History on Film

Rachel McGlone

History as Genre

To the casual viewer of 2023, one would not immediately look to compare the Netflix series Queen Charlotte, and the summer blockbuster of Oppenheimer. Everything from their mode of delivery (limited series vs film) to their reception is different. They appeal largely to separate audiences; their themes are opposites – even the colourings are contradictory. Yet both productions would fall under the umbrella genre as a historical production. They both employ the same trope of bouncing between two timelines, are deeply reflective, and they are both fictional accounts of a historical figure. This is the problem with defining a film or TV series as belonging to the historical genre – it is so wide-ranging and vast, with any story set in the past automatically being subsumed into its whole. A film may be an action film, but if it is set in the past, it is reclassified - historical as the main genre, and action as a subgenre. From biopics such as Jackie, The Theory of Everything, and Oppenheimer; to romances like Belle, Carol, and Bridgerton; to detective series of Endeavour and Foyles War; to action productions such as Vikings, Peaky Blinders, or Dunkirk – there are thousands of media productions which would be classified as a part of the historical genre but target wildly different audiences. The advantage of this broad classification, though, is that the past is always a part of the public consciousness. History enthusiasts will actively seek out books to read and documentaries to watch, but it is via these films and TV shows that the vast majority of the population comes into contact with the past. The appeal is through entertainment – anything learned is a happy by-product. Indeed, it is not uncommon for the experience of a film to give rise to popularity in other media. The film Braveheart gave rise to nine times the books on William Wallace following its release – between 1985 and 1995 there were only three books published, whereas between 1995 and 2005 there were twenty-seven. The Titanic Museum in Belfast has stated that it would likely not exist without the influence of the Titanic film and its subsequent infiltration into public consciousness. Yet historians are often the most critical of these public displays of the past, seeing it as a bastardisation of their subject and an infringement on their territory. Many struggle to accept that the past can be used as entertainment and is thus subjected to artistic choices in its portrayal.
History on Film
Behind the Scenes filming of 'Titanic,' 1977

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Accuracy vs Authenticity

The most common accusation thrown at a piece of historical media is that it was ‘inaccurate.’ Typically applied when a story follows real figures from the past, inaccuracy can be attributed also to everything from costuming and set dressing to language and accents. Academic historians delight in picking apart anachronisms, though there is a rising tide of people who instead wish to consider films for authenticity – to an artistic idea or to the popular perceptions of the past. Indeed, it is often needed to remind critics that what they are watching is a work of fiction, even if it is based on events of the past. These productions are not billed as documentaries, they are artistic interpretations. Their goal isn’t to inform, it is to entertain. The 2018 film Mary Queen of Scots, while generally well-received critically and gathering a handful of minor awards, was largely battered by accusations of inaccuracy. Saoirse Ronan’s Scottish accent spawned a debate as to whether the Queen should instead have been French, and the climactic scene where the two Queens meet inflamed historians. It is widely accepted that Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth II never met in person, and their exchanges were confined entirely to the written word. It would be very easy to tar the film with the brush of inaccuracy – yet we have very little confidence in what would have been accurate at all. Historians cannot agree which language Mary would have spoken in at all, let alone in which accent. Accuracy to this degree is impossible – the past is gone, and we cannot resurrect it for the screen. Authenticity is the next best thing, the sense of ‘rightness’ that reflects both the period and the filmmaker’s vision. Through this lens, Mary Queen of Scots thrives, embellished with all the trappings of ‘pastness’ and culminating in a dramatic finale in line with the story woven of the two queens. Fictional, yes, but following the aesthetic trajectory that the writers had portrayed. Further to this, the idea of accuracy is often not linked to historical evidence or narratives of the past, they are instead tied to the public’s own impression of what history should be. A medieval or Tudor piece is deemed more realistic the dirtier it is, the grime of Wolf Hall adding gravitas over projects like Becoming Elizabeth. While, yes, there was no knowledge of germs and the general standard of cleanliness would have been lower, particularly in lower classes, there was still wide usage of baths and washes in households. Bad smells were associated with sickness, so were eliminated wherever possible. But because of the public perception, the grubbiness becomes authentic and feeds into the wider concepts of the past. Authenticity can also be attributed to projects which convey ideas and attitudes of the time. The extravagant court depicted in Marie Antoinette is accompanied by a dissonant soundtrack of modern rock songs. This approach helps to bridge the gap between the audience and the story being told, serving as a metaphor for the dynamism of the court in its period, at the cutting edge of daring absurdism. Bridgerton works similarly with its soundtrack, using instrumental covers of contemporary pop songs to fill its balls and ‘Ton functions. These serve as an allegory for the audience, demonstrating the characters’ status in high society and serving as a touchpoint for the emotion being portrayed. While both productions have been heavily criticised for their anachronisms – notably stylistically, colour tones, and largely with their inconceivable costuming – they are authentic to the stories that the writers want to be told, that of the depiction of the lavish absurdity of high society.
Ancestry UK

Anachronisms as a Source

Historians can use these films and their artistic portrayals as evidence for the interests and public perceptions of the time period. Due to the volume of media that surrounds key eras such as the Tudors, the Regency, and the Second World War, it is easy to garner a sense of the topics which are perennially popular, while also marking the ebb and flow of other areas. This can serve as an interesting avenue for analysis of how contemporaries can use the media as a lens to question their own ideas of identity, politics, and statehood. We are at the moment running through a period of romanticisation and the dominance of the individual, largely fuelled by the social conceptions of ‘romanticising your life’ and ‘being your own main character.’ The stories being told mostly play with these narratives and serve as models for emulation. This analysis can also be applied retrospectively and serve as evidence of historical public opinions. Take M*A*S*H*, a television series between 1972 and 1983 that revolved around a US Army medical unit during the Korean War. Depicting events of the 1950s, it weaves historical elements into its storylines, and we see new medical inventions and surgical techniques evolve in line with the developments of the past. We even see a handful of Christmases and the turning of the New Year, and the season finale ends with the war and mass exodus from Korea. However, it is mostly seen as a reflection of the opinions of the American public towards the then-ongoing Vietnam War. It is saturated with scepticism and distaste for conflict, treading a fine line between commenting on its historical setting and active protest of the futility of warfare. It analyses trauma and the atrocities that the Americans have inflicted and questions the purpose of war generally under its veil as a comedy. Comedy is often a vehicle for producers to question traditional narratives, with the British Blackadder series (1983-1989) also playing with the past to make political statements. Blackadder Goes Forth, set in the trenches of the First World War, expounds similarly to M*A*S*H* on the dire conditions and pointlessness of war, as well as the incompetence of political leaders. Blackadder II and Blackadder III also hinge on the contrariness of their leaders (Elizabeth II and Prince George, later George IV, respectively). Both the Falklands War and the Miner’s Strike coincided with the development of the series, each turbulent events which played on the reputation of the government. The historical represented here is therefore twofold: a digital representation of the past via media, but also as an analysis of underlying politics. Media can also see a surge in themes during significant commemorative periods. Most recently, between 2014-2018 there was a surge in productions that revolved around the First World War riding the wave of commemoration and reflection around the centenary of its occurrence. The BBC commissioned countless projects under the banner ‘World War One Centenary Season,’ commissioning over 130 TV and radio projects surrounding the period, such as The Crimson Field and 37 Days. There was a surge in the film industry too, from Testament of Youth to 1917 (though released in 2019), fuelling an active engagement with the past thanks to the hyperawareness the public had of the First World War surrounding its centenary. While historians may bemoan films that deviate from the held narrative, they are not as harmful as they are made out to be – to suggest that the public would be misled by these misrepresentations is to infantilise the audience. No one is going to think that they danced to Taylor Swift in the 1810s, nor that the Queen of France wore Converse. Indeed, film and TV shows such as these are less dangerous than documentaries which trade on the premise of being fact but are instead filled with aliens, conspiracy theories, and Holocaust denial. Historians can use these anachronisms to identify trends in public perceptions, as well as opening the floor for further discussions, books, and other media projects. This article has referenced over twenty historical productions, but there are hundreds more out there to be experienced and it would be impossible to consume all of them. There will be a period and a subgenre for everyone – they just need to find it. Films and TV shows are more accessible to the general populace and allow individuals to broaden their horizons beyond their everyday.
History on Film
M*A*S*H* Cast 1977
History on Film

Rachel McGlone

Rachel McGlone studied History at the University of York, both at undergraduate level – focusing on Medieval England and Europe – and for an MA in Public History. Her current research focuses on textile history and its ability to tell grassroots stories, as well as its generational links to the past. She has previously contributed to the online magazines “The Historians” and “Periodically Dramatic,” and has written for the University of Cambridge’s “Doing History in Public” project. You can find her on Instagram @bookishhistorian and via her blog https://thiscraftyhistorian.wordpress.com/
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