Tuesday, March 29, 2011

I'll take "Truth in History" for 200

by Gina Welborn

A couple weeks ago a college-aged friend of the family asked if she could come over and watch a couple movies: Seabiscuit and Remember the Titans. Since we owned both movies, we decided to make it family double-feature night. Son Jadan (11) wasn't interested in watching "not another stupid horse movie." The best punishment in the world for him is to make him watch Flicka. (Note to self: Remember that next time he "forgets" to do his book report.)

Anyhoo, the reason our friend had to watch these movies (and a couple others) was because she was learning in class about the Liberty Valance Effect, coined by comedian and actor Robert Wuhl in his HBO series, Assume the Position.

"When the truth becomes legend, print the legend." ~Who Shot Liberty Valance?

Now while I believe Mr. Wuhl made some valid points about how we've allowed historical facts to be embellished, I also realize that he views history through very liberal-colored glasses. (There is a reason Israel Bissel isn't a house-hold name.) However, the point Wuhl was making was that the public generally doesn't care if something really happened that way as long as the re-telling is engaging.

Or do they?

Initially people believed the "scientific evidence" in Al Gore's documentary, An Inconvient Truth. Yet, in the last several years, that evidence has been debunked (read here or here or here or here).

In the past, I think it was easier for movie makers to get away with historical inaccuracies. But with the internet at easy disposal, it's far harder for them to get away with perpetuating the Pocahontas Myth  (more info here).

This past Saturday night, the kids and I watched Secretariat. Oh, it was an enjoyable family film -- for all of us, minus Jadan and his anti-equine sentiment -- but when I got to reading about the inaccuracies, I was more apathetic than bothered. (Read here and here for info on inaccuracies.) Yes, they could have written a better and more truthful script. When the Secretariat wasn't in the scene, I was bored. What actually bothered me the most about the movie was the feminist and anti-war propaganda subtly snuck in.

Well, the reading of about the Secretariat's historical inaccuracies lead me to reading about the ones in Seabiscuit.  One man wrote a review titled "Seabiscuit: Hollywood Filmed the Legand, Not the Fact!" Of course, that lead me to one called "Historical Liberties Aside, Seabiscuit is an Excellent-Piece of Movie Making." Even though I had read Laura Hillenbrand's book and did a bunch of googling after watching the movie, I didn't care so much about the liberties taken because I enjoyed the quality of the movie-making. That slow first 45 minutes where the main three characters are developed is my favorite part of the movie. I cry every time Howard cradles his dead son's body. Of course, I also was annoyed by some of the liberal glorification of Savior Federal Government, and had to ignore that narrative aspect.

While I enjoyed the movie-making aspect of The New World (Colin Farrell is John Smith, Christian Bale is John Rolfe), I was utterly annoyed by the inaccuracies. When I watched Kingdom of Heaven (Orlando Bloom), I reached "annoyed" by the 15-minute mark because even though I'm not a middle ages expert, I knew enough to be annoyed. I googled the historical facts as soon as it was over. To this day, I will not watch the movie again.

Funny thing is A Knight's Tale (Heath Ledger) is a movie I will watch again and again. Why? Because the directer knew he was taking liberties. He did it intentionally.

"[Director] Helgeland also jokes in the commentary that he chose 1970s music and hairstyles for the movie because 'the seventies are always the same,' regardless of century. More seriously, Helgeland justifies his use of music by speculating that even during the 1370s, persons in the main characters' age group would've enjoyed newer, more contemporary music than something that had been around since their great grandparents were young, and opted to use music that would affect the audience the same way late 14th century music would've affected the youth of the 1370s. Thus, Helgeland attempted to stylize the movie in such a way as to bring the Middle Ages to the audience, rather than force the audience into the Middle Ages." ~Wikipedia, A Knight's Tale.

"Bring the Middle Ages to the audience."  I like that because when I'm reading a historical romance, that's what I want the author to do. Bring the time period to me. Don't force me into it. I can read a non-fiction history book if I want that.

QUESTIONS OF THE DAY: How do you feel about historical inaccuracies in movies? Do you tolerate them as long as the movie is enjoyable? Does your enjoyment waver when you know women didn't wear hoop skirts in the later 1800s?

Let's get more specific.

What movie's inaccuracies were so blatant that you refuse to watch the movie again?

What movie's inaccuracies don't matter to you because you loved the movie despite them?

Gina Welborn worked in news radio scripting copy until she took up writing romances. She is a 2009 ACFW GENESIS historical romance finalist and a 2007 RWA GOLDEN HEART® inspirational finalist. As a member of RWA and ACFW, she’s an active contest judge and coordinator. Her inspirational historical manuscripts have also finaled in the Daphne du Maurier, Duel on the Delta, Dixie, and Maggie contests. This Oklahoma-raised girl now lives in Richmond, Virginia with her youth-pastor husband, their five Okie-Hokie children, and a Sharpador Retriever who doesn’t retrieve much of anything. Her first novella, “Sugarplum Hearts,” part of the HIGHLAND CROSSINGS anthology, will be released by Barbour in January 2012.


  1. I like the point about bringing history to the audience and not forcing them into it--making it natural through the story.

    And A Knight's Tale is one of my daughter's favorite movies. Okay, I'll admit that I like it, too--most of it. Hmmm...think I'll have to study up and see if Chaucer really ran around naked all the time.

  2. I agree with you 100% about A Knight's Tale. I was thinking of that even before I reached that point in your post.

    Of course we all know the peasants didn't chant "We will rock you" in the stands during the tournament and that they didn't jam to grunge music at the medieval ball, yet it works. In areas that matter, the movie is very accurate. And actually, I think they added in some modern touches that really fit the spirit of that time period. The peasants of that day did in fact have their own chants, so that detail fits.

    Love that movie. Especially the portrayal of Chaucer. He cracked me up.

  3. Sandy, I'm pretty sure Chaucer did have a gambling problem. So getting beat up and his clothes stolen always seemed pretty reasonable to me.

  4. This proves it's been too long since I saw A Knight's Tale...have I even sat through the whole thing? I will fix that.

    I think I only worry about historical detail if I am trying to decide whether or not to use it as reference in my head for fiction I'm writing. (what an awful sentence)

    It's probably a fact in every movie so I go into it with those expectations and hope for a good story. Example: Prince Albert never took a bullet for Queen Vic but it made a great scene in The Young Victoria.

    Oh, and how cute is Heath Ledger in that movie? Love the dance scene. Who cares about historical detail there?

  5. The only glaring historical errors I've noticed lately were in a book with a tornado and a copperhead in NW Colorado. Um, not.
    This will sound terrible coming from a pastor's wife, but I cringe visibly when I watch most Bible-history movies, particularly the way Jesus is portrayed.
    Talk about needing to bring the characters and the story to the audience instead of forcing the audience into the time period!

  6. Sandi, my older kids like A Knight's Tale too. Wasn't Chaucer naked because he lost his clothes gambling?

  7. Deb, since you mentioned Young Victoria, I liked it too. And I overlooked the historical liberties they took because I enjoyed the overall story. How well was the movie received in Britain?

  8. Niki, I didn't watch the Passion of Christ in the theatre like hubby and oldest son and their friends and our extended family. I waited until it came out on dvd. Seems like hubby was gone on a youth trip because I watched it alone with the idea that when I cried, I could do it openly.

    Only I didn't cry.

    Not a bit teary-eyed.

    All I thought of were the myths and charicatures (sp?) that have been perpetuated about Jesus and the other lead characters in the movie.

    I had one person tell me that she didn't think any person could be a Christian and not be emotionally impacted by the movie. I'm fairly certain I rolled my eyes at her.

    Maybe Anita will share about her feelings about True Grit.

    What about other historical movies that had historical inaccuracies?


    Pearl Harbor?

    Saving Private Ryan?

  9. In related conversation, is anyone planning on watching the Kennedy miniseries (Greg Kinner, Tom Cruise's wife 3)?

  10. If I'm drawn into a movie so deeply that I can suspend my disbelief, then I'm not bothered by the inaccuracies. It does take a lot for me to get caught up that deeply, though, and then the inaccuracies really bother me. I can't recall a specific example right now.

    I am bothered by it more-so in books. But what bothers me more is inaccuracies in the news and that people tend to believe things that aren't true just because they said it on the Today show. Your Al Gore example was perfect. I won't share my example here because it's a political hot-button and I don't want to go there :-)

    I don't plan to watch the Kennedy mini-series. Not because of politics, but because I'm just not interested.

  11. Suzie, I'm really interested in the Kennedy mini-series either. Oddly, my oldest son is. I can't figure that out.

  12. I suppose if I wrote historicals, I'd have more issues with anachronisms. Most of them pass me by. I did read a historical mystery where the detective referred to something as 'hinky' a decade or two before the expression came into existence. I can't say it bothered me, but I was quited pleased with myself for catching it.

    But Niki, I'm with you. I have serious issues with many supposed Biblical movies. The portrayals and inaccuracies don't just irritate me--I get practically violent.

    Gina, while I probably won't tune into the Kennedy miniseries, I found it amusing they referred to it as the "most anticipated eight-part movie event of the season." I wonder how heavy the competition was!

  13. Gina, this is my opinion on why we're not interested vs why your son is. We (our generation) have been inundated with an endless media fascination of the family, as well as conspiracy theories, etc. news relating to them, and for me - I'm burned out on them. It's not that I don't care, it's just that I'm saturated with Kennedy info.

    But to your son, it's new and exciting info.

  14. Oh Gina - horse movies! Except I haven't seen Secretariat yet.

    True Grit? Well okay - I saw it last Friday. It was the first movie I've see in an actual theatre in the past 2 yrs. Yes, pathetic, I know. And that was even in the cheap seats. And after all the hype about this movie, I really wanted to be entertained.

    Yes, I was entertained, but I wasn't blown out of my seat except by 2 historical inaccuracies:

    - the movie is set in 1878, but the women wore hoop skirts. Historically, hoops were mid-19th century civil war era and went out of fashtion when the bustle appeared in 1873.

    - the dialogue in the movie didn't contain contractions. I found this very disconcerting because I've several books from this time period and contractions were definitely in use. Yes, the use of contractions is a personal thing, but usually, those who didn't use it were from a higher social status than those portrayed.

    Would I watch it again? Probably not. But then, I've watched A Knight's Tale - and I won't watch it a 2nd time either because I can't get into it when they mix periods like that. When I take time to watch a movie, I want to forget everything and be there in that time.

    Anita Mae.

  15. Anita Mae, you definitely don't want to watch Robin Hood from the BBC. Though your hubby and son may love it.
    It's a mishmash of centuries too. Crazy. But because they kind of use the anachronistic feel, it becomes part of the entertainment. Fun and fast paced.

    Truth is I didn't watch it for historical accuracy.

    I might watch the Kennedys, but it will be at the bottom of my Netflix Queue. 8 parts? But maybe not. I'm old enough to remember a lot of that stuff the first time around.

    But I admit to being a real nut about The Royal Family. Inquiring minds want to know...

  16. LOL, Barb. I can't see how the Kennedy mini-series was the most highly anticipated anything. Maybe because the Kennedy family made such a stink that the History Channel who produced the mini-series agreed not to air it.

    Suzie, good point about it being new and anticipated info for my son.

    Anita, I haven't seen True Grit, but I have to say no use of contractions sounds stilted. I fine with one character, but all of them?! I think I read several bloggers and movie reviews criticize the Coen Bros. for this choice. As far as hoop skirts, how could the costumer have made that blunder?

    I like Seabiscuit enough to watch it again even though I know the liberties they took.

    With Secretariat, probably not. I wanted more about the horse and less about Penny. I remember thinking "Why hasn't her husband left her?" Oh. It's a Disney movie. After the research I did on Secretariat and Penny Tweedy, I'm saddened that the producers didn't opt for a better and more true-to-life script since many people who lived through all that are still alive.

  17. I found contractions in dialogue in Jane Austen, so none in TG sounds ridiculous. It was the West, for goodness sake.

    I am thinking about A Lion in Winter. Incredible movie. Didn't happen in real life. Who cares when you have Peter O'Toole and Catherine Hepburn on one screen?

    Historical movies aren't the only ones that suffer from inaccuracies that drive me crazy. I can't take how, for example, blind people are handled in movies, esp. those with guide dogs. Um, we never count steps. Stupid thing to do. Every time one changes shoes, one's stride changes just a bit, or if you have to go around an obstacle--oops, there goes the count. And the 90s movie I have forgotten because I gave up on it aat this point where the girl is in an airport, holding someone's arm while holding the dog's harness--you drop the harness when taking someone's arm--and counting steps at the same time. Why in the world would she need to count steps in the airport and while holding someone's arm? But this is done again and again and again in movies and shows and books. My eldest sister says this step myth started with that 70s movie Butterflies are Free. So I had to watch it. Stupid portrayal. Embarrassing really.

    But people believe what they see on film like they believe what they read in books.


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