History on the Big Screen - The Modern Moviegoer Loves Historical Cinema
The performing arts often turn to the history books to find their next story. Shakespeare wrote lavish plays depicting the lives of English kings, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice dominated the 1970s with their biblical-themed blockbuster musicals. Tales of heroes and villains, medieval and modern, get plastered onto our Netflix homepages. As hard as you may attempt to avoid it, history is quite literally at the forefront of the media.
Often, historical film is highly lauded and acclaimed. In the last decade, seven of the ten films awarded Best Picture were set in a historical context. Out of those seven, five were based on real people or events (The King’s Speech, Argo, 12 Years a Slave, Spotlight and Green Book). Out of all ten nominees for each year, on average at least half of the films are not set in a contemporary environment. Critics and audience members alike enjoy historical films.
Historical films and television shows tend to operate in three sub-categories: biopic, adaptation and historical fiction. Each is relatively self-explanatory, and comes with their own bubble of potential inaccuracies. Unless accuracy is crucial to the filmmaker’s direction, creativity will often take priority over fact. Costumes may be modernised, makeup may be unrealistic, customs may be ignored and the chronology of human history may be flipped in order to suit the filmic narrative. Sometimes this can slip under the nose of the average viewer, but historians have contested and groaned over the difficult line between enjoyment and accuracy. Will it cause more harm than good for the continuation of history if people are being fed altered truths? Or does it encourage people to pursue history and unpick the films they love/hate?
Biopics are arguably the most popular form of historical Hollywood. To quote Delphine Letort from her 2019 journal article ‘The Historical Record and the American Imaginary: Adapting History in Selma’, “The historical discourse of biopics has often been disregarded in a genre that uses historical characters and drama in order to provide entertainment, sacrificing accurate information for dramatic plots.” Viewers do not crowd into the cinema to see their childhood hero depicted in complete documentary-style accuracy. Biopics exist to help the audience understand what crafted a celebrity behind the scenes or depict an event to convey its wider message, and in doing so create a greater connection between the past and the present. Hidden Figures (2016), Selma (2014), 12 Years a Slave (2013), Malcom X (1992) and Straight Outta Compton (2015) are just some of the biopics exploring Black icons who shaped American history and culture, opening a general audience to stories that may have gone untold. Mrs America (2020), La Vie en Rose (2007), The Favourite (2018) and Harriet (2019) are some of the many stories about women navigating the world and making history. Kevin Costner’s character in Hidden Figures did not rip down the coloured restroom sign. The rabbits frolicking around the bedchambers in The Favourite were not true to history. Humans are interesting, and biopics suggest that with a little bit of tweaking, they are good enough for the movies.
Adaptations and historical fiction are other forms of historically-based media, and desire a lot of tweaking. When the plot is largely centred around a fictional universe, this is where you begin to see holes in the correspondence between fact and fiction. Unlike biopics, the fictional character is entitled to as many liberties as the author or filmmaker sees fit. Here, we see the plethora of Pride and Prejudice and Little Women remakes. The text was written to observe the author’s contemporaries, and it is up to the modern filmmaker to interpret what their inspiration has left them. In other cases, adaptations are based on modern novels and rely on the research done in that text to form their story. The Book Thief (2013), based on the 2005 novel by Markus Zusack, and Jojo Rabbit (2019), based on the 2008 novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, do not shy away from the harsh reality of Nazi Germany through a child’s eyes. They take a historical environment, favour the emotional development of their protagonist, and let the events of the real world shape their personal experience. Liberties are often allowed more in fictional stories than in biopics, and this is taken to the extreme in films like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009) and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019). Tarantino deliberately warps history to his own satisfying conclusion.
You can nitpick historical inaccuracies, like the way a gown is stitched or a weapon placed in a battlefield, and there is plenty of reason to do so. The untrained eye will not notice that the lace was not wound on bobbins or the eyebrows are painted too modern, but sometimes the costume removes from the effectiveness of the narrative if a little too inaccurate. Little Women (2019), may have won the Oscar for Best Costume Design, but the lack of bonnets and the abundance of new clothing for a seemingly financially-tight family creates space for error and inconsistency. It influenced the runway and charmed the next generation of ‘little women’ (I’m definitely arguing that Saoirse Ronan’s Jo was a heavy influence in the 2020 sweater vest trend), but fell short in capturing the era. Suite Francaise (2014), directed by Saul Dibb, is a crucial example of the costume designer paying attention to the details of the period. Irene Nemirovsky wrote extensive descriptions of the clothes worn in her Nazi-occupied French town, from the pristine Nazi uniform to the simple, handmade dresses of the villagers. The Ukranian-Jewish author lived in France during the Occupation, and was in the midst of writing Suite Francaise before she was arrested and killed in Auschwitz in 1942. Her eyes saw the details of the uniforms and the clothes her peers wore, and her personal perspective committed them to paper. Costume designer Michael O’Connor used these descriptions, which serve as primary sources, as well paintings by Jean-Auguste Renoir. Other films praised for their historically accurate costumes are Tulip Fever (2017), and Emma (2020). Tulip Fever sought reference from the abundance of portraits painted during the Dutch Golden Age, and again, costume designer Michael O’Connor used genuine craftsmanship to make garments in the exact way those in seventeenth century Amsterdam would have. In Emma, Alexandra Byrne dresses the beloved Austen characters in garments that replicate real preserved pieces, paying homage to the luxurious gowns and structured undergarments that shaped Regency aristocrats. What these films teach us is that there are plenty of primary sources available for accurate costuming, and if the budget is there to hand-make ruffs, the result creates immersive, historically accurate experience.
Sometimes, the beauty of escapism allows for historical liberties to work perfectly. Moulin Rouge! (2001) is set at the dawn of the twentieth century, but Nicole Kidman’s Satine and the women of the Moulin Rouge dress more like fairies dancing to the tune of Nirvana. Siouxsie and the Banshees are no eighteenth-century smash hit, but Marie-Antoinette (2006) needs the punk soundtrack to accompany the encapsulation of the woeful queen. There is little evidence to suggest that Elton John floated from his piano while crooning Crocodile Rock, but Rocketman (2019) captures the moment as though it were fact. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)? Anyone found any confirmation of Allied super soldiers fighting Nazis?
I’m going to make the argument that everyone, in one form or another, enjoys consuming history. There are enough greenlit biopics, awards show contenders and social media buzz to confirm that the population enjoys a bit of nostalgia and escapism. Whether that sees enrolments in the History faculty climb or simply creates more awareness of the vastness of historical perspective, history in visual art will never disappear. Shakespeare did it, so are we. It’s only a matter of time before the first historical drama on 2020 drops.
Bryony Ammonds-Smith is a third-year Bachelor of Arts student double majoring in History and English at the University of Auckland. Her interests centre around the twentieth century, predominantly film, fashion and social change in Europe and New Zealand. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.
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