Historical Accuracy in Films

Joe Masters

Historically accurate movies that are also captivating have an immense burden to meet. To capture the essence of the time through a personal story that captivates movie executives who regularly make movies with Steven Seagall and Bruce Willis seems an almost insurmountable task. But difficulties in sales aside, there are two crucial elements for movies about history to be the most effective they can be. These elements are historical accuracy in a personal story, and a sense of hope.

Historical accuracy does not mean trying to encompass everything that happened in a particular time period. Rather, it requires a story that highlights key elements of the period involved while containing nothing that could never have happened in the time. For example, for slavery, the key elements certainly include slave family life, slave work, master-slave relations, the master's family life, and the financial situation in which slavery exists. Each of these general categories can be broken down further; for example, slave family life would include living quarters, families being separated, families coming together, and the essential problem of creating a personal identity in an inhuman institution. But again, the historical veracity of an historical film does not mean the film must represent everyone throughout that time period. Such a film would be pretty boring. Also, an attempt to represent the "average" slave life would probably result in a banal story. So the answer for historical accuracy in movies must lie in finding an original story that hits on the key points of the era while not disabusing realities of the period in question.

Historical accuracy is not the only requirement for a fantastic historical work. The key in illustrating history through a personal story is to have it contain a strong sense of hope, even in the most devastating circumstances. The reason for this is that, for a story to be the most powerful it can be, it must be understood with the brain as well as the heart. It must have an intellectual question as well as an emotional feeling. If a film is based mainly on emotion, then any ideological feelings about the practices of humanity in the past may be lost with the sickening of the heart. Titanic is a good example of this effect. It is only secondarily a story about the Titanic. Primarily, it is a fictional love story; Romeo and Juliet on the sea. Yes, it does attempt to give some social commentary on the horrible treatment of the peasants on the Titanic. This is most memorable in the scene of the musicians playing as the ship goes down. But any cerebral problems this movie might pose are literally drowned with Leonardo DiCaprio's character Jack. The torrent flow of tears by moviegoers at Titanic replaced the thoughtfulness that characterizes films that have a more romantic sense of righteousness. Too much emotion floods the senses and the brain takes a back seat to depression. Because the most powerful movies stimulate in every way they can, they must reach the brain. And the only way to do this in a personal story about a tragic situation in history is to give the viewer hope, and in turn, make the story more about the bigger picture than the immediate tragedy.

Of the movies we have watched for class, only three satisfy these criteria. One, The Last Supper, because it is a foreign film on a tighter budget, is more about an incident than a personal story. But in a way, this incident tells us perhaps more about the institution of slavery in Cuba than simply an account of the Count's or Sebastien's life. This film is based on a true story, and although the event in reality was most likely far different from what happens in the movie, it is enough to know that the events are at least similar. What matters most is that it could have happened in the atmosphere of the time, and The Last Supper is very good at getting across the zeitgeist of Cuban slavery. It reveals the major reactions to slavery by the slaves and free men, even though that is not the focus of the film. And even though the end is ostensibly a disaster - the Count has compared Don Manuel to Christ and killed most of the slaves who were at the Last Supper - there is