What Makes for the Best Historical Movies? (part 2)

Poster for Lincoln (2012)Today at The Anxious Bench you’ll find part two of my series on how we might evaluate historical movies like Free State of Jones, which has inspired rave reviews from some historians and criticism from others.

If you missed the first part, go back to read what I meant that historical movies and TV series must strive to be both entertaining and truthful. Then continue on to today’s follow-up, in which I suggest two more criteria.

First, are the makers actually interested in the past on its own terms, or are they just using it “as another dimension of the set” or to advance a present-day agenda? Here I contrasted the perspectives of Civil War historians Tracy McKenzie and Patrick Rael (on both Free State of Jones and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln), but also shared a different example, a TV show set in 1920s Britain:

My wife and I enjoy the British gangster drama Peaky Blinders, which just finished its third series on the BBC (and streams in the US on Netflix). Despite the high quality of the acting and the seeming verisimilitude of the sets and costumes, the soundtrack (composed of songs from present-day singer-songwriters like Nick Cave, Tom Waits, and Jack White) hints at the fundamentally anachronistic goals of the producers. Apart from its occasional meditations on the psychological toll of World War I on those who survived and its eagerness to show Winston Churchill at his most conniving, Peaky Blinders couldn’t seem less interested in its 1920s setting. Indeed, the gang by that name was primarily active in the late 19th century.

You can read the final criterion (on the relationship of historical filmmaking to historical thinking) and the rest of the post at The Anxious Bench. Next Tuesday the conclusion of the series will focus on two more TV shows with wildly divergent settings and some shared themes.

<<Read part 1 of this series


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