One of my pet peeves as both a student of history and a student of film, is that so often the two mix like oil and water. The students, I mean. I have heard many discussions where the historians discuss an upcoming "Historical film" and go out on a limb to make everyone understand that "things didn't happen that way." I have also heard similar discussions from film critics, who, absent any knowledge of history, feel the director or "artist" has a responsibility to bring out the emotion and story and shouldn't have to worry about facts. In other words, when it comes to art one must require carte blanche.
I believe that most of these discussions occur within groups of pointy-headed and uptight cultural elitists. (I oughtta know, I have observed them in their natural habitats. Ahem.) Most of what I am talking about has to do with their attitudes towards the audience. Some issues lie within how much academic historians distrust "popular history" and the general public's perception and understanding of it (For some reason they can't figure out why their monograph on the evolution of the toothbrush in 17th century in the Atlantic world never flew off the shelves).
Also some critics and film makers have issues with how things really happened in the past, and their reluctance to be bold enough to address them in an honest way. ("Historical notions of class and courtship? Pish posh! We have to put a modern spin on it! And, all the white guys are the bad guys. Don't forget!")
Me - well, I take a different view. What we have are essential forms of communication: film and books or teaching. When I go to a movie, I generally do not expect to see a museum documentary (which, if we are being honest, also have their slants). And when I go to a museum, I generally don't expect to see CGI, Russell Crowe, or a car chase. In essence, I believe there are a lot of people who understand the difference. That is not to say I don't believe film makers have a responsibility to some degree of accuracy when portraying a historical time or figure, I do. I also believe that historians and writers have a responsibility to accuracy and to working towards a better understanding of the past as well as some degree of objectivity. In other words, I believe that the two sides can learn from each other. And I believe that films, with some accuracy, can take some creative liberty with events, etc. as long as it is done responsibly. It is, after all, entertainment. And this entertainment can lead to more learning and understanding of the past. Film makers should use historians, not just as consultants, but as launching pads; ways to introduce and discuss the film. As long as they are upfront about what they are doing. I tend to be wary of the film maker who claims his film is the "true story," because, that is not always possible. Point of view, experiences, and biases always play some role in any narrative form, whether it's film making or history. An excellent demonstration is Kurosawa's great film, Rashomon.
By the same token, historians shouldn't be so quick to condemn or judge. They have got to get out of the ivory tower every now and then. They need to realize that films can be the springboard to further learning. I had a professor who showed several "Hollywood" films and then led a discussion on what was the real story and what wasn't, and encouraged us to read more about the subject, now that we were interested. It's much like what we talked about, in regards to history books- interest is half the battle. That professor got it. He understood that he would be more successful in making sure the real story was understood, not by trying to fight the film, but rather by incorporating the film in the discussion, weighing its pros and cons, and capturing that interest.
Someone else who "gets it" is film maker Ridley Scott. I have been enamored of the four disc director's cut of his film, Kingdom of Heaven. The film didn't do that well at the initial American box office, for two reasons. Primarily because the studio forced cuts which should never have been made. Many critics, after seeing the theatrical version, didn't like it, but have since retracted some of those criticisms upon seeing the director's cut. Many said that it was the version that should have been released. Fox made a critical area in that regard. Secondly, historians, critics and political pundits lambasted the film from all sides. Christian critics had problems with it because it portrayed the Crusaders too harshly and was pro-Muslim. Muslims critics stated that the film wasn't accurate and too harsh in their portrayal of Muslims. Historians took issue with everything. All of this came out, before the movie premiered. These two issues really hampered the film with movie goers.
Then came the DVD. Ridley is not afraid of discussing, not just how the film was made, but also why he made certain choices that he made. He is also quick to point out "I'm a moviemaker, not a documentarian. I was brought up on Ingmar Bergman, and in The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring, he brilliantly touched on areas where you can talk about religion without any discomfort. I try to hit the truth. We try to show both sides in a very balanced light." And it's not just about balance, as it is about making a film, with some accuracy to history, but also acknowledging where things are fictionalized and what was the real story. The 4 disc DVD set includes a documentary feature with several historians and theologians called "Creative Accuracy", which discusses the actual story and historical figures and what was accurate and what was not. This is somewhat bold, but wonderful, as there are several features in both the two disc and four disc versions which attempt to discuss actual events and what in essence is a movie. Ridley uses the DVD as way to springboard into discuss of a subject he is passionate about and a movie he clearly loves. The scriptwriter, William Monahan, also discusses his lifelong research and interest in the crusades, and how Ridley and Tony Scott sent him every book he requested for even more research while finishing the script.
In the the great commentary track, Ridley discusses why he loves to do historical pieces, and why it's important try and get it right: "I love to create the world, which I know I keep saying this, and I've said this before, but I actually think the real enjoyment is in creating an environment and a world that you feel lives, within which you are going to put your characters. And that's going to become one of the characters in the movie;, how the movie is presented. So standing here, on a daily basis, in January, on the foothills of the Pyrenees, with all these people dressed this way, eating medieval food, with horses, shoeing the horses, the smell of the burning horn on the [horse's hoof], I really felt like I was at that particular period. And that is really one of the thrills of doing this, and the smell of the livestock, the smell of the chickens...and you are literally in a time-warp. You've got a modern unit standing in a time warp. Thats if it's done properly. And that's my job, that's one of my big additions to what I do as a filmmaker; to make sure the whole world that I am dealing with is real."
Ridley also "gets it" about DVDs and the audience. When discussing on the commentary track about the cuts the studio pushed for, he explains that flashback scenes with the main character's wife (who is dead in the beginning in the film) were among those requested to be cut by the studio. He explains that audiences understand the story, and if the studio and film maker are willing to trust the audience, so to speak, they will appreciate nuances and more scenes that expound the character or story. He states "I think there is a tendency today to say 'Let's get to the story quicker and we're going to put the film out to movie houses.' I think the value of this digital market is that people are more willing or more ready to sit at home and actually enjoy the longer version. Thank God for DVD." Ridley Scott is one of the few directors today, who understands the home DVD market and audiences, and appreciate that a director can really give them something to enjoy and value after they have left the theater. His different DVD sets of films like Kingdom of Heaven, Gladiator, Blackhawk Down, and even Legend aren't double dips. I haven't thrown my other sets away or sold them, when I've gotten the extended sets. There are great extras. My Kingdom of Heaven set has become a virtual five disc set, including the bonus disc of the two disc set.
I heartily recommend the four disc Director's cut of Kingdom of Heaven. Here is the DVD Times review for you to check out.
I put no stock in religion. By the word religion I have seen the lunacy of fanatics of every denomination be called the will of god. I have seen too much religion in the eyes of too many murderers. Holiness is in right action, and courage on behalf of those who cannot defend themselves, and goodness.