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?