I have no idea why this review of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto just appeared on one of Roger Ebert’s “far-flung correspondents” blogs, since the movie came out a few years ago. Anyway, it’s well worth a read, because it touches on an important issue regarding historical films.
Every historical movie will have some inaccuracies, either intentional liberties or simple mistakes. But regardless of how many historical flaws Apocalypto contains, it’s also saturated with details that “allow us to feel when the credits roll, that we actually attended the events depicted here, what some call ‘the fly on the wall’ theory.” In other words, a movie like this creates a credible past.
Moviemakers create worlds, and it’s healthy for us to remember that when we’re talking about the past, a different world is exactly what we’re dealing with. Historical filmmakers should build their worlds from the ground up in the same way that good science fiction filmmakers do. Otherwise, the world they create won’t be credible. It will be nothing but the past lightly grafted onto the present, like a poorly-done reenactment.
For a great example of a credibly, thoroughly authentic past, take HBO’s John Adams. There is nothing modern about the world the characters inhabit. Indeed, there’s nothing modern about the characters themselves. They lack make-up. They have bad teeth. Even their speech is distinctive, since the filmmakers tried to reconstruct colonial dialects. (The result is sort of halfway between a British accent and modern American English; it’s like an entire nation inhabited by William F. Buckleys.)
The world of John Adams wouldn’t be a vacation for anybody but a hardcore reenactor. It would have all the hallmarks you’d associate with visiting a Third World village: unfamiliar speech, uncomfortable living conditions, strange food. Watch this excerpt from the first episode, and then ask yourself how long it would take you to get accustomed to living in this world:
This is a world where it’s hard to keep out the cold, where children curtsey when their father arrives home, where simmering imperial tensions can explode in the blink of an eye. This isn’t modern America in knee breeches. These people live differently, speak differently, behave differently. They are different, and they inhabit a different America. It’s a remarkable artistic achievement.
There aren’t many ways that entertainment media can advance historical understanding. Drawing attention to neglected people or incidents is one of them. Creating worlds with this level of authenticity is another. It reminds us of a fact we too often forget, one summed up memorably in Leslie Hartley’s dictum: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Movies like this are a valuable corrective for those occasions when we feel too comfortable with the past, when we forget the span of years that separates us from the people who lived there.