Alec Marsh

What Ridley Scott gets wrong about history

Accuracy matters

  • From Spectator Life
(Apple TV)

The film director Ridley Scott says that those who worry about the historical inaccuracies in his new biopic of Napoleon should ‘get a life’. Or as the told The Sunday Times last week: ‘When I have issues with historians, I ask: “Excuse me, mate, were you there? No? Well, shut the fuck up, then.’

If you’re not careful you can end up changing history

You don’t need to be Alan Bennett to cock an eyebrow at that. While I’ve not yet seen Napoleon – and I will because I’m sure it’ll be a cracker (it’s Ridley Scott, after all, and Joaquin Phoenix) – I have read about its various delusions, not least Scott’s decision to have Bony present at the execution of Marie Antoinette or ­his army firing their cannon at the Pyramids which they did not.

The point is that this stuff matters. It matters because when people see it on the screen, (or indeed the stage or the page) believe it really happened that way. Hence back in 1997, when Titanic came out, the producers ended up paying £5,000 towards a memorial for the first officer of the ship, a chap named Will Murdoch, who was presented in the film as a gun-toting, corrupt coward, when in truth Murdoch was a hero and went down with the ship having done his duty. Unsurprisingly his family were distressed that James Cameron had given him a $210 million character assassination, along with everyone in first class.

There’s more to it than merely causing offence. There’s the principle too – and the fact that if you’re not careful you can end up changing history. Take William Shakespeare’s history plays. By depicting Richard III as a deformed, murderous psychopath ­– albeit one of the world’s most articulate and charming deformed, murderous psychopaths (Laurence Olivier’s 1955 performance is still mesmerising) ­– he helped establish a narrative about Richard that has tarnished his reputation ever since. Richard didn’t in fact murder his wife, or brother – the Duke of Clarence ­– and rather a lot of people also doubt that he murdered the so-called Princes in the Tower, too, the stickiest accusation by far.

The Historic Royal Palaces, for one, states that there’s currently no proof that the boys were murdered, let alone that Richard did it ­­– and that’s before the latest revelations from Philippa Langley, who found Richard III under a car park in 2012 ­and was played by Sally Hawkins in the film The Lost King – which pours yet more doubt on Shakespeare’s entertainingly villainous version of Richard III. Of course, what makes Shakespeare’s depiction worse is that it was undoubtedly influenced by a need to satisfy the sensibilities of Elizabeth I, whose granddad was the very man who had deposed Richard III and usurped his throne in the first place. That it’s taken 400 years to start correcting this slur among the public at large shows you just how insidious fiction ­– particularly incorrect fiction – can be, especially when it’s written by a literary genius.

That’s why historical fiction needs to wear the truth on its sleeve: we mustn’t whitewash monsters, nor should we demonise decent honourable individuals like the Titanic’s wronged first officer Will Murdoch just for the sake of dramatic expediency. The historical novelist Philippa Gregory ­­– she of The Other Boleyn Girl fame – takes the view that where historical facts are known you have to stick to them and where they are not known you should follow the path that seems most historically likely.

And unless you are telling a counter-factual story ­– think Robert Harris’s masterful Fatherland or Len Deighton’s SS-GB ­– then you have to stick to the facts as best as they can be established or supposed. When it’s done well, historical fiction ­and drama can play an important role in reminding us who we are and where we’ve come from – and through that it can help people properly understand their history and relate to it appropriately. The corollary of that is if you deliberately ignore the truth or go against it then you’ll be setting people adrift. Depending on how far you diverge from historical accuracy, you’ll be destroying that cultural umbilical cord that connects us to the past, and that’s when you end up with baying mobs pulling down statues or demanding that someone who did something three centuries ago that we now find distasteful be ‘cancelled’.

It’s our choice. But if we don’t guard the truth in our society’s stories then we will have to live with the consequences: people really will think that the Americans won the second world war singlehandedly. They really will believe that Napoleon’s troops fired artillery at the Pyramids or indeed that Richard III was a murderous psychopath. So it’s not pedantry to insist on the factual accuracy in historical drama ­– it’s absolutely fundamental. Otherwise, our real history will sink from view and be lost, and we will be lost with it.