11.07.2019 in Review

Historic Cinema: Between Fact And Fiction

Cinema as an art form is grounded in reality unlike any other, as it captures images and sound of an actual fragment of real life, which is caught in the field of view of the camera lens. While some additional elements can be added with the help of props, makeup, costumes and special effects, the viewer sees mostly real objects. Perhaps this inevitable connection with reality encourages filmmakers to draw inspiration from real-life stories from the past to current times. While using history as an inspiration for the film provides endless possibilities, it creates as many challenges. History-based films require research and recreation of a time period, but the most difficult aspect of such filmmaking is drawing the line between the reality and fiction. Some filmmakers try to recreate the history in details, others just use real facts as a frame to create a piece of entertainment or to push further their personal agenda, and there are some, who deconstruct the genre tradition to make the audience reconsider what they think about history. This research will focus on all the major approaches. This research is aimed to study a number of examples of history-based fiction, to understand different approaches to recreating history in a film scenario and to define major tendencies behind them. Companies under analysis are relatively young; thus, they can illustrate current trends in filmmaking: using history as a basis of fictional entertainment (Braveheart), recreating historic events in the film (Saving Private Ryan), and postmodern approach to historic narrative in cinema (Inglourious Basterds). The research also contains an attempt to understand why Hollywood continues to use “real life stories” to market their films.

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History as Entertainment

This part of the analysis is devoted to movies based on historical events which happened before the invention of modern documentation technologies. These films draw information from books, paintings and other forms of art, thus the information they are based on has already passed through perception and imagination of at least one, but likely numerous authors. As these sources cannot be considered reliable enough, filmmakers tend to romanticize or dramatize these events and historic personalities they involve. Thus, it is not surprising that such films tend to be very loose with their history and mostly serve as entertainment. Researcher Andrew B. R. Elliot points out that there is an inherent conflict between filmmakers who depict certain historical periods and researchers who study history, as the latter, see the film depictions of history as “bastardization” of real science. He mentions that “historic” fiction horror reflects not the time their stories take place in, but mood prevalent in the society during the time of the film’s creation. However, the historical accuracy of the film is never seen as a performance  of its quality, critical reception and popularity. Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart (1995) illustrates this notion. The film, written by Randall Wallace tells the story of the Scottish rebellion against the King of Britain led by William Wallace, who happens to bit – happened somewhere between 13-th and 14-th century. While the event did happen, most of the information about it is utilized from an epic poem by Henry the Minstrel, written 172 years after the event. The poem was filled with patriotic bias and showed the events only from one angle. There is no doubt that such source can not be considered reliable, however, the historical inaccuracies in the film are even more substantial, as it deviates even from this questionable material. The core of the story is mostly accurate: the rebellion of William Wallace (Mel Gibson) against King Edward I (Patrick McGoohan), his victories in a number of battles, as his caption and consequent execution all took place. The differences start from Wallace’s motivation: it was not the murder of his wife, which drew him to start the rebellion, but a more trivial dispute with British soldiers, which resulted in a bloodshed. Such a creative decision is understandable, as the audience needed a clear and relatable motivation for the main hero of the story. The same approach was used in the portrayal of Wallace’s antagonist – King Edward I, who was turned into a bloodthirsty villain. Also, a mandatory romantic subplot between Wallace and Princess Isabelle (Sophie Marceau) was added to the story. In addition to major changes of historic facts, there were minor “cosmetic” mistakes in the way Scottish warriors were dressed (for example kilts and colored war paint were anachronisms). The protagonist of the film, a portrait by the director himself has absolutely no physical resemblance with real William Wallace (Illus. 1, Illus. 2). Braveheart is an example of a deviation of historic facts in favor of dramatic cinematic effects. The film is subjected to the logic of a three act dramatic structure, which rarely matches the actual course of events. The film, especially the kind which appeals to the mass audience, requires a straightforward narrative, clearly defined villains, a relatable hero and a climactic, meaningful ending. Death of William Wallace, as it is presented in the film, is an example of another common trope of heroic historic films – romanticizing the self sacrifice of the hero. Death of Wallace for the sake of a common cause makes him a pseudo messiah. Such death is mandatory to prove the point, that a life of one person (even as significant as a leader of the rebellion) is less important than the ideas he/she fights for. While most of significant historic personalities depicted in the films such as Braveheart, Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999, directed by Luc Besson), Spartacus (1960, directed by Stanley Kubrik), meet tragic death, the circumstances of their deaths are often distorted to make them more meaningful and cinematically effective. All above mentioned tropes are present in Gibson’s film, thus, it is not surprising that it gained popularity among the audience and enjoyed positive critical reception. As Tom May mentions, the film works not as a historical fiction, but as a summer action blockbuster, a “Rambo of the middle ages”, thus, it can afford such loose connection actual history. However, there is a conception that the film’s appeal is not only in its cinematic qualities, but with an ideology it bears. As mentioned by Elliot, historic fiction is made to appeal to modern public moods. Thus, some critics of Braveheart, like filmmaker Steve James (as quoted in Niemi), point out that the film was warmly received not only by Scottish patriots, but also by American conservatives. It reflected their ideological position of unity of people (mostly white) in an aggressive struggle against an outside enemy. In this context, neither the historical accuracy, nor the country or the time period the events took place bare any importance, they only serve the agenda and are transformed and even corrupted if the message requires.

Recreating documented history in film

Since the invention of photography and cinema, there is a possibility to capture historic events as they were, without the human intermediate. This provided filmmakers with a possibility to recreate true stories in films with attention to detail and at the same time brought forward some creative limitations. Thus, any serious deviations from the truth can be noticed by historians and obsessive viewers, not that these limitations prevented such changes from happening. Saving Private Ryan (1998), directed by Stephen Spielberg takes place during the World War II, and is considered to be one of the most realistic depictions of the historic events.  The scenes of WWII were very well documented, with photographs, film chronicles, printed media of the time period, and numerous surviving witnesses. Thus, recreating these events in a fiction film is a much easier task, than filming the middle ages, however these possibilities create responsibility. The plot of the film is centered around the unusual mission of a group of soldiers to find and bring home the titular private Ryan (Matt Damon), whose brothers were killed in action during the D-day and in other battles on the Western front. The company succeeds; however, most of them die during the battle in the city where Ryan was situated. The plot of the film is inspired by a real story of Friz Niland, whose brothers were really killed in action, and who was taken out of the war zone. However, most of the scenario is made up.  The movie is praised not so much for its plot, which represents a typical war drama, but for its recreation of the D-day, the landing of the US troops in Normandy on June 5, 1944. That episode was a landmark of the US war history, which is an example of both bravery and horror of the war. The event was well documented, primarily through the legendary photo series by a war journalist Frank Capa made for Life magazine directly from the events in Omaha Beach (Illus. 3). These photos were used in art-direction of the film, sometimes with obsessive technical accuracy, as described in an article by Alex Selwin-Holmes: When LIFE published the photographs, a caption disingenously explained that the ‘immense excitement of moment made photographer Capa move his camera and blur picture’. Thus it was with this irony that man must bear the movie Saving Private Ryan, where the director Steven Spielberg went to great lengths to reproduce the look of Capa blur in his D-Day landing sequence, even stripping the coating from his camera lenses to echo Capa’s notorious shots. The resemblance between the film and Capa’s shots can be seen when comparing the shots (Illus. 3 and Illus. 4). Both these images and testimonies of the hundreds of survivors were used to create a memorable opening scene of the film. The scene was filmed with a handheld camera, to establish a more realistic and involving feel, and was filled with gruesome, bloody details that were never seen in a war movie before. As stated by a researcher Tom May, one of the film’s goals was “de-glamorizing” the events of war, which were traditionally shown too polished and clean.  The critical reception and the success of the film among the audience were universally positive. What’s more important, historians also praised the film for its gritty realism in depiction of the events of war and its amazing attention to details.  Additionally, the film received a lot of gratitude from the veterans, who called the scene of the D-day: “brutal… and dead on”. As mentioned above, the main plot of the movie is a work of fiction. Unlike the creators of Braveheart, the filmmakers behind Saving Private Ryan had different advantages and challenges. While one of the goals behind the film was recreating the historic events with never seen before accuracy, the screenwriter Robert Rodat had much more creative freedom in terms of writing the story and characters, not bound but the actual chronology of events and characterizations of existing historic figures. The characters in Saving Private Ryan are everyday people, who happen to be soldiers that are caught in dramatic and bloody events. This aspect of the script defined the casting choice to involve mostly little known actors, with the most famous name, at the time, being Tom Hanks. While the opening scene is famous for being hyper-realistic, almost documentary-like, the further scenes of the film are the same as in a typical war drama, maintaining the realism mostly in the visuals. Otherwise the motion picture follows the tropes of the war film genre, and while it never reaches the levels of shallowness of other historic films, it still suffers from some predictability brought by genre cannon. For example, the film is forced to use the above mentioned trope of hero’s self sacrifice. The ideological aspects of the film are also somewhat questionable. While it does succeed in depicting the war horrors, it sometimes suffers from excessive celebration of the “military patriotism”

Deconstructing historic cinema

As the tradition of historic film was becoming more stale and predictable, there was no doubt that at some point it was destined to be deconstructed by an auteur film director. An example of such deconstruction is Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) (the title is intentionally misspelled). Tarantino is a director known for his innovative approach to genre cinema and academic knowledge of film history. Both of these features are present in his take on a pseudo-historic WWII film. Much like Saving Private Ryan, Inglourious Basterds tells a fictional story taking place during the WWII. However, unlike Spielberg’s film, it deviated from both historical truth and genre tradition. Inglourious Bastards is not a straight war movie; it is a combination of spaghetti meal, a heist movie, a war drama and a dark satirical comedy. While some of the events in the film are based on real historic facts, the costumes and props are carefully recreated, at the same time plot and characters, with the exception of real historic figures, are fiction. The plot of the footage centers around a group of Jewish guerrillas, led by Lt. Aldo Rain (Brad Pitt) who conspire to assassinate the top of Nazi command during the premiere of the fictional war epic “Pride of the Nation” (which is in itself an interesting piece of satirical fiction). Surprisingly, the intentionally awkward and inept assassins manage to succeed in their attempt to kill Hitler, thus the historical inaccuracy of the film becomes obvious. In his article “Locating Mr. Tarantino or, who is afraid of metactinema” Robert von Dassanowsky argues that the film’s main aim is not just to present an alternative history for the sake of a shocking twist, but to show how the Hollywood filmmaking itself is creating a mythical version of reality. In this pseudo-reality violence can “bring forth the range of existential possibilities.” Srikanth Srinivasan mentions, that the film’s attempt at creating alternative history is not the director’s initial goal. There is no speculation whether the history would change if a successful assassination of Hitler was carried out. The goal of the film is to raise a debate, whether some historic themes, like WWII and Holocaust can even become a subject of fiction. The critical reception of the film was mixed in the USA, and surprisingly warm in Germany, as Tarantino’s anti-fascist fantasy was welcomed there as a new and fresh approach of the country’s dark history. The controversy around the film was mostly focused on the mixture of history and fiction, deemed sacrilegious by some. Another criticism of the film was aimed at its antagonist, Hanz Landa (Christophe Waltz), who was the most charismatic and likable character in the film, while remaining a Nazi with a nickname “Jew-hunter”. In the context of a typical representation of Nazis as demonized evil caricatures, humanization of such character surely caused cause more controversy, which was definitely the intention behind this character. Ironically, the Jewish guerillas act like terrorists, the violence they perform is depicted creatively gruesome and they are rather unsympathetic.  At the same time, Hitler (Martin Wuttke) is depicted as an over-the-top caricature, which further enchases the distortion of history in the film (Illus. 5). According to Srinivasan these characters represent a sort of “revenge fantasy”. Srinivasan mentions that in the film’s universe there is no mention of the Holocaust, as if Jewish guerrillas have their revenge in the fictional realm for the atrocities committed in the actual life. This conception unties their hands to perform a theatrical and very cinematic revenge. The layered narrative of the film includes multiple storylines, and a film inside the film: Stolz der Nation (Pride of the Nation) directed by Tarantino’s protégé Eli Roth (who also plays one of the major characters Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz). Pride of the Nation deserves its own analysis part dedicated to it, as it is both the center of the film’s plot, and a smart meta-parody of the war propaganda genre. The supposable masterpiece of the propaganda depicts a fictional true story of a heroic German sniper, and ironically the premiere of this film becomes the bloody massacre where the “basterds” kill all of the major figures of the Reich. The scene of fighting in the theater is symbolic; as the audience can witness how burning celluloid of the war propaganda destroys real historic figures, as if art itself erases the border between fiction and reality. Researcher Srikanth Srinivasan calls Inglorious Basterds “the most important film of the decade”, while this is a daring statement, the importance of the film should not be overlooked. After decades of romanticizing war history in cinematograph, it was the time for someone to deconstruct the genre. Tarantino intentionally goes against the tropes and expectations to point out how Hollywood treated history as the material for both simplistic entertainment and a mean of promoting politically biased ideas.

True story as a marketing gimmick

With the spreading of new media technologies and platforms, no events in the world can now be hidden. Everything is caught by ubiquitous surveillance cameras, smart phones and news coverage both by official news sources and more impartial private online blogs and v-logs. However, even with all the information out in the open, there is an overabundance of “true story” and “history” films, which distort the real facts that can be easily checked. The staple “based on a true story” has become a marketing gimmick. Researcher Derek Paget in his book True Stories? Documentary Drama on Radio, Screen, and Stage, writes: The most fundamental point to make is whenever television programme makers, film-makers, or screen/tele/stage playwrights tell True Stories, they try to persuade us to consume their product with a very particular promise – the Promise of Fact… …With such assurances the “buy” our attention, believing that audiences will suspend disbelieve more easily in the acted performance which follows. Paget suggests that the first world culture of late twentieth century “fetishises” the concept of “fact”, as the media consumers are treated with hundreds of stories supposedly based on real events. Researcher Tasha Robinson explains how this marketing gimmick works to pursue the audience that the film they are about to see bears some unusual significance: The “true story” tagline is meant to convey narrative authority, human interest, and a hint of respectability: The film isn’t some made-up stuff, it’s history. It’s real life. It’s meaningful, providing insight into the human condition that goes beyond what fantasy could provide. The problem with facts is that even when they are illustrated by surveillance videos and captured on video and photo, they can remain dry and impersonalized. This forces the creators of film products to dramatically “improve” these facts, add fictionalized characters to take the audience through the story. The label “based on a true story” means that the audience should accept the obviously dramatized narrative as more grounded in their reality, and thus, more authentic. Recently, a new promotional trend was created, according to which some obviously fictional stories were marketed as true. Horror films like Conjuring (2013, directed by James Wan) and more notably Hostel (2000, directed by Eli Roth) were supposedly based on a true story, which is absurd, when considering the content. While Conjuring is a story about real people, it is a film about ghosts, thus its basis in reality is unlikely. The poster of the film blatantly uses a tagline “based on true case files” (Illus. 6). The situation with Hostel is even more absurd, as its creators admitted that the whole thing was inspired by a post on the Internet. Despite the fact that these films had little to no reason to be called “true stories”, it did not influence the effectiveness of promoting them as such. Not that changing some parts of the story is actually a bad thing. Sometimes it is necessary to “smoothen” some parts of real life stories, to make the protagonist more sympathetic, to make accents on some facts and hide other for the sake of the sheer entertainment or conveying the message behind the film. These examples prove that the audience embraces the media selling the fiction as reality, because in the world where all information can be instantaneously fact-checked, the audience still refuses to differentiate factual information from fiction. This explains the popularity of “mockumentary” and “found footage” films, which emulate the documentary or real footage visually, while telling absurd stories about ghosts (Paranormal Activity (2007, directed by Oren Peli), zombies (Rec (2007, directed by Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza) Diary of the dead (2007, directed by George A. Romero) or giant monsters (Cloverfield (2008, directed by Matt Reeves). These films do not claim to be true, but attempt to look as realistic as possible. Hence, it is obvious that modern audience embraces “true story” films, as long as they entertain them enough.


Historical films require many resources to be employed. The more authentic the movie is supposed to be, the more money should be invested in the investigation and recreation of the time period. Thus, making big-budget historical films will remain a prerogative of large film studios, who are more interested in profit than in creative or document integrity. As a result, in the foreseeable future most motion pictures based on historic events will be made under control of Hollywood producers. These films will be subordinated to the genre traditions of entertainment cinema, because the main aim behind such films is to entertain the audience and bring incomes, and not to please the history experts. Only directors with enough authority in Hollywood circles can gain enough creative freedom to pursue their own visions, be it a documenting history in the form of film, or addressing the complex issues of storytelling. While the situation described above can seem troubling for some, it must be looked at as a creative status quo, which has both faults and benefits. An effective historic fiction, while factually inaccurate can motivate the viewer to perform his personal study to broaden the information gained from the film or to fact-check it. The casual viewer can get superficial knowledge of history from a good history film. However, there is also a danger of substitution of knowledge with mythology. The further the events depicted in the film are from the events they are based on, the more difficult it is to make the distinction between fiction and a fact. While more recent history is imprinted in documents and chronicles, the further the events on the timeline of human history, the more difficult it is to depict them. Quentin Tarantino effectively showed in his film how art can easily distort history. Thus, creators of historic fiction must bear responsibility, so future generations would not mix truth and lies and draw right conclusions from the experiences of past generations.

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