I just got out of Marie Antoinette, which was well put together, but which left me sort of disappointed. I was thinking about it, though, and a lot of historical movies really suck (in this, I suppose I include biopics, and almost any movie that is situated in a realistic reconstruction of a historical period) That feeling started me thinking about Nietzsche’s ‘On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life’.
What Nietzsche does in ‘On the Advantage and Disadvantage…’ is that he divides history into three categories: monumental, critical, and antiquarian. I’ve always found this distinction useful, and also useful for looking at the contemporary practice of writing history (to my mind it seems that most contemporary academic historians think they’re writing critical history when in fact their work is thoroughly antiquarian– but that’s another topic).
Monumental history might be called inspirational; critical history is perhaps best exemplified by Foucault; and antiquarian history is history by the idlely curious.
I think monumental historical movies are actually the best use of the special properties of film to present a historical subject. They don’t hold up as an accurate portrayal of history, but I think they can work really well as movies and as illustrations of the myths and values of contemporary society. A good example (though not the best movie) is the Mark Wahlberg movie ‘Invincible.’
In addition, there’s a class of historical movies that address a historical subject critically, with an eye towards influencing contemporary behavior. These can also be really good.
(I’m not really going to talk about what might be termed ‘historical fantasies’, movies set at some point in the past, but which don’t really engage with historical realities)
But most historical movies don’t fall into either of these categories, and settle instead for a limp sort of antiquarianism. This sort of historical movie has to come to terms with the radical difference of life the past, and some compromise is made between historical accuracy and emotional naturalism, and what comes out are bad movies.