Taking massive liberties with history

Kathryn Bigelow’s new movie ZERO DARK THIRTY (with a screenplay by Mark Boal) has come in for criticism for its depiction of the events leading up to the death of Osama Bin Laden.

It’s been called pro-torture by some and an exposure of the futility of torture by others, and it’s merely the latest in a very long line of historical movies (albeit very recent history in this case) to be criticised for its handling of the truth. Christopher Hitchens called THE KING’S SPEECH a ‘gross falsification of history,’ and Antony Beevor was quick to point out the flaws in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, and you don’t need to be Antonia Fraser to find fault with BRAVEHEART, GLADIATOR and BEN HUR.

And even when you do try and present something historical with attention to detail, you might despair to discover that a large chunk of your audience weren’t even aware it was based on fact. Like all those kids who were astonished to discover that the Titanic was a real ship.

But isn’t this all missing the point? Does anyone really go to the movies for factual truth? Is it even the job of the movies to give us facts? Emotional truths, most definitely, and if you want facts then try reading a book. But then, as Greg Proops has said on a number of occasions, most of human history has been written by icky white men who rape their maids (I couldn’t find a link with the exact quote, but he says it enough on his podcast, so check it out), so even the written truth from esteemed historians should be approached with caution. Even the best of them are writing with an agenda or bias.

Maybe the way to go is to follow the example of Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS and start taking massive liberties with history? It added hugely to my enjoyment of the film when (SPOILER ALERT) Hitler was shot to pieces near the end. If the guardians of the facts aren’t happy with how film depicts history then maybe we should abandon all pretense and go all out? Have Napoleon riding a dinosaur into the battle of Agincourt! Why not? Well, I guess the process has already begun with ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER, and may God have mercy on our souls for that.

On one script that I’m working on at the moment, my co-writer and I are having enormous fun placing one very prominent historical figure precisely where he shouldn’t be and then putting him through hell. I know it will probably enrage Antony Beevor, but we’re not writing the script for him, we’re writing it for you because you’re smart and you know the difference between the truth and the facts.

PS. A quick update: I was delighted to get a reply to this post from Antony Beevor himself! Only he did it over on my ‘About’ page…


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Author, screenwriter, and co-founder of the Bestseller Experiment podcast.

One thought on “Taking massive liberties with history”

  1. Who says *redacted* wasn’t there? It was all covered up! This is TRUTH we are writing! The world deserves to know!

    (it’ll be like Capricorn One)


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