Story-Telling and History

I am almost sure that telling a historical story through a movie is fraught with as many perils for the story-teller as doing so through the medium of historical fiction – it’s just that the movie-maker’s pratfalls are so much more … public, I guess is the word that I’m fishing for. There are big-name, serious historical fiction writers who abuse history almost beyond recognition in their attempt to weave a tale of the past – Philippa Gregory, anyone? – but to my mind, the really, really egregious mainstream offenses are committed in the service of movie-making.

I was reminded of this again, in reading yet another 100-year-anniversary-of-the-Titanic sinking, and how James Cameron had to apologize to the descendants of First Officer William Murdoch for the manner in which Murdoch’s character was maligned and his fate dramatized in Titanic … all in the service of punching up the drama a couple of degrees. Which was really not necessary, since – like most dramatic historical episodes – a strict accounting of the facts usually provides all the drama required. But Cameron isn’t the only movie-maker guilty of over-egging the pudding and re-making the characters of participants in events to suit the need for higher drama. The movie Zulu – also based on a supremely dramatic incident – felt obliged to portray one of the participants in the battle of Rorke’s Drift as an insubordinate drunkard and a malingerer. The man was actually a teetotaler and a model professional soldier, and his then still-living daughters were outraged, to the point of walking out of the premiere. The mega-flopperoo Heaven’s Gate did the same with Nate Champion, Jim Averill, and Frank Canton – real participants in the historical Johnson County war, but not quite as how they were drawn. I suppose the funniest take on the clash between historical accuracy and the needs of cinematic spectacle must be the old Alan Alda movie, Sweet Liberty.

Anyway – it’s a problem, using the names of real people, and it just seems to be worse with movies. Curiously, the worst offenders that I can think of make a great big deal about their fidelity to historical accuracy, but usually that means they will try very, very, very hard to nail down small details; the general appearance of things, but trip and fall over plot points as well as character development. I’m still shaking my head over Mel Gibson’s The Patriot – heck, they even scored a cover story about their fidelity to historical accuracy in The Smithsonian Magazine. At least, though – they had the decency to change all the names of the characters. The Patriot was only inspired by the adventures of certain historical characters in the American Revolution; mercifully, they didn’t even try to do an accurate rendering of the adventures of Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox. And that is the honest and ethical thing to do when re-telling a historical story in a novel or a movie; if it would have been impossible for a historical figure to have done, or said, or behaved in way that advances the plot, then one is perfectly free to make up a character to carry out those functions. Just be absolutely straight with the real people. Always. The thing about it is – just telling the story absolutely straight is often more dramatic, improbable and fantastic than anything you might have made up.

(Cross-posted at, and at my Celia Hayes Blog …curiously, I am unable presently to post links within this post to support various points. Those links are here:

[Jonathan adds: The links should be OK now.]

12 thoughts on “Story-Telling and History”

  1. One very bad example of this is in the film Valkyrie, which dealt with the anti-Hitler conspiracy associated with Count Stauffenberg. Erich Fellgiebel, who was in real life one of the earliest and most courageous of the conspirators, was in the film portrayed as an arrant coward who basically had to be blackmailed by Stauffenberg into participating.

  2. To top of the Murdoch story Cameron offered to pay the paltry some of 5,000 pounds – to some entity related to Murdoch – – his hometown?

    I used to see movies based on history and thought they were factual but now have become so jaded if it is interesting you have to wonder if that really happened.

    on the Titanic there was – as you said, enough heroism that nothing had to be changed – saw a recent PBS program and apparently 100s of lives were saved because some of the engineers volunteered to stay at their stations to provide electricity for light – and as survivors said – they could see the lights virtually on until the ship went under water.

    Hemingway said – when selling rights of a book to a producer – “You take the book, go to the California border, give the producer the book – he gives you the money – you turn around and walk away.” Or words to that effect.

  3. Fair to debate whether or how much license is needed in changing facts or characters to tell the story – but the fact is, sadly, that for a very significant portion of the population, their only knowledge of history will be what they see in a movie.

    In my opinion, the far more dangerous threat is the tendency for Hollywood to change history to suit their political views.

  4. FWIW, “The Patriot” was a loose remake of the old Jimmy Stewart movie, “Shenandoah”.

    Not plot turn for plot turn, but Mel starts out and ends up with the same number of kids and daughters-in-law as Jimmy and in somewhat similar circumstances.

    The irony is that, in most cases, the history usually ends up being a better story.

  5. The film Pearl Harbor was painful to watch because (among other reasons) the producers really didn’t have a feel for the era, or for the military, or for much of anything. Many of the little details were right – -the uniforms and the aircraft seemed pretty accurate — but, six young people out on the town in Manhattan in 1941, and none of them were smoking?? And the American volunteers in the RAF at the Battle of Britain didn’t have a “we’ll show you how it’s done” attitude, they knew they were among the people who had been living it for real. Not did the RAF allow its pilots to wander off for personal reasons for weeks without consequence.

    This seemed to be filmmaking by watching old films from the era to soak up the atmosphere and make up everything else more or less impressionistically.

  6. James – Pearl Harbor was a dud because we all knew what’s going to happen – and we sit though 2 hours of love affairs and assorted drama waiting for the attack to come.

    There is an art to making a movie based on history – Tora Tora Tora is supposed to be historically accurate but long – and dull.

    In the Patriot – I have a friend – very knowledgeable on movies – who laughs at the portrayal of Col Tavington – calling him a”British Nazi”.

    Tavington was accused of killing surrendering Americans but nowhere near the ogre portrayed in the movies.

    Incidentally I get (2nd hand) the history magazines from the BBC- like the old American Heritage – very meaty stuff – and in the latest issue they claim the British Empire was due to the Redcoats, not the generally credited Royal Navy.

    Want some fascinating trivia?

    i knew that Australia started being settled in earnest after the British lost the American colonies but it was a loyalist American – who suggested to James Cook – that they focus on Australia.

  7. Slightly off topic, but in the same vein. I watched some few minutes of “Straight Into Darkness” last night. Two US soldiers go AWOL in the closing days of WW2 and hook up a a gang of armed orphans (No, really).

    A flash back scene shows a car wreck with (I gather) an old flame. When they pull the car from the ditch, we see a 1949-1950 Chrysler station wagon.

    Talk about not having a feel for the era.



  8. Neville Shute was so angry about the movie made from his novel, “On the Beach” that his fatal stroke has been attributed to his anger.

    Pear Harbor was a mishmash of many stories. When I saw that Alec Baldwin was in it as Jimmy Doolittle, I tuned out.

    Hollywood would do better to leave these things alone. The recent movie of Cole Porter’s life, “De-Lovely” was pretty good but that may be because of the subject matter.

  9. Neville Shute thought that it was a crucial plot point that the submarine captain, played by Gregory Peck, would remain faithful to his dead wife back in Texas. His romance with Moira, played by Ava Gardner in the movie, was not consummated in the novel. Shute asked the director, Stanley Kramer, to honor that feature of the story as he thought it very important to establish that the people who had died in the northern hemisphere were still real to the surviving family members who were going to die anyway.

    Shute’s novels often have a spiritual component to them.

  10. Plenty of good historical movies are made in which we all know pretty much what the main event is going to be. Pearl Harbor has just a bad movie, period. I stayed through it just because I like to see how the stories are told, and to watch the aviation photography.

    The Tavington character in The Patriot (who I assume is based on Banastre Tarleton) was over the top; I don’t think any British regular could have gotten away with locking civilians into a church and setting it on fire. However the real-life Tarleton was a pretty nasty character. It was amusing to see him pop up in Wilberforce’s biography as a lobbyist against abolishing slavery in the British empire. You could make a biopic about him, nasty from start to finish.

  11. I like Cecilia Holland whose work is always well researched, accurate and entertaining. She has recently written a few books on California 1870s.

    Mercedes Lackey has written a well researched novel on King Arthur and his Queen. Her other works are fantasy.

    Bernard Cornwell has a series on warships circa 1812 and the English navy.

    Troy had a great deal of research in its sets. Sadly, the atheists removed the gods from the story so that the movie limps along with half the plot missing.

    The series Rome answered the question “How does an 18 yr old boy get to be an emperor and have a month named after him?”. Also the sets and street scenes are very accurate.

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