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Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist


  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Movies and history: Is there any good history in cinema?

Posted by James McPherson on December 20, 2008

In responsed to my post of a few days ago in which I complained about the historical inaccuracy of “Frost/Nixon,” author David Schleicher (who also happens to be a regular reviewer of movies) asked if there have been any recent films that I considered to be historically accurate.

That’s a great question. Unfortunately I don’t have a good answer, because movies are the medium that I may know least about. I’m so out of touch with cinema that the last two films I saw in theaters were “Wall-E” and “Ratatouille.”

Schleicher also asked about my perspective on HBO’s recent John Adams miniseries. Even though “Freakonomics” author Stephen J. Dubner had a few problems with its history, in fact that miniseries and “The Wire” were two of the most recent reasons for me to wish I had more than expanded basic cable.

Dubner also points out that the miniseries strays from the facts offered in the David McCullough book on which it is based, offering an argument that gets to the heart of my original complaint about “Frost/Nixon”:

I’m not looking for embellishment when it’s not necessary. Sometimes it is necessary. …

When such dramatic license isn’t necessary, however, and it’s used anyway …  it makes me feel that the filmmakers are trying too hard to do something they shouldn’t be trying to do. It makes me feel that they are trying too hard to make the characters richer than they need be, that they are desperate to “get inside the mind of” the characters, as people like to say.

But what makes McCullough, in my opinion, one of our best living writers is that he doesn’t work that way at all. Instead, he accumulates stubborn fact after stubborn fact — an act of accretion that borders on alchemy — and presents such a robust portrait that there is no need for the sort of psychobabble noodgery that fills up lesser books.

I probably watch too much television, especially considering how much of my viewing is skewed toward news-oriented programming. (On the plus side, I generally avoid “reality TV.”) Most of the remainder of my media time is spent reading newspapera, magazines and blogs.

Still, the question about good history in films piqued my interest enough to do a bit more research, in which I came up with a number of commentaries about films with good or bad “history.” Among the films regularly rated as particularly “bad history” are “Gladiator,” “300,” “Titanic,” “The Insider,” “The Last Samarai,” “Braveheart,” “The Patriot,” “Pearl Harbor,” “Elizabeth,” “Dances with Wolves,” “JFK” and “The Alamo.”

I would add almost any film starring one of my childhood heroes, John Wayne–which gets to another point. “Citizen Kane” is considered one of the best films of all time, and is one of my favorites. Yet it, too, takes considerable historical liberties.

That film’s saving grace–other than the fact that it is a cinematic masterpiece–is that the film changes the name of the main character. Part of the reason people considered the portrayal so truthful is that William Randolph Hearst (the model for the fictional Kane) tried to have the movie stopped.

Some of the other films noted above I also liked, “Braveheart,” “Gladiator” and “Dances with Wolves.” Interestingly, though, I didn’t consider any of them to be particularly historical as I watched them.

As for historically accurate films, almost a decade ago author James Roquemore offered these as his top five: “A Man for All Seasons,” “Apollo 13” (like “Frost/Nixon,” a Ron Howard film and one I liked a lot), “Ulzana’s Raid,” “The Duelists” and “Conagher” (a 1991 film I can’t remember ever hearing of before today).

Other book-length takes on the topic have been offered by Robert Brent Toplin,  Robert RosenstoneMarcia LandyFrank Senello and  Mark C. Carnes. I must admit that I haven’t read any of those books, however–if I had that much time to spare, I’d be more likely to take in a movie or two.

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2 Responses to “Movies and history: Is there any good history in cinema?”

  1. James, great post. I’m glad I was able to spark an idea.

    Movies like Gladiator (a great film) and 300 (an awful film) shouldn’t even be considered historical, but I guess some people watching them do think they are learning something about the ancient past.

    Other movies like Braveheart and Elizabeth have the luxury to take great liberties as no one can truly know every detail about the lives and times of their historical characters.

    I think movies about more recent history, especially history that has been captured on film and TV, have a greater obligation to be accurate, though some leeway must be given for the “drama” as after all…movies like JFK or Frost/Nixon or W. are just movies first and foremost.

    –DHS

  2. Luis Lopez said

    David, you make a great point in that historical movies have to take a degree of creative license in order to appeal to a greater audience. I don’t think the filmmakers purposely pride themselves on being inaccurate in these type of movies; they simply add bits of drama in order to engage the audience more fully.

    The sad thing is that most (but not all) people who go to movies like these do not know a lot of the historical minutiae behind the events that are covered in these films. This ignorance could be attributed to either laziness or a just plain lack of knowledge about the subject at hand.

    To address the historically accurate films, the ones listed by James Roquemore are not immune from creative license. For example, a quick search on “Apollo 13” on Wikipedia lists a few mistakes and anachronisms: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_13_(film)#Technical_accuracy. Moreover, a great film triumph like “A Man for All Seasons” has a few anachronisms (albeit very minor ones): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0060665/goofs

    By the way, Jim, I did a search on the movie “Conagher,” because I had not heard of it either (and I consider myself a fairly big movie buff). The reason why it is not well known is because it is a made-for-T.V. movie.

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