Bad History in Movies

30 Jan

by Tom Thompson-

In class Thursday we spoke about movies and their role in public history. However, they are often of dubious accuracy. The one that makes me yell at my TV is the movie Pearl Harbor. In it, the character “Rafe” (Ben Affleck) jumps in a plane at Pearl Harbor to fight the attack (which actually happened). But he subsequently fights in the Battle of Britain and is a pilot on the Doolittle Raid. In historical time the Army would have had to have sent Rafe to train and fight on these various missions all within the space of four months.

Do you have a movie or book that bothers you because of its inaccurate portrayal?

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2 Responses to “Bad History in Movies”

  1. Jeff Manuel January 31, 2011 at 3:54 pm #

    Great questions, Tom. The movie that professors love to show in class because it’s so ridiculously bad is _The Patriot_ with Mel Gibson. But I wonder if we could flip the question around to ask whether some movies help us to understand an era *better* than academic history, either because of a compelling narrative or an overall emotional effect. I saw _The King’s Speech_ this weekend and I was struck by the beautiful backdrops of apartments in 1930s London. These were movie sets, of course, and not perfectly accurate historical reconstructions, but they left me with an emotional impact that was, I think, far greater than a perfect historical simulacrum could’ve achieved. What do you think?

    • Becky Johnston February 24, 2011 at 9:40 am #

      Movies can add emotion to an event that no one living may have experienced before or few have known. They can add those human details that a book can never have. But, we still have to take them for what they are: entertainment. The writers/producers/director/etc. take their creative license when giving their interpretation on these past events that can echo more of their perspective on what happened than what actually happen while trying to keep a wide audience engaged in the film. Any public form of history falls prey to this. If the story isn’t deemed exciting enough, it has to be made exciting. Also, past events don’t always translate well into concepts of the present and the past cannot always be perfectly recreated. Movies, and even documentaries, have a time limit that force the historical context to be summarized so that the focus can be the event itself. This requires interpretaion of what is necessary. Growing up, my favorite movie was Young Guns. It was what sparked my interest in history. I read every book I could get my hands on about Billy the Kid, then to the Lincoln County War. What I realized is that it is impossible for the movie to incorporate every single person and action that was connected to Billy the Kid, even during such a brief period of his life. People were combined into one character and events were tweaked because of the lack of information and to fit the story the movie was trying to tell. But so much of the necessary context is ignored for the sake of time and entertainment. It does give the sense of the chaotic time and the life of cowboys and outlaw. But, when looked at more closely, it is not very accurate.

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