Historical fiction provides one of my favorite genres in literature and movies. I understand capturing the essence of the moment or providing an exciting scene can sometimes outweigh concerns for strict historical accuracy.
A problem may arise, however, when the viewer or reader cannot discern the difference between fact and fiction. People leave the theater thinking not just they enjoyed a movie and perhaps shared some of the “feel” of a historical moment. They can also depart with an adulterated set of facts.
Two current, excellent movies illustrate the point.
“Darkest Hour” with an Oscar worthy performance by Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill probes the time during World War II as German forces overran France, British troops stood with their backs to the English Channel at Dunkirk and many of the British elites wanted to seek a negotiated settlement with Hitler. For a time, it seemed only Churchill had the nerve to fight it out.
Several key scenes are either imagined or overstated. King George VI’s visit to Churchill late at night to voice his support seems doubtful. A key moment in the story when Churchill leaves his car and rides the tube (we call them subways) to take the pulse of the British people and rekindle his commitment to “never surrender,” strikes scholars as fanciful. While Churchill certainly won the endorsement of his “outer cabinet,” they hardly broke into a pep rally.
If a person viewing “Darkest Hour” grasps that the support of the crown bolstered Churchill, that the man who pledged to fight on the beaches, the landing ground and the cities shared a mutually nurturing and supportive bond with the British people and that members of Parliament outside the War Cabinet were willing to back Winnie, the movie patron received a lot more for their money than a sack of popcorn and a Diet Dr Pepper.
“12 Strong” also plays off true events – a CIA/Special Forces operation to carry the war to the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan just days after the terror attacks of 9-11. Chris Hemsworth, plays team leader, Capt. Mitch Nelson, in a compelling movie of a story worth telling. Combat scenes tended to have a video game quality, however. When Hemsworth charged into the enemy hip-firing his automatic weapon with pinpoint accuracy, knocking down black-clad Taliban left and right, while riding a horse, combat veterans in the room could be heard uttering a phrase generally used to refer to the byproduct of a West Texas feedlot.
So what do you think is more important, accuracy or entertainment? I just know if you don’t make the show or the book entertaining, the consumer will never pick up on the history, no matter how flawed.
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