Thursday, May 31, 2018

The accuracy shibboleth in historical movies

It's a movie

A friend suggests that since I'm not a fan of movies about historical events, I will like this essay by British historian Anthony Beevor,  Beevor, with a new book to promote, seeks to shock, I think, by dissing canonical films like Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List
For a long time now, my wife has refused to watch a war movie with me. This is because I cannot stop grinding my teeth with annoyance at major historical mistakes, or harrumphing over errors of period detail.
Actually Beevor's essay makes me grind my teeth, and for the same reason I sometimes claim to dislike dramas about history.  He insists they have to be true -- and the filmmakers insist they are true.  Neither side seems willing to admit that a drama is a drama.  It doesn't have to be literally true; it just has to work as a drama.

So Beevor shouts at Saving Private Ryan (okay, he likes the opening slaughter) for not including the British role in D-Day and for offering a melodramaic story about a handful of guys trying to save one other.  It's a MOVIE, Beevor, it's a fiction, it needs plot and character; the author gets to pick and choose.  If you want relentless historical accuracy, read a book or watch a documentary.  Fiction and nonfiction both have their place, but they work by different rules.  If all you want to do is argue about historical accuracy, stick to nonfiction.

He's right that movie promoters should not announce that every historical drama they release is absolutely historically accurate in every detail (except all the parts they made up). They should defend their right to create fictions, and to be judged by the success of their drama, not by the "accuracy" of a made-up story. 

But historians should accept that fiction is fictional, and judge it by fictional criteria, rather than tediously insisting that every big-screen drama be fact-checked and footnoted like a doctoral dissertation.

[Thx, Andrew Stewart]

PS. My wife and I do watch movies together, including historical movies. We thought "Dunkirk" was a decent film, I think, and even if I had known of Beevor's complaints about the altitude of the fighter planes, I can't see I would have cared much.  It's a drama.

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