From the President

Historians Go to the Movies

John R. McNeill | Oct 28, 2019

John R. McNeillYou will see this only in October, but I write it during the dog days of a steamy mid-Atlantic summer. So, even though the days are growing shorter and cooler now, this is a beach-reading version of the presidential column—and what better subject than the movies. Like many of you, I am a sucker for historical movies.

I love old sandals-and-togas epics, Mary Queen of Scots biopics, Vietnam War dramas, and everything in between. Part of my joy in watching these is as a killjoy, whispering to my long-suffering wife about the inaccuracy of the dialogue (people did not use “totally” as an intensifier in 1940) or the 21st-century coiffure on some 19th-century character.

The Theory of Everything (2014) is an enjoyable movie about the courtship and marriage of Jane Wilde Hawking and the physicist Stephen Hawking, much of which is set in Cambridge, UK, in 1963–64. In the film, the young Stephen Hawking is asked, “How are you?” To which he replies, “All good.” 

No one in the UK in the 1960s would have said that. The London-Lund Corpus of Spoken English (1959–90) records zero instances of that usage. The British National Corpus includes 100 million words of written and spoken (British) English from the late 20th century. It too records zero instances. Routine answers to that routine question included: “I’m very well, thank you,” “all right, thanks,” “oh hello,” “fine, thank you,” or “how do you do.” The scriptwriter seems to have supposed that English as spoken in 2014 was the same as English spoken half a century before. (The movie also shows young Hawking riding a bicycle over wheelchair-accessible curbs, none of which—I’m pretty sure—existed in 1963 Cambridge.) The cars, clothing, and music, however, are perfect.

Part of my joy in watching these is as a killjoy, whispering to my long-suffering wife about inaccuracies.

Only a killjoy like me would bring up trivial anachronistic dialogue in The Theory of Everything (or Warren Beatty’s hairstyle in Reds and Bonnie and Clyde). Sometimes there is more to object to, as in recent films about Churchill. The filmmakers of Darkest Hour (2017), concerning the events of May and early June 1940, strive for and achieve authenticity in many respects. But in one scene, Churchill takes the London Underground to a cabinet meeting and is filled with resolve to resist Hitler by hearing a black Briton reciting Thomas Babington Macaulay’s 1842 poem about Horatius at the bridge. Not only did this not happen, it is not the sort of thing that would have happened, if for no other reason than that Churchill was not the sort of person who took the Tube anywhere. Other inaccuracies abound. The movie defames Neville Chamberlain, who was not plotting Churchill’s overthrow in May 1940. Elizabeth Layton was not yet Churchill’s secretary, nor did her brother die in the war. Why strive for verisimilitude, yet invent such fictions and pass them off as reality? Was there not enough drama in what did happen in those fateful weeks?

Some will say these count as trivial details and no one should care if they are right or wrong. (I care anyway. And when I get things wrong, I want to know it, so let me hear from you if I have.) Another Churchill movie includes falsifications that few historians could regard as trivial. In Churchill (2017), the British prime minister is presented as having objected strenuously to the D-Day landings as late as early June 1944 and as having opposed the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. These representations are wrong and far from trivial. And don’t get me started on Mel Gibson’s The Patriot (2003). 

Karin Wulf recently pointed out that historical expertise is hard-won and that unwitting mistakes are all too easy to make for experienced journalists. How true, and truer still for Hollywood scriptwriters. They have talents few historians possess, but they also lack skills that most historians have. If they wish to avoid blunders, they need historians. And they need historians with the relevant expertise. As Wulf notes, not every historian will know about everything. You wouldn’t want to consult me about Churchill’s habits (although they are easy enough to learn about) when there are serious experts around.

If moviemakers wish to avoid blunders, they need historians with relevant expertise.

I understand that movies are only movies and historical accuracy is not necessarily among moviemakers’ primary goals. Telling a good story and making money take priority. But at the same time, scriptwriters and directors often seem to take great pains—or work with people who take great pains—to get certain details right. Clothing, guns, and cars are usually right in historical movies, although there are exceptions, like the ubiquity of cowboy hats in westerns depicting 19th-century America. Cars are almost always period appropriate, which must take some doing for movies set in the 1920s that need a functioning Ford Model T or Stutz Bearcat. Why struggle to get some details right, yet not bother with dialogue or Churchill’s policy positions?

My killjoy attitude has limits. I am unperturbed that fictional characters might be portrayed in historically implausible ways, say in a movie version of a Victor Hugo novel. Nor am I offended by the wild anachronisms of rock-and-roll soundtracks in movies set in medieval times, or John Wayne’s drawl as the voice of Genghis Khan—I am agreeably amused. Such movies are not asking to be taken seriously as a representation of the past. But I do wish movies that purport to portray historical events and personages would give the same attention to everything that they seem to give to cars and clothes. The historical expertise to do so is available in the membership of the AHA. Why not hire historians to get more things right? For better or worse, it would be cheaper than hiring functional Stutz Bearcats.


John R. McNeill is president of the AHA.


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