It's been said that depicting history with objectivity is like nailing jelly to a wall [source: Novick]. Every historical account must inevitably cut out some details. Even documentaries and history books can dangerously misrepresent history or portray a bias by emphasizing select facts and leaving out others.
But historical movies must go further — they imagine events or dialogue that didn't happen (when the truth is unknown) or that summarize what happened (when the truth would take too long to depict). When done well, historical movies can be poignant, immersive experiences that accurately capture what it was like to witness historical events. And that is something history books can't do.
In one sense, it's unfair to expect Hollywood to make a compelling two-hour film that perfectly portrays a particular historical event, person or time period — and makes money to boot. Art is inherently fictional and can never recreate the past perfectly. Viewers should never assume that a movie is historically accurate or inaccurate, but rather should judge a movie as a piece of art that hopefully also inspires us to look up the historical record.
Let's examine 10 major films that succeed as pieces of art and don't fail completely as pieces of history.
"The Passion of Joan of Arc"
Many associate the genre of historical movies with epic, big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. But the first movie we're examining is none of those things. "The Passion of Joan of Arc" is a silent film released in 1928 that recounts the trial and execution of the famous saint. As a French avant-guard art film, it is narrowly focused both in narrative and visuals: The camerawork is unconventional and devoid of expositional shots that set a scene. Instead, it consists mostly of close-ups and shots from Joan's point of view.
The result of Danish director Theodor Dreyer's artistic style is a primarily emotional film. However, it's also historically accurate. As a silent film, it displays dialogue in intertitle cards, but these are almost all taken from historical record of the trial [source: Lerner]. And movie critic Roger Ebert pointed out that even though the costumes aren't spectacular, they are historically accurate [source: Ebert].
As a result, it gets uncommon praise for its authenticity. In the words of French director Jean Cocteau, the film was like "an historical document from an era in which the cinema didn't exist" [source: Ebert]. And historian Gerda Lerner writes that Dreyer has "shown us how film can speak truth to history without a cast of thousands or budget of millions."
"A Night to Remember"
Ever since the sinking of the RMS Titanic during its maiden trip across the Atlantic in 1912, the story has fascinated the public. In 1958, the British movie "A Night to Remember," directed by Roy Ward Baker, attempted to do justice to the story on film.
The filmmakers based the film on a book of the same name by American historian Walter Lord, who meticulously researched the saga and interviewed survivors. If the movie isn't perfectly historically accurate (and it isn't), it's not for lack of trying. An enormous amount of effort went into making everything right. The filmmakers sought out actors who resembled the people they were playing. The set designers recreated the grand staircase, purchased identical lifeboats and sought exact replicas of the paintings that hung in the ship [source: Richards].
Of course, the movie isn't perfect. Unfortunately, the research proved wrong on certain points. The most notable mistake is that the film depicts the ship sinking in one piece. We now know that the Titanic broke into two before sinking, but eyewitness accounts conflicted on this issue, and no one knew for sure at the time.
Survivors who saw the film were moved and remarked how accurate it was. The only exception was survivor Violet Jessop, who noted some discrepancies and expressed regret for not accepting the filmmakers' invitation to be an adviser [source: Richards].
This film was later eclipsed by the enormously popular and visually stunning 1997 James Cameron epic, "Titanic." Cameron got the visuals right, but historians and critics took issue with the fictional storyline and flat characters. And despite a lack of realistic visuals, "A Night to Remember" still stands out as more historically authentic.
Depicting the most important battle in United States history, "Gettysburg" is an epic, four-and-a-half-hour film released in 1993. It was originally designed for television but appeared briefly in theaters thanks to the backing of media mogul Ted Turner. The movie was financially unsuccessful, but it accurately captured many aspects of the important battle.
The filmmakers got permission to shoot on the actual battlefield, employed several historical advisers and had no shortage of volunteer Civil War re-enactors willing to bring their own historically accurate costumes. The movie also featured spot-on performances by Jeff Daniels as J.L. Chamberlain and Sam Elliott as John Buford. Historians praised the scene depicting a Confederate artillery assault on Cemetery Ridge [source: Flagel]. The scenes leading up to and depicting Pickett's Charge also impressed historians with their accuracy [source: Wittenberg].
Director Robert Maxwell based this detailed film on Michael Shaara's novel "The Killer Angels." And Maxwell stayed fiercely faithful to the book, but unfortunately it contained some inaccuracies that Maxwell used in his film. In addition, historians didn't appreciate Martin Sheen's portrayal of Robert E. Lee. The film also lacks realistic violence, which is a common problem with historical war movies. But it's also a forgivable problem: Graphic violence drives away viewers who can't stomach it. This was a risk that filmmakers took with the next movie in our list.
"The Passion of the Christ"
Mel Gibson's 2004 film "The Passion of the Christ" triggered plenty of controversy, some of which centered on issues of historical accuracy and realism. For those who accept the historicity of the gospels, however, the film is stunningly accurate.
In terms of violence, some criticized the movie as too realistic. Indeed, the violence is intentionally gruesome: Gibson set out to facilitate a religious experience for the viewer. This is because Christians believe they're called to meditate on the suffering of Jesus, whom they believe died for our sins.
"The Passion of the Christ" also stands apart from typical historical movies in its use of original language. Rather than stooping to the common Hollywood practice of using English even when it's grossly anachronistic, Gibson opted for authenticity and had his actors speak Aramaic and Latin. However, historians object to Gibson's use of Latin instead of Greek for much of the film, such as in dialogue with Jewish high priests [source: Berlin and Magness].
Because the gospels lack much detail about the crucifixion, Gibson drew from the visions of a mystic nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich. However, historians take issue with many of Gibson's specific choices, which they say wouldn't be typical of Roman crucifixion, such as nailing into Jesus's palms rather than his wrists. Some argue that the brutal scourging depicted in the film would have killed Jesus, or at least made him unable to carry the cross [source: Zugibe]. Others say Gibson did this intentionally to show the superhuman strength Jesus must've had to endure such a beating [source: Crossan].
"The Right Stuff"
In 1983, director Philip Kaufman made "The Right Stuff," which chronicles the experiences of America's first astronauts, faithfully based on Tom Wolfe's popular book of the same name. Astronaut Scott Carpenter called the book "100 percent accurate." Astronaut Gordon Cooper clarified, "There may be things that didn't happen factually, but both [the book and movie] bring the reader, or viewer, closer to what the experience was like" [source: Blowen].
The filmmakers were able to accomplish impressive visuals on a relatively modest budget using creative special effects and without the sophisticated CGI of today, including a character shaking hands with former President John F. Kennedy. Kaufman said, "We were pioneering in that kind of insertion of actors into historical events. For example, we combined footage of the real Alan Shepard being loaded into the capsule with Scott Glenn doing it on the stage" [source: French and Kahn]. And by working with Dolby sound technicians, he sought to accurately simulate the flight experience for theater audiences. While filming, Kaufman drew from a collection of research material from the Navy and NASA that he kept in his trailer [source: French and Kahn].
Kaufman somewhat sidesteps controversy when he decides not to show whether astronaut Gus Grissom was responsible for a blown hatch on the Liberty Bell 7. And some of the inaccuracies in the film come from needing to consolidate events from the book. Historians also consider Kaufman's portrayal of former President Lyndon Johnson to be exaggerated.
The 1981 German film "Das Boot" tells the harrowing story of the crew aboard a U-boat late in World War II. The story is based on the numerous writings of Lothar-Günther Buchheim, a real-life war correspondent who went on patrols in a German U-boat during WWII. Director Wolfgang Peterson even used a real-life U-boat commander, Kapitänleutnant Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock, as an adviser on the film.
Plenty of the events depicted in "Das Boot" never happened, but neither were they pure fiction. For instance, when the submarine finally makes it back near the end of the film, an air raid attacks the U-boat pen. This didn't happen to Buchheim or Willenbrock, but similar air raids did occur. Also, in the film, the U-boat gets damaged and spends a long time submerged on the ocean floor, but this didn't actually happen.
Despite all these "inaccuracies," the film still managed to impress historians with its realistic depiction of the horrors of war, the unkempt crew and crammed submarine quarters. Film and literature scholar Robert James Niemi writes that "Das Boot," represents "the alternately tedious and terrifying reality of submarine warfare with meticulous accuracy" [source: Niemi].
"Tora! Tora! Tora!"
An experiment in film and in diplomatic relations, "Tora! Tora! Tora!" (1970) tells the story of the momentous Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor from the perspectives of both Japan and the United States. Actually, "Tora! Tora! Tora!" is two films made by two different directors, but they were edited together, alternating between the two perspectives. The result is a remarkably accurate and even-handed retelling of how the United States got pulled into World War II.
Because of a strong commitment to historical accuracy, the filmmakers do a decent job of setting the context of tense diplomatic relations between Japan and the United States. But the film isn't perfect. Some historians take issue with how the Japanese represent themselves. The film ignores the context of Japanese aggression in China and depicts Japan as "forced" into war [source: Iriye]. In addition, the film over-emphasizes the clerical errors that delayed getting an ultimatum to Washington before the attack. This falsely implies that delivering it in time would have changed the course of history and that the ultimatum would have been perceived as an act of war [source: Iriye].
Aside from a few inaccuracies, critics say the rest of the film falls flat artistically: Both the script and visuals disappoint. In fact, some say it was the commitment to accuracy that made the two-and-a-half-hour film dull. It certainly failed to enthuse American audiences, and the big-budget film was a disaster for 20th Century Fox.
"The Longest Day"
The invasion of Normandy was another monumental battle in history that got the Hollywood treatment. "The Longest Day" is a three-hour-long epic that attempts to chronicle the historical facts and personal experiences of the battle. Producer Darryl Zanuck based his 1962 film on a thoroughly researched book of the same name by Cornelius Ryan.
Historian Stephen E. Ambrose wrote that the filmmakers were "tremendously successful" in "recreating the spectacle of the June 6 invasion." Zanuck used military advisers on set, but, Ambrose points out, he didn't always heed their advice. Zanuck opted for theatrics over historical accuracy in many key points.
On the other hand, a few scenes seem too far-fetched to be true, but they were. For instance, one paratrooper in the film gets caught on a church steeple and must watch the horror of the battle. In reality, it was a far more dramatic scene: Two paratroopers were caught on the roof, and a German soldier was about to shoot them when a dying soldier on the ground shot and killed him just in time. In another instance, critics didn't appreciate that the film depicted the German High Command as "fumbling." Ambrose praises this as "one of the most accurate parts of the film" [source: Ambrose]. Indeed, Ambrose also praises how Zanuck portrays Germans as sympathetic.
One criticism Ambrose has, however, is the lack of realistic violence. For that, we suggest you look to "Saving Private Ryan," which depicts a fictional narrative but portrays a much bloodier invasion of Normandy.
Praised by critics, audiences and historians alike, "Apollo 13" (1995) stands out as one of the most successful films that is also historically accurate. It recounts the harrowing journey of the Apollo 13 astronauts who never made it to their destination on the moon and were lucky to return to Earth alive.
Director Ron Howard studied the mission's footage and transcripts to ensure historical accuracy. The film's actors spent time with the people they were portraying and made sure to not only get the dialogue right but also the inflection [source: Middleton]. The launch scene recreates the spectacle accurately from NASA footage.
But beyond accurately recounting the mission itself, Howard also succeeds in the arguably more difficult tasks of setting the wider historical context and portraying personal emotions. In the scenes leading up to the failed mission, Howard sums up the mood of a nation now bored with moon landings and questioning the legitimacy of space exploration. And amid the uncertainty over the astronauts' fate, Howard artfully depicts the anguish their families are experiencing.
Howard did invent some drama on the spaceship that never happened, however, when he included a scene in which the astronauts argue and blame one another.
Despite this, Apollo 15 Commander Dave Scott, who helped advise Howard on set, praised the film, saying, "[I]t'll go into the records as being a source of accurate data in the future" [source: Middleton].
"Der Untergang" (Downfall)
"Downfall" is a German film released in 2004 depicting the final days of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, and it succeeds brilliantly both as compelling art and accurate history. The film is based on the memoirs of Hitler's personal secretary, Traudl Junge (née Humps), and Joachim Fest's "The Downfall of Hitler and the End of the Third Reich: An Historical Sketch."
Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, the film paints a pretty accurate picture of what it must've been like for the high-ranking members of the Third Reich living in an underground bunker when their failure is clear and their end is imminent.
James Niemi writes that the film illustrates how "unfathomable evil can be perpetrated by relatively ordinary human beings," and argues that the film doesn't attempt to make Hitler sympathetic, but humanizes him [source: Niemi].
Although it may seem an odd comparison, "Downfall" suffers from the same historical failing as Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." Both films have a very narrow focus on influential historical figures and their last hours before death. Within this strict lens, the films cannot at the same time accurately portray the wider historical context of their stories. Historians can legitimately argue that removing this context deprives their deaths of significance. Paradoxically, however, one could argue that the wider the focus, the more difficult it is to be accurate and objective.
The viewer would do well to always look on historical accounts with a skeptical eye, remembering that history is always more complicated than it seems on the page or in a film.
'The spice must flow,' is a famous quote from 'Dune.' Test your knowledge of the 1965 novel and 2020 movie with our quiz.
Author's Note: 10 History Movies That Mostly Get It Right
While studying literary theory, I became fascinated with narration. I love when writers employ unreliable narrators because it forces the readers to question how much we can trust the information we're given. Likewise, I enjoyed exploring this same theme in the context of the accuracy of historical movies.
More Great Links
- Ambrose, Stephen E. "The Longest Day." "Past Imperfect, History According to the Movies." Ed. Mark C. Carnes. New York: Henry Holt, 1995.
- Berlin, Andrea and Jodi Magness. "Two Archaeologists comment on 'The Passion of the Christ.'" The Archaeological Institute of America. March 2004. (March 12, 2015) http://www.archaeological.org/pdfs/papers/Comments_on_The_Passion.pdf
- Blowen, Michael. "The Astronauts Had It, But We Were Human, Too." The Spokesman-Review. Oct. 27, 1983. (March 12, 2015) http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1314&dat=19831027&id=uFdWAAAAIBAJ&sjid=5u4DAAAAIBAJ&pg=4457,6464467
- Crossan, John Dominic. "Hymn to a Savage God." "Jesus and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ: The Film, the Gospels and the Claims of History." Ed. Kathleen E. Corley. London: A&C Black, Aug. 25, 2004. (March 12, 2015) https://books.google.com/books?id=bhqL1R0F6j8C
- Ebert, Roger. "Great Movie: The Passion of Joan of Arc." RogerEbert.com. Feb. 16, 1997. (March 12, 2015) http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-passion-of-joan-of-arc-1928
- Flagel, Thomas R. "The History Buff's Guide to the Civil War: The Best, the Worst, the Largest, and the Most Lethal Top Ten Rankings of the Civil War." Naperville: Sourcebooks, Inc., Sept. 1, 2010. (March 12, 2015) https://books.google.com/books?id=NdoiAQAAQBAJ
- French, Alex, and Howie Kahn. "Punch a Hole in the Sky: An Oral History of 'The Right Stuff.'" Wired Magazine. November 2014. (March 12, 2015) http://www.wired.com/2014/11/oral-history-of-right-stuff/
- Iriye, Akira. "Tora! Tora! Tora!" "Past Imperfect, History According to the Movies." Ed. Mark C. Carnes. New York: Henry Holt, 1995.
- Lerner, Gerda. "Joan of Arc." "Past Imperfect, History According to the Movies." Ed. Mark C. Carnes. New York: Henry Holt, 1995.
- Middleton, Shannon. "Apollo 13." "History Through Film." Ed. Eric Burnett. Lulu.com, 2008. (March 12, 2015) https://books.google.com/books?id=tYLRAQAAQBAJ
- Niemi, Robert James. "Inspired by True Events: An Illustrated Guide to More Than 500 History-Based Films." ABC-CLIO. Oct. 17, 2013. (March 12, 2015) https://books.google.com/books?id=ZcGNAQAAQBAJ
- Novick, Peter. "That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession." Cambridge University Press. Sept. 30, 1988. (March 12, 2015) https://books.google.com/books?id=mhiw__MLyVAC
- Richards, Jeffrey. "A Night to Remember: The Definitive 'Titanic' Film." I.B. Tauris. Aug. 23, 2002. (March 12, 2015) https://books.google.com/books?id=PUYBAwAAQBAJ
- Rollins, Peter C. "The Columbia Companion to American History on Film: How the Movies Have Portrayed the American Past." Columbia University Press, Aug. 20, 2013. (March 12, 2015) https://books.google.com/books?id=iAMb9q7cqAgC
- Wittenberg, Eric. "THE Movie." Rantings of a Civil War Historian. Dec. 5, 2007. (March 12, 2015) http://civilwarcavalry.com/?p=626
- Zugibe, Frederick T. "The Crucifixion of Jesus: A Forensic Inquiry." New York: M. Evans and Company, Inc. April 1, 2005. (March 12, 2015) https://books.google.com/books?id=naV1ua58ZQ8C