Whose History Is It, Anyway?

February 18, 2015 12:21 AM

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Whose History Is It, Anyway?

How much plausible history should we expect from movies? Not much, if the history of movies is any indication. Jumbled chronology, cartoonish villains, incongruous dialogue, distorted explanations—such is the wreckage when these worlds collide. About 20 years ago, the Society of American Historians put together an enlightening anthology, “Past Imperfect,” in which professionals dismantled (and occasionally praised) films like “Spartacus,” “Shanghai Express” and “All the President’s Men.” Now, at least one website chronicles films’ historical errors (www.historyvshollywood.com) while the Guardian devotes a regular column to them (www.theguardian.com/film/series/reelhistory).

Historians have generally had the upper hand and have even been hired as film consultants. But now, it seems, their prestige is slipping. The historian is starting to be perceived as a pedant. And the “Gotcha Game”—as one critic has called efforts to call out film inaccuracies—is being portrayed as ...

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