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.
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?
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?