A recent post on wondersandmarvels.com has reminded me about a topic I have been meaning to address for quite a while: history and the movies.
What role do movies play in the formation of our understanding of the past? Can movies be useful learning tools?
My personal belief is that the only way to approach historical film is as entertainment. When they are well done, they can certainly help give an impressionistic overview of a time and place, but to rely too heavily on them for ‘fact’ is an extremely bad idea.
My favourite example of this is Braveheart. It is a good movie, great entertainment, but absolutely horrible ‘history’.
It begins with a title reading: “1280 A.D.” and the narrator’s voice: “The king of Scotland has died without a son and the king of England, a cruel pagan known as Edward longshanks claimed the throne of Scotland for himself.”
- The scenery resembles the western highlands of Scotland – an area that had really nothing to do with Wallace nor with the uprisings against English rule
- This is like starting a film about a Manitoba wheat field with a panoramic shot of the Newfoundland coast
- In 1280 not only was the Scottish king (Alexander III) very much alive, so were his sons and daughter
- King Edward I of England never claimed the throne for himself and while he was many things, he most certainly was NOT a pagan
- In the 13th century no Scots wore the kilts that everyone seems to favour in the film
- The Scottish nobility was culturally very much like their English counterparts
- they had common backgrounds
- they were drawn largely from the same families
- they spoke the same languages, read the same kinds of literature, and often held lands on both sides of the border
- At no time did Edward invite the nobles to talks “no weapons, one page only” where he summarily executed the lot of them
- And even if he had, he certainly would not have invited them to a place that looks suspiciously like Glen Nevis in the north-west highlands
- Again, Manitoba/Newfoundland
- Wallace’s father was no mere peasant farmer – he was a knight who held lands
- Incidentally, his father was killed in 1291 by which time William Wallace would have been around 20 years old
- yet again, the setting for the Wallace farm itself is also completely wrong – gently rolling lowland country vs. Glen Nevis
- The children of knights did not dress in rags
- Even poor people knew how to look after their clothes – they had to after all as they couldn’t afford to let them disintegrate into rags through neglect
- there is no evidence to sugget that 13th century men favoured mullets
- but they did use combs!
These are some of the errors that appear in the first three minutes of the film! Sadly, it goes steadily downhill from there.
Here is a small sample of some of the historical lowlights of this film:
- Marriage of Edward II and Isabella – much too early
- in 1303 England and France secured a non-aggression pact. Part of this agreement was that Prince Edward and Princess Isabella would wed. The wedding took place in 1308. Edward was born in 1284, Isabella ca. 1295. You can do the math re their portrayal in the film
- Edward I: “Scotland – my land” – never really saw it as such
- he wanted to control scotland, not become its king
- “Prima Nocta”: thankfully this is a complete myth
- Isabella and her lady in waiting spoke in French, apparently to keep secrets from the English
- This is ridiculous as Anglo-Norman French was the first language of the English nobility.
- The mad Irish guy didn’t exist
- The battle of Sitling Bridge is all wrong
- the topography is wrong wrong
- the battle itself didn’t happen like that: where is the bridge??
- Woad, the blue stuff on their faces, had probably not been used since 6th century
- “Beg forgiveness for 100 years of theft, rape and murder”
- I hate to break it to the nationalists on both sides of the border, but prior to the “Great Cause”, Anglo-Scottish relations were really very good.
- they were close political and economic partners, and their rulers were often the closest of friends
- English archers going into battle with 3-4 arrows each
- archers were capable of having more than this number of arrows in the air at one time
- sending archers into battle with such a small number of arrows would have been a complete waste as entire units of archers would have been rendered useless in seconds
- York: Wallace did not sack York. Ever. He probably would have liked to, but he didn’t.
- Edward I didn’t throw Gaveston or Despenser from window – who is this “Phillip” guy anyway?
- Isabella as diplomat and all that followed – this simply did not happen
- see comment re. age above, not to mention the fact that sending her to meet his greatest enemy would have been a colossally stupid thing for Edward I to do. He was not a stupid man!
- Wallace did not go on rampage assassinating members of scotting nobility. Again, at times he may well have wanted to, but he didn’t.
- Bannockburn – as with Stirling Bridge, the setting is all wrong
In short, the physical setting is wrong, the political situation in the film is laughable, the personal relationships in the film are equally ridiculous. Characters are invented (mad Irish guy, ‘Phillip”), while others (where is Andrew Moray?) are omitted. Battles are wrong, clothing is wrong, knowledge of Anglo-Scottish culture is almost completely absent.
So should students of history watch Braveheart? Of course. What they should never, ever, do is assume that what appears on screen bears any resemblance to historical reality.
This is a pretty extreme example, and I use it partly for that reason and partly because it falls into an historical time and place with which I am well acquainted. Not all historical films are this wildly inaccurate. But the same advice applies: caveat spector. Watcher beware.