Its not often that a great historical film like ‘Titanic’ (1997), ‘Braveheart’ (1995) or ‘Schindler’s list’ (1993) comes along that captures not only our interest but our emotions. But what is the purpose of films? To entertain? To make money? Should the truth matter in films based on real events or on real people?
There is no doubt that we all watch films or documentaries because they are entertaining. Films such as ‘Titanic’ and ‘Braveheart’ captured our interest because they developed a story line that employed a bit of action, a bit of romance, a bit of suspense and a bit of tragedy. And with these films we may assume that the films were roughly truthful to historical events or people. But would we care?
These events were such a long time ago and nothing that we could personally relate to in our time. For example, in the movie ‘Braveheart’ portrays the battle of Stirling where the Scottish defeat the English. The battle of ‘Stirling’ is actually the ‘Battle of Stirling Bridge’ on 11th september 1297 where the Scots cornered the English on the narrow Bridge – not on an open field as depicted in the movie. There is no doubt that the scene in the movie was brillant – but is it historically accurate?
And what about films depicting our own national history? In the film ‘The Patriot’ (2000) based roughly on the true historical characters during the American Revolution. There is a scene where the British red-coats find a church filled with people that are suspected of being pro-revolutionary supporters and the church is burnt to the ground by the British red-coats. Its a powerful scene where we see the horror of war and the innocent being burned in a church by the callous British red-coat commander. But did it really happen? We have no evidence that the British army ever locked people in a church and set it on fire. So why put it in a movie if it did not happen?
In 1981, the film ‘Gallipoli’ was released to critical acclaim as it was based on the story of two young men from the Australian outback going off to enlist for the war and going to fight at Gallipoli – a place now ingrained in the Australian national psyche and often regarded as the ‘birthplace’ of modern Australia. Its a great film that is still used in Australian schools today to educate young Australians about the events at Gallipoli in modern day Turkey on 25th April 1915.
But its a film that borrows heavily from the Australian interpretation of events, particularly from the accounts written by C.E.W Bean, the Australian war correspondent at Gallipoli in 1915. The film portrays the British military commanders as needlessly sacrificing Australian lives in what became a military disaster. But is it historical truth? Should teachers use films as a teaching tool if we have doubts about the historical accuracy of the events portrayed? We also know that the film ‘Gallipoli’ was made 6 years after the end of the Vietnam War and it was made after a very strong anti-war period in history. So would ‘Gallipoli’ be historically accurate if it really portrays our own emotions towards war after Vietnam?
There is no doubt a plethora of films based on the Vietnam War particularly films made during the 1980’s as ‘Platoon’ and ‘Casualties of War’ or films based around the return of Vietnam soldiers from the war as ‘Rambo: First Blood’ and ‘Born on the 4th of July’. But many of these films were made years after the war ended and are based on opposition and popular perceptions to the war rather than based on historical fact. Should we be careful about how the Vietnam War was portrayed?
What about the portrayal of historical events and even characters in wars? One of the most controversial second world war films made was the 1957 film ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’. In the film, captured British soldiers are forced by the Japanese to work on the construction of a bridge over the Mae Klong River (renamed Kwai Yai River in 1960) in Thailand. The film’s story was loosely based on a true World War II incident, and the real-life character of Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey who was in charge of a number of Allied POW’s at Tha Markam camp from late 1942 through May 1943 when they were ordered to build two Kwai River bridges in Burma.
Was the film historically accurate? According to the Australian Prisoners of War on the Thai- Burma Railway the plot of the film was entirely fictional although the character of Nicholson (played by Alec Guiness) was supposedly based on the British colonel at Tha Markam, Philip Toosey.
But what of other historical events as tragic as the Holocaust during World War II where Nazi Germany forcibly deported millions of jews and gypsies from their homes to forced labor and extermination camps. There are very few films based on the true historical events of the Holocaust as acclaimed as Steven Spielberg’s ‘Schindler’s List’ which is based on the story of Oskar Schindler, a member of the Nazi party who profits from the use of Jewish labor during the war. Do films as ‘Schindler’s List’ minimise the Holocaust and the events surrounding the persecution of the jews, gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war?
So what about the portrayal of events in our own lives? In 2004, the film-documentary maker Michael Moore released the critically acclaimed documentary ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ in which explored the events behind the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and accused the Bush administration of using the attacks to invade Iraq in 2003. Is it right for Michael Moore to use 9/11 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq to accuse the U.S government of a cover-up if not a conspiracy to go to war?
Will students and people in the future see ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ and accept its portrayal of events as to what really happened? I guess its easy for us to say that its up to the viewer to do their own research and to find out the truth of events but can the popular view of a historical event in film and documentaries become history?
Is it important that films and documentaries be historically accurate or at least truthful? What will happen if we accept films without doing research to find out the facts? Will film become the portrayal of historical events and therefore accepted historical truth?