I’ve long noticed a general suspicion shown towards movies purporting to tell a “true story.” Even though it’s no surprise that they take license with real events, after they’re released there are always dozens of webpages treating even the smallest of these instances negatively.

What are we so afraid of?

On the one hand, surrounded by the certainty of data as we are, it seems to be immensely discomforting to realize that all of life today—and I’d even say the deepest parts of life— cannot actually be known as accurately as the mileage on our cars, the storage capacity of our phones, and all the statistics we allow Google or political campaigns or just retailers to collect about us. Yet to take only two examples: there is no evidence that Shakespeare’s audience complained about how “accurately” he rendered figures from English history whether long or recent past, from King Lear to Henry VIII. And it’s doubtful that the poet we call Homer would have become as important to the Greeks as he did if anyone had been focused on historical accuracy. Greeks of the eighth century BC listening to a performance are unlikely to have known anything tangible about the destruction of Troy four centuries before; and yet the story Homer spun resonated, not for its historical but its emotional accuracy. To take a recent example: it makes little difference if, as portrayed in Peter Shaffer’s play (and the later film) Amadeus, the composer Antonio Salieri actually murdered Mozart; the story is a true enough expression of human emotions and jealousy to succeed and last.

Indeed those movies—and, just as prominently in the past, plays, opera, and poetry— telling a true story have always existed more as charts of our emotional history than our actual history. I recently saw Clint Eastwood’s Sully, where the dramatic tension is between the Heroic Pilot acting like an individualistic American to save hundreds of lives, and the bureaucratic National Transportation Safety Board who call his judgment into account after the fact. This tension, however, never actually existed, and the NTSB has complained about being inaccurately portrayed in the movie. On the one hand, the choice to tell the story this way does reflect the emotional reality of our times, and our general distrust of the government on all sides; and yet this choice was also so transparently political as to erase its emotional truth. As with so many movies, what could have been a simple human story became merely an ideological one. It’s true that in the future this political subtext will probably go unnoticed; but unlike, say, the paintings of Jacques Louis-David, movies like Sully don’t really have the artistic legs to rise above the propaganda they are seeped in.

So what are we lacking? Are we so overburdened by historical and scientific and social data in a way Shakespeare or Homer’s audiences weren’t, that we can no longer enjoy a representation of those things whose point has never been total “accuracy”? Are movies created to succeed among such a large percentage of the population (a requirement Shakespeare and Homer also weren’t constrained by) that it’s no surprise they end up watered down? Is our culture so bereft of anyone even half as good as Homer and Shakespeare, so that the stories they give us can’t help but only half-fill the vacuum, and we fill the rest with our discontent and criticism, or with the filmmakers’ obvious bias?

Does any of this make sense?



20 thoughts on “Historical Accuracy

  1. Unfortunately, today’s society cannot view much of anything from a realistic point of view. Especially themselves. Thank you for pointing out that movie makers are so insecure about true success, that they feel the need to embellish their productions with controversy in movies like Sully, which is a great story on its own.

  2. Thanks for this Carol. For the guy who made movies like Unforgiven and Mystic River, clearly & simply human dramas amidst awful situations, it was so disappointing to see Sully. He could have told the story in so many different ways.

  3. Hello Tim,
    Historic accuracy starts with our educator’s teaching practices, and the history books used in classrooms. If the books were historically accurate, then the only differences in publishing them would be presentation. As it stands, many of these books are seriously lacking facts and publishers aren’t being held accountable for the inaccuracies. Movie makers, also, have no obligation to stay on the factual path.

  4. That’s the point, they’ve no obligation to stay factual at all. Great art can & has been made that is wholly historically inaccurate; the point isn’t the inaccuracy but the reasons for it, & the ability of artist & audience to deal with it.

  5. Hi Tim,

    Whether writers or filmakers admit it or not, we all ‘write to our audience’.

    More correctly, writers and filmakers ‘write to their perceptions of who their audience is’ in order to achieve whatever preconceived goal they had in mind.

    It might be to impress the audience with a heroic tale (Abandoned) it might be to dazzle them with turn of phrase (Shakespeare) or to transport them to “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” (Star Wars IV)

    And the same holds true for the music industry. ‘Hotel California’ would have been played differently during Baroque era. The lyrics might’ve remained the same, or minor changes would have occurred. (It might’ve been named ‘Hotel Barcelona’ for example)

    But it’s a good enough story (song) that regardless of whether it is played as a dirge, as light-hearted music suited for the piccolo, or as music for Belly Dancers that it can stand on it’s own merit.

    Shakespear it’s not! But it does tell a tale.

    Is it artistic license to play ‘Hotel California’ as a Baroque piece of music (playing ‘to’ the audience preference) or would that be considered artistic sin?

    I feel that all of us look at life through our own particular prism. One person might like ‘Hotel California’ played as a dirge, while others would recoil in horror at such a thought.

    It says a lot about our culture; How filmakers perceive us. Because consequently, we get movies based out their perceptions of us. And the same is true for writers and songwriters/musicians.

    American filmakers perceive that Americans need ‘amped-up’ versions of heroic stories based on actual events.

    But is that who Americans really are?

    Cheers, JBS

    “Hotel California” by The Eagles

    “On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair
    Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air
    Up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light
    My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim
    I had to stop for the night
    There she stood in the doorway;
    I heard the mission bell
    And I was thinking to myself,
    “This could be Heaven or this could be Hell”
    Then she lit up a candle and she showed me the way
    There were voices down the corridor,
    I thought I heard them say…

    Welcome to the Hotel California
    Such a lovely place (Such a lovely place)
    Such a lovely face
    Plenty of room at the Hotel California
    Any time of year (Any time of year)
    You can find it here

    Her mind is Tiffany-twisted, she got the Mercedes Benz
    She got a lot of pretty, pretty boys she calls friends
    How they dance in the courtyard, sweet summer sweat.
    Some dance to remember, some dance to forget

    So I called up the Captain,
    “Please bring me my wine”
    He said, “We haven’t had that spirit here since nineteen sixty nine”
    And still those voices are calling from far away,
    Wake you up in the middle of the night
    Just to hear them say…

    Welcome to the Hotel California
    Such a lovely place (Such a lovely place)
    Such a lovely face
    They livin’ it up at the Hotel California
    What a nice surprise (what a nice surprise)
    Bring your alibis

    Mirrors on the ceiling,
    The pink champagne on ice
    And she said “We are all just prisoners here, of our own device”
    And in the master’s chambers,
    They gathered for the feast
    They stab it with their steely knives,
    But they just can’t kill the beast

    Last thing I remember, I was
    Running for the door
    I had to find the passage back
    To the place I was before
    “Relax, ” said the night man,
    “We are programmed to receive.
    You can check-out any time you like,
    But you can never leave!”

  6. I once wondered about this, after I interviewed (I’m a journalist) a top official at Italy’s trashy TV company Telecinque. In response to a question, he became all defensive and said he didn’t watch more of his channel than he had too; than in private he liked opera and the finer things. I then understood that the product creates the consumer too; it’s not just the other way round. Nobody thought they needed an iPad until Apple invented one, or gonzo porn until after it became freely available. Hollywood shapes the customer as much as it’s shaped by it, even if they keep telling itself otherwise.

  7. Hello Tim, Good piece. CB generally stays away from flicks like this. Bio pics on musicians (and others) play second fiddle to docs on the same subject. There are numerous exceptions to “Historical’ films that give you the guts. (I agree on Mystic River and Unforgiven, both good films) Check out ‘The 100 Year old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared’ don’t know about “historical accuracy” but it is very funny and well done. (Seen that you popped over to peek at CB’s little self indulgence. Thanks. Your site is a little over whelming but lots of interesting stuff. I usually stick with music and film but will poke around and broaden my mind a little. Later

  8. Thanks David. Did you get the sense that this TV exec was consciously trying to dumb people down, or just innocently considered it a way to make a living? With your point it’s hard sometimes not to be conspiracy-minded; Hollywood & so much else constantly creates needs & wants where previously there just weren’t any.

  9. I used to write for research before blogging and even then you can never get anything absolutely correct. Statistics are biased by the questions asked and to whom. My grant applications were successful because I told a good story (case studies) to emphasize why the money was needed. So, I really understand what you mean. Thanks for the follow!

  10. Interesting post. In the end history itself is just a collection of people’s stories. Even if it was written at the time it doesnt make it fact because it is a,ways biased by the pint of view of the writer.

  11. History is always written by the victor. We know that, and our historians work around those limitations in order to get as close to the ‘truth’ as they can. But we will never know exactly how accurate those reconstructions are. In that sense, history can never be 100% accurate. Nevertheless, if we don’t like the story history tells, then surely we should be imaginative enough to create an unapologetic fantasy that suits us better?

  12. I wanna tell you that I love history. And as a history lover I keep browsing across various blogs, and read what they have to say. And then I came to your blog, I have been reading this article very seriously as it is so interesting,
    and tell you what, I just loved it. Articles like this make you even more fascinated towards history. Keep up this good work, as I would love to read such interesting articles, whenever I want, coz I have followed your blog.
    Well, one more thing I wanna tell you, I too have a blog. https://incrediblepoetry.wordpress.com please visit and comment about my poems , hopefully you will soon…

  13. I agree that history can’t be 100% accurate; but what worries me are the reasons for the inaccuracy when it comes to history-as-entertainment (since surely, even if all history is somewhat inaccurate, scholarly books about the Borgias or Tudors are immensely different than the soap opera versions on TV), and these changes rarely have anything to do with deeper human insight

  14. Meh…I doubt the soap opera versions of history are meant to be anything but costume ‘dramas’. 😦
    Heaven help the alien archeologist who attempts to reconstruct the history of Homo Sapiens from our TV programs.

  15. I dunno… seeing that costume dramas are the only times many people will encounter the Tudors or whoever, it’s worth thinking about. If aliens came down now it would be TV shows they’d find us most obsessed with.

  16. There is no historical accuracy, merely historical plausibility — and out plausibilities will always be somewhat rooted in emotional plausibility – ahistorical, probably — but who is history FOR? The living or the dead?

    Excellent piece, by the bye!

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