History and film: fact or fiction

Posted: December 18, 2023

Is the screen an adequate medium for depicting the events of history? 


This October, highly-esteemed director Martin Scorsese released a must-see historical spectacle, and the latest addition to his filmmaking oeuvre — Killers of the Flower Moon.

Killers of the Flower Moon takes an in-depth look into the Osage murders of the 1920s. Known for their great wealth and innovation, the Osage were a Native American nation located in Oklahoma. Scorsese depicts how the Osage people were taken advantage of by the conniving uncle and nephew duo William Hale and Ernest Burkhart.

This star-studded drama is just one of many highly-regarded history films. Even earlier this year, Christopher Nolan’s biopic Oppenheimer — following the “Father of the Atomic Bomb” J. Robert Oppenheimer — garnered Oscar buzz across the nation.

History films have been a prominent piece of the cinema industry for a century; although, they do spark controversy. Films such as Oliver Stone’s JFK and 2022’s rendition of All Quiet on the Western Front have received backlash for how they may twist or alter historical events.

“History on screen becomes legend, myth, fable, propaganda,” said historian and writer Alex von Tunzelmann in her book Reel History.

While it can be difficult to accurately portray a historical event, film can also be a dynamic way to get audiences interested in history.

“The imagery that film provides gives you an additional layer of detail beyond what documents can,” said Minneahah upper school history teacher Nathan Johson, “If it’s done well, I think it does a better job than anything else might in terms of helping you understand the events of history.”

Film does face many limiting factors such as time constraints and requiring actors to recreate the personalities of real people. Obviously certain things such as what a historical figure looks like should be taken with a grain of salt, but many things in a film can still be misinterpreted. This requires filmmakers to do a lot of research to adequately depict history to the best of their abilities. Sometimes, filmmakers will even choose to actively ignore truth and fact.

Movie makers and television producers have become our most powerful, though perhaps not our most careful, historians,” said New York Times writer Richard Bernstein in a 1989 article, “There is something disconcerting about the tendency of movies-as-history to construct technicolored and sound-tracked edifices of entertainment on the slender foundations of what appear to be actual events.”

Releasing this Thanksgiving is Ridley Scott’s Napoleon. The now 86 year old Ridley Scott has been a notable figure in the history film genre for decades. Scott’s large-in-scale Roman Empire epic Gladiator was well renowned across the cinema world, but was criticized for its inaccurate portrayal of some characters. While the film world is highly-anticipating the release of Napoleon, it will be difficult for Ridley Scott to satisfy and meet the expectations of historians.

It’s certainly difficult to depict history through the screen, but if done well, film can be a great way to generate interest in history across the general public.

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