History, science and other myths


Are today’s films scientifically accurate? Does it matter? Vicky Fryer gives her opinion.

It always happens sooner or later, that moment when suspension of disbelief collapses, during the film or that polite chat (or outright argument) afterwards, and you think “wait a moment…”. That instant when you realise the laws of physics don’t work like that (or, for that matter, the Middle Ages), or when someone casually lists your favourite film’s many flaws.

Films aren’t well-known for being completely accurate. In fact, for many it’s one of their charms. But should we be more concerned about this? While there’s never been anything wrong with a spot of escapism, aren’t films a bit too irresponsible with what they show – or what they don’t?

It’s not so bad when films don’t claim to be reality – although try telling a fan of Avatar their favourite film is fictional. But it’s different when directors claim to care about these things. Ridley Scott enthused over the accurate historical context in his contribution to Robin Hood’s apparently-immortal film legacy. The problem? That particular context (the Crusades) was added to the legend centuries later, to give it a backdrop more interesting than a local setting. Slightly awkward.

Of course Robin Hood is less controversial given its (probably) fictional context, but any remotely historical film invites cynicism. Film-makers usually focus on what will sell, not what’s true, whilst little things are often forgotten. This gives us, for example, Valkyrie’s `Germans` whose accents seem to cover at least two continents. When details or even basic facts apparently don’t matter, we’re given Hollywood history, not the truth. It’s hardly unusual, but it‘s worrying how readily we accept myths such as Indiana Jones suggesting archaeologists prioritise bullwhips over trowels.  Many other laws of society and nature become putty all too easily in the hands of writers.

But why should we take this so seriously? Nobody expects a chase between set-pieces to depict proper distances, or space battles to be accurately but disappointingly muted. With such films, it’s those which do prioritise facts which suffer – Back to the Future is a mainstream phenomenon, whilst Primer is a little-known cult film for daring to think time-travel through scientifically. Enjoyment is the priority in these genres, so ignoring facts only matters when it gets ridiculous. The trick is to know your limits: as fiction, A Knight’s Tale can revel in a multitude of inaccuracies, but Marie Antoinette gets a little absurd on the subject of the historical French Revolution.

If a film’s based on facts, it should respect them, but in my opinion a non-serious film can get away with a lot more. Obsessive attention to detail isn’t necessary – only pedants and experts really care – but some appreciation for reality where it matters is needed. In the end, genre decides, and both accuracy and insanity have their place in modern cinema.

So yes, films could (and probably should) do better,  but we shouldn’t feel guilty for wanting James Bond to do the impossible (invisible cars aside). Just remember: they’re film-writers, not novelists – let them have their fun. Just don’t get caught up in their pretence that entertainment is reality.

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