Hearts Through History Romance Writers

When a History Teacher Goes to the Movies

by | April 13, 2009 | 9 comments

When a History Major/Teacher Goes To The Movies.

It can be really tough when a history major/teacher goes to the movies. A basic part of going to the movies is the ‘willing suspensions of disbelief’, that is, you believe what you’re seeing. But I have trouble when I see things in the movies that I’m unwilling to accept as my BA and MA in History and BA in European Studies often get in the way.

I remember years ago when my sons went to see Braveheart and came home talking about the ‘evil English king’. I’m thinking evil English king, evil English king? Then I realize it was Edward I, who generally considered one of the great kings of England. Ok, I understand how from the Scottish perspective he’s evil. But when I saw the movie I found a lot of other problems.

First, while I believe Edward I (Patrick McGoohan) was the kind of a guy who would tip his son’s gay lover out the window, he would never send a woman, the princess Isabelle (Sophie Marceau) on a diplomatic mission. Aside from the fact that she would have been a child. Isabelle married Edward I’s son when she was 13 and this was after the execution of William Wallace (Mel Gibson).

The major battle of the movie, filmed on a wonderful big battle field rubs military/history people the wrong way – it’s the battle of Stirling Bridge. The fact the battle was fought on a bridge gave the smaller Scots army the advantage, which is why they won. Ok, it filmed better on a big battle field.

I don’t’ mind a little tweaking to make a better story, but what really bothers the history professor in me is when there’s a total lack of historical reality.

Such was the part that really bothered me is at the end, when the Princess Isabelle goes down to the dungeon to see Wallace (which wouldn’t have happened because she was child). The guard doesn’t want to let her in and she says ‘the king (Edward I) is dead’ meaning that she is now the queen as she’s married to Edward II, and the guard falls all over himself to let her in. At this point I’m trying not to yell at the screen. Everyone knew that Edward II was gay, and had no desire to please his wife. In essence, she just told the guard that she was a nobody and had no influence or authority. Aside from the fact that Wallace was executed two years before Edward I died, and before Isabella married the future Edward II.

Sorry, Mel, but Braveheart is not one of my favorite movies.

I did another double take watching Elizabeth when Elizabeth, (Cate Blanchette) already queen, is dancing with Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes) and she’s shocked and angry to find out he’s married. But I knew Dudley married Amy (he needed her families money) before Elizabeth became queen. And Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) only wished he had that much power and influence with Elizabeth as shown in the film.

But don’t get the idea that I don’t like ‘historical movies’. I really enjoyed Gettysburg. My girlfriend, who’s the Civil War buff, took me and then I took my family. The best part for our family was when the Union Lt. Thomas Chamberlain (C. Thomas Howell) questions some Confederate prisoners and he says “No disrespect to you brave men, but why are you fighting this war?” The Confederate prisoner answers that he’s fighting for his ‘rats’. Lt. Chamberlain is puzzled, as is most of the theater audience, and asks “your what?” But since my husband is from Oklahoma, and has a little southern accent. I could see my son’s understood ‘rats’ as ‘rights’. Oh, and any movie that has Sam Elliot (as Brig. General John Buford) is worth seeing.

Another of my favorite historical movies is Mary, Queen of Scots. I used to show this to my class and then ask them to name three things that they thought were ‘real’ and three things they thought were ‘reel’. Most often one of things listed as ‘reel’, the blood red chemise worn by Mary for her execution, but that was ‘real’ (red being the liturgical color of martyrdom). Most student got the ‘reel’ for the face to face meeting of Elizabeth (Glenda Jackson) and Mary (Vanessa Redgrave) as the film show it to be a ‘secret’ meeting.
My son took me to 300 (three hundred), where I had to keep reminding myself it was based on the graphic novel, not actual history.

It’s not that I don’t like historical movies. Some of my favorites are A Man For All Seasons, Shakespeare in Love, Last of the Mohicans, The Train, and The Longest Day. I even like 1776 where John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson sing.

I can even enjoy a light heart historical even as I point out the inaccuracies. My favorite in this is The Mask of Zorro. While I enjoyed the movie and bought the DVD (not too tough to watch Antonio Banderas) here’s what the whispered conversation between me and my companions during the film.

Scene – the ship bringing Elena (Catherine Zeta-Jones) back to California lands in the middle of now where
Me (whispering) – why are they in the middle of nowhere? No town, pier, or anything?
Companions – shush!

Scene – where Captain Love (Matt Letscher) the American Army officer appears.
Me (whispering) – why is an American military officer acting with authority in Spanish Mexico. A military presence in a foreign county is like an invasion.
Companions – shush!

Scene – they go to the gold mine, all those cells and tunnels
Me (whispering) – they didn’t mine gold like that in California then, it was placer gold panned or washed out of stream beds.
Companions – shush!

Scene – in the fight at the mine there is a wagon load of gold bricks.
Me (whispering) – where did the gold bricks come from? There has to be a smelter to turn gold ore into bricks
Companions – shush!

Yep, life it tough when a history major goes to the movies.

So, what about you? Can you or do you have the necessary ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ when you see ‘historical’ movies? What are your favorite historical movies?

PS – sorry there are no illustrations – technical diffuculities (me) kept me from uploading.


  1. Regencyresearcher

    I don’t often go to the movies anymore but have seen most of the recent movies and TV programs based ( loosely) on Jane Austen’s novels. Most adaptations use the title and character names and forget all else about the book.
    I also sawe this beferoe I stopped going to movies.
    The only other movie I have gone to in decades was Amazing Grace about Wilberforce and the passing of the abolition of Slave trade act. I really had to work to suspend disbelief . Among other historical errors the movie showed Royal Dukes sitting in the House of Commons, Also who influenced whom among the evangelicals and abolitionists was wrong.
    Wilberforce was a man with a crippled twisted delicate body.The contrast of his delicate physique with his strong fight is worthy of honor. Some of that contrast is lost by having Wilberforce played by the virile and dishy Ioan Grufford

  2. Terry Blain

    I imagine that those who are knowledgeable about the Regency and/or Jane Austin are among my fellow ‘but it wasn’t that way’ sufferers.

  3. Jody

    I agree with you so much about the movie BRAVEHEART, that was criminal not even the history that was sooo wrong but even the production was fake There is a scene after Wallace’s father/brother have been murdered and they show a piper playing the great Highland war pipes in the mist, but the sound is really a Irish Uilean pipe which make an entirely different sound. DUMB!!! Am taking a graduate class next fall on Scotland and the biggest attraction is we get to pick apart this movie.

    The same goes with the small screen as well. A classic example is Showtime’s THE TUDORS. They didnt think the public would understand all the Marys in Henry’s life ( his lover his daughter, his sister) so they called Henry’s younger sister Margaret which was soooo stupid because Margaret, Henry’s older sister was married to James IV of Scotland and was Queen of England who was ruling for her son James V. But apparently they thought we couldn’t keep all the Marys straight, But the really funny part was the pictures of Richard III on the wall behind Henry, maybe what they call an easter egg, but Richard was defeated by Henry’s father at the Battle of Bosworth so why would they have his portrait on the wall. Probably someone’s joke.
    Much rather read history than watch it, unless it is a fictionalized account of a happening such as the movie KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, which might have had “real” personas but the protagonists were fictional. Though not perfectly accurate it was pretty good interpretation.

  4. Jody

    Opps that should have read Margaret was Queen of Scotland not England.

  5. Terry Blain

    Kingdom of Heaven? Is that the one where the hero goes from blacksmith to knight without any training?

    Since I don’t have HBO I’ve avoided making myself miserable by not watching the Tudors –my Master’s has a specialization in Tudor and Stuart England.

  6. Anonymous

    I love historical movies, but I too get annoyed when specific details are so obviously wrong. I was just as annoyed as you in Elizabeth when she was soo surprised that Robert Dudley was married, but the filmmakers were completely uninterested in accuracy in that case, so I tried to enjoy the movie for what it was. On the other hand, in some cases, absolute reality can be a bit much (I’m thinking of the HBO miniseries about Queen Elizabeth I with Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons–I SO could have done without the gory executions in that one). I do think it’s nice when filmmakers/screenwriters try to stay as close to history as they can, and when they do, I’m happy to forgive them a few details for the sake of the dramatization. Because if they didn’t dramatize just a little, odds are that we wouldn’t have too many historically based films 🙂


  7. Jerrica

    I usually don’t have a lot of trouble suspending disbelief when I watch historical movies. I’m willing to accept that the movie is never going to be like the book, whether it’s modern or historical, so I always try to just see it for what it is…a means of entertainment/relaxation and possibly inspiration…but I rarely look to Hollywood movies/tv shows for research purposes or historical accuracy.

    That being said, I wanted to throw my soda at the screen during Becoming Jane…the costumes alone got me riled up!

    Great post! 🙂

  8. Anna Kathryn Lanier

    Terry, great post. It is very irksome when Hollywood changes the way things were. History is rich in and of itself, so I don’t know why things need to be changed.

    I do like Braveheart for its action, but I know it’s historical accruacies are not there. I like Pearl Harbor, too, but it’s got a lot of things that just scream ‘wrong’ at me, too. For one thing, in 1942, the military would have kicked out a pregnant, unmarried woman. They certainly would NOT have given her a medal with her fat belly sticking out.

    Anna Kathryn

  9. Nicole North

    I love historical movies and can usually suspend disbelief and enjoy them. Maybe because I wasn’t a history major. (I was a psychology major instead.) But inaccuracies do bother me and sort of yank me from the story at times.



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