How important is accuracy in historical films? I guess that depends on who you ask. I personally don’t mind if my historical films have only half-baked truths in them. Allow me to explain.
Recently, Christopher Nolan’s new film Dunkirk was released to universal critical acclaim. (Full disclosure: although I intend too, I have not seen it yet.) The film covers the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France in 1940. The true story is pretty amazing; the British military was in deep trouble, surrounded by Germans and on the brink of disaster, but a coordinated effort by the Royal Navy and civilian ships saw hundreds of thousands of lives spared.
I follow a lot of historians on Twitter, and I was interested in what they would have to say about the film. I’ve seen every one of Christopher Nolan’s films, so I knew the movie would be enjoyable, but I was curious how historically accurate it would be. Most historical films take a great deal of narrative license when telling their story, so I’m always interested in how close a film adheres to the truth and where it strays.
I could give you a breakdown of the licenses Nolan took, but it’s much easier to link to historian James Holland’s review of the film. He gives a detailed account of what he liked about the film and where he takes issue with the liberties they took. Dunkirk is no exception when it comes to fudging the historical record. But the larger question that should probably be asked about this film and every historical film is: Does it matter?
I could give a long list of historical films that I love: Gladiator, Elizabeth, Lincoln, Tombstone, Braveheart, Schindler’s List, Lawrence of Arabia, Saving Private Ryan, Patton, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford…and that’s just to name a few. All of these films, in my opinion, succeed as pieces of art and entertainment, and every time I watch them I leave impressed and sometimes moved by the way in which they speak to the human experience. But they all share the same common flaw; none of them is completely accurate.
Take Elizabeth, for example. The first time I saw this film, I knew practically nothing about Elizabeth I of England. The defeat of the Spanish Armada and that she was the daughter of Henry VIII was about the extent of my knowledge. After watching Cate Blanchett’s magnetic performance in Elizabeth, I was electrified. There were so many great moments in that film (many of them involving Geoffrey Rush, who played Francis Walsingham). In my eagerness to know more about Elizabeth, I got Alison Weir’s book The Life of Elizabeth I. Imagine my shock when, at the end of the book, she gives a complete breakdown of all the film portrayals of Elizabeth I, and torches Elizabeth, pointing out the infinite deviations the film had from the historical record.
After learning about the true life of Elizabeth, I now realize that the film is deeply flawed. Francis Walsingham did not poison Mary of Guise. Henry, Duke of Anjou, never personally courted Elizabeth and wasn’t a cross dresser. Robert Dudley wasn’t a part of the Ridolfi Plot. There are many other historical inaccuracies that the film contains, and it also plays incredibly loose with ages and dates. Nevertheless, I still enjoy the film and think Blanchett’s performance is one of the best by a lead actress that I’ve seen in a while.
The irony, however, is that I would never have bought Weir’s book if it weren’t for that film. I realize, as I stated initially, that my experience is probably atypical. I’m more invested in history than the average person, so most people probably won’t purchase a biography of a film subject. But such people do exist. It’s why a historian like James Holland writes lengthy posts on his personal site about the historical facts of Dunkirk; because people like me, who have an interest in the film, will do the research and find out the truth.
No one should be using a film as the basis of knowledge for historical fact. While some films strive for accuracy more closely than others, film is first and foremost a vehicle for story, not accuracy, and as such a certain amount of narrative license is to be expected. In some cases, you can probably make the argument that a better movie could be made sticking closer to the facts. But regardless, I think a historical film that plays with facts is still better than no historical film at all. There’s always a good chance that an entertaining film can awaken interest in a subject with which people were previously unfamiliar.