The Dead Cost Nothing

[Disclaimer: I have 2 history degrees, and one in international politics, so I tend to get irrationally upset when quoted movie scenes/books/television shows as historical fact. That’s the motivation behind this post.]

In the world of television and film, historical accuracy usually takes a back seat to…well…pretty much everything else. The point of a film/television show is to bring its producers money. There are many, many, examples of films which are terribly inaccurate. Battle of the Bulge. Bridge on the River Kwai. Shakespeare in Love. Lawrence of Arabia. Alexander. Gladiator.  Practically everything ever done by Oliver Stone, and Mel Gibson for that matter. The most obvious, and the one which motivated this post, is Braveheart.

Braveheart is probably the most well known example of Hollywood completely distorting history. It’s bad. The film gets practically nothing right (Robert the Bruce…mostly). But it did get five Academy Award nominations. The inaccuracies, however, far outweigh the pretty scenery. Ironically, one of the movie’s Oscar nominations is for makeup–neither William Wallace, nor any of his followers, painted their faces blue. They just didn’t. Nor did they wear plaids (kilts). In 13th century Scotland, plaids weren’t really a thing. And once they did become a thing, around the 17th century, they were much more a Highland thing. In fact, plaids were so associated with the Highlands that after the failed Jacobite uprising of 1745, and the defeat of Charles Stuart’s army at Culloden, banning plaid wearing was part of the Act of Proscription of 1746. William Wallace was many things, but he wasn’t a Highlander…another thing he wasn’t was the lover of Isabella of France, because 1) she was about 2 at the beginning of the Wars of Scottish Independence, and 2) she didn’t even land in England until two years after Wallace’s death. That means, sadly, she didn’t warn him at York–not only because she was a toddler, but because Wallace never attacked York.

Another thing that never happened in 13th century Scotland, aside from plaid wearing and attacking York, was the meeting in a barn of Scottish noblemen in 1276 to pick a king after the death of Alexander III…and then Edward I has them all hung, enter war. Alexander III, very much not dead in 1276 and would stay not dead for a decade. Also, the Wars of Scottish Independence didn’t start until 1296…in 1276, there had been peace with England for over 60years. Scottish history is filled with periods of angst and fighting, both amongst the clans and with the English….for most of the 13th century, Scotland was pretty peaceful. For Hollywood, however, that’s pretty boring.

Often, history just isn’t that exciting and writers embellish to make it worthy. The thing is, however, history IS exciting. By changing historical based films into something that can “sell,” Hollywood is re-inventing history. History is, if nothing else, a lot of connected facts that draw a picture…which is, basically, a movie. The bottom line is that history isn’t as sexy and profitable as Hollywood would like it to be.

The problem with historical based movies is that everyone already knows the ending, and if you don’t you can Google. Hollywood has to do  something to get people to watch. Braveheart was a huge commercial success, as most movies with plaid kitted men and swords are. Historical films don’t have to be a complete reinvention of history. The problem with a society so used to getting spoon fed facts by the media, is that people assume that a historical film is accurate. As degenerate as it sounds, there are theatre goers who get their historical facts from films. Films which are nominated for five Academy Awards, something the Academy has to know will increase a film’s viewership, should at least have a foundation in historical fact. Churchill once infamously said “history will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” Hollywood has taken Churchill’s line and amended: “history will always be interesting, for we shall make it up.”


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