To historians, movies are junk food for the mind. Go and see them if you want to be entertained, but don’t expect to learn much from them. Much that will help you understand history, anyway. For some reason, it seems impossible to make an historical epic that is 100% accurate, either because of camera goofs, or (worse) because the director thought he could tell a better story than what really happened.
A few years ago, “Roman Soldiers Don’t Wear Watches” was the title of a book listing 333 big mistakes that managed to get on film, and later shown on the screen in big-name movies. In some cases it is simply a camera pointed the wrong way at the wrong time, like the instance in “Gladiator” when the camera caught a rear view of a chariot, and you could see a fire extinguisher by the charioteer’s legs! Or the case in “The Lord of the Rings” where if you look closely, you can see a smoke-belching car or truck driving on the horizon in one scene. Of course, with modern infrastructure being what it is, it is hard to do a good movie about the past these days, without power lines or some other aspect of today’s world getting in the way. That is why Sergei Bodrov, the Russian director who gave us “Mongol,” filmed it in remote parts of Kazakhstan and Mongolia.
Incidentally, I just saw “Mongol” a few months ago. It required subtitles to understand it, but I was tickled pink anyway, because for years I thought there was a law against making a good movie about Genghis Khan. The ones starring John Wayne and Omar Sharif in the 1960s were simply awful. For a start, both of them had all-white casts, though the whole story line is set in Asia. Even the Chinese emperor in the Omar Sharif version was a badly made up English actor, whose name escapes me. I believe Sir Alec Guinness was the last name actor who could get away with playing someone of another race (remember the eccentric Brahman he played in “A Passage to India”?). And the John Wayne version was simply a Western with swords instead of guns, and yurts instead of teepees. In the final battle, for instance, not a single bow was used, while in real life it was excellent skill in archery and horsemanship that made the Mongols so dangerous. “Mongol,” on the other hand, made an effort to look and sound authentic. I particularly liked the campfire scene where Temudgin (Genghis) and his rival Jamukha have a contest in Central-Asian-style throat-singing; can anyone imagine John Wayne or Omar Sharif doing that?
Speaking of Genghis Khan, did you hear about the latest monument Mongolia has erected to its most famous citizen? It is a building called the Chinggis Khaan Statue Complex, which is topped by a 131-foot-high steel statue of the conqueror. And souvenir shops inside, of course.
But back to the subject. There are also cases of intentional errors in the movies, like I said, ones made because the directors think they can do better than the original characters did. None of them can seem to resist the temptation to change the story line. In “Mongol,” it was the whole scene in the middle of the movie, where Genghis is being held prisoner in the capital of the Tangut kingdom, because a Buddhist monk prophesied to the local ruler that this man would someday destroy them all. I have never heard of anything like this happening, though I found the costumes interesting, a combination of Chinese and Mongolian fashions I have never seen anywhere else. Even stranger is how Genghis got sprung from there. Genghis gets another monk to carry a message to his wife, Bortai, but the monk dies before completing the journey across the Gobi Desert. Nevertheless, Bortai finds out where he is, finds the only merchant willing to travel in that part of Mongolia, and gets him to take her to the Tanguts, though she doesn’t have any money to pay for her passage. Upon arrival she disguises herself as a princess, and bribes a guard to let her husband out; again, we don’t know where or how she gets the money. All I can figure is that the director wanted a scene where a female character played the most important role, and when the true story didn’t have it, he made up one.
Of course some films are simply propaganda flicks. Or satires, like when Charlie Chaplin played Adolf hitler in “The Great Dictator.” Or outright comedies, like Mel Brooks’ “History of the World, Part One” or Jack Black’s “Year One.” Hopefully you’ll recognize those films for what they are, when you see them. Here, from an article I read last week, is a list of ten movies you would expect to be historically accurate, but aren’t:
Epilogue: The author of the article, Caroline White, must really have a thing for Mel Gibson, because three of his historical epics (“Braveheart”, “The Patriot”, and “Apocalypto”), are on the list. However, “The 300” isn’t there, though it featured ogres, a Persian king who looked like Shaka Zulu, rhino-riding soldiers, and hordes of Persians dressed like ninjas with silver masks. Anybody want to guess why that retelling of the battle of Thermopylae was left out?