I’m pretty sure many people have sat down to watch a series or film based on the past at some point in their lives – Rome, Downton Abbey, Fury, Sharpe, whatever takes your fancy. These sorts of media bring to life a piece of the past for you to enjoy. But a lot of them, although based on the past, take a lot of liberties with it and can be downright inaccurate. There’s no real excuse for it, artistic licence or not.
Now obviously there’s a line to be drawn here. I don’t expect every film or series based on a period of history to be 100% accurate, as that would be ridiculous, but it’s where the mistakes are easily avoidable or just glaringly obvious that they should really be criticised. History Channel’s Vikings is a serial offender here, especially its costuming department. It’s well known from manuscripts and finds what Viking warriors would have worn but the show completely ignores these, taking a ludicrous amount of liberties for no reason other than ‘it looks cool’. Rather than wearing kyrtles (a knee-length garment made of wool or linen), accompanied by linen/woollen pants, buckled shoes and mail armour, we have something that looks like it’s from Sons of Anarchy: leather armour and clothing (often in black too, a hugely expensive dye), high-top boots and gratuitous amounts of fur. Fine for a fantasy series, but this is a show supposedly based on the past, and one we know a great deal about. For a fairly high budget series like this, one would expect they could at least get the costumes right.
But why is it an issue? Well, to put it simply, it’s entirely misleading. If you’re going to proclaim that your series is a historical fiction, I expect to see some form of history in it. If you aren’t presenting things are they are known to have happened or were, you are deceiving your audience. The sorts of myth that are often bandied around by the average person may indeed have some basis in history, but Hollywood perpetuating them doesn’t help. The film Enemy At the Gates is a good example of this. In one scene, Russian troops defending Stalingrad are told by their Commissars to charge German machine gun positions head on, many of them without rifles, while NKVD troops watch to make sure none of them retreat. Paints a grim picture of being a Red Army soldier, doesn’t it? Well, it would if it were true, but instead the film merely crams all the common myths into one scene: no rifles, no tactics, no retreat. Really, Enemy at the Gates only gets a few things about the battle right: the date, the location, and the inevitable defeat of the Sixth Army. It’s a drama with a sort of shoddy historical veneer to it. There’s nothing wrong with the plot per se, as we don’t exactly know what happened in the battle on a personal basis, but did they have to sacrifice the historical backdrop for it? Not in the slightest.
It does seem like sometimes series simply throw a historical background out for a story because they think it’ll look cool. A wholly invented plotline or character is often thrown together with just the flimsiest evidence that the show is supposed to be set in Imperial Rome or wherever else takes their fancy. But why? I mean, why write a totally-made up story when you have history to draw upon? Rather than some shoddy action piece (and I know I’m straying into the territory of gaming here, but whatever) like Ryse: Son of Rome, why not use one of the many, many interesting tales from the past? The amount of murder and betrayal in the lifetime of Belisarius and Justinian for instance, way surpasses Game of Thrones (whose author regularly draws on history for inspiration, I might add), and best of all, it actually occurred. If you wanted gore, Justinian herded thousands of rioting chariot-race supporters into the hippodrome, and then killed 30,000 of them. For cunning, check how Belisarius took the city of Naples from the Ostrogoths. These are just part of the rich tapestry of history that a series could base themselves on, and find a great audience for. In a lot of instances history provides better tales than any author could ever create on their own.
Just in case I’ve run around in circles, I’d better sum up the points I’ve tried to make. Basically, historical accuracy in our media, especially if it claims to be historical, is important because it can shape people’s perceptions of what parts of history were like. Victorian opera was responsible for that stupid myth about horns on Vikings’ helmets for instance, and that’s still around now! But there’s also an element of faithfulness to it. Like a film based on a book, if you don’t pay your dues to it properly, you’re doing the source material a disservice, especially if it’s something you could easily have gotten right. If history is the source for a series, they have an obligation to get it right too.