British film director Ridley Scott has been enjoying himself with a good bout of historian bashing as he promotes his new film, Napoleon. Asked by a Sunday Times journalist about the film’s respect for history, Scott insisted history does not matter. Napoleon’s army firing cannons at the Egyptian pyramids is not about accuracy, he said, but “a fast way of saying he took Egypt”. When Scott has issues with historians, he says to them “Excuse me mate, were you there? No? well, shut the f*** up then.”
The 85-year-old provocateur was not there either, of course, so he can imagine and contrive what he likes. There is seemingly no need to mention the craft of the historian in sifting through contemporary evidence, their task being precisely to establish what it was to be there and what, based on the sources available, is likely to have happened or not.
At times during his career, Irish playwright Brian Friel spoke about negotiating the balance between politics, memory and history and the “tiny bruises” he would inflict on the historical realities. In 1988 he said, “where there was tension between historical fact and the imperative of fiction, I’m glad to say I kept faith with the narrative”. He was often more preoccupied with “what memories are lodged in the storehouse of the mind”.
They were often what propelled his creativity and, as with filmmakers, artistic licence allows playwrights a great freedom, which they understandably see as imperative to their art, but Scott’s sweeping contempt for history seems far too smug. Given that many in the modern era are being introduced to pivotal events and iconic historical characters through the medium of film during a period of wide and wild misinformation, Scott could at least engage with the debate about evidence. That debate is long standing; Robert Rosenstone, the American historian and one of the pioneers of scholarship on the relationship between history and film, noted in the mid 1990s that “A century after the invention of motion pictures, the visual media have become arguably the chief carrier of historical messages in our time”. It was incumbent on historians, he insisted, to take film seriously and engage with it “on its own terms, as a way of exploring the way the past means to us today”.
Another octogenarian film-maker, Martin Scorsese, is enjoying success with Killers of the Flower Moon, and has adopted a more thoughtful approach to the historical record in relation to Oklahoma in the 1920s, the story of the Osage Nation Tribe and the murder and theft to which their oil deposit wealth gave rise. At times Scorsese also takes liberties with the historical record, but much of the content was driven by engagement with the Osage elders.
Irish filmgoers are particularly used to another veteran film-maker, Ken Loach, given his extensive engagement with Irish themes during his long career. He has consistently made no bones about his approach to the past. “History is contemporary,” is his response to the critics, “your understanding of history confirms what you think of the present. It is not neutral. I would be very surprised if people with a different view of the present do not take issue with my view of the past”. This has grated with some historians, of course.,Roy Foster concluded that Loach’s 2006 film The Wind that Shakes the Barley, set during the Irish War of Independence, is “an exercise in wish fulfilment rather than history” with the exaggerated fronting of socialist concerns, and characterisation abandoned in favour of didactics.
But, at the same time, Loach’s declarations are not far removed from those of historian EH Carr in his influential 1961 book, What is History: “Learning from history is never simply a one-way process. To learn about the present in the light of the past means also to learn about the past in the light of the present. The function of history is to promote a profounder understanding of both past and present through the interrelation between them”.
Film-makers often stand accused of a lack of subtlety and nuance, especially when it comes to films centred on iconic individuals, but they can also sometimes excavate what historians struggle to, investing their approach with an emotion and humanity that might not be captured in written sources. Scorsese was primarily interested in widening the vision of the “depth of the betrayal” in 1920s Oklahoma, which, especially with a strong cast and wide consultation, can perhaps be portrayed in a deeper way on screen than documented history allows.
Historians have no monopoly on “the truth” about the past; nor should they have, especially given the contested nature of documentary sources and their selective use. We are all filtering to a degree, but neither should film-makers be arrogantly dismissive of what is involved in rigorous historical research.