07 Aug

Of skeptics or Why we fill in the blanks

Yet another not quite contemporary drawing of William Wallace. Also, not historically correct.

Yet another historically (and anatomically) inaccurate depiction of William Wallace.

If you’re reading this, you have probably seen the film “Braveheart”. You might even be aware of the various problems regarding the film’s historical accuracy. I won’t regurgitate them here, but you can have a look at the main points of contention here.

It seems like a clear-cut example of carelessness on the side of the filmmakers, but if you dig a bit deeper, it becomes more complex than just the story of Hollywood blindly trampling all over history.  As William Guynn in his book “Writing history in film” paraphrased French historian François de la Bretéque, a fervent critic of historical films and novels:

[…] the “internal” codes of filmic representation—particularly, one assumes, codes of mise en scène—ultimately are more decisive in the production of a historical film than concerns for accuracy, and the advice of a film’s historical consultants is often overridden.

The above example of Braveheart seems to illustrate that. After the film’s release, many academics were in fact displeased with the result, to put it mildly. On the other hand, Elspeth King, director of the Stirling Smith Museum and Art Gallery, wrote a piece in response to such criticism, in which she explained how even this uneven portrayal of William Wallace wasn’t detrimental but rather beneficial to the interest of the general public in Scottish history. To quote from her piece, regarding the museum’s 700th year exhibition:

The mood of visitors to the exhibition has been celebratory, and devoid of the racist and violent tendencies with which its detractors would like to dismiss the cult of Wallace. Most are intelligent and discerning enough to know that the film is not factual in every respect but it has excited and inspired them, and they want to know more.

The lesson here: don’t underestimate your audience and the effect of films on public history. Which in turn brings me back to the views of French historian François de la Bretèque, as Guynn recounts them:

Moreover, historical films rarely restrict themselves to what is known. Rather, they attempt to “fill in the blanks” of history: historical narrative in film is permitted to say anything that cannot be contradicted: “You could almost say that, by definition, the historical
film situates itself exactly at the spots where one cannot know what really took place.”

As Elspeth King points out in her piece, the basis for Braveheart’s script was an epic poem by Blind Harry, a poet who lived in the 15th century and wrote his account of the hero roughly 170 years after Wallace’s death. As opposed to the rather scarce academic sources about William Wallace, the poem did fill in the blanks. Moreover, according to King, had that poem not been written and retold countless of times, Wallace would have probably been dismissed by academics “as mere figments of anglophobic fantasy”.

It’s interesting to see that François de la Bretèque’s criticism could be applied to Blind Harry just as well, for what he did was fill in the blanks. Had he not created his poem by filling in the blanks, there would not have been a whole lot to say about this William Wallace.

The irony of François de la Bretèque’s criticism is, that it can in turn easily serve as justification for creating historical films, games or novels. While there are many eras or events in history where sources are abundant, many have to make do with others filling in the blanks (that is, after all, what historians do).  And while it’s not an easy task to walk the tightrope that is creating a piece of entertainment while trying to remain true to its historical base, the result of those efforts can be very rewarding. A film, game or novel that takes itself seriously enough to do its homework, therefore capturing the imagination of its audiences, can stir up discussion and debate, not only but especially in classrooms, therefore raising awareness and interest in areas that might have otherwise been lost to whole generations.

That said, I wonder what François de la Bretèque makes of the Horrible Histories.

One thought on “Of skeptics or Why we fill in the blanks

  1. Pingback: The pleasures and pitfalls of recreating the past | Hemmer.co

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