Whenever I see a film with the subtitle, “based on a historical event,” I’m instantly wary. Most of the time, these films, such as Gladiator, Pocahontas and American Sniper, are movies that are loosely (and I emphasize loosely) based on historical events. Many directors have chosen thrills and excitement over historical basis. The genres for these films tend to be action, as with Gladiator. Some have chosen to cater to a specific audience, which means highlighting some areas of history and shadowing other aspects, as was done in Pocahontas. Others, like American Sniper, have a political agenda to abide by.
Image Source: IMP Awards
Gladiators are Roman warriors who fought in amphitheaters as a way to demonstrate military skill, while entertaining an audience at the same time. Few volunteered to be gladiators because once they became one, they lost legal privileges and were known as infami (of ill repute). Most were slaves, or criminals.
Gladiator gets that part of history right. Russell Crowe plays a fictional general named Maximus who, after refusing loyalty to Emperor Commodus, is forced to be a slave and later fights as a gladiator, swearing vengeance upon Commodus.
However, the film then begins to diverge from history from there.
Commodus is portrayed as a manipulative emperor who killed his father in order to gain the throne which isn’t true. Commodus’s father, Marcus Aurelius, was not killed by his son but died in the Danube region at the war camp.
The gladiator fights are a lot more gruesome in the film than in history. Gladiators, in general, did not fight to the death for economic reasons. It’s expensive to replace a gladiator. The fights were used as a way to entertain the audience. If the audience was satisfied, the fighters would stop. The fight was to demonstrate endurance and military skill. If the audience wasn’t, the fight would continue. Rarely were gladiators killed simply for the enjoyment of audience members or the Emperor.
As exciting as it was seeing Maximus duke it out with the Emperor, this never happened in history. Emperors like Nero sometimes participated in the arena but there’s a reason why gladiators are made up of slaves or criminals: it was low-status. The Emperor Augustus even banned the elite from performing on stage or in the arena in 22 BCE.
Image Source: The Flying Red Robot
The Disney film is nothing like the historical figure of Pocahontas. This was to be expected, given the production company and the age group it was aiming for. They had to be careful in what they showed.
There’s a lot of focus on the romance aspect of the movie between Pocahontas and John Smith, but this never happened in history. While it is true that Pocahontas and John Smith meet and that she does save him, a romantic relationship between the two was never reported. Another reason for this is that Pocahontas was only a child when she met Smith, and so a romantic relationship would have been highly unlikely.
Image Source: National Park Service
Historically, she does marry John, but it’s to another man named John Rolfe. In the sequel Pocahontas II (1998), the two are seen sailing into the sunset in true Disney fashion. But in history, Pocahontas dies of a disease and the relationship between the Powhatan people and the English crumbled.
Disney portrayed the power dynamics between the English and the Powhatan people skewed in favour of the English. Disney chose to bury it under songs and a love story but this aspect of history — colonization — cannot be ignored. Colonization is still discussed as a political issue.
Disney does show that the relationship between Pocahontas’ people and John Smith’s people was negative, but it ends on a relatively happy note (accompanied by Colours of the Wind).
Image Source: American Sniper Movie
American Sniper is based off Chris Kyle’s book, with the same name. The book is mainly about his time in the Iraq War. The goal of the film was to send a certain message about the Iraq War and to portray a particular image of Americans vs. the Iraqis. The Iraqis were portrayed as bad and the Americans were the heroes. It was essential to have this message come across in film, especially in light of the 9/11 attacks (even though it happened over 10 years before the screening of the film).
There is a scene in the movie where the American soldiers are invited into the home of an Iraqi man. The scene continues on with the man offering them a place at his dinner table and it’s almost peaceful the way the soldiers are sitting with the family, eating and passing food. But in the next few minutes, Chris Kyle’s character has the Iraqi man pinned because he’s been hiding weapons under his floor and he’s not only a bad Iraqi man, he’s a man who never had good intentions. This only perpetrates harmful images of the Iraqi which does nothing to help with the healing that both sides need.
American Sniper does try to amp up the excitement by having Chris Kyle in a deadly competition with an Iraqi sniper named Mustafa. Mustafa does exist but in his autobiography, he’s mentioned in passing and isn’t actually as significant a figure as the film makes it out to be. The purpose of making him Chris Kyle’s enemy is to purely to add drama and excitement to the film.
With a blockbuster film like American Sniper, the impression that the film gives is political. Garett Reppenhagen, a former American sniper, wrote an article, discussing his experience in the war, compared to how Chris Kyle’s experience was portrayed in the film.
“My war was completely different than Chris Kyle’s war[,]” Reppenhagen writes. “That doesn’t mean his war is wrong, and mine was right. But it does mean that no one experience is definitive.”
That is a problem with war films such as American Sniper. Because American Sniper is solely focused on one man’s time in the war, the audience is thrust into his perspective and how he views the Iraqis — which is fueled by fear. It is a singular perspective that encourages an extremely hostile view of the Iraqis. After 9/11, there is ongoing pressure that the American soldiers have to do something in order to prove to the terrorists that they are not weak, which is why many soldiers have thought of fighting in the Iraq War as a “noble cause.”
Historical films bear the responsibility of making it as historically accurate as possible. Filmmakers often take artistic liberties by adding fictional characters or fictional events to make the plot more exciting. However, in doing so, they have, in a sense, manipulated history. If past events can be changed and manipulated, it makes acquiring accurate information difficult. I would encourage everyone to be much more vigilant in how media covers the news, as well as history. Interpretation can change both the present and future.