During the course of the British History Challenge I began to develop a hypothesis concerning the accuracy of British history on film. It centred on the principal that Braveheart caused much of the widespread inaccuracies that we see in history films today. After much deliberation and collaboration and interpretation, I can finally reveal the results of my experiment.
Initially I aimed to confirm my hypothesis with three questions, all of which have since been made more scientific and ‘fair’ since their original proposal. They are as follows:
- 1) How has inaccuracy in history films changed over time?
- 2) Is there a definitive point where it can be said that history films became inaccurate on a wide scale?
- 3) If so, how much of a role did Braveheart play in this process?
In order to answer these questions, each film was given an accuracy score out of ten and then that number was averaged out with other accuracy scores based on numerous other internet sources (to whom much thanks is given for use of the data,) Following this the results were broken apart, reduced and analysed in order to answer the above questions.
In total, the average accuracy for the whole of the history challenge was 5.59/10 with the highest scoring film being The Battle of Britain with a score of 9.25/10. A Bridge too Far came in second place with a respectable 9.16/10. Billy Elliot, Aces High, Young Winston and The Madness of King George all tied for third place with 9/10 a piece. Rather unsurprisingly, Braveheart scored a universal 0/10 with no source anywhere giving any higher score. No other film achieved this feat and only Elizabeth: The Golden Age and Gunpowder, Treason and Plot came close, with one point apiece.
To answer our question as to whether Braveheart was in fact responsible we must look at the average scores before and after the films release. Before release the average score was 6.87/10, afterwards that score dropped by just over 25% to 4.52/10. What this would immediately suggest is that following the release of Braveheart there almost certainly was a significant decrease in the accuracy of History films and it certainly hints that Braveheart may have had some part to play in this decrease.
Breaking this down further so that the films are arranged in six smaller groups of ten (based on chronological release) we get a similar pattern emerging. The first group comes off strongly with a score of 6.3 and the average amongst the second group then rose to 7.26 before the third drops to just below the level of the first group with 6.25. This is where we arrive at Braveheart and here we see the average come crashing down very suddenly to 4.85 and then dropping again to 4.05. It then rises slightly to 5.1 for the final group. What this shows is a definitive and sudden decrease in the average accuracy at the time of Braveheart’s release and it demonstrates a strong possibility that it is indeed responsible for this decline.
We can see this further if we look at a graph of rolling averages (IE: Whereby each group of ten advances only by a single film each time rather than have them be a different set of ten films.)
The two circles on the graph represent the points where Braveheart enters and leaves the rolling average and, as you can see, it also marks the sharpest decline in the accuracy average. This is by no means indicative that Braveheart was responsible for the decline as already the average was on a downward trend as it entered, but it does further demonstrate the sudden decline in the accuracy average. The fact that the decline averages out and levels after Braveheart’s exit certainly suggests that there was something that caused that swift decline and the most likely candidate is Braveheart itself, even though the graph doesn’t confirm that.
To investigate the impact of Braveheart upon the accuracy scores further, we must now look at all the accuracy scores individually, as demonstrated in the graph below.
As you can see, there is a clear distinction between those films that came before Braveheart (represented by being the only film to score absolute zero) and those that came afterwards. Upon both sides of the divide we can see films that are both accurate and inaccurate, but following Braveheart there is much less consistency between the scores and the differences between them become greater and much less tight. What it shows is that there was definitely a change in the overall accuracy of history films after the release of Braveheart. Whilst it doesn’t state specifically that they were more inaccurate on the whole, it certainly seems to suggest that Braveheart at least made it permissible for history films to be inaccurate after Braveheart. The number of very low scoring films, when compared with earlier, appears to support this.
What is most intriguing about this graph, however, is how it demonstrates the way in which the accuracy scores plummet at the time of Braveheart’s release. We can see that two films before Braveheart is The Madness of King George, one of the films that tied for third place in the overall rankings. Below that is Rob Roy and below that is Braveheart at the nadir of the Graph. What is interesting is the space of time in which the graph goes from one of its highest points to one of its lowest. The Madness of King George was released in December of 1994 in the US and March of 1995 in the UK (Although considering it was a British and about a British King why didn’t we get it first?) Rob Roy was released in April of 1995 and Braveheart was released in May of 1995. That is a three or six month period (take your pick) in which history films go from being largely accurate, though clearly with some failings, to being largely inaccurate.
Whilst we can see afterwards that there were films with a high degree of accuracy, there were many that weren’t. Out of the thirty films released after May of 1995, half of those attained an accuracy score of 4 or below, as opposed to only two films scoring the same before Braveheart. (It was Becket with 3.5 and Jamaica Inn with 4). Interestingly enough, however, only three films scored above seven out of those that followed Braveheart. (Billy Elliot with 9, Nowhere Boy with 7.75, The Kings Speech with 7.5) Three more (Mrs Brown, The Tichborne Claimant and Pillars of the Earth) all scored seven.
Contrast this with before Braveheart where fourteen films scored 7 or above and only two scored 4 or below and these statistics belay a shocking fact. Modern history films, as a rule, tend not to have high levels of accuracy and instead fall into either the very low or average category. We can see that this is the opposite situation to before Braveheart where almost half the films fell into the high accuracy category and it shows that there was almost certainly a polarising shift somewhere between the two. What it demonstrates, clearly, is that Braveheart’s inaccuracy perhaps did indeed make it permissible for history films to be widely inaccurate.
Compiling all this data together, a pattern becomes clear and it is one that appears to confirm the original hypothesis. History films were more accurate, on the whole, before the release of Braveheart. Afterwards there is inevitable proof that the opposite is true. But was Braveheart actually responsible for this change? The sudden shift/decline around the time of its release, as demonstrated by the two graphs above, certainly shows that this is the period in which that shift happens and it is more than likely that the culprit is indeed Braveheart. By looking at the data in various ways we can become even more certain that this is the case. It becomes clear that at no other point has there been any other serious shift in the long-term accuracy scores. It’s clear from the data that the change was both sudden and long-term and Braveheart sits squarely in the middle of that shift, making it more than likely that it was responsible for the aforementioned shift.
And let us not forget that what we see above is only a small sample of sixty films. There are many, many more and when we look at them in terms of a rough accuracy, it would appear that they reinforce the data. After Braveheart, for instance, we have the likes of Gladiator, Alexander, Anonymous, Kingdom of Heaven, The Last Samurai, Pearl Harbour… All of which we can definitively say are widely inaccurate. Before Braveheart we have the likes of Schindler’s List, Agguire, Gettysburg, Shaka Zulu and That Hamilton Woman… All of which could be used to confirm the hypothesis that history films after Braveheart were more inaccurate, as a rule.
And it seems to be true. The data above, although far from presenting a complete picture as it only represents a select sample of all history films, would seem to suggest that not only did they become more inaccurate after Braveheart, but it was Braveheart that was responsible. And even now almost eighteen years later, although it might seem from the above graphs that History films may be becoming more accurate as the average appears once more to be rising, Braveheart’s impact can still be seen in history films. Not that long ago we had Anonymous which, had it appeared on the list, would have produced a very low score (It had an actual Tudor Rose in it for God’s sake… An actual Tudor Rose… IE: Something that has never existed and was only ever a symbol.). It only remains to be seen what will happen in the future and what films are released. There are huge chunks of history that have never been filmed and huge chunks to even happen yet. Rumour has it that a third Elizabeth film with Cate Blanchett is on the way (Subtitled: The Only Way is Essex…) and judging by the last two this one will probably end up being the most inaccurate of them all. But then again they could go in the opposite direction. We don’t know.
What is clear is that Braveheart’s impact was hard, long-lasting and can still be felt today. It made it permissible for history films to throw away established fact and include things like Indian Ninja women and people who weren’t born for another hundred years or even long dead by the time the film happened. The standard response to this is usually ‘it’s just a film,’ but is that really an excuse? A history book is just a book but you don’t see the writer suddenly claiming that Anne Boleyn climbed out of the Tower of London using bed sheets and got halfway down the Thames before being caught do you? No! You don’t see a documentary where Simon Schama suddenly holds up a sword and claim that it was used by Queen Victoria to arse-whoop Jack the Ripper (Not even Time Team do stuff like that and they’ve made some pretty wild claims over the years!).
These film makers also say that they’re ‘making it more interesting.’ Really? History is full of the strange, the weird and the wonderful. You don’t need to make it more interesting. What about the story of Abelard and Heloise? (Abelard ended up getting his knackers chopped off after having a secret marriage.) Or Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a man so determined to leave his mark on the world he overworked himself? Or what of King Eadred, a man who in later life ate his food like a spider? History is full of things like that, everywhere you look. It’s one of the best and strangest academic pursuits you can ever take on… There is no need to make it up, even if it is ‘just a film.’
And Braveheart? Well… Now when people say an inaccurate history film can’t do any harm just point to it and mention the impact it has had on every history film since. That should set them straight.