I’d like to start out with a question: Can history be entertaining and informative? This is something that I have been pondering for a few weeks now. It was triggered by something that I’m sure we are all familiar with: trying to find something to watch on Netflix. While searching I noticed a number of historical movies, some of which I actually own, movies like Gettysburg, The Patriot, Braveheart, Lincoln, and Gladiator to name a few. This made me start thinking about the way that Hollywood portrays and distorts history. Hollywood is the obvious example, starting with the small errors, such as costumes that don’t belong in that period, mixing up dates, and numerous other small transgressions, and moving all the way up to the misrepresentation of historical figures and time periods. However, it is easy to pick on the movie industry for their lack of historical sensitivity, and they are far from the only culprits.
The literary genre of historical fiction has influenced the way people perceive history for generations, even the Bard himself wasn’t above manipulating historical events to suit his plays. Even books that aren’t strictly historical fiction, such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, have had profound effects on the way most people interact with history. Video games are equally guilty of manipulating history for entertainment purposes, as is evidenced by the massive popularity of the Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty franchises. Even comic books have gotten in the game, using major historical events as points of reference for their characters, such as the major use of World War II in a number of character’s story arcs. It is at this point that I’d like to return to my original question: Can history be entertaining and informative?
It is not my intent to criticize these various platforms for their use of history to generate entertainment and capital (there enough people who do that), similarly, it is not my intent to merely point out that history has been used to create entertainment. Rather, I’m interested in trying to figure out if there is a way to marry historical entertainment with historical accuracy without losing the integrity of either. I suppose you can look at living history and various interactive museum exhibits as examples of this, however, I often wonder if they lose impact of the ramifications of historical events through their attempts to make it palatable to general audiences. However, I also wonder if seeing a movie such as Braveheart (which is widely considered the most historically inaccurate historical movie ever made) makes for a more visceral experience of the hardships of war and freedom fighting than merely reading about the deeds of William Wallace. Similarly, is it better to see the D-Day landings in Saving Private Ryan, or to study strategic maps? Of course, most historians would argue for the latter in both cases, but I sometimes wonder if this is always the case for the more general public.
A similar argument can be made for visiting places of historical significance. It is a very different experience visiting Gettysburg versus visiting Mauthausen concentration camp. This is because Gettysburg seeks to entertain as much as it means to inform, whereas Mauthausen’s only goal is to inform its visitors of the atrocities that occurred there. However, it is still a different feeling than visiting the memorial site of the World Trade Center, which seeks to spread peace as well as memorialize the loss of life.
I don’t know that I’ve come to any conclusions in this piece about the nature of history and entertainment. I know that they can both stand separate from one another but I don’t know if they should. Perhaps the question has become: Can history be separated from entertainment, and should it be?