What Makes A Good Historical Film?

Billy Lamond gives us his opinion on what makes a good historical film

Billy Lamond
4th March 2019
Image: Flickr, Wikimedia Commons

What makes a good historical film or a good portrayal of a historical character? A few years ago, I might have argued that the most important task for the film makers is to make it accurate, by which I would really mean accurate costumes, sets and a strict adherence to historical sources with little room for interpretation. Nowadays though, while I still think it’s important to be accurate, I am happy to sacrifice accuracy for artistic licence as it often results in a more entertaining and more authentic film. It seems paradoxical that making a film less accurate could make it more authentic, but film as a medium is less about teaching the audience facts and more about drawing the audience in to the stories it’s telling. If a film historical film more adequately portrays the emotions of its characters and the feel of its setting, that is a greater indicator of authenticity.

For example, 1994’s Stalingrad despite the main characters and storyline being fictitious, remains one of the most authentic depictions of the war on the eastern front ever put to cinema. The film brilliantly conveys experiences of many German soldiers in the siege of Stalingrad, the plot and acting serving to exemplify the bleak desperation of soldiers fighting a losing battle. Furthermore, it shows the audience some of the atrocities both faced by and committed by the occupying Germans. The point of the film’s authenticity is that while what it shows is not the real experience of a German soldier, it very easily could have been and not having to stick to real events allows the filmmakers to represent a wider range of experiences in a more impactful manner.

Ultimately a historical film’s aim is generally to entertain and to give the audience a realistic impression of its period and setting.

Unlike Stalingrad, Mary Queen of Scots supposedly depicts true historical events, although some artistic licence is clearly taken, and while the film is ultimately disappointing, its portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I (played by Margot Robbie) is its most redeeming feature. Robbie’s performance carries a human complexity which is not always obvious in the historical sources. She shows Elizabeth to be a strong queen and powerful woman ruling the richest kingdom in the British Isles, serene, guarded, impassionate and detached, however she is also privately vulnerable, desperately jealous of her sister and distraught by her inability to produce and heir. There’s always a danger that in trying to accurately portray a historical figure a film can end up dehumanising them as there’s little indication of their private thoughts and emotions in historical documents. The makers of Mary Queen of Scots have read between the lines for their depiction of Elizabeth I, showing an awareness of the culture and concerns of the period in their application of artistic licence.

Ultimately a historical film’s aim is generally to entertain and to give the audience a realistic impression of its period and setting. Mary Queen of Scots and Stalingrad are two films which show that a good historical film or portrayal doesn’t necessarily mean strict historical accuracy.

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