Historians are not Filmmakers

Historical films cannot be 100% accurate….. filmmakers have to entertain as well as inform.  History is often complex, unsettling, even boring.  Historical movies must strike a balance between fact and fiction; finding the proper mix is often the difference between success and failure.  Critical acclaim and ticket sales are no guarantee historians will confirm a film’s accuracy.  Fickle academics will find something to criticize- none are comfortable with a Hollywood production educating the public more effectively.  Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed film, ‘Lincoln’ is already in the crosshairs of some leading historians.

Note to historians- some scenes just work.

Note to historians -some scenes just work.

Pulitzer Prize winning Lincoln scholar, Eric Fonerdisapproves of the way emancipation is depicted in the film.  Foner suggests, “Emancipation—like all far-reaching political change—resulted from events at all levels of society, including the efforts of social movements to change public sentiment and of slaves themselves to acquire freedom.”  This makes for a fine book, and Foner’s is one of the best in decades, but a major motion picture covering that much ground?  Enough scholars have praised the picture to validate the work of Spielberg and screen writer Tony Kushner.  Historians doubling as film critics have a clear problem- forget the forest, they only care to see the trees.  They also display a fundamental misunderstanding of the filmmaking process.  Professor Foner really needs to sit back, relax, and enjoy the show….rarely are historical movies this accurate…and enjoyable.



Filed under Movie Review, News

6 responses to “Historians are not Filmmakers

  1. NEO

    Accuracy is always a problem, of course. But film’s value, I think, is in instilling a love of history. How many people got interested in the Civil War because of a film like “Glory” for example? If people get interested, the rest will follow. That’s not to say that films should be inaccurate but, nobody really wants to watch a history of the social movements leading to emancipation. Some of the elements sure, if well done, but the whole thing, who is kidding whom here?

    • There are films that are historically accurate, but they are dry as a bone…”Tora, Tora, Tora” is an example- enjoyable to a history buff, but not to audiences in general.

      • NEO

        So that’s why my girlfriend at the time didn’t like it. 🙂

        You’re right of course, and usually it’s because they were concentrating on the trees. In film, you’ve got to tell the story, accuracy is fun (for you and me, anyway) but it’s the (dare I say) romance of history that sells tickets.

        Agincourt would be a great story, if it were set in World War II, it’s the people, in great part, not the halberds.

  2. You see a variation of this sometimes in historical novels. Some of them stick so closely to an actual event that there’s no real story outside of a somewhat sensationalized retelling of the event. They are books that should have probably been written as nonfiction.

  3. This is a touchy subject with a lot of gray areas. What shouldn’t be tolerated are outright lies or blatant misinformation. The responsibility of entertainment with accuracy that non fiction authors have should be expected of filmmakers.

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