But something that has bothered me is the attitude that, when confronted with a film (or book or play, for that matter) that is grossly exaggerated or blatantly wrong, historically-speaking, the filmmakers are excused because well, it’s not a documentary.
Putting aside the fact that documentaries can be just as biased as fictional accounts, this attitude is problematic in some cases. It is a worthwhile attitude to have regarding small changes, such as compressing the timeline of events, making a composite character, or dramatizing an incident to make it more exciting. Depending on the event in question, there might be no historical evidence about what exactly happened, and thus the writers can tell their own version of the story and invent some details to fill in the gaps. We may not know what exactly was said between two historical figures, but we know they met and had a conversation that had consequences. Inventing dialogue for the film for this scene, drawing on the known facts, is perfectly fine.
While some changes and inventions can be annoying to those who know what would be historically accurate, and especially frustrating when the change seems pointless, they are understandable and indeed vital for good storytelling.
However, historical fiction is indeed how most of the audience learns about a person or event. Films are especially powerful, being that they are realistic, visual, and designed to appeal to visceral emotions. Even if we read non-fiction accounts or watch documentaries about a topic, we are far more likely to identify with the film.
Thus, a good historical film should aim to entertain and tell a compelling story while not misrepresenting its subject and being true to history as much as possible. (Unless it is specifically meant to be alternate history, fantasy, or satire.) Viewers are not stupid, but the impression left by a film will be felt long into the future, no matter how accurate it was. Even when told otherwise, we feel that what we saw in the film was more real than the facts that we read in a book or on Wikipedia.
History is about real people who did real things. Those real people deserve respect, as do their families. Real villains are not one-dimensional, but usually men and women who cared deeply about their cause or felt that they had been wronged in life. Real heroes had bad habits. Both “heroes” and “villains” very likely just thought that they were doing their job, or just doing what they thought was right at the time. Attitudes change and what was normal and even laudable in the past is considered downright horrible now.
No, a film may not be a documentary, but it should not portray a historical character as a pure villain merely to fill a whole in the plot. It should not make a whole group of people out to be monsters just to make the hero seem stronger. The more recent an event, the more accurate the film should be, as there should be more evidence to work with. A writer can plead ignorance regarding the private lives and thoughts of medieval kings and peasants, but not of twentieth- or twenty-first century people.
Even before films, Shakespeare’s portrayal of King Richard III of England influenced how everyone thought of that king, and to this day, historians have had a hard time changing Richard III’s popular image. Shakespeare’s play involved an actor in a minimal costume on a relatively bare stage in a theatre full of people. Modern films involve actors in realistic costumes (some more painstakingly researched for accuracy than others) in the purported setting of the story with no audience. Still, people “remembered” Richard III as a weak, scheming, hunchback. We likewise remember historical persons as they appeared onscreen in our “memories”, not in the still photograph or the portrait/drawing that accompanied their Wikipedia article.
Whole populations have likewise been maligned due to being primarily understood from fiction. Cultural groups are seen as jokes, terrorists, sexual objects, or combinations thereof. This does not promote respect. This does not promote cooperation. It is not worth the lasting consequences to demean a whole ethnicity merely for the sake of one dominant group’s enjoyment. Sure, our predecessors were not all angels. But they are all deserving of human dignity.
No, historical fiction films do not have to be documentaries, but they need to be respectful.