The movie theater is the contemporary history classroom for an extraordinarily large segment of Americans. Although this fact may naturally produce consternation, the writers of history books—especially textbooks—should be the target of a few flaming arrows of blame. The movies have a way of searing history into the consciousness that a history textbook can only dream of doing. Making matters even worse is that the writers of many history books don’t even seem interested in making history exciting. Contrast that approach with those making movies who quite naturally place a higher premium on entertainment value than slavish devotion to factual accuracy.
The argument most often made by those who make historical films that are lacking in authenticity is that history books are almost always written with an ideological agenda that easily lends itself to manipulation via lies of omission or absolute Oliver Stone-style fabrications. Nevertheless, the main difference between the history lesson provided through film and the one provided through books is one of length. Most biographical works of literature have far less problems in regard to accusations of inaccuracy simply by virtue of the density of information contained within their pages and the fact that they are researched, quoted and footnoted. As far as that goes, the contemporary connotation of irony can be raised since modern-day students show a decided preference to being entertained over painstaking factual accuracy; as a result, all that time and effort that most history writers devote to research and fact-checking is all too easily usurped by less determined screenwriters.
Movies penetrate to the consciousness of not just the individual sitting in the theater with THX sound blasting through his cranium, but to society as a larger whole. A superbly written and exhaustively researched biography can enlighten the mind of a single reader, but a film that does a historical disservice to the very same subject not only shapes the mind of that person in the audience, but can even have an effect on those who will never actually watch the film.
At issue is the undeniable power of cinema to set fire to emotions as well as intellect and the underestimated component of a kind of mass hypnosis that takes effect when a movie rises to the level of must-see blockbuster. Even a film that doesn’t have five theaters inside your local googolplex filled to capacity six times a day has the power to resonate beyond its audience due not only to word-of-mouth of the moviegoers but to the media’s ability to manipulate a film into a cultural touchstone. Because film has the power to go well beyond the members of the audience, a movie that forms an idea of history based on factual errors or inconsistencies can shape the social belief in its falsities in the minds of exponentially more people in just one blockbuster
Few would contend that any filmmaker should substitute entertainment for the sake of a literal commitment factual accuracy in every single scene. Time constraints alone make this all but impossible for those making anything less than a television miniseries. In addition, by eschewing entertainment value for the sake of remaining truth to factual evidence these filmmakers would essentially be committing the same artistic suicide as all those school textbooks. On the other hand, when faced with the artistic choice of entertainment versus factual accuracy it is certainly the case that all too often screenwriters and directors cling to the elasticity of dramatic license the way the Bush administration clings to the elasticity of executive privilege.
The line may be less fine than is conventionally assumed; while no one should ever substitute a dramatic film for serious historical inquiry, most moviegoers know that a movie based on a true story always comes with a few caveats. On the other hand, some filmmakers notoriously avoid even the appearance of adherence to facts, instead preferring to present their films as pure historical fact despite actually engaging such propagandistic devices as fallacious reasoning, inventing fictional characters and scenes, and even putting patently false statements in the mouths of actual historical personages.