Real History vs Reel History: The Never-Ending Debate

By Laurel Wilson ’19

Movies based on history have been popular since the rise of film in the entertainment industry. Transporting audiences to a different place and time period is something that film has always had the ability to do and often does very well. Though many films that are based on historical subject matter are carefully researched and try to be as historically accurate as possible, many historians take issue with their historical inaccuracies. There are countless opinions out in the world about the importance and role of historical accuracy in film. Most of these opinions fall into one of two camps: those that argue films should try to be more historically accurate if they are portraying a specific event or time period and those that argue that films should be allowed to take creative liberties with historical accuracy.

Historians will often argue, with good reason, that films that do not take historical accuracy seriously run the risk of giving audiences false impressions of historical events or even time periods as a whole. Films are often guilty of idealizing or romanticizing history at least to some degree, which can give the audience a false impression of the history behind the film. History is not black and white; there are often many different sides to a story and lots of gray areas, which can sometimes be difficult to convey in a film.

Photo credit: iceposters.com
Photo credit: iceposters.com

Films are intended to reach a wide audience, which can be both positive and negative when it comes to the issues of historical accuracy. Films are almost always made with the intent of making money for the studio by drawing in as large an audience as they possibly can. Most historians point out that Hollywood frequently collapses several characters or situations into one or a few to simplify a story but that those changes are acceptable if they aid general understanding. Films are made to be appealing to an audience that is not just comprised of historians, so it only makes sense that sometimes filmmakers must simplify events in order to have the plot make sense to audiences.

Historians recognize that films contribute to the public’s interest in history, but they often find serious shortcomings in Hollywood’s storytelling. The movie Gettysburg is among the best examples of this. Since its premier in 1993, Gettysburg has increased public interest in the Battle of Gettysburg, but it has also given the audience a simplified version of what occurred during the battle for reasons of concise storytelling. It would be next to impossible for any film to cover all of the events of the battle while still allowing time for character development and other key elements that make for a good film, which is why the filmmakers chose to include certain key events from the battle and left out others.

While film can be a great medium to aid in our understanding of past events, it is by no means perfect. Films must adhere to certain structures and conventions in order to tell the stories they aim to tell effectively, which often comes at the expense of history. Some films do succeed at representing history to the best of their ability, but no film will ever be able to replicate history exactly as it happened.


Sources:

Carnes, Mark C. “Shooting (Down) the Past Historians vs. Hollywood.” Cinéaste 29, no. 2 (2004): 45-49.

Toplin, Robert Brent. “Hollywood’s History: The Historians’ Response.” Reviews in American History 24, no. 2 (1996): 337-43.

2 thoughts on “Real History vs Reel History: The Never-Ending Debate”

  1. Great topic, Gettysburg is a great example of film short changing history and the mixed blessing of making some people take an interest and perhaps looking further into the subject and others simply accepting the film as the definitive story and no further research required. I think folks fail to realize though, ithat the film Gettysburg is actually a film adaptation of a a fiction novel that is set in the midst of an actual event. Folks still look for the grave Buster. As a historical interpreter a fair amount of my time is spent unhollywooding some public conceptions and explaining and elaborating Ken Burnsian over simplifications. In my experience, at this point, more good than harm has come from it, so far.

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