Play it again: Why we love historical movies

29 Sep 2017
Play it again: Why we love historical movies
Photo Credit: The Promise, Universal Studios

When it comes to movies, you love the past—everyone does. Historical epics account for billions of dollars in ticket sales every year. They capture our hearts, our minds and most importantly our wallets. Because everyone feels better about life when they’re seeing it in the rearview mirror.

This year has seen the release of a library of historical pictures, chronicling characters and events both known and unknown. They range in genre from the horrifying slave rebellion in The Birth Of A Nation and political thrillers like the Kennedy biopic Jackie, to love stories like the India-based Viceroy's House. Some, like the BBC production Their Finest, will have only caught the attention of those dedicated to arthouse cinema. Others, like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, set new sales records for the genre. But film industries across the world keep pilfering the pages of history for new storylines precisely because we are hooked on stories about the past. Ever wondered why? Well, as a scriptwriter, I can tell you there are at least three clear reasons . . .

Rose-tinted time machines

Firstly, we love movies that sweep us off our feet and take us back to a simpler time. Comfort films like Anne of Green Gables, Little Women and Stand By Me will continue to be loaded into the DVD player or streamed from set-top boxes because they beguile us with a longing for “the way things were”—even if it was an historical period of which we have no personal experience.

September saw the release of Victoria and Abdul, a story taken from the latter days of the reign of Queen Victoria. Judy Dench stars as the grumpy empress who has outlived her husband, and is now hen-pecked by politicians and children alike. Yet, as she draws toward the end of her 64 years on the throne, Victoria strikes up an unlikely friendship with an Indian servant, played by Ali Fazal. Directed by Stephen Frears, Victoria and Abdul engages the eye with sumptuous royal settings and pageantry, while attracting the mind with the manners and morality of a bygone era.

In an age dominated by individualism, the Victorian assertion of a right and wrong way is understandably appealing. Victoria and Abdul’s determined friendship in the face of common convention suggests that we tend to look back in a way that emphasises the characteristics we most appreciate today. However, the film remains a testimony to our desire for nostalgic cinema. Historical films act like rose-tinted time machines, allowing us to revel in a life we would have loved to have lived—even if it’s one that has altered the facts to increase the appeal.

Rewriting history

Historical movies also provide us with an opportunity to look at things differently. They have the ability to transform our perceptions of a period, and all the more so if we have no knowledge to re-shape. June saw the release of Churchill, a biopic about one of the greatest leaders of all time, that revealed a largely unknown side of “Britain’s Bulldog”.

Brian Cox starred as Winston Churchill during the final days leading up to D-Day. Its first rethinking of history came with the surprise that Churchill was vehemently opposed to the sea-borne invasion. Director Jonathan Teplitzky reminded viewers that the great leader was once the First Lord of the Admiralty during World War I and had presided over the disastrous landing at Gallipoli. In a private moment, we witness Churchill falling to his knees and begging in prayer, “Please, please, please let it rain tomorrow . . . don’t let it happen again.” The second eye-opener is that the great leader suffered from severe depression, often leading to his total incapacitation. In public Churchill was a commanding figure; in private, he was buffeted by doubt and a sense of isolation.

Rewritten history lessons can help us value even more the gains made by figures who have been overtaken by their own myths, and rehabilitate those who we fail to appreciate. The Christian missionaries sent to ancient Japan, chronicled in February this year by Silence, are not presented as heartless evangelists but those torn by the suffering their gospel might bring. Again, the alternate take on the European exploration of Amazon, presented in August’s The Lost City Of Z, replaces the popular image of cultural imperialists with ardent searchers for truth. However, Hollywood remembering things differently for us is not always a positive thing.

Remember the World War II epic Pearl Harbor? You know, the one where outraged Americans strike back after the Japanese surprise attack on their Pacific fleet by bombing Japan? Director Michael Bay picked up on a true event by including the Doolittle raid in his movie, but there was certainly some selective storytelling involved. Timelines were contracted and the destruction inflated to give the audience a sense of pride over what was really a propaganda stunt. Or how about Argo, the film pretending to tell the story of a bizarre CIA plan to rescue hostages from Iran? In this case the true heroes of history, the Canadian diplomats, were pushed out of the plot to make room for American bravado, and the event that emerges on the big screen is more hysterical than history.

Christians can also well attest to what happens when audiences have no real knowledge of the events that are being reworked. In 2006 church leaders were rightly alarmed by the release of The Da Vinci Code. Not because it was the first time that Jesus’ resurrection or His morality were challenged, but because the film presented such information as facts to an audience no longer familiar with the clear teachings of the Bible or established history. But movie makers persist in rewriting the pages of history (and tearing some up!) because doing so will often make us feel good about where we’ve come from and the decisions we make about where we’re going.

Regret and release

The third reason we love historical films is that they allow us to feel bad and better at the same time. Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, 12 Years A Slave—each provides us the opportunity to avow that the Holocaust is bad, war is bad, slavery is bad—and we recognise all of that! So we revel in the outrage and then feel good about ourselves for doing so.

June also saw the release of The Promise, a love triangle starring Christian Bale, set during the last days of the Ottoman Empire and exposing the terrible injustices of the Armenian genocide. It’s a beautiful piece of historical storytelling that’s as disturbing as it is moving. 1.5 million Armenians were rounded up and executed, or worked to death in labour camps. Their forced relocation remains officially unrecognised by the Turkish government to this day. But the Armenian Genocide, much like the Jewish Holocaust and the trans-Atlantic slave trade, is easy to pass judgement on because it remains comfortably in the past. Consequently, it’s possible to be stunned by the revelations The Promise contains and exit the cinema amazed that the world hasn’t acted on such a tragedy—without much practical change to our lives.

The problem with this sort of outrage is that we seldom let our righteous anger catch up with the present. Yet there are plenty of similar atrocities to choose from. Christians are being rounded up by Islamists and killed in Syria, wars are taking millions in Africa to an early grave and modern-day slaves make our sneakers.

The mission

Christians might look on historical films as a “safe” option for a trip to the cinema. They’re unlikely to contain offensive words, the period suggests that explicit sexual content should be kept to a minimum, and they regularly focus on stirring themes. However, our responsibility to history is to learn from it. The Bible repeatedly describes God’s people as those who “turn from their wicked ways”; who don’t just repent of their sins, but also those belonging to the generations who preceded them. Similarly, our Father is described as a God who remembers every good and bad deed and acts accordingly. The one question that has relevance as the lights come up on every historical film we watch is, “What might God require of me in the light of this?”

A scene from Warner Bros’ recent release Dunkirk, a retelling of the amazing extraction of the British Expeditionary Force from the French North Sea coast in June 1940.

Love historical movies like Their Finest and Dunkirk. Celebrate the values of the simpler times showcased in Victoria and Abdul. But look back with your eyes wide open. Learn what you can from Churchill and The Promise, and be prepared to carry those lessons into the present. Anything less is hysterical—historical—hypocrisy.


Mark Hadley