The film is set in 13th century Scotland. Mel Gibson plays the Scottish rebel William Wallace who tries to overthrow the English who ruled Scotland at that time. One of the most memorable scenes is the Battle of Stirling, when Wallace’s army, hopelessly outnumbered, wait in an open field for the English to attack. The English fire thousands of arrows into the air but the Scots defend themselves with shields. Then the English knights on horseback charge at full speed, but at the last moment the Scottish troops raise their spears and the English knights are thrown from their horses and slaughtered. A fierce battle then takes place and Wallace’s army are victorious. The scene is not a model of historical accuracy, but with its spectacular special effects and stunts, it’s tremendous fun. ‘They may take our lives, but they will never take our freedom!’
Gone With the Wind, is based on the best selling book by Margaret Mitchell. It tells the story of a manipulative woman, Scarlett O’Hara (played by Vivien Leigh), and an unscrupulous man, Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), who carry on a turbulent love affair in the American South during the Civil War. The Confederates, the side Scarlett’s family supports, are losing, and Scarlett is living in Atlanta, which is besieged by the Union army. She escapes, and goes home, only to find her mother dead, her father disoriented, and her family home looted. She asks for food, and is told the soldiers have taken everything. In this dramatic scene, Scarlett, starving and desperate, suddenly sees a turnip in the ground. She falls on it, pulls it from the ground and eats it. She is nearly sick, then rises from the ground, looks round the ruined land and vows, ‘As God as my witness, I'll never be hungry again.’
This epic film tells the story of the rise and fall of a slave in the Roman Empire. Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is trained as a gladiator, but he rebels against his Roman owner and escapes. He forms an army of slaves and becomes their leader. Although they have fewer weapons and are less well organized, they win several victories against the Roman forces which are sent to put down the rebellion. But a final climactic battle just outside Rome results in the total defeat of the rebel army, with heavy casualties on both sides, and the capture of many of the survivors, including Spartacus. Crassus (Laurence Olivier), the Roman general, promises the captives that they will not be punished if they will identify Spartacus. In this powerful scene, one by one, each surviving soldier stands and shouts out ‘I’m Spartacus!’ Crassus finally condemns them all to be executed in a mass crucifixion along the Appian Way.
In the book History Goes to the Movies, the author Joseph Roquemore gives films stars according to their historical accuracy on a one-to-five scale – five stars means a film’s very accurate, and no stars means it’s very inaccurate. I’m going to look at two of the best-known films that Roquemore features in his book. The first film is the Oscar-winning movie Titanic, which was directed by James Cameron in 1997. The film is historically accurate as regards the events leading up to the collision with the iceberg – the Titanic was sailing too fast and the captain ignored warnings about ice. The collision and sinking are also very accurately portrayed with amazing special effects. However, where the film falls down is in its characterization. I must say I entirely agree with Roquemore when he criticizes director James Cameron for what he calls ‘class-conscious overkill’. What he means by that is Cameron depicts all the third-class passengers in the film as brave and good, and all the first-class passengers as selfish, stupid, cowardly, or downright evil. And this can’t have been the case. Then a large part of the film centres on the love story between Jack, a third-class passenger, played by Leo DiCaprio, and Rose, a first-class passenger, played by Kate Winslet. Obviously, these characters and their story are fictitious and were just added, presumably to sell the film to a younger audience. But many historians have pointed out that a romance between Jack and Rose is totally improbable, because at that time there was complete class segregation on board ship. Roquemore also criticizes the film’s portrayal of Captain Smith. He’s made out to be indecisive and frankly useless throughout the disaster. But this contradicts everything which was said about him by survivors of the sinking. And for me, though, even more indefensible was the film’s portrayal of the ship’s First Officer, William Murdoch. On the night of the sinking he behaved heroically. In his home town in Scotland there’s even a memorial to him, but in the film he’s shown taking a bribe from a passenger (in exchange for a place in a lifeboat), shooting passengers dead, and finally shooting himself in the head. In fact, the film company 20th Century Fox, who produced Titanic, were eventually forced to admit that there was no historical evidence that Murdoch did any of these things, and that they’d included these details purely and simply to make the story more interesting. Roquemore gives Titanic three stars, describing it as ‘Great pyrotechnics – mediocre history’. All in all, I think his assessment is about right. The main events are true but the characterization is definitely the weak point in the film.
Moving on to the second film, Braveheart, this is one of the films to which Roquemore gives five stars for historical accuracy. He gives the film five stars because despite what he calls some ‘small fictions’ he thinks Braveheart is, I quote, ‘true to the spirit of William Wallace’. Well, that may be the case, but I’m afraid I have to take exception to the phrase ‘small fictions’. The historian Elizabeth Ewan described Braveheart as a film which ‘almost totally sacrifices historical accuracy for epic adventure.’ William Wallace is portrayed as a kind of poor primitive tribesman living in a village. In fact, he was the son of a rich landowner and he later became a knight. You’ll remember too that in the film Mel Gibson wears woad, a kind of blue face paint. Apparently, the Scots stopped wearing woad hundreds of years earlier. And while we’re on the subject of costume, in the film the Scottish soldiers wear kilts. No surprises there you might think, but in the 13th century, which is when the events of the film are set, the Scots did not wear kilts, and in fact, they didn’t start wearing them until four centuries later. Another of these ‘fictions’ is that in Braveheart, William Wallace has a romance with the beautiful French princess, Isabelle. However, the historical reality is that Wallace never met Isabelle and even if he had, she would only have been nine years old at the time! Finally, anyone who’s seen the film will remember the famous battle scene. The battle was the Battle of Stirling, so called because it was fought on Stirling Bridge in Scotland. Basically, the reason why the Scots won the battle is because the English soldiers got trapped on the narrow bridge. In Braveheart the bridge does not appear at all in the battle. In fact, Mel Gibson originally planned to film the scene on the actual bridge, but he found that the bridge kept ‘getting in the way’. Apparently, when he mentioned this to one of the Scottish history advisors on the film, the man’s reply was ‘Aye, that’s what the English found’. Mel Gibson defended all the inaccuracies in the film saying that the film’s version of history was more ‘compelling cinematically’. Admittedly, it is a very entertaining film, and it does give you a strong feeling for William Wallace and how he must have inspired his countrymen, but I don’t think you can give this film five stars or even two stars for historical accuracy.
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