Confusing Fact with Fiction:
History in Hollywood and Literature
“Keep away old man, you won’t fool me — you and your History won’t rule me.” —The Who, Slip Kid
“You can run out your Rules – but you won’t outrun the History Train.” — Paul Simon, Peace like a river
By Charles Jeanes
The Braveheart model
I am of two minds about historical fiction. I like that it can teach history while entertaining people. Yet, I am often upset by the very poor education it provides, and the ability of historical films to convince people they truly know about the past because they have seen it with their own eyes.
My bête noire is Braveheart, the Mel Gibson film about William the Wallace, medieval hero of Scotland’s war of independence against England. Gibson should be notorious for his historical film work and its misinformation. He also made The Patriot, and Apocalypto, movies about the American Revolution and the Mayans, respectively.
But he makes films the public likes, and millions of people who have seen his history-based stories imagine they now know some history about the times and places that are the settings of his films.
They do not. I will not waste my time enumerating the factual errors and deliberate distortions of historical fact that Gibson perpetrates; but suffice it to say here, if readers have seen a Gibson history movie, and think they learned some history, they ought to read some serious historical studies of the period of those films, and get the story straight. Otherwise their ignorance will be hidden behind an illusion that they have acquired some knowledge of history from the films.
Abusing History in fiction
I fully appreciate the challenge a fiction writer/ film maker has to overcome in creating an historical movie or novel while meaning to tell a story that keeps the interest of people who will not read a scholarly history or documentary film. History does not always deliver a good story with easy plotlines and a feel-good conclusion. It is tempting to simplify in the interest of pleasing the viewer/ reader. But history is about real lives, and life is not a simple tale.
Facts about what happened in history are of course disputed, but a truly great historical film would take that into account and convey the actual ambiguity about people in the past and the things they did. Any film or book that has the intended purpose of elevating an individual to the status of hero is going to be a poorly-told story. Any use of history in the service of making readers or audiences believe only in a positive version of events, with a political agenda of instilling pride in one’s nation or culture, is an abuse of history.
We should keep in mind the words of the Dave Mason song: “there’s no ‘good guys,’ there’s no ‘bad guys’ — there’s only you and me, and we just disagree.” That is a good rule-of-thumb for writing or filming a story based on conscientious historical records.
The Immortal Bard, William Shakespeare himself, was not in the least interested in my opinion. He did not share my prejudice against abusing historical fact to tell a story. All his historical plays are grossly inaccurate as history and anyone who thinks they know something factual about an historic figure featured in a play by Will, should think again. He was writing nationalist propaganda and pleasing the prejudices of elites and the popular tastes of English audiences. What Will knew of history he learned mostly from one writer, Holinshed. Historical scholarship in 1600 CE was in its infancy.
Character in Fiction and true Biography of historic Figures
The character of a great figure in history may be rather more complex than one can depict in a film of 90 to 140 minutes; it is easier to simplify and leave out a great many of the facts about such history-making individuals. But to do so is a mistake.
There are peculiarities and mysteries of human character that do not make it probable that anyone is without flaws, and an historic figure should have their defects on display with their nobler qualities. (The film of Gandhi’s life with Ben Kingsley in the title role was too sparing of the Mahatma’s more difficult qualities, for example.) It is just as indefensible to try and portray an historic person as a negative character in all ways, to create a villain at whom we can all direct our hatred.
It is just not true that any human is without virtue; we have an obligation to try and understand why others act as they do from motives we can sympathize with. That extends even to a film about Hitler; he did not engage the affections of millions of Germans for a considerable time because he was a moral monster.
We owe it to former enemies in past wars to try and understand how they perceived the world — and why they fought against us who are of course “the good guys.”
Mel Gibson is without any scruple when he shows his heroes better than other men and his villains nastier. King Edward of England is made out to be quite horrible in Braveheart, while Robert the Bruce is portrayed as inferior to Wallace in character, all for Gibson’s goal of making Wallace appear like the stereotypical American war hero who fights for freedom alone.
Stereotypes are the bane of good fiction. I’d agree there are probably archetypes in human mythology whose qualities are discovered in most heroic leaders, but depending on worn clichés of heroism and noble leadership to tell a story will render that story uninteresting.
Fiction that deals with historic wars is the most difficult of all to write or film, because wars have such heavy emotional baggage for people who live in their posterity. Winners and losers in a war that was fought in living memory will read the book and see the film and react from their experience of that war and its impact on their lives and the lives of those they know. No one has neutral feelings about a war that ruined their land or killed millions of their people.
Hollywood has made a great number of films about the Viet Nam War, but I know of none that have been made to show a Vietnamese perspective – I am sure there are some, but they have none of the cultural power of Apocalpse Now, The Deer Hunter, or Platoon. Americans were traumatized by that war; now the Iraq war has given them another trove of stories to tell, and again the Iraqi perspective is sadly hard to find.
Wars of the deeper past are easier to tell stories about since the participants are dead, but that does not guarantee there will be fair representation of the past – as Gibson’s one-sided medieval Scots war film shows, having not the slightest interest in balancing an English view with the Scots’. I have seen films about the Hundred Years War between England and France (fought from 1337 to 1453 CE) that take only one side and vilify the other, as if it is still a matter of national pride for English or French audiences.
There are few nations today with a film industry that do not make war films with a political agenda motivating the story. Canada, under Stephen Harper’s guidance, has begun producing vignettes of history from such heroic events as the War of 1812 and Confederation. During the Afghan Mission, CBC Radio produced a drama called Af-Canada. I thought it wretched pro-war dreck.
However, it is worth saying that some very good films about WWII have been made in recent years, which portray combat in extreme detail and do not unnecessarily demonize the foe. Saving Private Ryan and Fury are two films I would recommend without hesitation, and Schindler’s List does an excellent job of showing us the meaning of Hitler’s final solution of “the Jewish problem;” watching a particular story of a microcosm in one town, we absorb the much bigger story of the macrocosm across all Nazi-occupied Europe.
No doubt the reason the quality of these films is much better than earlier WWII films has to do with the passage of time and the acceptance of Germans back into the West, as a major economic power and a staunch NATO ally.
Keep the Famous Names of History peripheral to the Story
I would offer one piece of advice to writers and filmmakers: do not make fictionalized stories “based on actual events” with a very famous historic figure as the focus. If you choose to make a great leader of history your focus, then you might as well make a documentary biography that is factual history.
It is far more interesting to do as Cecelia Holland does in most of her historical fiction: invent a wholly-fictitious character whose story is told, while that character moves in a thoroughly-detailed setting true to the life, cultures and minds of the period; the story only involves the high and mighty “factual” people of history in cameo roles, so that there is no need to create what amounts to a biography of an actual historic person. Your protagonist can be a very complex character, but there is no limit to what traits you invent because there is no history to account for. Shakespeare’s Falstaff is such a personage.
Holland has imagined marvelous people, such as Tsin in Until the Sun Falls, and Raef in The High City – persons who never existed but have interactions with Mongol kha-khans and Byzantine emperors. Reading her, I have learned a great deal of history that is factual and been motivated to research even more.
So, to emphasize the point, I advise creators of historical fiction, do not make a real and celebrated figure of history the protagonist of your story.
As a happy by-product of your entertainment, you may be educating readers and viewers about life in the past, because you’ve worked hard to describe the religious and cultural, political and social norms of another time and place and people as background, while telling a good tale as the foreground.
The highest accolade to pay to someone who writes historical fiction is to say, “after I read your book/ saw your film, I went online /to the library and found a reliable history of the times when your story is set.”
A film recommendation
In concluding this pitch to my readers about the value of high-quality historical fiction, I would urge you to see one film, which is in fact a stage play. The History Boys by Alan Bennett is not mostly concerned with history, but rather with English education. While telling a charming story about schoolboys, the play has deeply thought-provoking things to say about the study of history and what historians struggle to do. But you have to listen carefully to the dialogue about history to get that.
I liked this film so much I bought the DVD, an almost-unprecedented purchase for me.
Go now and get started reading any fiction by Cecelia Holland, or viewing historical films by the BBC documentary channel.