Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Historical movies should be about history

I have a pet peeve that extends to both boardgames and movies: If something attempts to depict history, then it should make every effort to be faithful to history. (It's the popular culture version of the maxim, "If you're going to take Vienna, take Vienna.") While some trimming of relevant facts is always necessary to cram the full story into a reasonable span of time for a film or boardgame, the author or designer should not insert deliberate distortions.

Does that sound unreasonable to you? History is intrinsically interesting, so you don't have to work to hard to hook your audience into the story. For instance, I just finished an excellent book about the German-Turkish effort to mess with the British in the Near East during WWI, Like Hidden Fire, which seemed to have the source material for at least a couple of really, really interesting screenplays. Espionage! War! Epic treks! Betrayal! Revolution!

However, for reasons I can't fathom, every time someone points out an inaccuracy in a movie allegedly about real events, some person feels obliged to point out that, "It's just a movie." You hear this rebuttal less among boardgamers, and even less among wargamers (a.k.a. historical conflict simulation gamers). Everyone knows that a game can't be a perfect model of historical events, nor should it be. The whole point is to create some kind of alternate history, within credible parameters. If you play For The People, and the Confederacy exhausts the political will of the Union, you're not dissatisfied with the result. If you play a strategic WWII game along the lines of Europe Engulfed, and Poland conquers Germany on turn one, there's something seriously wrong with that design.

Why should movies be any different? If you write the screenplay for a movie with the budget of, say, Saving Private Ryan or Pearl Harbor, chances are that you're being paid a fair amount of money for that privilege. Why is the studio OK with you chucking historical veracity out the window, because it's a wee bit harder to check the facts than make up stuff?

The usual argument, which I find wholly unconvincing, is that mangling history is necessary to make a story dramatically interesting. If you're one of those people, I urge you to read one of the following books: Company Commander, by Charles MacDonald; Blood And Thunder, by Hampton Sides; or The Book of Honor, by Ted Gup.

All three books are great reads, without the author mucking around with the facts to make a more interesting story. Why then should a screenplay be any different? From any of these three books, you can extract an intensely dramatic narrative that centers on a specific main character, which seems like the raw material for a great movie.

If you doubt that it's possible to make a movie that's faithful to history, go watch Glory. The minor inaccuracies (for example, Frederick Douglass looks much older in the movie than he was in 1863) are so few, and so inconsequential, that you're definitely nit-picking to complain about them. The rest of the movie gets all the important facts right. In contrast, Braveheart gets many of the important facts about William Wallace's revolt completely wrong, from the battle scenes to the main characters. Heck, the real William Wallace wasn't even a commoner, as depicted in the movie, but a minor noble. That's not exactly a minor detail in a film that depicts the revolt as the little guy taking on The Man.(It's interesting to hear how, in Scotland, many people loathe Braveheart for its inaccuracies, to the point of angrily defacing a Braveheart-inspired statue.)

Could you make an alternate movie about William Wallace that would still be interesting to a general movie audience? Most definitely. Gibson's distortions of history have more to do with his own hatred of the British (also visible in The Patriot) than the rules of good screenwriting.

There is nothing about movies as a medium that requires historical distortion. The problem isn't the amount of content, unless it's impossible for someone to condense an important historical event, such as the battle of Antietam, into a magazine article. The problem isn't the people who are interested in the film's depiction of history, because they're in the theater because of their interest in history. The problem isn't the need to pander to people who need a love interest or a chase scene to keep their attention focused on a movie, or else The King's Speech wouldn't be as popular among movie-goers as it is. Whatever details you choose to leave in or out, just tell the damn story.

So what does this have to do with games? In today's boardgame market, there's an attitude about entry-level games that I detest. Below a certain level of details, it's very difficult for any game to be a good simulation. I'm not bothered by Memoir '44 for this reason. When you crank up the complexity a notch or two, you have the opportunity to include the details that matter. If you decide not to take that opportunity, you're doing a disservice to the people who buy games because of their interest in history.

A prime offender is Tide Of Iron. The game has plenty of fans, many of whom have some interest in the particulars of WWII history. While you might say that it's historical enough for your tastes, it's a different matter to defend Tide of Iron on the grounds that it's really a game about WWII as seen on TV (as if it's OK for TV or movies to mangle history needlessly).

When I reviewed Tide of Iron on BGG, I tried to make a very simple point: given that Tide of Iron isn't a cheap game, the game focuses way too much on its components, at the expense of what it could have done to  include a few details that might have been interesting to WWII buffs. For the cost of all the plastic figures in the box, I might be able to buy an entire game that's a better low-complexity simulation of WWII, and just as enjoyable to play. The time that players must spend on stuffing plastic army men into bases might be spent on historical details that matter, such as the simple and clever ways in which games like Combat Commander and Squad Leader model the importance of leadership on the battlefield.

I'm still mystified why some of the people who commented on the review seemed to miss my point. Maybe I made it poorly, but at the same time, I definitely don't agree with the "WWII as seen on TV" defense. Plastic figures in Tide of Iron are a lot like the gratuitous love interest plots inserted into old movies like Crash Dive and Hellcats of the Pacific: largely irrelevant for someone who's interested in the topic. I came for WWII, not the smooching, thank you very much.

1 comment:

  1. As a recently-graduated History major, I empathize with your argument. History is a collective memory, a group awareness of our past. Inaccuracies are okay for the sake of artistic creativity, but I feel they should be kept to an absolute minimum - or at the very least with caveats in boldface print that it's not in line with the current historical understanding.

    My question: Why is there a presumption that accurate history does not good storytelling make? Often times there are events that are "stranger than fiction" and telling that story to an audience (and reinforcing that it actually happened) can be more inspiring than a completely fabricated character or plot. So where does this prejudice come from?