Who Cares if Movies Are Historically Accurate?

'Inspired by a True Story' Should Be Enough

Stretching the Truth: Lawrence of Arabia was really 5-foot-1 and did not look much like Peter O’Toole (above).
AP Photo
Stretching the Truth: Lawrence of Arabia was really 5-foot-1 and did not look much like Peter O’Toole (above).

By Nicholas Meyer

Published February 24, 2014, issue of February 28, 2014.
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It is depressing to read so many articles decrying the historical inaccuracies in recent movies, whether dealing with outer space, the southern slave trade, Somali pirates, or Walt Disney, articles in which the least deviation from the historical record or “reality” (a word Nabokov insisted routinely belongs within quotation marks), is held up against the popcorn experience.

The Italians have a phrase, si non e vero est ben trovato, which roughly translates as “if it isn’t true, it ought to be.”

Unless specified as a documentary (in which case a reasonable fidelity to fact can be anticipated), it is well to remember that what we term feature films are stories intended to be viewed as stories. Even when they begin with such disclaimers as “based on a true story,” or “inspired by a true story,” such films are putting the viewer on notice that the truth has been dramatized, i.e. made more exciting, that liberties have been taken, characters combined and possibly dates conflated, etc. — what Huckleberry Finn memorably called “stretchers.”

To come along after and point out these liberties as if they were faults is to misconstrue the nature of fiction. Sooner or later, all fiction is fact distorted. Whether we are talking Moby Dick, Emma Bovary, Coleman Silk, Huckleberry Finn or Achilles, all fictional trails lead back to fact, whether those origins are apparent at first blush or not. And there is always an agenda — the author’s. He or she may wish to advance a political view, a philosophical conviction, or merely to improve on reality, but all fiction is reality reassembled and movies are fiction.

On paper, we understand that in a volume labeled biography or history, a presumably sincere effort has been made to truthfully relate what has happened (though interpreting the meaning or significance of that truth is inevitably the author’s subjective prerogative).

When liberties have been taken in a tale with historic roots, the book is labeled a historical novel. Reading such a novel, we understand that real events have been recombined, manipulated and very possibly distorted so as to make the story more thrilling, more “romantic,” more “satisfying.” It didn’t happen this way, the author allows, but perhaps it should have.

Movies, it seems to me, should be judged by the same criterion. In David Lean’s masterful epic, “Lawrence of Arabia,” Lawrence’s men cheer him when he returns from the desert, having single-handedly ventured back into that treacherous sea of boiling sand to rescue the unfortunate Gassim. With this act of derring-do, Lawrence’s reputation is cemented, his heroic leadership role assured.

In fact, as I have learned from Scott Anderson’s non-fiction account, “Lawrence in Arabia,” Lawrence (not the willowy 6-foot Peter O’Toole, but the fireplug 5-foot-1-inch reality), was greeted with rage and derision by his troops, for having foolishly risked his life as their leader in pursuit of a worthless ruffian. Which version makes a better scene?


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