My Four Criteria for Evaluating Historical Movies and TV Series

Okay, my turn to weigh in on your question for this week. By which criteria should we evaluate historical movies and TV series? I actually wrote a three-part series on this last summer for the Patheos Evangelical blog, The Anxious Bench. I started with the Civil War film Free State of Jones, then recommended two cable TV series: the feminist time-traveling drama Outlander and the Cold War spy thriller The Americans. Here are the four criteria that I suggested:

Is it entertaining?

Like several of you, I thought we had to start with the fact that the task of the filmmaker is not to be a historian: “…historical or not, any good feature film does need to be entertaining, in ways that aren’t required of histories published by tenured academics through nonprofit presses. It does need to be ‘gripping’ — and moving, evocative, engrossing, and more.” In short, historical filmmaking is first and foremost a kind of entertainment. But I added that we should consider the other meaning of that word: “…to entertain is also ‘to have people as guests,’ and I think the two meanings converge in a well-done historical movie, since it diverts our attention from our world by inviting us into another — perhaps in ways that an academic history cannot.”

Is it truthful?

Here I was less concerned than many of you about “accuracy” and more interested in another way of describing truth — one that’s closer to Shawn’s emphasis on “details”:

This doesn’t mean that historians do wrong to point out inaccuracy in such movies and suggest complementary reading that will provide a better understanding of “what happened.” But ultimately, filmmakers and novelists are after a different kind of truth than historians.

I do think it’s reasonable to expect verisimilitude. Put negatively, a lesser historical film will tend to ring false less because it condenses a timeline or overstates a character’s role than because something about the acting, writing, costuming, sets, etc. will be anachronistic or otherwise fail to evoke a sense of what it felt like to live in that place among those people at that time.

Is it actually interested in the past?

To my mind, historical movies and TV series can have “deeper problems than inaccuracy.” Namely, “when filmmakers just don’t seem all that interested in the past on its own terms…. a film or TV series can look and sound as much like its historical setting as possible, succeed in entertaining the audience, yet also make clear that its makers are simply using the past as another dimension of the set.”

Does it prompt the audience to engage in historical thinking?

While I think we err if we confuse the calling of a (historical) filmmaker with that of a historian, I do think it’s fair to expect that a good historical film will get the audience “to think historically about the past.” First, by making them want to turn to the work of actual historians to learn more. Second, by starting to get viewers to engage in at least one or two of our “5 C’s of historical thinking.” For example, I noted that many reviewers of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln appreciated how it showed historical complexity.

Do you think I’m on to anything with these criteria? What would you add, remove, or modify? Or, which movies and TV series fare best by these standards?

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4 thoughts on “My Four Criteria for Evaluating Historical Movies and TV Series

  1. I enjoyed reading your section about prompting the audience to engage in historical thinking. Even if I am not consciously aware of it, many of the good historical shows and movies that I have seen, drive me to look into the details of the particular event. For example, not long ago, I finished watching the first season of the NBC television show “Timeless.” In one of the episodes, they go back in time to the mid-1800s at the World Fair in Chicago to encounter H.H. Holmes and what became known as the “Murder Castle.” After watching the episode, I immediately researched the details of this event and found the historical fiction novel called, “The Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson which detailed the events surrounding the fair (I actually bought it too). This well done episode prompted me to think historically about the past and pushed me in the direction of research on a topic.

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  2. I really liked what you mentioned about how the movie producers have to care about historical accuracy. If poeple do not care about the historical details it will not matter how accurate it is, if the audience sees a lack of interest on the part of the producer. In the same way if an producer makes a historically inaccurate movie but rally care about history it is still really fun to watch. A good example of this was at the history symposium. One of the speakers was talking about how the musical Hamilton is inaccurate about parts of his life, but at the same time the poeple who made Hamilton really cared about history, and because of this you Hamilton is a great musical that gets people engaged in the past. Another place you see this is alternate history books which are totally historically inaccurate yet the authors love history and weave in historical characters, which makes the book really interesting.

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  3. Professor Gehrz, I quite enjoyed the criteria you laid out concerning the historical method of Hollywood. What i especially enjoyed was your portion on whether or not the history they are portraying is done so in an entertaining light. I for one can speak from the perspective of having good Hollywood deeply influence my decision to study history. However, one of the ills I see in Hollywood is entertainment being prioritized over accuracy. Personally, I would much rather have the media I am consuming be historically accurate, rather than entertaining. When the history is both accurate and entertaining I believe the director/producer/writer has hit the gold mine of the historical process of Hollywood. One of the beauties of media in Hollywood is that it can draw people into a love for the study of history, praise God for that!

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  4. For those of you who place accuracy pretty high on your list of criteria, I’m curious which historical movie you would hold up as a good example. It may be harder than you think. At the history symposium last weekend, for example, I heard someone claim that Schindler’s List was an “incredibly accurate” movie about the Holocaust. That film certainly meets my “verisimilitude” criterion, to an uncomfortable degree. But it has received significant criticism for inaccuracy. For example, one Schindler biographer claimed that he had nothing to do with the list in question: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/nov/25/germany.film. “Schindler’s List was theatre,” according to David Crowe (recently retired from Elon University), “and not in an historically accurate way.” What film does better?

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