Three Ways Movies Fill in the Historical Blanks

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Pearl Harbor follows the story of two best friends, Rafe and Danny, and their love lives as they go off to join the war. Starring Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Alec Baldwin.
Photo Credit: Buena Vista Pictures
May 16th, 2012

Three Ways Movies Fill in the Historical Blanks

--In the hands of a Hollywood producer, some of the most mundane occurrences become history lessons and some of the most well-known historical events become fairy tales. That is movie magic at work. However, the way true events are depicted in movies can make it difficult to distinguish reality from fact. The source of the distortion is often the blank in history that movie writers try to fill in. By identifying three of the most common ways that movies fill in the blanks of history, moviegoers can work to separate the fiction from the fact in their favorite "based on a true story" movies. Only when this separation is made can a movie-goer truly enjoy the film.

The Love Story

When movies are used to capture famous historical events, the most important details are often missing or too well known to be entertaining. The love story is a heavily used tactic to capture the events from another angle. Two popular movies that used the love story tactic were "Titanic" and "Pearl Harbor." Both stories use a complex love story to move the plot while history takes place in the background. The ship captain's famous flawed decisions and the infamous iceberg are treated as hurdles for the lovers in "Titanic." In "Pearl Harbor," the tragedy of the Japanese invasion interrupts an awkward love triangle, while the well-documented Doolittle Raids of World War II are a plot complication that changes the love triangle forever.

The love stories in these two movies are not true. They are completely fictional, but they serve as plot filler used to recreate details that have been told and retold until they are a part of memory. In the case of the "Titanic," the love story also serves to speculate the answers to questions about each passenger aboard history's best-known shipwreck.

A Historical Revelation

Some movies take the approach of revealing a historical secret in the plot. The story is intricately woven, with a secret that is usually pure fiction. However, these movies tend to light the fires of controversy that sell tickets. That places the movie in the history books for sales records instead of for historical content. The movie "JFK" is one example. This movie was billed as the story behind the assassination and the coverup that followed. The director, Oliver Stone, did such a convincing job of creating the characters and the plot from historical documents that many had trouble figuring out if the revelations in the story were real or not. Stone succeeded in presenting a fresh telling of the President John F. Kennedy assassination that was very close to reality. The "JFK" movie plot fill-ins helped propel the plot past the historical unknowns and became one reason the movie became so popular.

Adding a Little Drama

Dramatizing the unknown details is one of the most popular ways that true events are retold on the film screen. An example is "United 93." This movie is based on the actions of the crew and passengers on an airplane meant to crash into the White House on September 11, 2001. No one survived. The film's creators used text messages, voice mails and phone calls to loved ones to recreate the details in the movie. The event was a very emotional one, and the liberties taken by the movie created controversy. The dramatization of the unknown events seemed to overshadow some of the known historical facts. Those facts include the story of a military jet that may have shot the airplane down that day. Some historians also wonder if passengers somehow left the plane prior to the crash as evidenced by the bodies that ended up far from the debris field. When historical movies use drama to tell the missing details, moviegoers should consider the details that are being bypassed for the sake of drama.

There are other ways that historical events are retold in movies, but these are the most common. Most moviegoers enjoy the stories for the entertainment value they deliver. The problems and controversy occur when the movie is taken as an accurate historical retelling, despite the "based on a true story" label. Despite the subject matter, movies about historical events should only be taken for their entertainment value. That does not mean that you cannot let the controversy awaken your curiosity. Go see the movie if you are curious. However, the movie industry never intends to package a fictional story as true hard fact. In exploring the ways that writers, producers and others making the film fill in the blanks, you can see that entertainment is the only goal.