Playing Fast and Loose With History, Part I: It’s Not New

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The main problem we at Frock Flicks (and our fans and friends) have with historical costume movies is when filmmakers don’t use the correct historical costumes in a movie that is ostensibly set in a historical time period. This often goes hand-in-hand with productions messing around with the historical content itself and inventing new storylines and characters for supposedly historical events. But it can also apply to an adaption of a literary work that is originally set in a specific historical period.

I’d like to discuss some larger aspects of this problem in a series of essays, and I welcome your input. I’m going to lay out a few broad concepts and hopefully fill in details along the way, doing this in a multi-part series over several weeks. So if you see I haven’t addressed something yet, keep in mind that it may be coming up!

Today, I’m going to talk about the supposed “trend” of playing fast and loose with history. How it isn’t a trend — because I want to give some context for our collective problem with how Hollywood screws up history these days (and when I say “Hollywood,” that’s shorthand for all movie and TV production, because there are historically inaccurate screen creations that come from all parts of the world; likewise, if I say “movies,” that encompasses TV too, and “filmmakers” is shorthand for “people who create historical costume productions on screen”).

In the following weeks, I’ll look at some of the reasons this “playing fast and loose with history” happens in different movies, whether due to ignorance or market forces or artistic vision. Because we realize that every movie has its own reasons for what they do, and they’re all on a spectrum of historical accuracy, from vaguely set in ye olden times to precisely recreating a specific time and place. Then, I want to address the how and why movies playing fast and loose with history bothers us, the history-loving audience. Finally, I’ll sum up with what does it all mean and what impact inaccurate movie and TV productions may (or may not) have on the world at large.

Movies Playing Fast and Loose With History

  • Part I: It’s Not New
  • Part II: Why Does It Happen?
  • Part III: Why Does It Bother Us?
  • Part IV: Does It Really Matter?

 

David Garrick as Richard III in 1745, by William Hogarth

David Garrick as Richard III in 1745, by William Hogarth

Playing Fast and Loose With History in Drama Is Old

Movies mucking around with history is not a new problem, it’s not a current trend. It didn’t even start with the invention of the movie camera. Consider Shakespeare — his history plays do not tell an accurate history of England at all! He took some historical source material and rewrote it to tell the stories that fit his needs for entertainment purposes and to emphasize themes that he found important. Some scholars suggest that he wrote the history plays to both flatter and critique the then-current monarchy and create a mythology of the foundations of the Tudor dynasty.

The historical Richard III, for example, is not necessarily the villain Shakespeare wrote him as. King Richard III of England had, at worst, some scoliosis but was not a hunchbacked cripple. It has still not been proved that he killed his two young nephews in the Tower of London. And contemporary reports called him a “good lord” with a “great heart.” For a very well-documented view, take a look at Richard III Society to get a more balanced idea of this figure. Yet, I don’t find that the historical inaccuracies in the play Richard III greatly diminish the power of Shakespeare’s words or the enjoyment I get from a performance of the play, whether it’s on stage or in a film like Ian McKellen’s interpretation.

 

Historical Costume in Drama Has Often Been Inaccurate

To go with this same example, the costumes worn when Shakespeare’s histories were first performed are not exactly known, but it’s fair to say that the early productions of Richard III didn’t have meticulously accurate 15th-century garb. Far more likely, the actors wore something appropriate to the very late 16th century, when the play was written. At the modern recreation of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London and the Folger Shakespeare Library, they note that historical actor’s costumes could be spectacular but were in ‘modern style’ of the period, except for fantasy or Biblical characters.

So why are we such sticklers today? Why do we ask Hollywood producers to fact-check every single movie and TV show for historical accuracy in story and costume? Braveheart is much reviled among the historically minded because kilts aren’t documentable to the 13th-century setting of William Wallace’s time, besides Wallace was lowland gentry and would never have worn a kilt anyway. Princess Isabella would have been three years old during the action of the story, so she could never have been Wallace’s lover, and of course stretch velvet isn’t period (nor are the visible zippers in her gowns). The producers of The Tudors thought it would be ‘confusing’ to have another character named Mary, so they changed Henry VIII’s sister to Margaret, along with a host of other historical revisions. And the costumes, well, they wanted to make everyone look sexy and style Henry as a modern rockstar. Likewise Reign uses the barest bones of Mary Queen of Scots’ life as a child in France and shines it up in 21st-century haute couture for a teenage audience.

Why do these instances of paying fast and lose with history by movies and TV  bother us so much? It’s obviously not a new phenomenon. Between Shakespeare and Braveheart lie hundreds and thousands of examples on the stage, in print, movies, and TV.

 

Does the Internet Make Us More Critical?

Some pundits have suggested that today, in the age of the Internet, these kind of changes are more easily noticed. They guess that in, say, Shakespeare’s day the public wouldn’t or couldn’t jump on the equivalent of Twitter after seeing a play and whinge that “Omg HenryV’s heraldry was totes wrong in 2nite’s play #GlobeTheaterFail.” Yet, a Downton Abbey promo photo with a modern water bottle accidentally left on the fireplace mantle in the background is blasted all over the Interwebs within minutes. Yep, that was a mistake, but the vitriol poured on these small things does seem outsized for something meant as entertainment.

Julian Fellowes, creator and writer of Downton Abbey, has complained about historical nitpickers, feeling their critiques of his show are misguided. He’s received complaints, not so much about the water-bottle photo, but about glamorizing the servants’ lives in early 20th-century Britain and setting the table incorrectly. Yet he’ll have none of it, saying in The Telegraph: “The real problem is with people who are insecure socially, and they think to show how smart they are by picking holes in the programme to promote their own poshness and to show that their knowledge is greater than your knowledge.”

I kinda think Fellowes is the pot calling the kettle black in this instance (“insecure socially,” really, did you say that? *eyeroll*). But the point that we’re nitpicking because we can, because we have the knowledge, that may hold some water. It does seem like every historical costume TV show, at least, has online forums devoted to historical accuracy debates, and movies that tell historical stories these days will get an inevitable “historical accuracy” section on their Wikipedia pages.

 

Historical Fiction Also Plays Fast and Loose With History

But really, is this necessary? We’ve long had a whole medium of entertainment created for the express purpose of combining history with things that are invented from whole cloth. It’s called “historical fiction,” and novels in this genre sell quite well. They usually take a little bit of historical fact, mix it up, and make a new story for entertainment purposes. The Other Boleyn Girl was a book first, then a movie (or two), and its author, Phillipa Gregory, has made a living writing precisely this kind of work. Some of her books are merely set in a historical time and place and have invented characters, but others use real historical people as the characters. It’s not like the past has a copyright on them.

Even Hilary Mantel’s award-winning book Wolf Hall is fiction. She says, in a BBC interview, she’s “interested in real people against a historical backdrop” but ultimately “where I do operate is in the vast area of interpretation.” Her writing on Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII, and Anne Boleyn takes a point of view, emphasizes certain facts, and de-emphasizes others. While she may not be inventing totally new characters or putting actual historical people in new situations, she is not writing a straight-up, nonfiction history book.

Historical fiction doesn’t confine itself to novels, of course. Many historical costume movies and TV shows are works in the very same genre. Several Frock Flicks commenters have said of the historical soap-opera Reign, why didn’t they just invent a queen and call it The Adventures of Queen Whoever in Fictional Land?

But using preexisting material as a jumping off point has huge appeal for both producers and viewers. There’s a known figure, a name, a place that sparks the imagination. Further, by using a historical setting and actual historical characters who have a known stake in that setting, the scriptwriters can use concepts that wouldn’t as easily apply to a fictional setting. As the reviewer at Acculturated notes: “What makes Reign just a bit different than other standard CW soaps is the context. Gossip Girl may have been similarly obsessed with sex and fashion but the characters never talked about their responsibilities to their people, to their country, to their religion, the way that Mary, Francis, Catherine, Henry, and Sebastian are constantly going on about.” [Now, fiction could stretch to accommodate such concepts with their characters, but that requires as much backstory and exposition as Game of Thrones, the success of which is exceedingly rare.]

The many benefits of using preexisting material are why historical fiction (and even fan-fiction, to be honest) is so popular. A certain amount of world-building and context-setting has already been done, yet because history is a foreign land for most people, producers are still free to embellish that world in ways that meet their needs (which I’ll discuss more in part II). Having a few historical facts gives the producers a hook, an “in,” and just a little bit of believability. This is all intriguing for a mainstream audience, it feels romantic and dramatic, without getting bogged down in “boring” dates and details that make history seem like going back to school.

Playing Fast & Loose With History

Taking History Out of the School Room, Into the Movies

Let’s face it, school, at least in America, does a terrible job of selling history as fun, fascinating, entertaining, cool, interesting, or at all relatable to your own life. The vast majority of people remember history as a collection of details they were forced to memorize and failed to memorize. Don’t just blame Hollywood when it plays fast and lose with history — it’s trying to make up for our broken educational system! Yeah, two wrongs don’t make a right, but many people think history is dull, so let’s spice it up.

Obviously we at Frock Flicks, and our fans, are not people who find history foreign, obscure, dull, or not as entertaining as it really is. We are in the minority. There are reasons for sayings like “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it” and “history keeps repeating itself.” Poor eduction about history isn’t new. You could blame 21st-century America, but it’s a long-standing fact. Humans are more forward-looking than backwards-looking.

Playing Fast & Loose With History

So what can those of us who do love and appreciate history do when confronted with yet another movie or TV show that plays fast and loose with history? Well, we don’t have to watch. Or we can watch and complain and snark away. If we have the drive and determination, we could try to get into the movie-making business, I suppose, and get more historically accurate productions on screen. But, as I’ll discuss in the next part of this series, that has a host of problems too.

While Frock Flicks was born out of irritation at costume inaccuracies in historical movie and TV productions, we need a certain understanding of the reality of the situation too. We’re trying for snark that amuses and educates, while grounded in a sense of balance and an understanding of limitations.
What do you think about historical costume movies and TV shows playing fast and loose with history? What do you want to see covered in this series?

26 Responses

  1. MoHub

    I think one of the issues is that nowadays, too many viewers take movies and television as truth, pretty much viewing the “historical” presentations as documentaries. ( They probably actually believe Henry VIII was a slim brunet.)

    The problem is less one of the purveyors of false history presenting “interpretations” of fact than it is that modern audiences don’t bother to make themselves aware of the true history.

    And I love that you topped this article with Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots sitting together when they never in reality met face to face. You are a sneaky little thing!

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      I definitely plan to cover the “viewers take movies and television as truth” issue bec. there have been studies going both pro & con, & I’m not sure how conclusive that is. I wonder if it’s more something that we (the fans of history) are more concerned with than anyone else? Is it just movies/TV? I mean, some ppl think George Washington had wooden teeth & chopped down a cherry tree & could not tell a lie, yada yada yada, & that folklore came along way before the cineplex.

      Ultimately, I think history is not a big concern to the general public, along with other Big Picture topics like, say, geography (see: polls that show a majority of Americans can’t find Iraq on a map, even tho’ our country has had our military in that country for a decade).

      And thanks for noticing the top image — in that 1970s movie, QEI also meets King James to arrange her own succession. It’s a humdinger :)

      Reply
  2. Michael L. McQuown

    Given that it’s probably next to impossible to completely accurately portray a specific historical event, my concern mostly is that if it purports to be in a specific time and place that it be portrayed as accurately as possible. Leave the drama to the characters, not to the costumers, armourers, etc. I think we all want our ‘reality’ to be as real as possible, but we don’t necessarily need to see someone in the toilet to know that people have to do those things. If the producers claim their product is the story of William Wallace, then it should bear some reasonable resemblance to the facts as they are generally known. There’s “interpretation’ and there’s rubbish.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Playing devil’s advocate a bit, I wonder how many movie & TV productions really feel they are trying to ‘portray a time & place as accurately as possible.’ I’ve only heard a few recently state that as a goal, such as Wolf Hall. The Tudors & Reign blatantly say that historical accuracy is not their aim — at least they’re honest about it :)

      Reply
      • Kendra

        I don’t think accuracy in any way HAS to be anyone’s goal — all goals are equally valid! But anyone who knows accuracy is free to evaluate any historically-set media.

        Reply
        • MoHub

          I believe there’s accuracy and accuracy. Much source material is open to interpretation, but there are cold, hard facts that should not be messed with, such as Henry VIII’s appearance and Elizabeth I’s interactions—or lack thereof—with Mary, Queen of Scots Next thing you know, Richard III will survive Bosworth, and Julius Caesar will die of natural causes..

          Reply
  3. aelarsen

    The problem, as I see it, is not that films and tv shows aren’t being historically accurate. They problem is that they’re being dishonest about not being historically accurate. Many historical films seek to use the notion that their film is historically accurate as a selling point. They claim they are offering us the unvarnished truth, that history is ‘what happened’ and their film is telling us about what happened just the way it happened.

    But historians don’t actually study what happened–we can’t, at least not until someone invents time machines to enable to watch it unfold. Historians study the written documents of the past, and those documents have to be interpreted, put next to other documents, and built into a narrative that is only a perspective on the past. Documents have all sorts of biases, lies, omissions, mistakes, and other limits, and that means what we’re actually studying is an assemblage of viewpoints on the past.

    So what these historical films are doing is basically misrepresenting what history is, what can know and not know about history, and how profoundly different people from the past can be from us today. Sometimes this distortion is relatively small but sometimes it’s horrifically large.

    By the way, I love your blog. Costuming is one of the things I always feel like I need to comment on, but it’s somewhat outside my wheelhouse, so I love intelligent analysis of historical costuming.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      “Documents have all sorts of biases, lies, omissions, mistakes, and other limits, and that means what we’re actually studying is an assemblage of viewpoints on the past.”

      This is one of the things I may try to get into — whatever we consider as Real History is still an assemblage, it has bias & omissions & retellings. Does it have the equivalence of a plastic water bottle left on the 1920s mantel? Did it make Thomas More out to be a jerk or a saint? Where do we draw the line & say it’s worth snarking or we give it a pass & say “artistic license”?

      I don’t always know, & I think it’s always up for discussion!

      Reply
      • aelarsen

        As I commented on The Imitation Game, I think ‘artistic license’ is only a defense when they’re actually doing something genuinely new and creative. When they’re just rehashing the same old cliches, I think snark is an appropriate response.

        Reply
  4. Sarah F

    I find it irritating that film and television producers feel the need to make history ‘exciting’- its already exciting!
    We have a cultural bias that the past was a dull place. I believe that some of this stems from our obsession with modern technology and how much ‘better’ it makes us, as though having skype and GPS makes us smarter as a whole- sure, people 400 years ago didn’t know about electricity, or germs, but drop the average person into the past and we would be just as confused and useless.
    This mistaken sense of superiority over people of previous eras creates a mental barrier- Why should we be interested in those guys?
    So when a studio makes a historical film that is highly inaccurate, the average person will not only be oblivious, but they won’t really care either way (as long as its entertaining) because ‘history is boring’.

    Reply
    • Michael L. McQuown

      Considering how many really unpleasant ways there were to die in the past, especially in a place like the Medici or Tudor courts, I would think that life might often have been a little too exciting. Psycho rulers, plagues, religious wars, dicey medicine. Hard to get bored, I would think. On the other hand, they didn’t have reality shows, unless you include public executions.

      Reply
    • aelarsen

      “We have a cultural bias that the past was a dull place.” Very true. I tell my students that history is the most interesting thing one can study, because everyone one is interested in has a history.

      Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      “We have a cultural bias that the past was a dull place”

      Yes! And it’s so wrong bec. history is full of wild & crazy events (as noted below). I know a lot of this is glossed over by the U.S. school system, which makes history into boring memorization of dates & names.

      Reply
  5. Dee

    Something you said about the costuming for Shakespeare’s era reminded me of what I learned in a class on Medieval lit (perhaps irrelevant): costuming in the passion/miracle plays was contemporary, as in the Jewish High Priest wore a bishop’s cop and miter, for example. I don’t know if they ever tried to go for Biblical era clothing or even a draped cloth for a toga. In my opinion, some of that was shorthand for the watchers. What would a crowd of Yorkshire Christians know about Jews–contemporary or historical? But they all knew what a bishop wore! They understood the authority level from that. And so on and so on. And I believe the old plays were still being presented in England when Shakespeare was a boy. I wonder what prompted the change for more accurate costumes?
    (I’ve seen modern productions of passion plays–the Devil wore a leisure suit and the scribes wore bookies’ visors!)

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Yep, theaters would use costume iconography that contemporary audiences were familiar with. In a way, you could say designers are still doing that — the teen audience watching Reign knows that haute couture is what rich ppl wear, so that’s what a queen should be in, right? OK, I’m stretching, but it’s the same concept.

      Reply
  6. LindaS

    I have a couple of comments to make:

    1. Yes, history has been made boring IMHO because history has been presented in a patriarchal manner; that is, battles and rulers are emphasized over costume, art, or everyday life. The college classes that fired up my interest in history were Humanities I & II, Costume History, and art history of various sorts. I am a reading specialist and for content area reading, I always tell teachers to augment their history books with biographies of people who lived in the period. Or show or assign movies, which, if inaccurate (often the case), you can critique with the class. There’s a reason a study was done that showed readers paid far more attention to a Time-Life book about history than a regular text.

    2. I wish you ladies would cover more ancient history movies/television productions. I am most fond of ancient history, though I surely can’t claim to be an expert in the area. I just watched “Tut” on Spike, a three day mini-series where viewers are shown New Kingdom royalty with hair, rather than wigs, which upset me. Come on, surely they could have at least shortened the leading lady’s hair in a style like Cleopatra in “Rome” over which she wore a wig on special occasions. As well, the leading lady in “Tut,” a daughter of Nefertiti did not wear authentic eye makeup. She looked like the cover of Vogue Iran or something. Boo! Still, I guess I should be happy we’re getting a story about pagans — when I was growing up, pagans rarely existed in a story onscreen unless they were getting ready to throw Christians to the lions or mistreat Jews.

    I love your blog!

    Reply
    • Michael L. McQuown

      I just read Herr Professor Doktor Larsen’s blogs. He’s absolutely right, of course, it is truly impossible to make an historically accurate film for all of the reasons he cited: the expanse of time in which actual events unfold, the relative value of each individual to the whole (there are no stars vs supporting characters, no heroes vs villains), lack of information about what people actually looked like (not always an issue, since some likenesses are available), etc. So, in fact what we are concerned about, is really “historical costume drama.” If the producers want to call it historical, rather than fantasy, then they should strive to clothe, arm, feed, and entertain the characters in ways consistent with what is known about the era in question. Otherwise, it’s fantasy. It’s usually as easy to get it right as not. I remember the hoopla over “Forever Amber” before it came out: the “Saturday Evening Post,” a leading magazine of the day, went on about the ostrich feathers that cost $75 each (in 1950s dollars) and the research, blah, blah. So the movie came out with everybody in (Hollywood) 1620-40 clothing except George Sanders as Charles II, who was in something close to right, and all those men with their padded shoulders.

      Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      ‘biographies of people who lived in the period’ — SO GOOD! Yes, that would make history eduction a million times better than it typically is. That would be relatable *and* fascinating to a broad audience, IMNSHO.

      I’ll tell you why we haven’t gotten around to covering more ancient history movies/TV — we don’t feel qualified to comment on the costumes! Our areas of knowledge start in the middle ages, around the 14th century, & go forward in time from there. Most of us have watched the TV series of “Rome” & “Spartacus,” plus classics like “Cleopatra” & “I Claudius” but other than knowing the storyline history, we generally don’t know much about the costume historical accuracy. So we’re at a disadvantage for commentary. Doesn’t mean we might throw these shows a bone for a TBT or s’thing, but we tend to not get in-depth lest we be totally talking out of our asses :)

      Reply
      • Donna

        Trystan, for ancient world costume dramas you might want to get some guest bloggers here at Frock Flicks … Claudia or Julia (SCA ladies who do great Roman stuff) might be talked into it.

        Reply
      • Michael L. McQuown

        How about fantasy? Not so much a matter of specific knowledge, but of artistic merit and taste. If you want to see metal snark, get onto the comments about women’s armour and the ‘chainmail bikini,’ especially from the HEMA contingent.

        Reply
  7. Adam Lid

    Having had the dubious pleasure of working on a number of History Channel-type “productions” as an historical consultant, I would give my opinion and then eight out of ten times my advice would be ignored, sometimes for inexplicable reasons. At least the paychecks cleared the bank (mostly). :-)

    Reply
  8. Liza D.

    Michael wrote: “If the producers want to call it historical, rather than fantasy, then they should strive to clothe, arm, feed, and entertain the characters in ways consistent with what is known about the era in question.”

    But how often do the producers “call” their work anything? I’d say it’s usually we viewers (and especially we costume-and-history-enthused viewers) who label the work, and then find it falls short.

    Perhaps what’s needed are disclaimers along the lines of: “This is a work of fiction and our creative imaginations. We’ve used certain real-life historical figures and events as jumping off points. We do not claim to have tried nor succeeded in recreating all aspects of life during this time period with historical accuracy. We encourage viewers to learn about history and identify all our errors.”

    I’m kidding. But maybe only sort of.

    I think the question you’re really asking, Trystan, is whether filmmakers have any responsibility to be as historically accurate as they possibly can. And if they can’t or won’t, should they say so right up front? This will avoid misleading the cluelessly undereducated, and possibly limit the perpetuation or creation of misapprehensions about historical events (or people, or fabrics).

    In short: Is it ever just/solely art? Or is there always some responsibility inherent in portraying the past?

    I think it’s a valid question.

    Also, I can certainly back up Adam’s comment that no amount of historical consultation will trump budget limitations, time restraints, and/or what happens to be available from Western Costume at the time of shooting.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      “Is it ever just/solely art? Or is there always some responsibility inherent in portraying the past?” Yep, I do want to poke at that issue — because it’s not cut & dried, black & white. I think there’s a whole lot of variation, many factors at play.

      When a movie like The Imitation Game begins with a title screen saying ‘this is based on a true story,’ most ppl take that at face value & think that the events portrayed pretty much happened as they are shown in the film. Contrast that to a show like Reign, which never makes a claim to being a “true story” at all. I was more disappointed in The Imitation Game & felt like it it did a far greater disservice to history & the film’s subject than Reign ever does because Imitation Game tells the audience “this is supposed to be history.”

      Reply

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