Historical Accuracy in Movies: How Important Is It Really?

As history lovers, we can sometimes get a little protective over our favourite subject, can't we? Like when we overhear someone say that Richard III was nothing but an evil hunchback (why, hello, Mr Shakespeare) or that the British Empire was, without exception, a really good thing for everyone. We want to share what really happened and back it up with evidence. I guess we feel like these inaccuracies just aren't representing the truth. 

And then there are historical movies. 

Like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It's the one film my husband and I can't watch on date night after sixteen years together, because Robin Hood's American accent, travelling on foot from Dover to Warwickshire via Hadrian's Wall and, I don't know, Maid Marian's helpless simpering. Before the end of the opening credits I've already started gesturing at the screen, he's rolling his eyes and we turn the telly off and order a takeaway. 

Photo by Ricardo Cruz on Unsplash

But how important is historical accuracy really? I mean, it's a film, after all, created to entertain - but Facebook groups and Twitter are buzzing almost daily with complaints about the latest swashbuckling adventure. Surely, if a film wants to portray a period in history, it has a responsibility to represent the truth, doesn't it? Viewers are going to draw conclusions based on what they've seen and take what they're viewing as fact. But then again, actual political history represented faithfully on the screen might be a bit boring - and contain probably a lot less sex, to be honest (Versailles and The Tudors, I'm looking at you). 

Frustrated and pouting into my popcorn, I asked two historians to weigh in with their views. 

And it may just be that I have to calm down on date nights. 

Author and Historian Annie Whitehead explains. "We've all done it; tutted at the screen when films and TV get it 'wrong'. But is it so terrible? My daughter got into Tudor history by watching The Tudors, and while I know that Braveheart is full of inaccuracies, it is still a great film which tells a great story, even if that story is fictional. It also, I think, gave a good idea of what life was like in that period - the battle scenes in particular were visceral."

Blogger Claire, who writes at the history blog Hisdoryan, agrees. "As an historian, I love my period dramas to be historically accurate as they can be - but I am also realistic, and realise first and foremost they are dramas and made to entertain people. I welcome the advent of shows like The Great that are open about the fact they are not striving to be 100% accurate, and are playing loose and fast with history." She points out that there is a place on the screen for accuracy, though. "On the opposite end of the spectrum you have serious productions like Wolf Hall for which historical accuracy is a key part of their production - naturally they have to hold themselves to much higher standards."

The problem comes then, when we confuse documentary-watching with movie-watching. Do we want to learn facts, or do we want to be entertained? Sometimes, events have to be altered - and characters invented, blended or even deleted - to create the right mix of drama, chemistry and timeline. It's also worth remembering that directors often need to fit decades of events into a two-hour film. It is, at the end of the day, a film we watch to be entertained. 

But it is harder if you know a little about the time period the film is set in.

"Whilst I can forgive inaccuracies in later period pieces," says Annie, "I did cringe almost constantly when watching The Last Kingdom which is set in the period I study and write about. But, again, it is a great story. Sometimes the documented history/timeline might actually slow the drama/narrative. I wasn't too keen on the recent film, Robert the Bruce, not because the history was inaccurate but because it didn't work as a drama for me." 

The recent Mary Queen of Scots film starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie got a bit of slack from historians after showing a scene where the two queens meet. "A film about Mary Queen of Scots which didn’t show her meeting Elizabeth would lose a lot of its drama," says Annie, "but it’s generally accepted that the two queens never met in real life. The latest film version got round that rather neatly I thought, by having them meet but not able properly to see each other." 

I get it. Watching messengers on horseback galloping up and down the country exchanging letters between the two queens instead would have been pretty boring. And a lot less emotional.

Still a stickler for accuracy? Claire puts forward a convincing argument that it might be a lost cause anyway. She says that although she prefers films to have some accuracy, "I also believe that something can never be 100% historically accurate - I think it's impossible. If you're trying to recreate a moment from history and even have an eye witness to help you, there's no way someone could remember every object in the room or every word that was spoken. And it's even harder for period dramas that have no basis in historical record. You can do all the research you want to give yourself the best chance of recreating an era, but you are still trying to portray an imaginary world."

So there we go. 

Perhaps, as historians and history lovers, we need to watch a film for what it is. It's there to entertain, to take us out of the everyday world we're in now and transport us into another one for an hour or two. Unless the directors and producers explicitly state that the movie was made to be totally historically accurate, we should sit back with our popcorn and ice cream, relax and just enjoy the ride. No commenting, no arguing and no sneaking off the sofa to check your reference books. There's a place for documentary-making and there's another place for film-making. It's all about going with the flow. 

And as Annie so rightly sums up, historical dramas could even spark a love for 'real' history. "There has to be some fiction, otherwise we'd all be watching documentaries. And if it makes people more interested in history, to the point where they might go off and read up about a subject, then that's a win. If it works as a drama, it gets my vote."

What do you think? Are you a stickler for historical accuracy in TV dramas and movies? Or does it not really matter as long as we all have a fun time watching it? Let me know in the comments below!

Thank you to Annie Whitehead and Claire at Hisdoryan, for sharing their views. 

I recently reviewed Annie Whitehead's latest book, Women of Power in Anglo Saxon England - have a read!

You might also enjoy Will History Ever Just Run Out

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  1. A lot depends upon how inaccurate they are! Troy (Brad Pitt/Eric Bana) is a terrific drama with eye candy all round for both sexes, but it makes it look that the siege lasted about a month )including 10 days off for Hector's funeral) instead of 10 years. The Outlaw King was ok, but Bruce's wife was only about 13 when he married her - then again, does it matter? Robin Hood PoT spoiled by accents, I agree. But my favourite line is from Robin Hood - Men in Tights when Cory Elwes turns to Prince John and says knowingly: ' Unlike other Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent ....' Annie is also right when she says that, given the blockbuster status of some of them, if they introduce new people to history, then it can't be all bad .....

    1. Thanks Richard - I must have missed that line in Men in Tights! Brilliant. And yes, if it encourages someone to read up about a subject then that's a good thing. I've definitely calmed down a bit! Thanks for your comment :)

    2. I'm wondering now how accurate The Lion in Winter was - I haven't seen it for years, but it was my introduction to Henry II and his ''ungrateful' sons...

  2. I understand that a film or series is primarily a source of entertainment so I do try to not gnash my teeth too much. However, sometimes I can not understand the reasoning behind the inaccuracy. Case in point, in The Tudors Henry’s two sisters are combined into one character who marries the King of Portugal. I was like-huh??? -the true story of two vibrant women who followed their own minds and hearts wasn’t dramatic enough.

    1. Yes, I agree with you, I did think this was weird of them to do. Surely the two women portrayed at least close to accuracy would have added to the drama and context of the story. I wish they hadn't messed with them. Then they went and added an imaginary mistress later on that didn't exist presumably for more bedroom antics! Thanks for commenting, I agree with you on this one :)

    2. This was great fun, thanks for inviting me to take part. On the matter of the amalgamated sisters, I can only assume the programme makers thought we, the viewers, wouldn't be able to cope with another character called Mary! (Which makes one wonder why they didn't change Henry's wives' names!)

    3. Yes there are a lot of Marys, Catherines and Annes in Tudor England, aren't there! Thanks for taking part, Annie :)

  3. I'm more critical of historical fiction books than movies and TV drama when it comes to accuracy. I suspect if the drama suspends my disbelief, then I'm not dashing to check facts. I'm with Annie Whitehead on sparking an interest in history. But accents irritate me too. It is harder when I know the facts - although I'm just an avid reader. My wife and I have been watching two Canadian mystery series set around 1900 - Murdoch Mysteries - and 1920 - Frankie Drake Mysteries - and they seem to try to be accurate with showing the periods. They're set in Toronto where I lived in the 1970s. Historical facts and people sneak in - from writers to politicians - and tally with my sketchy knowledge, although I suspect there's some alternative history creeping in........like a Canadian inventor beating the Wright Brothers, but in secret.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Roland - it's good if programme makers at least try to be accurate or slip in events from real life into dramas. Those mystery series' sound interesting!

  4. I accept that movies do not always play out with total accuracy and I still enjoy them even when I spot the inaccuracies. I was looking forward to the recent Mary Queen of Scots movie but having Mary, who lived in the French court from the age of five, returning to Scotland at age 18 with a strong Scottish accent, was just a bridge too far for me. I could not watch the movie.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Cathy! I think that inaccurate accents can immediately start to draw our attention to them and then the other inaccuracies in films going forward.


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