Do Movies & TV Shows Have to Be Historically Accurate?
By Jane Boursaw Posted Jul 17th 2010 08:00AM
Pop-Ed: How accurate do TV shows and movies have to be when it comes to telling real-life history? Is it OK to fudge the details to enhance the story? Or should the storyteller be a stickler for detail? While doing press for 'The Pacific' earlier this year, Tom Hanks told listeners of Dennis Miller's radio show that the HBO series wasn't really intended to be a "big picture" view of the war in the Pacific. Rather, it was all about the characters and their lives, how the war affected them and their loved ones. But since 'The Pacific' was based on real people, should the filmmakers have stayed true to their real-life stories?
Hanks noted that the series included a meeting between Eugene Sledge and Robert Leckie that never happened. That probably doesn't matter too much to the casual viewer, but you have to wonder if straying from the truth bothers the real families upon whom the series is based.
Filmmaker Peter Hankoff, who's helmed dozens of historical documentaries, including 'Secret Voice of Hitler' and 'Nazi Scrapbooks from Hell: The Auschwitz Albums,' told PopEater there's a good mix of real and fake history coming out of Hollywood, but that things are often condensed to maintain dramatic structure.
"There are so many bogus love stories shoe-horned into the plot to keep some structure alive while the audience is waiting for the a) big attack, b) assassination, or c) the whatever it is we hope will somehow give us satisfaction," he said, adding that the smaller stories like 'The Pacific' feel more real, "because it gives me time to think 'Hey, I could be that guy' or 'I wonder where they go to the bathroom.'" Yeah, the rest of us wonder stuff like that, too.
Hankoff believes 'The Pacific' is excellent in terms of mood, hardware, uniforms and locale, "but watching that would not be enough to ace a test on the War in the Pacific," he said. "Most people don't realize that the Battle of Iwo Jima went on for another month after the flag was raised atop Mt. Suribachi."
But filmmakers are just fooling themselves if they think historians won't pick up on inaccuracies. True historians are very picky about the details, and rightly so. During the most recent season of 'The Tudors,' several readers left comments noting that the show isn't particularly accurate about that era or the people who lived through it.
"Since the series was titled 'The Tudors' and not 'The Six Wives of Henry VIII,' I had presumed they were going to continue through Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth, but apparently not," wrote one commenter. "Are they combining historical figures into composite characters again? Henry Howard should be Katherine's first cousin, not her uncle -- her father was his father's younger brother."
Another viewer wrote: "It doesn't take a true history major to know a few simple facts about Henry VIII. He was tall. The average height of men for that time period was 5'7", and Henry was around 6'2" which wouldn't make him shorter than most of the cast. Also, Henry was around 35 when he met Anne and 42 when he married her. Now don't get me wrong, I love Jonathan Rhys Meyers and find him to be a wonderful actor, but he was born in 1977. He wasn't even 30 when they started filming. Jonathan certainly isn't looking obese and already in his 50's."
That same commenter ended with this: "Casting and creators need to keep in mind the historical facts or they will lose watchers. Most of us have watched because we LOVE history, but have grumbled with each passing episode at the inconsistencies."
Then again, maybe it doesn't always matter. Did people of the Old West swear like sailors, as they do on 'Deadwood'? Maybe not, but Hankoff considers it a moot point. "I think [the show] made the Old West more accessible to a new generation." He's got a point. Still, a few people who wouldn't watch 'Deadwood' precisely because of the profanity. You can't please everyone.
What about theatrical releases? 'Valkyrie' got a lot of the details right, but as Hankoff noted, "Tom Cruise is still Tom Cruise." Viewers left the theater fretting that he didn't even try to have a German accent. He was just Tom Cruise playing himself!
And for the record, Hitler was NOT killed in a Parisian movie theater, as depicted in 'Inglourious Basterds.' Still, Hankoff calls the movie "a great fantasy with a terrific villain." And while we haven't heard too much about 'Red Tails,' the upcoming film about the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American pilots to fly in a combat squadron during World War II, writer George Lucas usually gets the details right. Let's hope that holds true of this movie.
Has it gotten better over the past 60 or 70 years? With more leeway on showing violence, profanity and sexual content, modern-day TV shows and movies surely must be more historically accurate than back in the days of Humphrey Bogart, Van Johnson and Gary Cooper. The studios had amazing story and research departments and, thus, got a lot of things right, said Hankoff. But they also had to contend with the Hays Code, a set of industry censorship guidelines that governed the vast majority of US motion pictures from 1930 to 1968.
What do you think? Does it bother you when TV shows and movies ignore the details for the sake of a good story? Would you rather see history depicted as it actually happened? Tell us on Facebook.
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