Ridley Scott’s epic 2005 movie Kingdom of Heaven, about the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187, has been widely criticised by historians for its lack of accuracy. Even while the film was still in production, Cambridge historian Jonathan Riley-Smith called it “nonsense” and “Osama bin Laden’s version of history”, while Michael Haag wrote that “Scott revises history wholesale, or rather makes it up.” He concludes his review by stating that “there is nothing that bears much relation to historical fact”.
Whatever the historians may have thought, the film won critical praise – Rolling Stone declared that “Scott delivers rousing entertainment” – and took more than US$211m at the box office. The New York Times critic Manohla Dargis described the film as “an ostensibly fair-minded, even-handed account of one of the least fair-minded, even-handed chapters in human history”.
So who was right? On the one hand, the professional historians – or the critics and the public? Which rather boils down to the question of whether filmmakers should be educating their audience, or entertaining them.
Film can only go so far towards creating an absolutely accurate portrayal of the past. At the most basic level, historical accuracy is impossible due to the nature of film production realities such as using actors, costumes and sets to recreate the historical narrative. Even if these achieve a consensus of accuracy among historians, these aesthetics only create an illusion of the past.
Filmmakers must rework an episode from history to become a marketable narrative that will be attractive to audiences and provide a financial return for investors. In the “definitive edition” of the DVD of Kingdom of Heaven, screenwriter William Monahan explained the need for writers to compromise history: “You use what plays, or can be made to play, and you don’t use what doesn’t.”
In her 2007 book History Goes to the Movies: Studying History on Film, film scholar Marnie Hughes-Warrington recounted the frustration of historian Natalie Zemon Davies on trying to work with filmmakers. Collaborating with the directors of the historical film, Le Retour de Martin Guerre (1982), Daniel Vigne and Jean Claude Carriére, Davies complained that “aspects of the story were compressed, altered or even left out”.
According to Hughes-Warrington, Davies “wondered if film was capable of handling and conveying ‘the uncertainties’, ‘the perhaps’, the ‘may-have-beens’”. In other words, there are limits to the way historical movies can create a narrative that will satisfy historians.
But where are audiences going to get a better taste of what life might have been like centuries before it was depicted in newsreels? As American medievalist and film scholar, A Keith Kelly put it: “What no print over centuries of writing has been capable of achieving toward an appreciation of medieval warfare, films like Braveheart and Branagh’s Henry V can accomplish in minutes.”
In other words, despite film’s limitations in providing the required factual detail, the medium can provide an audience with an experience that provides the appearance of historical authenticity.
It would take a whole article to detail historical inaccuracies in Mel Gibson’s 1995 blockbuster Braveheart. The politics are oversimplified into a consumable narrative of good Scottish versus bad English. But this egregious lack of historical accuracy didn’t prevent the film winning five Academy Awards (including best picture, best director and best cinematography) and taking more than US$210m at the box office.
Documentary film can provide a deeper level of scrutiny but the assumption of historical accuracy is still problematic. Documentary filmmakers must compromise on accuracy and details to construct the desired “narrative”. For example, the documentary Crusades: Crescent and the Cross, focuses on the first crusade, the rise of Saladin and his conflict with Richard the Lionheart and skips out the rise of the all-conquering Mamelukes. This creates a narrative that depicts the third crusade as the climax of the crusades – which actually continued for another 100 years.
But it’s just too simplistic to assert that audiences can’t tell fact from fiction. Two studies – one from the US and another from Australia – suggest that people are more inclined to trust books and the work of academic historians and museums than they are to believe movies or TV shows.
So, not even the audience expects filmmakers to educate them – and the numbers show that historical fiction is profitable when the film is an enjoyable experience rather than an accurate retelling. A historical movie is not a history lesson, but historical fiction, which provides a level of authenticity that sets a story in a commonly perceived historical reality.
If audiences don’t expect 100% accuracy, then why bother comparing these fictional narratives to works of historical scholars? It’s necessary neither for box office nor critical success – but good historical movies can inspire people to find out more about the period being portrayed. And comparing the difference between the historical fact and the movie fiction enables the viewer to analyse not only what the filmmaker perceives about the period, but what the filmmaker is using this historical reality to say. After all, as we’ve already heard: “You use what plays.”
Patrick Masters, Lecturer in Film Studies, University of Portsmouth.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.