Who Needs Historical Accuracy?

a knight's tale historical realism

From A Knight’s Tale to The Favourite, James Harvey argues that the incessant desire to have “historical accuracy” is really quite boring…

Back in November, as the latest season of Netflix’s tentpole boomer-beloved drama The Crown reared its royalist head, an article in The Guardian criticised the show for taking liberties with its historical influences. Among other “complete fabrications,” the Queen was repeatedly shown in the wrong military uniform for Trooping the Colour, an offence which, in Simon Jenkins’ eyes, “was caricaturing the royal family in the worst possible light.” The Crown, he said, had become “reality hijacked as propaganda.” It wasn’t, in other words, real history.

“Pah!”, I thought, as my bachelor’s degree saw me deciphering the atomistic importance of Francis Bacon’s seals. After three years of pouring through dusty manuscripts and 18th-century ballads, I didn’t give a monkey’s about Queen Elizabeth’s dress code. And if I, a lazy but devilishly charming history student, didn’t care much for historical realism, who would?

As it would turn out, people did care. Quite a lot of people, actually. Enough people that beloved culture secretary Oliver Dowden felt compelled to take a few minutes out of his day job—preventing an £11 billion industry from collapsing into the sea—to remind we common folk that The Crown was, preposterously, a fiction, cunningly and nefariously disguised as an award-winning Netflix drama. Machiavelli would be proud of these TV-types, tempting us with history and instead delivering a 40-hour period-piece where the Queen’s face changes shape every 15 years.

And yet, annoyingly, this sparked a faintly interesting debate in the historiographical community. Just how important is historical realism in our fictional storytelling? Do filmmakers have a duty to educate as well as entertain their audience where real, if long-passed, lives are concerned? Fortunately enough, A Knight’s Tale turns 20 in the USA this month, and makes a strong case that directors, following my example, shouldn’t give a toss. There, we got there eventually.

a knight's tale historical accuracy
Heath Ledger and Rufus Sewell in A Knight’s Tale

For those unaware, A Knight’s Tale follows the journey of humble squire William Thatcher (Heath Ledger) as he jousts his way into the upper echelons of medieval society. A light-hearted romp, it includes everything an audience thinks it knows about the middle ages. Knights! Princesses! Someone named Chaucer! It’s also littered with punk haircuts, 90s dancing and a soundtrack more likely to include “Golden Years” than “Greensleeves”. Plus, the film makes the wisest creative decision available to a medieval fantasy—realising that authentic plate armour looks ridiculous and knights look way cooler with their helmets off. It paints the period in only the broadest possible strokes, adopting the aspects which serve the story while jettisoning those which don’t into the sun. And it’s far more fun than historical accuracy would ever be.

Since 2001, however, the industry has seemed increasingly reticent to play fast and loose with history in quite the same way. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies gave it a good go, but soon sank into a flabby, tentacled mess as Disney realised they’d used up all the things people liked about swashbuckling seafarers in the first film. Instead, whenever a new historical project crawls out of the woodwork, directors, stars and marketing departments fall over themselves to tell us how long they spent choosing an authentic 1920s shoe. It’s very annoying, and hardly any fun at all.

Enter The Favourite.

Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2018 film took the English monarch who, famously, no-one knows a thing about, and made her a focal point for the things people do know about 18th century monarchy: big wigs and gout. The characters in the film are only as mad as their headgear, constantly rubbing swellings out of their legs and engaging in as much night-time-argy-bargy as, appropriately enough, rabbits. Most importantly, however, the cast admitted on numerous occasions to knowing as much about Anne as the rest of us.

That’s a relief, frankly. Just as medieval bards rarely blasted “We Will Rock You” from a bugle, the real Anne was far more politically engaged and generally competent than Colman’s performance would suggest. Yet the 1711 Occasional Conformity Act and a debate on the Queen’s Anglican leanings are somehow less entertaining than watching a monarch vomit into a porcelain vase.

the favourite historical accuracy
Olivia Colman in The Favourite

As any historian will tell you, the act of writing a history is one of forming a narrative and telling a story. Academia tries to bury this storytelling element under a chunky bibliography and a liberal smattering of footnotes. Serious historical dramas do the same every time they point out how many consultants they pretended to listen to. Every historical depiction takes huge liberties with the source material—what separates films like A Knight’s Tale and The Favourite is they’re honest about it.

If you’re trying to teach someone about the intricacies of history, a big-budget film is rarely the place to do it. The best a film can hope to do is to spark an audience’s interest in a topic, something far easier to do if Heath Ledger stabs someone off a horse. Instead of masquerading as a history lesson, A Knight’s Tale and The Favourite use the widely recognisable tropes of their respective settings and put them centre stage. They put fun first, and thus are far more likely to engage an audience previously ambivalent to the history of their times. An authentic depiction of life in an Elizabethan cotton mill might appeal to a fetishizing cabal of history buffs, but the wider audience you should be trying to hook will leave, thoroughly bored, and with no interest in learning more about the setting.

But I digress. I do think historical accuracy matters. There are myriad instances, particularly in depictions of recent history, where a colourful reinterpretation of a period would not just be inappropriate, but dangerous. And there will always be a place on our screens for the soberly researched historical drama. Maybe there is an appeal to the little details, to see an actor walk into a room wearing a certain shoe, and knowing, a hundred years earlier, thousands of real people did just the same. But it shouldn’t take 17 years for A Knight’s Tale to get its successor, and films like these shouldn’t be as rare as they are. History is a sandbox. For God’s sake, have some fun with it.

Words by James Harvey

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