Historical Inaccuracy in Movies

Thursday, January 17, 2013

In "The Patriot," a 2000 film starring Mel Gibson, a scene which no doubt created a disturbing impression with audiences has been cited for extreme historical inaccuracy.

Those who saw the film will remember the scene in which British soldiers rounded up a community of American colonists and locked them in the local church. They then set the building afire, gruesomely killing all the men, women and children in the community.

Those watching the movie certainly were incensed by the brutality of the British and were appalled that a military force would do something so cruel to innocent people.

The fact is that nothing of that nature ever happened in the Revolutionary War. Historians note there were indeed dastardly acts committed by both sides, including the execution of soldiers who had surrendered, but nothing even remotely resembling the church burning ever happened.

This specific event did indeed happen in a war, but the location was France and not surprisingly the murderers were Nazi SS troops. The community was Oradur sur Glane. The date was June 10, 1944.

The inclusion of the church burning scene attracted controversy, most notably across the sea in Great Britain. Rightfully so. There is room for "cinematic license" in historical productions, but there is a line that should not be crossed -- it was in this case.

A similar issue has arisen with this year's "Zero Dark Thirty," a film which details the CIA search for Osama bin Laden and the ultimate raid which resulted in the death of the Al Qaeda mastermind.

While the movie is an amazing production that carries the complicated search (and numerous Mideast locations) over a period of several years, some controversy has arisen over the historical accuracy of the way torture is depicted as obtaining the information that led to bin Laden.

There is no question that American agents (and allies in various offshore locations) indeed engaged in various terms of torture, including waterboarding. Some commentators (and former Vice President Dick Cheney) have claimed waterboarding is not torture. One key piece of evidence that we as Americans have historically believed it is rests with the fact that Japanese soldiers were executed by Allied Forces following World War II for engaging in the practice.

The problem with "Zero Dark Thirty" is that such practices did not lead to the obtaining of the information that led us to bin Laden. Included in those who cite the historical inaccuracy is Sen. John McCann, who has been outspoken in his opposition to torture as a means of interrogation. Among his reasons (other than the fact it is morally wrong) is the likelihood that our enemies will use it as justification for using similar tactics against our own citizens.

There is a degree of understandable flexibility in dramatizing an historical narrative. But there should be an allegiance to facts when applicable. Leading audiences to believe that torture was a key factor in the successful search for Osama bin Laden crosses the line and is a disservice to both history and the American people.