Forget the authenticity - just give us entertainment

Leap of faith: Off the bike McQueen, that's not how it happened

Leap of faith: Off the bike McQueen, that's not how it happened

 

It’s Oscar season, which means it’s time, yet again, to ponder the significance of historical accuracy in films. The question is, each year, thrust upon us by insidious negative campaigning from rival studios.

Last year it was claimed that Argo told porkies about the British and New Zealand embassies’ un-
helpfulness to American hostages in Iran. The chatter around Zero Dark Thirty was deafening.

This year, the cinematic swiftboating (remembering a term derived from attacks on John Kerry during the 2004 presidential election) has been directed at Captain Phillips (maybe the title character wasn’t such a hero), Philomena (were the film-makers too nasty to the nuns?) and Dallas Buyers Club (the protagonist may have been a little less heterosexual than represented).

Something of this nature happens every awards season. In 2001, certain sinister forces felt it necessary to point out that John Nash, the troubled central character in A Beautiful Mind, had harboured anti-Semitic delusions. And so on.

If Gravity were a little less fictional, then “unnamed sources” would, we assume, have already suggested that Dr Ryan Stone faked her adventures in the same facility that accommodated the patently illusory Apollo “missions”. I think Bruce Dern was putting on that dementia in Nebraska. There’s nothing wrong with him, if you ask me.

It is, of course, understandable that people get concerned about certain misrepresentations in cinema. Nobody now would dare portray slavery as it was represented in Gone with the Wind: an occasionally fraught relationship between employee and firm but fair employer. If a relative were mis-
represented in a movie, then you would be within your rights to stand outside the premiere bellowing with all the other lunatics.

If, however, we are going to mark down dramatic films for factual inaccuracy, then the cupboard of classics will soon be rendered worryingly bare. Do you know that Peter O’Toole was nearly a foot taller than the real Lawrence of Arabia? Despite what you may have divined from The Great Escape, none of the former inmates of Stalag Luft III attempted to leap the Swiss border on a motorbike. Given that we’re not sure Robin Hood even existed, it’s hard to explain why Errol Flynn went to the trouble of starring in a film about him.

Here’s the thing. Popular cinema should be allowed treat history the way it used to treat source novels (before online nuts bullied screenwriters into fanatic faithfulness). The events are a mere springboard for the creation of stories suited to the cinematic medium. It’s nice if the piece holds true to historical fact, but it’s more important that it surge forward with satisfying momentum.

Shakespeare knew this. Presumably, come awards season in 1592, his rivals were pointing out that Richard III was actually a perfectly good bloke. What kind of story would that be? Give us more lies, but make them entertaining lies.

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