Historical drama films and the application of artistic license

Yesterday I watched the film Elizabeth, one of the many historical drama films which takes significant liberties with regard to history. Some other good examples are Gladiator, Troy and Alexander. For details on the historical deviations (deviations from the myth in the case of Troy to be exact) refer to the relevant sections in the Wikipedia articles which I linked.

Certainly Elizabeth and Gladiator are well made films if we take the historical deviations into account. Some would say artistic license would have been necessary to produce a high quality film. However, I can’t imagine why certain historical deviations would have been necessary for applying artistic license. These are small details mostly, like the barbarian chieftain in the opening scene of Gladiator speaking in the modern German language, while that language didn’t exist yet for a long time. It is also stated in the beginning of the film that Rome was founded as a republic, which is of course not true. Another example is that in Troy Aeneas is portrayed as a child. Those deviations have nothing to do with artistic license, but all with negligence and indolence on the part of the scriptwriters.

But then the question if artistic license is necessary to produce a good film is necessary. I don’t think that’s true either. Having read the Iliad, I think it could have been translated to a film without deviating from the myth. Of course, because it’s an epic far more characters would have to be included, the gods would have to be included. Probably it should be covered in two or three separate films, but if that was possible for Lord of the Rings, then why not for the Iliad? The only problem I’d see would be the talking divine horses, but if anyone in Hollywood would have the guts to do it and do it well, it could be successful. The same treatment would apply to Alexander, it had potential but was poorly executed. If the old Ptolemy as storyteller would have been ditched and the story would have been told in chronological order without flashbacks, with a better script and if it would have been made as a trilogy it would have been awesome. The story told in Gladiator is very loosely based on real events. I think it would have been a better idea if different subject matter from the history of the Roman Empire would have been chosen for a film. Why not Hannibal? That would be an exciting story to tell, and it wouldn’t need deviation from history.

One last complaint is that in neither Gladiator, Troy or Alexander the Latin or Ancient Greek language is used. The film The Passion of the Christ has proven that a film which is not spoken in the English language can be very successful with English-speaking audiences. Hopefully future historical drama films will feature Ancient Greek and Latin.

A film about Elizabeth’s life probably wouldn’t need any historical deviation to make it exciting either. Not only are the historical deviations in the film Elizabeth quite serious regarding the historical facts, but I also question the behaviour depicted in the film. Especially the rather informal negotiations between the English Parliament and Elizabeth seemed dubious to me, as did the treatment of problems relating to Elizabeth’s gender. Burghley’s remark that Elizabeth is a woman near the end of the film seemed rather insolent to me for her most trusted advisor, or anyone else for that matter.

I have one unsolved question though concerning the film Elizabeth. During the coronation ceremony in the film it is stated that she is queen of England, Ireland and France. Wikipedia confirms that. France is still mentioned in the style of the English monarchs until 1801. However, with the French conquest of Calais in 1557 the English lost all their possessions in France, before Elizabeth became queen in 1559. Elsewhere on Wikipedia it is confirmed that British monarchs continued to style themselves as kings of France until 1800 even though they had lost all their territories there. Can anyone tell me why they continued to deny the reality for centuries?

I think I’m not going to watch historical drama films any more in the future if they continue the liberal use of artistic license.

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