Moving pictures got their start as recordings of history, so it is only fitting that throughout its own history the cinema has repeatedly used historical events as the basis for commercial movies.
Hollywood has had a long history of "historic" films, ones that range from the very historically accurate to ones that only loosely based on certain historical events. With the high profile of many of these movies and the lack of detailed history curriculum in many schools, is Hollywood acting ethically in portraying less than factual accounts of actual events?
It would be foolish not to admit to some basic problems in displaying truly accurate historical events on celluloid and still have the film maintain its commercial appeal. Very few movies can display the passage of time accurately; so selective editing is required to maintain a decent running time for the movie. This problem in and of itself leads some historians to discount the use of the cinema as an accurate representation of events. Other historians argue that they themselves use the same technique in writing historical documents--some events are simply not as important as others in a historical context.
In the Civil War film Glory the director, Edward Zwick, shows how an otherwise rather accurate film can use selective editing to tell the grand story of the regiment's inception to the historic battle at Ft. Bragg in a few hours. The use of montage to quickly move the story forward while giving an accurate portrayal of events gives the film historic credibility while maintaining its commercial viability (Carnes).
Summarily, in Oliver Stone's controversial film Nixon, Stone came under fire from historians and former members of the Nixon administration for not incorporating the exact dialogue used in conversations in the Nixon White House as they were found on Nixon's secret recordings. His reply was that he had changed the dialogue to a more condensed version of what is found on the tapes, while maintaining the feel and the outcome, yet drastically cutting down on the amount of time spent in the conversation (Toplin).
Another problem rises from the uncertainty of certain historical events, or an incomplete historical record. When faced with the problems of an incomplete or indefinite history directors generally tend to take one of two paths. They can decided to either pull information from other sources to create a complete linear storyline or they can add as much speculation into the film as time allows.
When making the biblical epic The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille realized that the biblical account of the Exodus does not supply enough material for an epic movie. DeMille then used the rabbinic commentaries of the midrash, commentaries on the historical aspects of the Torah written by rabbis during the first century Common Era, long after the Exodus, to "flesh out" the characters (Carnes). Historians consider these commentaries good reads, but not containing much historic fact. Scholars also point out that DeMille seems to have relied just as heavily on contemporary romances like the novels Prince of Egypt and Pillars of Fire for his sources, as he did on biblical legend.
The other route, one in which many possible scenarios are discussed, is best shown in the 1991 Oliver Stone movie JFK, which is primarily based on two books, Jim Garrison's On the Trail of the Assassins and Jim Marrs' Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy, yet it contains information gleaned from many other resources. In preparing for the script Stone hired twenty-four researchers to look into other sources for information and even hired people to play themselves in the movie, most notably Dr. M.T. Jenkins, the physician who had pronounced John F. Kennedy dead ("JFK").
While not a production problem, another problem facing historical films is the inclusion of factual yet controversial information. With some things, such as violence, it is easier to allude to the actions and to show the effects, both physically and mentally. With other controversial subjects, such as homosexuality and bisexuality, the mere allusion to it can cause a studio to cut a movie's funding.
The prime example of this is the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, for which director Arthur Penn removed all traces of Clyde Barrow's rumored bisexuality and added a problem with impotence to fabricate a love story yet keeps the graphic violence caused by the Barrow gang in the movie (Cook). While it is not not generally considered a historically accurate movie, it is important to point out that the producers of this movie decided that displaying the violent end of the two title characters (and the violent end is one of the more accurate scenes in the movie) is more appropriate for movie audiences than what goes on in bank robber's bedrooms.
No scripted movie, no matter the amount of researchers, first-hand accounts, or file footage can one hundred percent capture an historic moment, yet many producers try. The problem with Hollywood for many historians, and the main reason they tend not to trust any "based on a true story" films is that film makers are human and as such are fallible. Historian's themselves tend to be a rather selective group, full of many self-important people. However, this does not include all historians, and some are beginning to view historically themed cinema as not only trying to relay a view of the past into the modern era, but, by viewing films as historical artifacts to be examined and deconstructed, also as a reflection of modern times.
Cook, David. A History Of Narrative Film. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004.
"JFK (1991)." 1990. IMBd.com. (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0102138/).
Toplin, Robert. Oliver Stone's USA. Lawrence, KS: U of Kansas P, 2000.