Saturday, August 8, 2009

Most Annoyingly Inaccurate Historical Movies

This list needs some clarification before continuing. What I mean by “annoyingly inaccurate” is movies that are based of historical subject matter, deviate from the historical record and wind up with something terrible. While I am a big history fan and I love it when a period is accurately represented (i.e. the Name of the Rose), I don't think huge deviation is an unforgivable sin unless it is done for reasons that personally annoy me.

I think a great example of this is the movie The Thirteenth Warrior. I'm sure that, to a lot of people, this was a brain dead, generic medieval warrior movie. However, I think the premise (taken from Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead) was actually pretty cool. The goal was to create a very loose retelling of the Beowulf epic, combined with the theory of neanderthal survival into the Dark Ages and told from the prospective of real life Arab historian Ahmad ibn Fadlan. For me, the very idea stirs the imagination and even though there are loads of historical inaccuracies (the Vikings using weapons and armour from all sorts of inappropriate places and time periods, a total misrepresentation of Viking vs. Arab horses, etc.) I think these were probably intentional. The concept is a mashup of a whole bunch of mythical, historical and biological stuff so such inaccuracies only add to the charm. A great example is how the Norsemen are represented as filthy. While in truth they were just as, or more, clean than most peoples during the period, the story is told from the perspective of Ahmad. All we know is how he saw things, not things as they actually were.

Other movies however, do not far as well. They misrepresent history but for no good purpose. The movies on this list rob the viewer of a glimpse of another time period and offer a vision or message that is either completely uninteresting, or downright stupid. There are countless movies that could easily have made this list like Rob Roy or Pathfinder which I did not include for various reasons. Rob Roy is inaccurate but is faithful to the book and is also totally awesome. Pathfinder is inaccurate but it's so terrible in general that I don't find its inaccuracy to be all that annoying. I find its very existence annoying and therefore it would be a candidate for films that I generally despise. Kingdom of Heaven was a million times better but I find its inaccuracies to be extremely annoying. Hence, it's on the list.

Why isn't Alexander on the list? Well, although that movie is bad (and inaccurate) what annoys me most is that the movie was boring and horrible, not that it was inaccurate. Hence, it's not on the list. One dishonourable mention I have to give out is to King Arthur. In some ways, it should almost be number one because it tries to make mythical ideas seem plausible and that they might be based in fact. It then totally screws this up by creating something that's just as unbelievable as the myth but without any of the charm and personality of the legends. However, again, this film has way worse going on in it than mere historical inaccuracy. Three out of the five movies here take place in the medieval period because it's the time period I most care about. Also, movies that take place in the ancient world (Gladiator, Troy, Spartacus, etc.) usually do better for some reason.

5. Braveheart
I enjoyed Braveheart when I first saw it and I can still bring myself to watch it every so often. Unlike Oliver Stone's Alexander (whose movies have a real penchant for fucking up all manner of history be it classical, political or rock music), the inaccuracies drag down a film that's still entertaining. It's probably because the movie feels less like it's trying to be a bones to balls accurate representation of the past. The weapons and armour are pretty much dead wrong and it looks like it takes place in the Iron Age or something, rather than 100 years AFTER Kingdom of Heaven (I know it takes place in Scotland and all, but the English should look more impressive at least).

But what really annoys me is how they messed up the battles. The Battle of Stirling Bridge (depicted sans bridge and river in the movie) was way more than a bunch of screaming men charging at each other. It's stuff like this that propagates the myth that there was no such thing as military strategy between the Romans and Napolean. The movie also does a terrible job of portraying Wallace as a great tactician, as his bright idea is to “use spears... long spears...” to impale cavalry. A critical observer might rightly ask, “Why hadn't the Scots done this before? Did they not have axes? Is there something in their water making them stupid?” The technique of using schiltrons demanded a lot of training and preparation because they were expected to remain in a variety of formations and move around both offensively and defensively as the situation needed. It was hardly the “Quick, pick up these sharpened logs before they figure out what's going on!” approach depicted in the movie. Moreover, in reality, Wallace also used the schiltrons during the Battle of Falkirk where, in the movie, they are suspiciously absent. My guess is that they didn't want to show them at that point in the movie because it was Wallace's major defeat and they didn't want to make it seem like a bad idea or something.

But this brings me to another point. One of the main reasons he lost was because of the presence of Welsh longbowmen, something that was totally unprecedented and for which it is understandable Wallace had not prepared for. Wouldn't it have been cool to see Wallace, a man already established as a great leader and bringing something new to the battlefield, only to be beaten by another secret weapon that was the fruit of Edward's brutal conquest of the Celtic peoples? But no, it'd be better to see him simply betrayed by his friends (including Moray which I don't even have the time to go into) and see a bunch of idiots mob the field. This also robs us of a more accurate glimpse into Edward I who was also a brilliant military commander. His victories weren't entirely dependent on his huge bankroll that allowed him to pay people not to fight him.

But the worst is the relationship between Wallace and the Princess of Wales. The possibility of such a thing happening is beyond ridiculous. They never sent her unprotected into Scotland to talk to Wallace, she never went up to the tower of London to talk to him, she never met him in person. It's more likely she would have had an affair with Robert the Bruce. “But she didn't meet him either”, you might say. EXACTLY. To top it all off, the movie tries to give the viewer the impression that the whole Plantagenet line dies with Edward I as she's carrying Wallace's kid and she plans to depose Edward II. Well, it's true that Isabella did depose her husband but you'd be wrong to think her son was any friend to the Scots. Edward III spent the first few years of his rule removing power from his mom, executing her lover and then testing out the newly completed English longbowmen armies on his northern neighbours. The only reason he didn't finish the job and take over Scotland entirely is because he had bigger fish to fry: France. He just wanted to kill as many Scots as possible with minimal effort so they wouldn't bother him when he went away.

The cherry on top of this mess is the ending scene, which is not only unhistorical but also nonsensical. In it, Robert the Bruce stands before his army, preparing to go have his crown endorsed by the English. He then decides that he's not going to suffer this indignity and leads his men to charge the fields of Bannockburn, where, we are told, they win their freedom. First of all, if Robert the Bruce was successfully crowned king, and the English supported it, they would have, by definition, won their freedom. The Simpsons' equivalent of this would be the McBain scene, “I surrender!”, “Not so fast.” . The whole reason Bannockburn had to be fought was because they hadn't won their freedom. So basically most of the film was complete crap but it was still mildly entertaining. The fight scenes, while retarded, have a visceral impact that I don't find in many war films. Imagine how much better it could have been if it was made by people that actually respected the time period they were trying to film.

Oh, and they also fucked up the longbowmen.

4. Kingdom of Heaven

One of the problems with Kingdom of Heaven is how close it came to being one of the most accurate medieval period movies ever. If you want to see a pretty authentic representation of medieval weapons, armour and their use, you need look no farther than this film. The scene where Godfrey is teaching Balian fencing and the fight that immediately follows it is one of my favourites in any movie. I especially love the German character's invocation of Trial by Combat, an actual method of dispute settlement according to medieval English law (although I think the scene happened in France but you get the idea). Moreover, there was fertile ground here for a good movie as the downfall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the beginning of the Third Crusade is pretty cool subject matter. Unfortunately, the whole thing crumbles in the face of the complete misrepresentation of how politics and religion played into the events the film depicts.

Ridley Scott's message in this film seems to be something like, “the more things change, the more things stay the same.” He makes a movie where most of the problems between the various foreign and domestic cultures in the middle east are caused by religious zealots, whose violent and fundamentalist interpretation of their own faith leads them to be intolerant of any other belief system. The movie ends with a black screen with the powerful lines “...nearly a thousand years later, peace in the Kingdom of Heaven remains elusive.” In other words, “Then as now, if only more people were as religiously ambivalent and politically liberal as Balian and the other protagonists, the middle east could be peaceful.” Well, it's pretty obvious that a lot of the problems that plague the middle east now are not the same ones as a thousand years ago, and to think so demonstrates ignorance of Muslim history more than it does knowledge of the Crusades. 

This bone-headed message is not only utter bullshit, it completely goes against one of the main reasons history is interesting. It is a huge mistake (and highly arrogant) to think that people have perceived the world the same as we do today. Trying to get a handle of the mentality of a few connected nations who left behind a wealth of written records is pretty much a full time job for classicists. History never repeats itself and to present the conflicts in this way is not only misleading, it's lazy. There was no such thing as the religious tolerance Balian spouts about all faiths having equal claim to the Holy Land and in trying to create a lead character we could all identify with, they created a hero who is both ingenuous and generic. 

They also missed out on some really cool political intrigue by making the aggressively religious people the primary antagonists. Guy of Lusignan was never a Templar, and is a prime example of a continental European and newcomer to the Holy Land creating political turmoil. Making the Templars the “bad guys” again misrepresents history and presents us with a story far too simple and bland to be satisfying.

Ridley Scott and the scriptwriter William Monahan have made statements that they are aware of their film's inaccuracies, but that they had to be done because without them, we wouldn't understand the truth about the period. Yeah, you need to misrepresent the past so that people won't misunderstand the past. Makes perfect sense. This is the biggest insult to the intelligence of the audience and merely shows that Ridely Scott, the supposed artist, is willing to cow tow to the lowest common denominator like everybody else. 

The reality is that Scott has an opinion about the state of the modern Middle East and he totally screws with the historical record so he can clumsily shoehorn his message into his tale about the past. By doing so, he robs us of learning information that is not only fascinating, but information that he implicitly promised by dressing his film up as authentic history. In short, the movie was incredibly annoying with some fantastic scenes and an impeccable design aesthetic.

3. The Passion of the Christ

One thing that might spare the Passion of the Christ from this list (and almost did) was the fact that the events in Christ's life have no truly definitive historical form. Mel Gibson's interpretation is really no more or less right (from a historical perspective) than The Last Temptation of Christ or Godspell. I don't want to embroil myself in a religious argument quagmire, but the telling of Jesus' life is not one that can be told in a way that would satisfy the historical record. All versions would involve some amount of fiction. Now, I'm not saying Christ didn't actually ever exist (there is enough evidence to satisfy most historians and we usually assume other figures (like Pericles or Pythagoras) have lived even though we only have third hand information about them as well). But because the life and deeds of Christ also conform to mythological accounts that predate his life, there cannot help but be some myth-making in the tale. This is not bad and is only a problem if you're some kind of biblical literalist (in which case you are beyond intellectual redemption anyway). The Catholics know about this and it is nothing to be threatened by. Moreover, Mel has never claimed that his film is an accurate portrayal of history so it's not Kingdom of Heaven style false advertising.

So, why is this film on the list? Basically, because of popular assumptions about it. As movies have developed, budgets have grown and special effects have improved, films become more realistic (or at least more visually powerful which, for some, translates into realism). Take Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Don't get me wrong I like this movie, but I know that when this first came out (and even to his day) audiences felt like they were getting a more authentic experience because it was “up to date.” That this Robin Hood was more true to life or the legend because it looked totally bitchin' when he shot that guy in the face. In reality, it's no more true, just more amped up and 90sesque (again, I think the movie is awesome). The same is true, only far more so, with the Passion of the Christ. For example, because everybody is running around speaking Latin and Aramaic, people assume that it's probably the most accurate film about the period. 

The irony here is that the Latin the Romans are speaking is the ecclesiastical Latin of the Medieval church, not the classical Latin of the period. Moreover, the film lacks the true universal language of the time, Greek, which would have been used by both Romans and Hebrews to communicate. Small and anal points, I know, but they are very telling ones. The movie has a lot of detail that would make one assume it was historically accurate, but in reality they are just details of the religious fantasy that only exists in the religious framework Mel believes in. 

The use of ecclesiastical Latin, nails in palms rather than wrists, styles of clothing and social terminology were deviations that conform to the Catholic tradition, not to the facts of the day. These were intentional on Gibson's part because the film is a religious message, not an account of history. However, because of the big budget, optical and computer effects, over-the-top violence, overacting and, most of all, all the trappings of apparent historical authenticity added by Gibson, everyone seems to think that THIS is the film that delivers the straight dope on JC. Like all other filmmakers didn't have the ability, budget or balls to make the REAL story. Look at that blood, man! It's real! Look, I didn't cut away like most movies when the cross-nailing happens! You know why? 'Cause it's more real, man! Genuine Roman cat-o-nine tails? You know it! Check out Monica Bellucci's boobs! All real, baby!

I even met someone who thought it was the duty of all humanity to watch this film so we could truly feel Christ's pain and sacrifice. Like it was goddamn Schindler's List or something. Let me tell you something: religious or not, if you think you're closer to understanding and feeling Christ's suffering because you watched a movie, you might need more help than modern medicine can provide. You need to go to Abu Ghraiband and receive a waterboarding or something. 

If watching a man get whipped and beaten to a pulp for hours on TV is a religious experience, then myself and the boys of my generation are about the most religious people you'll ever see. I was addicted to Mortal Kombat for a few years so I can only imagine how many epiphanies I must have had while I uppercutted three heads off Sub-Zero and threw him into a pit of spikes. People have denounced violent movies and games and say that they incite violence because children get confused between movies and reality. I don't know about kids, but that assessment is certainly true for the Jesus freak squad (and they are legion) who venerate this film and its authenticity.

2. The New World

Don't get me wrong, the Europeans were pretty cruel and immoral in their invasion of the Americas. It's a huge issue that takes way too long to deal with properly so I'll just say: yes, the Europeans weren't very nice to the natives. I know this, you know this, everyone knows this (even the racists who think it was justified know this). However, it is this message that predominates this spectacularly boring film at the expense of historical accuracy.

I'll give you an example: You know how the Europeans were a pretty greedy lot, right? How can we fit this factoid into a movie that's only a mere 150 hours long? Well, what do greedy people do? You guessed it: they dig for gold. From pirates to Scrooge McDuck, human (and uh... I guess, avian) greed is best summed up by gold lust. Also, the English settlers in Jamestown famously needed the help of the natives through that first winter right? How do we establish this? Like I said, we don't have all the time in the world here. I know! We'll kill two birds with one stone by establishing that the settlers couldn't support themselves because they were so busy digging for gold, they forgot to grow crops, go fishing or even DIG A WELL. That's right. Clear-thinking John Smith is able to help out his fellow countrymen because he is able to see through the gold mine bullshit and convince them to dig a well for drinking water instead. John comes up with this bold plan, fresh out of his stay with the natives. While living them, he saw their idyllic life where apparently they sing and dance all day and pick fresh food off the ground. 

Things aren't so easy for the English settlers because they spend so much time being evil and European that they turn their village into a small-scale version of the Warsaw ghetto. But when he goes back to Jamestown, he is made the leader (they killed the old one you know) and is forced to deal with the aforementioned drinking water problem, infighting, disease, starvation and, worst of all, snotty-nose English boys who can barely speak their own language and look they they came straight out of the world of A Clockwork Orange. All the while with a really bored look on his face. Most of his solutions involve him walking around looking really disappointed by everything and wishing he was somewhere else. Tell me something: if John Smith learned so much about the sanctity of human life from the natives, why does he look like he's just waiting around for all his fellows to die so he can go back to Pocahontas rather than actually doing something to improve the situation?

I could go on about this forever, but the point is that the movie is historically inaccurate because Terrence Malick wanted to say more about European colonisation than would fit into the events of the film. The full scope of European cruelty and greed couldn't be seen in the real events, so the solution is to make all the European problems a result of the fact that they were basically immoral and not, you know, embarking on a mission that was difficult and dangerous by its own nature. And forget about his portrayal of the natives as peaceful and with no concept of ownership. In real life, they attacked the town within a few weeks of its founding without provocation! I'm not saying they were wrong for not wanting the Europeans there but the film omits these facts for the sake of its unhistorical message. I've got way more to say but it would take too long. Suffice it to say, this film annoys me.

1. Timeline

As you may have gathered, a big thing that annoys me is the sacrifice of history because of some kind of message the filmmaker wants to spread. Kingdom of Heaven, the Passion of the Christ and the New World exploit historical people and events for the political and religious statements they are trying to make. What annoys me further is that they are not up front about this and allow their films to masquerade as fact when they know full well that it's complete bullshit. If you want to railroad the past to prove some ill-advised and uneducated opinions, at least have the balls to own up to it. 

However, this is not so with Timeline. Timeline is simply one of the stupidest movies about the past ever made and it does this for absolutely no reason I can perceive. “Wait!” I hear a hypothetical person in my head cry. “So was Pathfinder, and that didn't make your list!” But the very concept of Pathfinder (what would happen if Vikings fought the Native Americans) makes the end product unsurprising. What is infuriating about Timeline is that it's based on a book (another one by Michael Crichton) that was not only really good, but actively denounced the sort of historical prejudice, arrogance, laziness and stupidity that possessed the filmmakers who created this garbage. Whereas, the novel worked hard to dispel commonly held medieval clichés and falsehoods, the movie brings all of them back and more.

I tried re watching the film for the purposes of this list but I am at a loss of what to write. Even the action is terrible which, yet again, was masterful in the book. Apparently a lot of it was done by medieval reenactors which goes a long way to explaining things. Nothing gives combat in the middle ages a worse name than the likes of the SCA, and their “style” is all over this tripe. You'd be better off calling in the local D&D club for your fighting needs. But seriously, it's so thoroughly bad it's hard to pick out highlights of awfulness.

Simply put, the movie got everything from both history and the book completely wrong and just about any medieval movie would be better. And that's saying something because most of them suck. And could somebody please tell me why they keep casting Gerard Butler in various period films in which he is never Scottish? The hypothetical man now cries: “Sean Connery is Scottish and he's been in many period films where he's English and even Russian!” I know. It works because he's a good actor with stage presence. I don't buy Butler as a Geat, Dracula, a Spartan King or the Phantom of the Opera. Even the idea of him as a modern man who travels through time and would fit in the medieval period seems hard to swallow. The only film I could imagine liking him in is a biopic about Gerard Butler, and his daily activities of eating, sleeping, getting his mail and starring in movies as a time and space displaced Scotsmen. I don't have much to say about Timeline other than it is the epitome of historical crap films and there is absolutely no excuse. The only book they would have had to crack to make a decent film is the very one it was supposed to have been based on.


Cole D'Arc said...

there's so much to this list the only response i can really conjure is: well done.
and your line about biblical literalists was quite amazing.

RyHo said...

Well done, sir. This is a list that would most certainly beg for sequels. Already I can hear you deriding Gladiator.

Also, feel free to move forward a few years and tell us how much you enjoy Pearl Harbor, haha.

Sam said...

I knew you'd nail them on the longbows Burns, you scholar.

Shane Patenaude said...

Great list again. I thought your points on the Passion were awesome, and hilarious.

Anonymous said...

Good analysis of almost all the films on your list with the exception of your "rant" about Timeline that was not specific at all but you conveniently excused yourself b/c you were so overwrought that it was so bad. Sorry, I don't excuse you. You may be right in your conclusions but absent any specific explanations, who is to really know? In the end, your rant is what you accused some of the directors of, pure laziness.

cole d'arc said...

sorry anon, he's never going to read your comment. you're way too late to the party. but thanks for reading.