Movies always have inaccuracies and in most cases we just let it go. I’m usually inclined to suspend disbelief. One of the things that movies and television tend to screw up, for example, is their math when it comes to dates.
For example, in Gangs of New York, the Butcher claims in 1863 that his father was killed by the British in 1814 during the War of 1812. Later in the film, he says that he’s 47 years old. The problem is that 1863 is 47 years after 1816. It’s a stupid thing to notice and I’m sure Scorcese was after a generational continuity between the founding generation and the Civil War generation, even if the time lag was a bit too long. He also wanted his film’s charismatic villain to be young enough to still be vigorous and intimidating. I can easily let such a thing go.
Another good example of an acceptable anachronism is in “I, Claudius” when the characters are referred to throughout their lives by historic nicknames. For example, Germanicus earned his honorific through combat in his adult life; he wasn’t born with it and nobody would have called him by that name as a child. Also, few people would have called Caligula by his historic name to his face. Soldiers gave him the name Caligula when he was a boy and it meant “Little Boot.” As a grown Roman aristocrat he would have been called by his actual first name, Gaius or when he was emperor he would have been called Caesar, Augustus or some flattering honorific. I think that Robert Graves stuck to historic names for convenience sake, so the readers would immediately know whom he was discussing. “I, Claudius” makes no bones about being fiction and as such, I can accept the author’s revisions as plot devices that make his well-told story work.
What I can’t stand is anachronism when it comes to ideology or values, particularly when it comes to imposing our worldview on a past society. HBO’s Rome was such an awesome show because it didn’t superimpose Judeo-Christian values on a pre-Christian society. Roman society in 50 BC had slaves and worshipped a polytheistic religion. Politicians openly accepted money and they used violence as a political tool. Everyone on the show, including Timon the Jew, engages in some form of behavior that our society would find reprehensible. At the same time, we find a connection to these characters. They are witty and have emotions we can relate to, even though their morality operates completely differently from ours.
The following selections are movies that have always irritated me because of how they impose our ideas on a realm of the past.
To this day I cannot believe that this movie won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The action was awesome and the costumes and scenery were spot on. The acting, however, is unconvincing and wooden and the whole plot feels entirely too much like a David and Goliath blockbuster.
In terms of anachronism there are two seriously heinous violations of the historical narrative: first, the idea that Commodus killed Marcus Aurelius because his father wouldn’t make him emperor. It’s a widely believed myth that Marcus Aurelius didn’t intend for his son to rule. The justification for this is that the previous four of the Five Good Emperors all adopted well-qualified heirs to be their successors. What no one bothers to mention is that most of these men didn’t have sons. Trajan had no sons. Hadrian was gay. Antoninus Pius was a childless old man. Marcus Aurelius was the first emperor since Vespasian to have a son and no matter how stupid or delusional that son was, he fully intended for his boy to rule.
Second, and really the worst offense, is the whole sham at the end of the movie that the Roman Republic is going to be restored. This is a steaming pile of nonsense. The long and judicious reign of Augustus Caesar pretty much wiped out any senators who opposed the principate along with the general public’s memory of what life in a republic was even like. The Senate never again assumed the backbone it had when people like Cato and Cicero were alive. The republic NEVER came back. The world would not see a stable or large scale democracy again until 1776.
Once again, a great action movie but very gladiator-like in plot and dialogue, particularly the flowing wheat field shots of the woman waiting back home. Because I’m not Iranian I can let go the fact that the movie portrays the Persians literally as monsters and call it stylization.
What I can’t stand is the idea that the Spartans were self-consciously defending Democracy. First, it sounds as though the narrator is reading from the introduction of a Western Civ book, crowning Greece as the father of western culture. How exactly would the Spartans know that Persia was threatening a “new way of life?” Secondly, the Spartans would be the last people to espouse democratic principles. Spartan society was built on the enslavement of a menial class called Helots that did all the work while the buff warrior-aristocrats were working out at the gym.
While I can buy that a society girl might run off with a street kid, I find it entirely unbelievable that a rich unmarried woman, who has spent a lifetime in training to be the wife of an aristocrat and would have been fiercely protective of her reputation could have overcome a lifetime of inhibitions to sleep with a man she barely knew in the back seat of a Model T.
Rich girls have slept around throughout history. They did so during the Enlightenment and they do today. However, the Victorian and Edwardian eras combined made up one of the most morally repressed periods in history. While this would not have mattered much for the lower classes (for example I don’t have a problem with Inman and Ada sleeping together in movie Cold Mountain – they were poor and it was a very dark time), for American and British upper-class women, the rules were very strict. As I said, Rose may have run off with Jack and eventually gone to bed with him in whatever tenement he chose for them on the Lower East Side but a woman of that class living in that era would not have had a one night stand practically in public.
Most likely I think that James Cameron, knowing that his hero was bound to die, did not think a 1998 audience would be satisfied with an unconsummated romance.
This is the best movie of the lot. However, the notion that one of the greatest kings in English history, Edward III, was the bastard son of a Scottish rebel is laughable. The contempt of his wife and father depicted in the movie does fit with what we know about the life of Edward II. Isabel did eventually depose and kill her husband, as she promised in the film. Isabel, however, most likely never even met William Wallace and probably was impregnated by her husband, however distasteful the royal couple might have found the duty to be. If Edward II was not the father it more likely would have been one of her other lovers. The fact that the young king turned on his mother’s most famous lover, his regent Roger Mortimer, may suggest that he did have some loyalty to his predecessor and likely true father.
The problem with the Braveheart theory is that William Wallace died seven years before the birth of Edward III. The William Wallace/Isabella Romance is not really an imposition of ideology but rather a historic flight of fancy so ridiculous that it distracts from what is otherwise a badass movie.
5. The Untouchables
This is another movie that I actually like. I have a theory that Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson have a clause in their contracts that allow them to willfully rewrite history in order to make their characters more glorious. Supposedly, Elliot Ness never fired his gun in real life. Actually, according to records, he fired it once to shoot a lock off a door. However, the depiction of him throwing Frank Nitti off the roof of a courthouse is absolutely ridiculous considering the fact that Nitti was a real-live person who didn’t die until 12 years after Al Capone’s conviction for income tax evasion. Nitti committed suicide rather than go to trial. The real Untouchables team also had eleven men, not four, and none of them were killed.
6. Malcolm X
Totally a plot device and one that I completely understand considering that Spike Lee was a filming a movie he wanted people to watch but when I read the Alex Haley biography I was surprised to find that there was no Brother Baines in prison with Malcolm. In reality, Malcolm X was converted to Islam mainly by letters sent from Elijah Muhammad. Brother Baines is really a composite of two men: John Elton Bembry, who convinced Malcolm to educate himself in prison and Malcolm’s brother, Reginald, who told him about the Nation of Islam and convinced him to give up cigarettes and pork. I’m only including this entry because I love the story of Malcolm X and I found his conversion to Islam and redemption in prison to be one of the most moving events in the film. When I later read the book, therefore, I was disappointed to find the reality less dramatic.