While I have not seen any of the films described by Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, I have watched many historically-based films that skew the historical part, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. The film that immediately comes to mind is Disney’s Pocahantus. The film tells the story of the 17th century Virginia Company expedition to Jamestown, where John Smith meets and falls in love with Pocahontas, a local Native American. Smith’s Englishmen and Pocahontas’s tribe briefly scuffle, but everything is resolved when Pocahontas gives a speech to both sides, pleading for peace. In reality, Smith only briefly encountered Pocahontas when her tribe captured him. There was no love story, and the encounter between the Englishmen and the Native Americans was a lot bloodier than the Disney version.
While Pocahantus may be historically inaccurate, the blame should not fall squarely on the filmmakers’ shoulders. The primary responsibility of the filmmaker is to entertain, and history depicted just as it was is not always as entertaining as something with a loose historical basis. Creating a film that is only based off of a historical event rather than accurately depicting the event is much more likely to sell tickets at the box office. The fact is that most historical events don’t have all of the features that factor into a great story: a buildup, a climax, a relatable hero, a despised villain, and a plot twist that takes the audience for a ride.
However, in some situations, a filmmaker does have the responsibility to be historically accurate. Whenever producing a documentary or any informational media, the filmmaker must either remain strictly factual, unless the fabricated parts are explicitly labeled so. Discovery Channel and Animal Planet got into some hot water last May, when both networks aired a documentary-style film, Mermaid: The Body Found. The film offered a very convincing argument that mermaids exist, and used the testimonies of “real” scientists and ex-government officials as evidence. Although the scientists and officials were actors, and the cell phone video recording of a mermaid was created with CGI, there was no indication throughout the film that anything was fabricated. The film caught fire on the internet, and garnered enough attention that the National Ocean Service had to issue a statement dismissing the existence of mermaids. In this case, the filmmakers failed to properly inform their audience when they had the responsibility to do so.