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 This often goes hand-in-hand with productions messing around with the historical content itself and inventing new storylines and characters for supposedly historical events.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?
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.
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.
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?