We have all been there: trying to forget about that essay for a few hours and settling in for a movie night with friends or family, only to find yourself distracted by the blatant lies on your screen. There is a falsehood for every occasion, from inaccurate costumes to historic events widely out of order, or just made up all together. The cry of “studying this has ruined it!” is a common one. Debates and criticisms of historical inaccuracy in fiction are nothing new, but they have reared their head yet again with the release of Season 4 of Netflix’s The Crown, which follows the drama surrounding the British Royal Family. Writing in The Guardian, Simon Jenkins has robustly criticised the series, declaring it “fake history”, a far too close a cousin of fake news as it concerns events in living memory. The historian Hugo Vickers, meanwhile, has detailed a list of complete fabrications in the series, ranging from serious allegations of propaganda to the innocuous fact that “the Queen was repeatedly shown wrongly dressed for the Trooping of the Colour.” Vickers, Jenkins and critics of historical inaccuracy across film, television, gaming, and the theatre are of course right. False historical narratives hold a dangerous power to rewrite the past. But they are also wrong. Blatantly terrible history can be a wonderful thing, and I want to make the case for historical inaccuracy.
From a storytelling point of view, untrue history is both a necessary and powerful tool for communicating the past in a way that the audience can understand. Media is fundamentally about storytelling, and compelling stories will never be told without condensing a wide range of complex and often contradictory events into a single narrative. These narratives also run the risk of appearing entirely alien to the audience when they are based in times and places far removed from our own and concerning figures that we have no hope of relating to. Here, the use of simple falsehoods, such as the use of language, can be highly effective. Anachronistic dialogue, accents and musical accompaniment play a crucial role in transforming worlds of the past to our screens. Take the scene in The Death of Stalin, when Jason Issac’s Field Marshal Zhukov threatens to report Nikita Kruschchev for treason, only to laugh and say, “look at your fucking face!” in a broad Yorkshire accent. This effectively communicates the tension of the situation, Zhukov’s unpredictable nature, and the absurd fragility of power in a way that stricter adherence to phrasing would fail. Incidentally, it is one of the funniest things to come out of the last decade of film.
A flexibility to accuracy at every turn also frees media from politically motivated criticism in terms of representation. Historical inaccuracy has become a rallying cry for right wing critics and trolls who are unhappy with the turn towards diverse representation of races and genders on screen. This is a particular issue in video gaming, in which historical settings must mesh with user experience and personalisation in a way that does not happen in other media forms, although the problem persists far more widely. In 2018, the trailer for DICE’s Battlefield V resulted in backlash and the hashtag of #NotMyBattlefield by some fans who were unhappy at the possibility of playing as a woman in a World War II setting. Similarly, many fans rushed to defend The Witcher 3 from Tauriq Moosa’s op-ed criticising the game’s lack of ethnic diversity, claiming that it was meant to represent fourteenth century Poland. Never mind the dragons, of course. Ironically, these criticisms themselves stem from an inaccurate understanding of the past. Women fought in World War II from air force “Night Witch” units to snipers like Wanda Gertz, while medieval Poland was a site of interaction between Eastern and Western Europe, facing incursions at the Mongolian boarder and acting as a site of trade with Islamic peoples. Fundamentally, without being tied to concerns over which exact groups of people were undisputedly present, games can deliver a more user-friendly and fun experience while being more authentic (if not entirely accurate) to conditions of any given time than so-called purists.
A far more important issue than scripting or Twitter backlash is that true historical accuracy is impossible. This is true of any professional history book or documentary, let alone a piece of media following a story structure. It is impossible to produce a narrative free from interpretation, argument, or prioritisation. Even if every detail is meticulously researched, these small elements are still presented in search of a larger subjective narrative. As such, historical fiction will always remain fiction to some degree, purveying heroes, villains, and one of many possible re-tellings. This is not to say that all inaccuracies are equal, or course. Jenkins is correct in stating that false history carries the risk of becoming “reality hijacked as propaganda”, and at the extreme end, this can take the form of Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will, with dangerous real-world connotations. It is also true that historians should continue the work of challenging flawed narratives in media, even if the overall project of true accuracy is doomed. The fact that it is doomed, however, opens up ways of distinguishing fact and falsehood, and historic fiction is often at its best when embracing inaccuracy as much as it possibly can.
By leaning into blatantly fabricated elements, stories can signal to the audience that they should be taken with a pinch of salt. Methods, such as embracing absurdity or incorporating obvious elements of fantasy, can lampshade inaccuracy, freeing creators to focus on creating good stories without fear of criticism. The 2020 Starz miniseries The Great, following Kathrine the Great’s challenges in navigating the Russian court bills itself as “an occasionally true story”. This admission of fiction from the offset, combined with garish costumes, witty modern dialogue and historical figures who are more caricature than character, signal to the audience that they can leave their historian hats at the door. Taika Waititi’s ridiculous portrayal of an imaginary Hitler who is punted though a window in Jojo Rabbit takes a similar approach. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise achieves the same effect in a different way by incorporating fantasy into a historical setting. It is hard to worry about the organisational structure of the East India Company when undead pirates are dueling on the masts, resulting in good cinema. In the same genre, the series Black Sails acts as both a prequel to Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island and a story about conflict between colonial forces and real historical figures. As such, the wider themes of the series, namely shame, identity, and legacy battling against the destructive and homogenising power of an Empire, shine through without concern for full accuracy.
Historical inaccuracy is dangerous, yes, but it can also be a vessel for much better storytelling and, if deployed correctly, a tool to signal and guard against the very damaging narratives it is criticised for perpetuating. It is far better for a game or a television show to be blatantly ridiculous than claim to be a true story. Long live self-consciously terrible history – it is more truthful than any essay we will ever write.
Written by Jess Womack
Image: the crown wallpaper