How Accurate Is: Gladiator (Film, Ridley Scott, 2000)

Gladiator

Hello everyone! Today’s post is on the film Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe. To begin I should point out that Gladiator is only a historical film in the sense that Inglorious Basterds is; the names are right, and the story is quite satisfying, but there is little relation to actual history. Just as Hitler was evidently not assassinated, so too was the Roman Republic evidently not restored in 180 CE (I should point out that I am not making any comparison between these two events). It is, therefore, a difficult task to truly assess the historical accuracy of Gladiator.

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How Accurate Is: Troy (Film, 2004) Part 4

Cassandra, giving a prophecy. Guess how many people believed her?
Cassandra, giving a prophecy. Guess how many people believed her?

Hello everyone! Today’s post will be fairly brief; I just wanted to write a final post for Troy. Of all the omissions in Troy, there is one as yet unmentioned which was particularly glaring. This was the absence of Cassandra, the famous prophet and princess of Troy. In the original Iliad, Cassandra was simply one of Priam’s daughters; it fell to later poets to give her the gift of prophecy along with the curse to never be believed.[1] She would have made a valuable addition to this film, lending a much-needed sense of historic tragedy; the fate of Cassandra is, after all, among the most tragic of the war. Cassandra was a prophet; she would have known she would be murdered by Clymnestra upon reaching Mycenae, but chose to keep silent about it, either because she knew she would never be believed or simply to spite Agamemnon. The mental fortitude required to know the fate of Troy and all its inhabitants but to have her warnings constantly dismissed is incredible. The absence of this complex side character from the war damages the film immensely.

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How Accurate Is: Troy (Film, 2004) Part 3

Paris being saved by Aphrodite.
Paris being saved by Aphrodite.

I hope everyone had a lovely week, and welcome to part 3 of How Accurate Is: Troy! The subject of today’s post is my personal favourite, Hollywood Romanticism. This subset of historical errors is the most widespread in Hollywood, and represents the love of screenwriters for a happy ending. In Troy, these errors find their expression in any departure from the story of the Iliad which steer Troy towards traditional Hollywood romance and a happy ending; this was almost certainly the largest category of errors in Troy. Many of these changes served to make Troy a happier story than the Iliad, but not necessarily a better one.

One of the first changes in this category is also the most ambiguous; the story of Helen itself. In the Iliad and later literature, as well as in discussions surrounding the story of the Trojan War, there has always hovered the question of whether Helen was taken by force or consented to travelling with Paris.[1] Certainly, both sides of the argument have merit; the film, in the spirit of Hollywood Romanticism, settles on the latter. Helen being in love with Paris ensures the palatability of the story, as it is difficult to root for a kidnapper (not to mention difficult to believe it of Orlando Bloom). Therefore, while this does not represent an error per se, choosing this side of the story does represent a predisposition towards the romantic.

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How Accurate Is: Troy (Film, 2004) Part 2

Poor Hector being retrieved by Priam.
Poor Hector being retrieved by Priam.

Hello everyone! For today’s post about Troy, I will be focusing on my second classification of issues with the film: Anti-Myth Realism. (By the way, if anyone has any opinions on the classification system let me know in the comments, because I am considering incorporating it into future posts.) Anti-Myth Realism was, to anyone who has read the Iliad, perhaps the category that loomed largest when watching Troy. What do I mean by Anti-Myth Realism? Essentially, that Troy decided it did not want to be a movie grounded in Greek mythology. This was either because the director felt strongly about the issue or because it was believed (wrongly, in my opinion) that the mythological aspects of the Iliad would serve only to confuse audiences.

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How Accurate Is: Troy (Film, 2004) Part 1

Troy poster

Hello everyone! I know it has been a while, but hopefully from here on in posts will be somewhat more regular, as the last month has been very busy for me. Today’s post is on the movie Troy, released in 2004, and starring Brad Pitt, Orlando Bloom, and Eric Bana. The topic of Troy, as might have been evident from the title, is the Trojan War. This is technically not a historical event, it is true. However, given the length of time the story of the Trojan War has been in circulation, it would seem to be reasonable to hold media which attempts to interpret the story to a standard similar to that applied to historical media. As a film for this site, Troy is an interesting case. Had Troy not been based on the Iliad, it would have been a decent movie, if not a particularly inspired one. Eric Bana as Hector was particularly good in this film, and the battle scenes were excellently choreographed throughout. Furthermore, the script writers for this film did a wonderful job, and almost every line in the movie was highly quotable (“I see fifty thousand men, brought here to fight for one man’s greed”); some, no doubt, were inspired directly by the Iliad.

However, Troy is based on the Iliad, and therein lies the problem. The story veers so heavily from its source material that it becomes unrecognizable; only the bare bones of events remain the same. Because there are so many differences, it is a good idea to divide the differences into four categories:

  1. Condensation
  2. Anti-Mythical Realism
  3. Hollywood Romanticism
  4. Fact-based Omissions

Because the movie is fairly long and there is so much to talk about (particularly with numbers three and four), only the first set of differences will be covered in this post. For more, continue past the link.

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How Accurate Is: Ivan Grozny (Film, 1944)

Film cover for Ivan Grozny.
Film cover for Ivan Grozny.

Hello everyone! It has been longer than I hoped, but here is another post, this time on Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan Grozny, made in the Soviet Union in 1944. The subject of this film is the first Tsar of Russia, Ivan IV, the Terrible (the first Tsar because he was the first Grand Prince of Moscow to formally adopt the title). It should be noted that “Grozny” more accurately translates to “awesome” than Terrible, and so it does not necessarily refer to his legendary cruelty. Eisenstein was a master filmmaker, and his films are widely regarded as among the best surviving examples of the Socialist realist style of filmmaking. Ivan Grozny was produced at the personal request of Stalin, who had always identified with Ivan the Terrible; as a result, the film makes every effort to depict Ivan kindly. There were, in fact, two parts of this film released, but Stalin did not feel Ivan was depicted kindly enough in the second and so the film was banned, only being fully released in 1958. This post is on the first part. Because this is a propaganda film, there is quite a bit to talk about with regards to the historical accuracy, or lack thereof, of the film:

  • Many of Ivan’s verifiable cruelties are simply left out of the film; for example, at the age of 13 he had Prince Andrei Shuisky (a boyar who had partially ruled Moscow during Ivan’s regency, and had by all accounts been very cruel to Ivan) fed to a pack of wild dogs.[1] Furthermore, the later purging of the boyars is presented in charitable terms, to say the least, as in the film the boyars seem to attempt flee to Poland-Lithuania to escape the guilt of their crimes, whereas in real life a significant number were simply murdered, before they could make an effort to flee, and the only crime they had committed was being part of the boyar class.[2]
  • The Chosen Council, a governing body who aided Ivan’s rule during the first half of his reign, does not make an appearance in the film (except perhaps in the form of the scheming priests and boyars frequently shown). In real life, the Council consisted of Metropolitan Macarius, a priest named Sylvester, and a court official named Alexei Adashey, the latter two of whom would be among the first victims of his later purge.[3]
  • The dramatic scene with Ivan on his deathbed (though he confounds expectations, including his own, by surviving) has a rather different ending than it did in history. In the film, he fails to convince any of the boyars except for Shurbsky (a
    Ivan IV.
    Ivan IV.

    nd even then it is only his wife who convinces Shurbsky by telling him Ivan is still alive) to swear fealty to his son; in real life, he did eventually convince them.[4]

  • The poisoning of Ivan’s wife is not necessarily historical. Although there is a chance that she was poisoned, historians often argue that it was illness that killed her, and the poisoning was a figment of Ivan’s paranoia.[5] Whatever the case, it was his overreaction to her death and subsequent murder of many of his former advisors and many of the boyars which provoked the boyar flights, not any wrongdoings on their part (for the most part).[6]

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How Accurate Is: The Tudors (TV Show, 2007-2010) S1E3

Charles V (and a dog).
Charles V (and a dog).

Hello everyone! Today I am going to do another post on The Tudors, this time on the third episode of the first season. There is less to discuss in this post than the previous one because it appears that the show is going to continue willfully changing history, as mentioned in my previous post. This episode, incidentally, took place directly after the previous one, which is evident because Charles V visited England to sign the Treaty of Windsor in 1522, while the Duke of Buckingham was executed in 1521.[1] Here, then, are some of the changes made by this episode.

  • For one thing, no sister of Henry VIII married or was intended to marry the King of Portugal, as depicted in this episode. In real life, Margaret spent most of her life in Scotland, having been the Queen of Scotland during the life of James IV, her husband, and the Queen Regent during the childhood of James V, her son.[2]
  • Charles Brandon was indeed made the Duke of Suffolk, as shown in this episode, but in 1514 after the successful war with Scotland, not in 1522 as depicted in this episode.[3]
  • While Henry did write a pamphlet denouncing Luther, it was published in 1521 and written even earlier; this would place the writing outside the scope of this episode. This is a fairly minor error but is an error nonetheless.[4]
  • Anne Boleyn only caught the eye of Henry in 1526, not 1522 as was depicted in this episode.[5]

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How Accurate Is: White Collar (TV Show, 2009-2014) S1E11

WhiteCollarJadeElephants

Today’s post will be a little shorter than most of the recent ones because I wanted to point out a glaring historical inaccuracy in a show I was watching recently, one I feel is representative of how television, movies, and other media often completely disregards history when it suits them, even if it would take little effort to ensure accuracy. In this case, the episode is White Collar, Season 1 Episode 11 (This post will have spoilers for this episode of White Collar: S1E11)

Around the middle of the episode, the protagonists discover the goal of a thief who has recently robbed several very wealthy men: obtaining a set of five jade elephants supposedly given to diplomats from “all over the world” in 1421 by the Chinese Emperor (Yongle, 1402-1424) to mark the opening of the Forbidden City. Before I get into what, in my opinion, was the worst mistake this episode made, let us examine the accuracy of this statement. It is true that the Forbidden City was formally completed in 1421, and that thereafter Beijing was the capital of Imperial China. [1] At the same time, the sixth treasure voyage of Admiral Zheng He left in March 1421 with the stated goal of returning diplomats who had been brought to China on a previous voyage. [2] Thus, this statement is not entirely absurd, although it is unlikely since a large portion of the Forbidden City was destroyed in 1421 in a fire. [3]

So, although it is technically possible that the origin story of the elephants could be true, the true mistake in the episode is odd and, frankly, inexcusable. Directly after establishing a vaguely plausible reason for the existence of these elephants (which, I remind you, involves China and Chinese history), the Japanese ambassador arrives and demands the two elephants they have on hand, since they are “a priceless piece of [Japanese] history”. It was at this point that I grew confused. I had been willing to swallow the flimsily constructed backstory for the elephants, but it is beyond confusing that the same set of writers, writing an explanation for the elephants involving China, would immediately claim that they are the property of the Japanese government. No further mention of China, in fact, is made in the entire episode. Did the writers of the show simply assume that no one would notice that they had switched the country they were referring to? Did they honestly not know that Japan and China are two separate countries? I could not tell you, and neither, I suspect, could the original writers.

So, as I hope you have seen, this error is emblematic of the way that today’s media often disregards history (and even internal consistency) in pursuit of an interesting plot. The writers never provide an adequate explanation for how all five elephants wound up in New York City, not in the museums of the countries who originally obtained them, nor do they at least succeed in repeating the same backstory twice. While I was amused watching this episode, I was not impressed.

References:

1 University of California, Berkeley. “Timeline: A Chronology of the Ming Voyages”. n.d.

http://orias.berkeley.edu/pallop/timeline.html

2 University of Maine Farmington. “Forbidden City- History”. Last modified January 2010.

http://hua.umf.maine.edu/China/HistoricBeijing/Forbidden_City/

3 University of California, Berkeley. “Timeline: A Chronology of the Ming Voyages”. n.d.

http://orias.berkeley.edu/pallop/timeline.html

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ButISawItOnTV: Introduction

Hello everyone! This website/blog, www.ButISawItOnTV.com, will be measuring the historical accuracy of pop culture- think television shows, books, movies, video games, and potentially even more. Keep an eye on this space for new content, which should begin uploading shortly.

You can also follow us on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ButISawItOnTv, and on Tumblr at https://www.tumblr.com/blog/butisawitontvblog. Neither of these have any content yet, but they will soon.  Both of these links are also present in the side menu and at the bottom of the page, so you don’t need to keep track of this post.

You may notice a link to an About Us page at the bottom of the page- this contains essentially the same information as this post, so feel free to refer to it at any time. Please feel free to leave a comment on the About Us page suggesting a piece of media you would like to see reviewed- there is no guarantee it will be seen, but we will do our best. Thank you for visiting, and please enjoy.

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