Why Historical Accuracy Matters in the Movies

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The triumphant march of The King’s Speech through this year’s movie awards season has revived the old question about cinematic accuracy when it comes to representing history.  This time around, the tendency of The King’s Speech to enhance George VI’s role in rallying the English people against Germany in World War II, at the expense of Winston Churchill (who actually played a far greater role), has the commentators commenting.  Given the important role that films play in our culture, it is worthwhile to subject the matter to a semiotic analysis as well. Defenders of at least a certain level of historical inaccuracy in movies, who include Professor Jeanine Basinger in a recent piece in The Washington Post, argue that movies tell stories, and when it comes to storytelling it is the human drama that counts, not historical accuracy. Such an argument has a pedigree that goes all the way back to Aristotle’s Poetics, wherein Aristotle proposed that the writing of poetry is more serious and philosophical than the writing of history, because history is tied to what has actually happened while poetry gets at the universals in human experience. And indeed, Shakespeare played very fast and loose with the facts in his own history plays, for example, having a young Prince Hal defeat a young Hotspur on the battlefield in Henry IV Part 1, when in fact Prince Hal was neither present at the battle of Shrewsbury nor really old enough to take on Hotspur (who was more than twice his age) at the time. Clearly, there is a strong tradition behind the argument that historical accuracy is not of primary concern in movie making. Still, when it comes to cultural semiotic interpretation, context is everything. And at a time when most people get all of their historical information from the movies, historical accuracy becomes all the more important. Consider the notorious case of Gone With the Wind, which, while telling the story of a strong-willed and indomitable woman who can has a certain universal appeal, so badly distorts the realities of the antebellum South that legend has it a Boston woman was moved to exclaim upon watching the burning of Atlanta scene in the film, “Those damned Yankees!” It would be nice if audiences would cross check facts after watching a historical movie (as we advise our students to do when using Internet sources), but watching a film is not a scholarly act and most viewers are unlikely to do this. This puts a great deal of responsibility upon movie makers, who have the power to make heroic figures out of the often less-than-heroic (as in, for instance, A Beautiful Mind) and to rewrite history for a mass audience. Sure, it’s great when a movie gets people to pay attention to history—and a good story is certainly better at that than is what Thomas Carlyle called “Dryasdust” history writing. But in the end, a movie does a disservice to the audience if it doesn’t get the essential facts right.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.