27 thoughts on “Playing Fast and Loose With History, Part I: It’s Not New

  1. Hi Trystan, do you know about Geoffey Matt’s brother’s blog? An Historian Goes to the Movies. He did a series of posts about why movies can’t be historically accurate, which seems a useful tangent to your essay

  2. I think one of the issues is that nowadays, too many viewers take movies and television as truth, pretty much viewing the “historical” presentations as documentaries. ( They probably actually believe Henry VIII was a slim brunet.)

    The problem is less one of the purveyors of false history presenting “interpretations” of fact than it is that modern audiences don’t bother to make themselves aware of the true history.

    And I love that you topped this article with Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots sitting together when they never in reality met face to face. You are a sneaky little thing!

    1. I definitely plan to cover the “viewers take movies and television as truth” issue bec. there have been studies going both pro & con, & I’m not sure how conclusive that is. I wonder if it’s more something that we (the fans of history) are more concerned with than anyone else? Is it just movies/TV? I mean, some ppl think George Washington had wooden teeth & chopped down a cherry tree & could not tell a lie, yada yada yada, & that folklore came along way before the cineplex.

      Ultimately, I think history is not a big concern to the general public, along with other Big Picture topics like, say, geography (see: polls that show a majority of Americans can’t find Iraq on a map, even tho’ our country has had our military in that country for a decade).

      And thanks for noticing the top image — in that 1970s movie, QEI also meets King James to arrange her own succession. It’s a humdinger :)

  3. Given that it’s probably next to impossible to completely accurately portray a specific historical event, my concern mostly is that if it purports to be in a specific time and place that it be portrayed as accurately as possible. Leave the drama to the characters, not to the costumers, armourers, etc. I think we all want our ‘reality’ to be as real as possible, but we don’t necessarily need to see someone in the toilet to know that people have to do those things. If the producers claim their product is the story of William Wallace, then it should bear some reasonable resemblance to the facts as they are generally known. There’s “interpretation’ and there’s rubbish.

    1. Playing devil’s advocate a bit, I wonder how many movie & TV productions really feel they are trying to ‘portray a time & place as accurately as possible.’ I’ve only heard a few recently state that as a goal, such as Wolf Hall. The Tudors & Reign blatantly say that historical accuracy is not their aim — at least they’re honest about it :)

      1. I don’t think accuracy in any way HAS to be anyone’s goal — all goals are equally valid! But anyone who knows accuracy is free to evaluate any historically-set media.

        1. I believe there’s accuracy and accuracy. Much source material is open to interpretation, but there are cold, hard facts that should not be messed with, such as Henry VIII’s appearance and Elizabeth I’s interactions—or lack thereof—with Mary, Queen of Scots Next thing you know, Richard III will survive Bosworth, and Julius Caesar will die of natural causes..

  4. The problem, as I see it, is not that films and tv shows aren’t being historically accurate. They problem is that they’re being dishonest about not being historically accurate. Many historical films seek to use the notion that their film is historically accurate as a selling point. They claim they are offering us the unvarnished truth, that history is ‘what happened’ and their film is telling us about what happened just the way it happened.

    But historians don’t actually study what happened–we can’t, at least not until someone invents time machines to enable to watch it unfold. Historians study the written documents of the past, and those documents have to be interpreted, put next to other documents, and built into a narrative that is only a perspective on the past. Documents have all sorts of biases, lies, omissions, mistakes, and other limits, and that means what we’re actually studying is an assemblage of viewpoints on the past.

    So what these historical films are doing is basically misrepresenting what history is, what can know and not know about history, and how profoundly different people from the past can be from us today. Sometimes this distortion is relatively small but sometimes it’s horrifically large.

    By the way, I love your blog. Costuming is one of the things I always feel like I need to comment on, but it’s somewhat outside my wheelhouse, so I love intelligent analysis of historical costuming.

    1. “Documents have all sorts of biases, lies, omissions, mistakes, and other limits, and that means what we’re actually studying is an assemblage of viewpoints on the past.”

      This is one of the things I may try to get into — whatever we consider as Real History is still an assemblage, it has bias & omissions & retellings. Does it have the equivalence of a plastic water bottle left on the 1920s mantel? Did it make Thomas More out to be a jerk or a saint? Where do we draw the line & say it’s worth snarking or we give it a pass & say “artistic license”?

      I don’t always know, & I think it’s always up for discussion!

      1. As I commented on The Imitation Game, I think ‘artistic license’ is only a defense when they’re actually doing something genuinely new and creative. When they’re just rehashing the same old cliches, I think snark is an appropriate response.

  5. I find it irritating that film and television producers feel the need to make history ‘exciting’- its already exciting!
    We have a cultural bias that the past was a dull place. I believe that some of this stems from our obsession with modern technology and how much ‘better’ it makes us, as though having skype and GPS makes us smarter as a whole- sure, people 400 years ago didn’t know about electricity, or germs, but drop the average person into the past and we would be just as confused and useless.
    This mistaken sense of superiority over people of previous eras creates a mental barrier- Why should we be interested in those guys?
    So when a studio makes a historical film that is highly inaccurate, the average person will not only be oblivious, but they won’t really care either way (as long as its entertaining) because ‘history is boring’.

    1. Considering how many really unpleasant ways there were to die in the past, especially in a place like the Medici or Tudor courts, I would think that life might often have been a little too exciting. Psycho rulers, plagues, religious wars, dicey medicine. Hard to get bored, I would think. On the other hand, they didn’t have reality shows, unless you include public executions.

    2. “We have a cultural bias that the past was a dull place.” Very true. I tell my students that history is the most interesting thing one can study, because everyone one is interested in has a history.

    3. “We have a cultural bias that the past was a dull place”

      Yes! And it’s so wrong bec. history is full of wild & crazy events (as noted below). I know a lot of this is glossed over by the U.S. school system, which makes history into boring memorization of dates & names.

      1. To add to the teaching aspect, my experience in observing my secondary level history teacher peers has been that, while they definitely have to fight society ‘s perception that “school, at least in America, does a terrible job of selling history as fun, fascinating, entertaining, cool, interesting, or at all relatable to your own life,” that has not been the case for the last decade at minimum. It certainly was the case in the 70’s when I was in high school, but I haven’t seen it in today’s schools (at least in California). Teachers work very hard to make history dynamc and relevant, and Common Core actually focuses on looking at primary sources. What we do have to battle is shows like the ones on the History Channel, that absolutely purport to present “the real story” and which people tend to take as “true facts”… the overtly fictional “historical” productions are more forgiveable but also more insidious, as the viewer’s acceptance of the context is less conscious. But then there’s the student who came into my Shakespeare intro (I teach literature) telling me he knew all about Shakespeare and Elizabeth because his mom had seen (and told him the “history” from Anonymous… our task is uphill! But thanks for fighting the good fight! (And for this series, which I seem to have missed when it first came out).

  6. Something you said about the costuming for Shakespeare’s era reminded me of what I learned in a class on Medieval lit (perhaps irrelevant): costuming in the passion/miracle plays was contemporary, as in the Jewish High Priest wore a bishop’s cop and miter, for example. I don’t know if they ever tried to go for Biblical era clothing or even a draped cloth for a toga. In my opinion, some of that was shorthand for the watchers. What would a crowd of Yorkshire Christians know about Jews–contemporary or historical? But they all knew what a bishop wore! They understood the authority level from that. And so on and so on. And I believe the old plays were still being presented in England when Shakespeare was a boy. I wonder what prompted the change for more accurate costumes?
    (I’ve seen modern productions of passion plays–the Devil wore a leisure suit and the scribes wore bookies’ visors!)

    1. Yep, theaters would use costume iconography that contemporary audiences were familiar with. In a way, you could say designers are still doing that — the teen audience watching Reign knows that haute couture is what rich ppl wear, so that’s what a queen should be in, right? OK, I’m stretching, but it’s the same concept.

  7. I have a couple of comments to make:

    1. Yes, history has been made boring IMHO because history has been presented in a patriarchal manner; that is, battles and rulers are emphasized over costume, art, or everyday life. The college classes that fired up my interest in history were Humanities I & II, Costume History, and art history of various sorts. I am a reading specialist and for content area reading, I always tell teachers to augment their history books with biographies of people who lived in the period. Or show or assign movies, which, if inaccurate (often the case), you can critique with the class. There’s a reason a study was done that showed readers paid far more attention to a Time-Life book about history than a regular text.

    2. I wish you ladies would cover more ancient history movies/television productions. I am most fond of ancient history, though I surely can’t claim to be an expert in the area. I just watched “Tut” on Spike, a three day mini-series where viewers are shown New Kingdom royalty with hair, rather than wigs, which upset me. Come on, surely they could have at least shortened the leading lady’s hair in a style like Cleopatra in “Rome” over which she wore a wig on special occasions. As well, the leading lady in “Tut,” a daughter of Nefertiti did not wear authentic eye makeup. She looked like the cover of Vogue Iran or something. Boo! Still, I guess I should be happy we’re getting a story about pagans — when I was growing up, pagans rarely existed in a story onscreen unless they were getting ready to throw Christians to the lions or mistreat Jews.

    I love your blog!

    1. I just read Herr Professor Doktor Larsen’s blogs. He’s absolutely right, of course, it is truly impossible to make an historically accurate film for all of the reasons he cited: the expanse of time in which actual events unfold, the relative value of each individual to the whole (there are no stars vs supporting characters, no heroes vs villains), lack of information about what people actually looked like (not always an issue, since some likenesses are available), etc. So, in fact what we are concerned about, is really “historical costume drama.” If the producers want to call it historical, rather than fantasy, then they should strive to clothe, arm, feed, and entertain the characters in ways consistent with what is known about the era in question. Otherwise, it’s fantasy. It’s usually as easy to get it right as not. I remember the hoopla over “Forever Amber” before it came out: the “Saturday Evening Post,” a leading magazine of the day, went on about the ostrich feathers that cost $75 each (in 1950s dollars) and the research, blah, blah. So the movie came out with everybody in (Hollywood) 1620-40 clothing except George Sanders as Charles II, who was in something close to right, and all those men with their padded shoulders.

    2. ‘biographies of people who lived in the period’ — SO GOOD! Yes, that would make history eduction a million times better than it typically is. That would be relatable *and* fascinating to a broad audience, IMNSHO.

      I’ll tell you why we haven’t gotten around to covering more ancient history movies/TV — we don’t feel qualified to comment on the costumes! Our areas of knowledge start in the middle ages, around the 14th century, & go forward in time from there. Most of us have watched the TV series of “Rome” & “Spartacus,” plus classics like “Cleopatra” & “I Claudius” but other than knowing the storyline history, we generally don’t know much about the costume historical accuracy. So we’re at a disadvantage for commentary. Doesn’t mean we might throw these shows a bone for a TBT or s’thing, but we tend to not get in-depth lest we be totally talking out of our asses :)

      1. Trystan, for ancient world costume dramas you might want to get some guest bloggers here at Frock Flicks … Claudia or Julia (SCA ladies who do great Roman stuff) might be talked into it.

      2. How about fantasy? Not so much a matter of specific knowledge, but of artistic merit and taste. If you want to see metal snark, get onto the comments about women’s armour and the ‘chainmail bikini,’ especially from the HEMA contingent.

  8. Having had the dubious pleasure of working on a number of History Channel-type “productions” as an historical consultant, I would give my opinion and then eight out of ten times my advice would be ignored, sometimes for inexplicable reasons. At least the paychecks cleared the bank (mostly). :-)

  9. Michael wrote: “If the producers want to call it historical, rather than fantasy, then they should strive to clothe, arm, feed, and entertain the characters in ways consistent with what is known about the era in question.”

    But how often do the producers “call” their work anything? I’d say it’s usually we viewers (and especially we costume-and-history-enthused viewers) who label the work, and then find it falls short.

    Perhaps what’s needed are disclaimers along the lines of: “This is a work of fiction and our creative imaginations. We’ve used certain real-life historical figures and events as jumping off points. We do not claim to have tried nor succeeded in recreating all aspects of life during this time period with historical accuracy. We encourage viewers to learn about history and identify all our errors.”

    I’m kidding. But maybe only sort of.

    I think the question you’re really asking, Trystan, is whether filmmakers have any responsibility to be as historically accurate as they possibly can. And if they can’t or won’t, should they say so right up front? This will avoid misleading the cluelessly undereducated, and possibly limit the perpetuation or creation of misapprehensions about historical events (or people, or fabrics).

    In short: Is it ever just/solely art? Or is there always some responsibility inherent in portraying the past?

    I think it’s a valid question.

    Also, I can certainly back up Adam’s comment that no amount of historical consultation will trump budget limitations, time restraints, and/or what happens to be available from Western Costume at the time of shooting.

    1. “Is it ever just/solely art? Or is there always some responsibility inherent in portraying the past?” Yep, I do want to poke at that issue — because it’s not cut & dried, black & white. I think there’s a whole lot of variation, many factors at play.

      When a movie like The Imitation Game begins with a title screen saying ‘this is based on a true story,’ most ppl take that at face value & think that the events portrayed pretty much happened as they are shown in the film. Contrast that to a show like Reign, which never makes a claim to being a “true story” at all. I was more disappointed in The Imitation Game & felt like it it did a far greater disservice to history & the film’s subject than Reign ever does because Imitation Game tells the audience “this is supposed to be history.”

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