funeral of Braveheart's wife, who never existed.

And when the films do get appearances right, they seldom capture the spirit or attitudes of the period, Bickford-Smith lamented. "In many historical films the characters speak in modern idioms and have anachronistic values."

Academic historians also accuse feature films of romanticising and sanitising the past, no doubt to appease the popcorn popping, Coke-slugging audiences who make movie studios very wealthy.

"Gone with the Wind, for example, romanticises the Old South and omits the suffering of slaves." Compared with written history, history films also have a "low information load" and oversimplify sometimes complex issues. But as movie critic Terry Lawson stated: "Hollywood is in the business of catering to mass audiences, not offending them."

"Hollywood takes a story and tells it like a three-act drama of equilibrium, conflict and resolution. These films are simply not history in the sense that academic historians define the term," Bickford-Smith added. Citing David Herlihy's article in American Historical Review, he notes that historical films usually offer little context or debate or footnotes. "Herlihy believes that history films are too easily believed, are a positively dangerous medium for conveying the past to susceptible audiences ... (he) condemns filmic history at least in part for much the same reason that Malcolm Muggeridge was wont to quote, it 'leads you to believe a lie, When you see with not through the eye'."

But before you by-pass the historic sagas on your video store shelves, Bickford-Smith believes we should note historians Robert Rosenstone's and Robert Toplin's argument for taking feature film history seriously.

"In the American Historical Review Rosenstone warns of a time when 'written history will be a kind of esoteric pursuit and when historians will be viewed as the priests of a mysterious religion, commentators on sacred texts and performers of rituals for a populace little interested in their meaning ...'. "

The first point they make, says Bickford-Smith, is that Hollywood history is too popular and influential to ignore. "Thirteen out of the last 17 winners of the Best Picture Oscar have been history films (Gladiator, Forrest Gump, The English Patient, etc).

"Feature films are the vehicles through which the vast majority of people gain their understanding of the past and one can argue that academic historians should at least review the history they contain and seek to understand the secret of their success," the historian argues. "And narrative strategies that successfully engage an audience can arguably be seen as strengths rather than weaknesses."

He says that while history films might score poorly in terms of accuracy, they make up for this in other areas. Following Rosenstone, he suggests that True Invention (inventing dialogue or characters that the main character may have had) is fine, False Invention is not.

"False Invention is of the type that twists facts; as in Mississippi Burning where the FBI and federal government agents emerged the unlikely heroes of the Civil Rights movement rather than African-Americans." History films can also generate useful debate. "For example, JFK, for all its paranoid suggestions of conspiracy involving the mafia, Cuban exiles, the CIA, etc, led to renewed debate and also to previously embargoed government records being opened for public scrutiny," he elaborated. "Similarly, films like Schindler's List, The Pianist and Life is Beautiful have all successfully popularised the horrors of the Holocaust. More recently, Rabbit Proof Fence has informed a new generation of Australians of antipodean racism and discrimination."

Over the past century, important books on history have rarely referred to film, which is regrettable, says Bickford-Smith. "Engaging with film, and in particular with feature film, nudges academic historians into re-asking the very questions raised by these authors, not only what is history, but also what is its purpose, who is it for and how should it be practised?"

Hollywood history, he continued, transports the audience to a world that is an enticing mixture of the strange and the familiar. "It allows us to feel that we can vicariously experience what others before us have experienced. We learn, rightly or wrongly, that individuals can tackle and overcome hardships and we can have our identities confirmed and reshaped in ways that please us - and these are seductive outcomes."

So although Braveheart, which according to one website is "still knocking them dead" (do they mean academic historians?) might be "riddled with inaccuracies small and large, inventions True and False", it offers at least some of these possibilities and explains its popularity, Bickford-Smith conceded.

"Braveheart's popularity in the land of the haggis also, of course, provides evidence for academic historians of a particularly resilient, if somewhat odious, Scottish myth."

(Bickford-Smith is a professor in the historical studies department, which celebrates its centenary this year.)

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