I don’t live in the past—I only visit—and so can you!


Well, historical films in general. Are historical films education or entertainment?

Let’s face it. Even documentaries are entertainment. Some reenactors are angry at any film that is not a hundred percent accurate. To them, the value of a film is not economic—anyone giving money to a film should be doing it for love of history—but educational. If someone is wearing a tunic that is not hand sewn—and they have turned their magnifying glasses onto enlargements of stills from the film—the entire effort is rubbish. Let’s face it. No one is ever going to come up with a cinematic effort that will please them any better than a book of popular history!

Of course, more knowledgeable people—and we are speaking about more knowledgeable about history as well as more knowledgeable about how the real world operates—say something different. Jackson Crawford is most concerned about his specialty, linguistics, and has posted a vlog that should have these experts dancing in fury. Jim Grossman, Executive Director of the American Historical Association notes in the words of Elisabeth Grant, “how movies can be used to generate questions, start discussions, and in the end, teach history.” George MacDonald Fraser, author of the Flashman novels and the Richard Lester “Three Musketeers”, said that “in a way, Hollywood has been a great historical educator, because if you or I or anyone else thinks of ancient Rome, you probably think of something you’ve seen in the movies. Who would know what the Romans wore or looked like or a chariot race looked like if they hadn’t seen Ben Hur? Who would know what a Philistine temple looked like if Victor Mature hadn’t pushed one over? I think we get more vivid pictures of history from the movies than we ever get from histories. Sometimes there are minor distortions, sometimes there are major distortions, but one can be pretty sure the background detail has been accurately researched.” And Norman Cantor writes in The Civilization of the Middle Ages, “Films are not a substitute for history books, but films can evoke the ambience and sensibility, as well as the visual locus, of the Middle Ages, not only in a supplementary reinforcing and entertaining manner, but sometimes in a distinctively perceptive and persuasive manner.”

I am a reenactor and not in any sense a professional historian. I was trained as a news-editorial writer. When I approach an historical film, I judge it by five factors:

1—Does the film-makers claim the film is accurate?

“The Pathfinder”—the remake, not excellent original also known as “Ofelas”—claims to be optimized for accuracy. Perhaps for the American Indians—not my forté—but certain not for he Norse with their horns helmets and plate armor!

2—Is the costuming accurate?

One might find this the most important thing. Films and television that will often make the clothing flattering for a star without any regard to accuracy. See, for example, “The Long Ships,” where Richard Widmark might look splendid while wearing something that is as accurate as a parka and sneakers! (Let us not talk about the buoyant golden bell)

3—Are the props accurate?

Actually, often more care is taken in background props. For example, the props in “The Vikings” are much better researched and manufactured than the clothing! This does not mean, of course, that they are all accurate to the period and not mixed with props from other eras.

4—Is there a consistent effort to make things accurate?

Just tossing in bits of history from other times—such as the armor in “The Thirteenth Warrior”—can often be confusing or prompting incorrect assumptions.

5—Is it a good story that makes no claim at accuracy?

I absolutely despised the History Channel’s “The Vikings” not only because they claimed absolutely accuracy without providing it but because the story sucked. On the other hand, I loved the Curtiz “Adventures of Robin Hood” because it had a cracking storyline and made no pretensions of its terrible and anachronistic costuming or plot and still think it one of the best historical films around!

For me, claiming accuracy while not really caring about the accuracy is the most important thing in my perception of a film. While it is perhaps hypocritical to look down on lying in a work of fiction, there are times when I cannot help look poorly on what might be a trivial inaccuracy! I stopped watching “Rome” when a market had some orange carrots! 🙂

As I said, these are the questions I have. You might have more and different questions.

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