Hollywood and Its Relationship with History

Culture Watch

Mr. Bagge is an HNN intern and an undergraduate at Brandeis University.

This last January, attendees of the American Historical Association (AHA) convention received a special treat: a sneak preview ofthe upcoming movie The Conspirator. The film, the first production of the recently founded American Film Company,exploresthe trial of Mary Surratt, convictedconspirator in the Lincoln assassination plot and the first woman to be executed by the federal government on charges of treason.  Joe Ricketts, one of the founders of the film company, told the audience that current historical movies lack authenticity; they blend fact with fiction and verge onhistorical irrelevancy.

Major studios like Paramount and 20th Century Fox have released many blockbuster films in the last two decades detailing the lives of important historical figures and events.  From Braveheart (1995) to Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and the recent Robin Hood (2010), the blockbuster bio-epic explores the myths of their protagonists, garnering the attention of the general public.  Each is an amazing display of Hollywood storytelling, special effects, and acting.  The problem that arises is one of authenticity:  arethese movies examples of the criticism Mr. Ricketts aims at the modern film industry?


Directed and starring Mel Gibson, Braveheart explores the First Scottish War of Independence (1296-1328) between England and Scotland.  The story unfolds from the perspective of William Wallace, one of the historical leaders of the rebellion against King Edward I, also known as "Longshanks."  Wallace, portrayed by Gibson, seeks revenge on the English after his family is killed by King Edward’s troops.  He is depicted as a gruff, yet cultured, man, risking his life for the chance of creating a free and strong Scotland.  Wallace goes from one battle to another, slaughtering the English while bedding the wife of the effeminate Prince Edward of England, Isabella of France.  The movie ends with Wallace, captured by the English, drawn and quartered (a fairly excessive death involving mutilation, decapitation, cremation, and disembowelment).  Wallace's execution spurs further rebellion amongst the Scots, leading to their independence after the Battle of Bannockburn (1314).

A major box officehit, Braveheart established this image of the medieval Scot, clad in a plaid kilt and blue face paint, mooning his despised foot and ignoring all danger around him.  There are several glaring errors with this portrait.  The kilt didn’t appear until the sixteenth century; the movie’s Battle of Stirling Bridge conspicuously lacked the bridge; Isabella was only around ten when Wallace died; then there’s the character of Robert the Bruce, who never directly participated in Wallace's capture and to whom the moniker Braveheart originally applied.  Most striking of all is the motivation of Wallace—his father and brother were killed fighting, but by other Scotsmen, not the English.  Conflicting records indicate that Wallace started fighting the English over fish that Wallace poached, hardly the story of legends.

Braveheart, with its blatant inaccuracies, creates a cinema figure of William Wallace that treads the line of complete inaccuracy and partial truth. Gibson's Wallace is more akin to the standard cinema action hero, enjoyable to watch but lacking real, factual substance.

Kingdom of Heaven

This movie, by acclaimed director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Blade Runner) depicts the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, a state established by invading Crusaders in the twelfth century, and those who played a role in its downfall.  Kingdom of Heaven has its leading protagonist in the figure of Balian of Ibelin (1140s-93).  Portrayed by Orlando Bloom as the young, illegitimate son of a Crusader nobleman, Balian comes from a village in France to the Holy Land, inheriting his father’s land and title.  This inheritance creates conflict for Balian, who questions the nature of chivalry and the values of religion in a time of bloody fighting between Christian and Muslim.  Balian's struggles results in a liaison with Countess Sibylla (1160-90), wife of the film's main antagonist, Guy of Lusignian (1140-54), and his decision to defend the city of Jerusalem from Saladin, leader of the Muslim armies.  Balian's internal and external struggles highlight the film's message, namely thatreligious conflicts bring only despair and tragedy to those involved.

Like Gibson's Wallace, Bloom's Balian is more fiction than fact. The historical Balian of Ibelin was raised as the legitimate son of one of the leading nobles of the kingdom, far from the bastard offspring of an errant knight.  This Balian, though the defender of Jerusalem, was not as naive to the politics of the kingdom as Mr. Scott depicts him.  By the time the movie occurs Balian was reaching middle age, married, and well-versed in intrigue.  The marriage of Sibylla to Guy was caused by Balian; the Ibelins viewed Sibylla, sister to the ailing King Baldwin IV, and his equally frail heir Baldwin V, as the most logical heir to the throne.  Balian and his family planned to have her marry one of their own, with or without her cooperation.  In desperation, Sibylla decided on the recently arrived Guy to marry.  Obviously, there was little love between Sibylla and Balian due to these intrigues, and in the end it lead to the coronation of the incompetent Guy as the King of Jerusalem, following the death of the two Baldwins.  Far from the naive, boyish, moral absolutist depicted by Bloom, Balian was a complicated man who both wanted to maintain the Kingdom of Jerusalem and to enhance his own family's power.

The other dramatis personae of Ridley's film are equally fictitious.  Saladin is depicted as a man spurred to action by the murder of his sister (which did not happen).  Guy and his lackey, Reynald of Chatillon, bear the image of the Templars on their armor, but members of this order were celibate, and individually, financially modest monks.  Both Guy and Reynald were both wealthy and very clearly married. If they were trying to be warrior monks, they must not have read the job description.

Robin Hood

Ridley Scott's latest attempt at historical epic is actually his most fact-free.  Dates are wrong, such as King John's coronation on the eve of Magna Carta (the document was signed in 1215; John was already king for approximately fifteen years).  Character ages are incorrect (John's wife Isabella was actually twelve when they married, a fact not shown in the movie).  Robin Hood and Maid Marian, played by Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, are complete fabrications of popular folklore and, in the case of Robin Hood and his men, dramatizations of real-life bandits.  These outlaws were violent and dangerous men, such as the Folvilles of Derbyshire in the fourteenth century, who stole from the rich but happily failed to give it to the poor.  The theme of the movie, rebelling against tyrannical authority, is achieved but at the cost of all historical accuracy.
The absence of fact in Robin Hood highlights the common defectamong these three films:  fans of American cinema of the 40s, and 50s can recognize this as the Humphrey Bogart archetype. The moral hero, plagued with hardship, who does his best to aid those around him, regardless of their relation to him.  The Bogart archetypeis inhibited by his morals from being excessively violent or cruel.  Surrounding the hero are those of mixed morality who seek his downfall or corruption; he does not let them the joy of succeeding.  This, in essence, is the knight [errant] in shining armor.  The Bogart characteris accompanied by a love interest of immense beauty, who is both fiercely independent but requires the aid of the protagonist.  Whether they live happily ever after is up to the story.  While this archetype is well-suited for fiction, its deployment in historical film is problematic.

None of the protagonists of these tales could fulfill these criteria. After Stirling Bridge, history's William Wallace skinned a portly English nobleman and fashioned his flesh into a holster for his sword.  The real Balian of Ibelin practiced realpolitik, engaging in sordid activity to achieve his goals. A lesser-known story of Robin Hood has him and his companion Little John murdering a monk who alerted authorities to their whereabouts, and his young, innocent charge who was an eyewitness to the murder.

The goal of the creators of TheConspirator is to not only create historical movies that fit their designation, historical. It is to show that the real people who inhabit history, with their flaws and positive traits, are more engaging and intriguing than the standard action-adventure hero. Essentially, it is to show that reality can be stranger than fiction.

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