Comment Drive: What’s the Most Historically Accurate Movie?

In the spirit of my fellow historian-blogger John Fea’s annual “spring membership drive,” I’d like to make an intentional effort this week to encourage readers to give back to this blog by sharing their opinions. While I appreciate everyone who reads The Pietist Schoolman, it’s rare for any post to get more than a single comment. Let’s see if we can change that this week, as I publish two or three posts that aim at crowdsourcing responses from y’all!

Last week one of my most faithful readers asked my opinion about something that’s been much on my mind this year:

Having watched Selma and The Imitation Game recently, I’m wondering if you have a list or could point me the direction of a list of the most historically accurate movies.

It’s a great question, one I’ll be asking in depth of our students in our Intro to History course next month.

LBJ, MLK, and others
Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders in 1964 – Wikimedia

Selma’s general acclaim has been tempered by complaints that the film mischaracterizes or diminishes the roles played by Lyndon Johnson and Coretta Scott King in the civil rights movement. According to critics like Slate’s L.V. Anderson, the Oscar-nominated The Imitation Game “takes major liberties with its source material, injecting conflict where none existed, inventing entirely fictional characters, rearranging the chronology of events, and misrepresenting the very nature of [computer scientist Alan] Turing’s work at Bletchley Park. At the same time, the film might paint Turing as being more unlovable than he actually was.”

Surveying inaccuracy after inaccuracy in historical movies ranging from The Birth of a Nation to Patton, Rutgers professor Bruce Chadwick concluded that “The overt revision of history, as was done in Selma, cannot be ignored” since “Americans don’t read much anymore and are getting their history lessons from movies. Historian Simon Schama wrote that the screenwriters are now the ones who decide what a nation’s history is, not the historians.”

By contrast, Chadwick singled out Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln for praise: “It was gripping and it was real. It was far better than the dozens of heroic, syrupy stories about Lincoln that have cluttered the screen since the birth of film at the turn of the century. The truth of Lincoln was much better than the fiction.” And some historians applauded screenwriter Tony Kushner for using original sources to tackle open historical questions about our sixteenth president. But others were disturbed that Spielberg and Kushner not only took liberties with the historical record but allowed African Americans almost no role in the winning of their liberation.

Novelist Francine Prose, writing in the New York Review of Books, thinks we ought to relax. While she “would want to avoid the sort of errors and exaggerations that make reasonably knowledgeable audiences so dubious and uneasy about what they’re being shown that it ruins their pleasure in watching,” Prose professes herself relatively unbothered if historical films play somewhat fast and loose with history:

Until recently, I’d assumed it was understood that Hollywood would emphasize the “story” aspects of history, and that a distortion of real events, on screen, would hardly constitute a lie. Except for those cases in which I felt that a film was being used as propaganda—Zero Dark Thirty comes to mind—I’d never been particularly disturbed, and certainly not surprised, to learn that a feature film had altered a real event so as to ramp up the drama. At what point, I wonder, did we start expecting films to tell the truth about the past? And won’t we be in trouble if we do?

The Imitation Game poster
The Imitation Game stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, who played a pivotal role in British codebreaking efforts during World War II but was prosecuted after the war for his homosexuality – Wikimedia

She also wonders if we’re more bothered by historical liberty-taking in some cases than in others, with those on more “vexed” subjects more likely to inspire complaints of “inaccuracy” than those that tread less controversial ground. Referring to debates about the veracity of Selma and of The Imitation Game, Prose concludes:

Movies that deal with race and homosexuality allow us to talk about (or around) these touchy and delicate topics, by giving special scrutiny to the films’ fidelity to history. It’s so much easier and less threatening to talk about whether (or how much of) a film is “true” than to confront the unpleasant—and indisputable—truth: that racial and sexual prejudice have persisted so long past the historical eras in which these films are set.

So I’d love to read readers’ responses to one or two questions:

Which titles belong on a list of “the most historically accurate movies”?

Or, should we even expect historical accuracy of films? Do critiques of “taking liberties” distract us from more important truths?

Read the next post in this series>>

7 thoughts on “Comment Drive: What’s the Most Historically Accurate Movie?

  1. What an interesting question! However I think this has a broader scope. I know people who believe the “science” they see on TV shows like “Bones” or other forensic science programs is all real. Are we as a people losing sight of what IS real, or maybe we’ve become comfortable with not really knowing accurate history or real science and being satisfied with TV/movie “facts.” I’ll be interested to read the discussion I hope ensues.

  2. Question 2 is a great one. I’ve thought about this for all types of film, not just historical. Absolutely people let their critiques get in the way. All the time. I personally find it very frustrating.

    My favorite historical movie when I was younger was thirteen days with Kevin Costner. Pretty sure there are a ton of liberties in that movie, but it was partially what got me so interested in history – which led me to thinking more critically, etc.

  3. My short list for “most accurate” historical films:

    Valkyrie (2008, dir. Bryan Singer)
    Der Untergang (2004, dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel)
    The Alamo (2004, dir. John Lee Hancock)

    In all three cases, the filmmakers did a very good job of balancing the historical content with the restrictions–and those restrictions can be severe–of 2-3 hour cinematic storytelling. Most of what they change comes about via streamlining, trying to make the story comprehensible without becoming tedious (e.g., showing one negotiation between the Alamo defenders instead of the two or three inconclusive ones that actually happened; narrowing the focus of the July 20 plot to key insiders so the narrative doesn’t become too cluttered).

    Der Untergang even goes so far as to try to use a sort of visual footnotes, where in every scene the historical figure who is the source of our knowledge of the events depicted is given some kind of screentime. It works surprisingly well. (Some of the same team produced Der Baader Meinhof Komplex, which tried the same thing with less success.)

    I don’t know if I have answers to the concluding questions. I see every Hollywood take on historical events with immense skepticism beforehand; the nice thing about that approach being that I get some pleasant surprises.

    A couple semi-related questions I ponder myself: How many “inaccuracies” have to accumulate before we conclude a film is compromised? How severe do the inaccuracies have to be? Can we put up with errors of fact or material culture if the film gets the spirit of events right? Or vice versa? What about films that are technically historical fiction but represent the reality of their setting better than some that purport to tell true stories? (The Last of the Mohicans and last year’s Fury are particularly good examples of the latter.)

    A lot of it, per the great article Ben posted above, comes down to “drawing a line between the type of bogusness you’re willing to tolerate—such as the innate bogusness of movies and narratives—and the type of bogusness you won’t.”

    Sorry for the long comment. Movies are how I got into history as a kid, and now that I teach it I find myself recommending films to students at least once per class period. It’s a personal hobbyhorse of mine.

  4. For my money the most accurate movie from a science and historical perspective is Ron Howard’s Apollo 13. The science is spot on and the story is right from Lovell’s book. The only ding is that there really was no tension between the Apollo 13 crew according to Lovell but that can be forgiven because that is a really small part of the story.

  5. Historical stories in movie form are diving into one small piece of history for the purpose of tapping into some kind of larger movement of society, going after something small to expose or bring to light something big. Filmmakers start with zeitgeist in mind and, with their fingers firmly on the pulse of where they think (or hope) society is headed, they make their statement. The purpose is to capture, recapture, or craft society by presenting a story that will sink into the hearts and minds of the people viewing their film. Entertainment and economic gain are part of the picture, but art and the artists who craft our stories also have a message to share. Great stories accomplish just that, they share a message with the general public who may never darken the door of a university classroom.

    The oral storytelling traditions behind the epic poets comes to mind. Certainly, at one point or another, there existed a man with the basic qualities of Beowulf, but at some point the facts of his story changed from a factual recounting to a literary embellishment with a historical background. This has been done since the beginning of time. Beowulf, the Greek epics, the legend of King Arthur, all of these stories build off of historical foundations. Other cultures do this as well. Certainly the great Chinese literary epics of the Ming and Qing dynasty were based on real events and then expounded on with great literary license. Those works (especially ‘Journey to the West’ and ‘The Romance of the Three Kingdoms’) have entertained and influenced Chinese readers up until this very day. These works have become part of the Chinese identity as much as any one historical event.

    As I understand it, the academic discipline of history comes from a different direction than these stories. History starts with the broad and works down to small details and then scales back out to give context to those details. History, like story, is concerned with narrative but I would argue the difference between the two lies in the approach to complexity. Because the scope of history is immensely more broad and complex, the recounting of a historical event will be more broad and complex. So, when history people dig into a thing we want to be inundated with detail. We want to solve the puzzle, “Why was it that way? What caused this person, or group of people, to act the way they did?”

    Simply put, we need both. We need fiction and we need fact. Our relentless pursuit of fact can sometimes blind us to the reality of what is happening in the culture around us. A well written historical biography, with all it’s attention to source material, is just as necessary as the bio pic. At the very least the blending of these two narrative methods could help kick start conversations between two groups of people who might not have otherwise had much common ground.

  6. Thanks for sharing this article about how to choose the right historical movie. I love some historical movie from other country around the world, so I know more about country historical.

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