The King – does it matter if it isn’t historically accurate?

A Netflix movie about Henry V stands accused of Francophobia.

Maren Thom

Topics Culture

Every time a historical movie comes out, there is always one wise guy who complains that it lacks historical accuracy. The latest case of this phenomenon happened recently when the director of the Agincourt battlefield museum, Christophe Gilliot, complained about the new Netflix movie, The King.

The film itself is a Shakespeare-lite adaptation of Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 and Henry V. Up-and-coming heartthrob Timothée Chalamet plays Henry V as a sexy twink, strutting around Agincourt, defeating the French with an emo haircut. The film wallows in hammy accents and faux-historical language. Fairly unsurprisingly, Gilliot was offended by the film’s anti-French sentiment, its factual inaccuracies, and for casting ex-Twilight-vampire Robert Pattinson as Henry V’s antagonist Louis de Guyenne. ‘I’m outraged’, opined Gilliot. ‘The image of the French is really sullied.’

So does Gilliot have a point? Do historical films have a responsibility to history and the people of the past? Well, yes and no. Their responsibility to history is purely at a technical storytelling level.

Historical films have the inherent problem of having to show us a believable past while categorically not being able to. As LP Hartley famously wrote, ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’. The sentiment perfectly describes the impossibility of us visiting the past, in any sense, and experiencing it in the same way as the people of the time. It is something we can have no subjective access to.

Yet this effect of retrospective subjectivity is exactly what realist TV and movie adaptations have to rely on and make us believe. For the fiction to work, we have to feel subjectively present in the past. The costume dramas and war films, the corsets and carriages, the period music, the ashy filters used on the camera lens – if things look and sound old, they must be old. This is how films try to trick us. But the trick only works with our permission, consciously given or otherwise.

When it comes to the favoured film form of Anglo-American cinema – realist drama – for it to work, we as an audience need to buy into the story that is being told. We need to suspend our disbelief enough to feel that we are not watching mere actors on an illuminated screen. The more the story corresponds with how we imagine the past, the more easily we can enjoy the story. Anachronisms, like a car in chariot race, stop us buying into the story’s claim to truth. Therefore, the more you know about a subject – such as the battle of Agincourt – the more potential for distracting details, and the more difficult it becomes to enjoy a historical film.

This is where it becomes necessary for dramatists to distort the truth to tell the ‘truth’. For us to access the past through storytelling, drama has to manipulate and falsify history, in order for us to be able to understand the foreign language of the past and accept it as truthful.

The TV show Deadwood is a very literal example of this. The show wanted to portray the historical accuracy of foul language. People in the Wild West swore like troopers. However, Wild West swearing was mostly blasphemous in nature. Today, blasphemy is not nearly as shocking. It is practically toothless. So how to get across how shocking blasphemy would have been at the time? The makers of Deadwood replaced the blasphemous cursing and foul language with modern insults, calculated to offend contemporary sensibilities. In this way, historical dramas always document the sensibilities of the time they are made in, rather than the time they depict. The much talked about notion of ‘making things relevant’ is in this sense a necessity for historical drama to work.

Usually, the contract between storyteller and story-viewer is not a problem. Both sides know they have to compromise factual truth to produce ‘story truth’. As long as both sides agree what the rules of this story are – what is relevant – there is no stopping the enjoyment.

What historical drama has no responsibility to is history itself, primarily for the fundamental reason that it cannot have. The past is past. Every reenactment of the past is present, relative to us now – thus robbing it of its essence, its historical context, in the process of dramatisation.

There is no question that history makes for good storytelling, as it is full of dramatic narratives. But that does not mean that films make good history. Rather, it is the films themselves that become historical artefacts of their time.

Neither has historical drama any responsibility to historical figures, nor for the sensibilities of the people who knew them. They are mere cyphers to tell a story. When watching the film Churchill, you will learn more about our collective imagining of Churchill than about Churchill himself.

Of course, the main argument for a responsibility to history is the question of how and how much dramatic fictions of history shape our understanding of actual history. Factually anachronistic images, it is posited, will give us a wrong understanding of what actually happened. Think of the dangers: what if people started to believe there was no Holocaust because it can be shown this way in movies?

The idea that people’s understanding of history is largely shaped by movies, or culture in general, is a main plank in postwar cultural theory, which condescended to ‘the masses’, seeing them as easily manipulated by the bright lights of cinematic spectacle. What these theories deny is the audience’s active participation in storytelling as thinking subjects, able to decide for themselves if something is relevant or not. The condescension all too easily leads to the arguments for top-down intervention into the artistic process and, ultimately, censorship.

It is true that we often refer to the visual language of reenactments to access the past, to make it relevant to us. But that does not mean that we understand them as factual truth. It is fictional truth that we willingly submit to. As soon as this starts to ring untrue, it becomes irrelevant and we let it go. We don’t buy it. The film’s truth claim seems ridiculous to us. What does that mean for The King? We are responsible for our own enjoyment and if, like Gilliot or myself, you can’t suspend your disbelief – just let it go.

Maren Thom is a writer based in London.

Watch the trailer for The King:

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Topics Culture


Alex Cameron

20th November 2019 at 7:36 pm

‘The idea that people’s understanding of history is largely shaped by movies, or culture in general, is a main plank in postwar cultural theory, which condescended to ‘the masses’, seeing them as easily manipulated by the bright lights of cinematic spectacle. What these theories deny is the audience’s active participation in storytelling as thinking subjects’ – Great piece of criticism.

Eric Praline

20th November 2019 at 2:46 pm

Not very convincing. It’s not condescending to imagine that some people’s sole impression or knowledge of Churchill will have come from watching that film, in which case by all accounts it would be rather far from the truth, and how on earth are they supposed to gauge if something doesn’t ring true?

Gareth Edward KING

20th November 2019 at 2:30 pm

Excellent stuff Marem Thom. You should teach Media Studies.
Why are the Tudors so loved apparently by the English? All that sex and tomfoolery! Sex in terms of historical accuracy would have been a gruesome affair in the 16th Century; basic sanitation would have been conspicuous by its absence not to mention the impossibilty of curing even minor STDs.
For sure, David Starkey might have a different take on this particular dynasty.
Gilliot has completely missed the point confusing ‘History’ with cinema. He’s also forgotten about the previous film that Chalamet was in: ‘Call me by Your Name’, obviously ‘King’ is really about this lead actor and his acting skills, also about the fact that he’s baby-faced, horny and sexually ambiguous.

Jim Lawrie

20th November 2019 at 12:30 pm

Francophobia is a TV and film genre that has raked in millions over here because we like it.

When the French objected to the name of Waterloo station as the arrival point for The Eurostar, they unwittingly introduced us to hitherto unknown hoots of pleasure by revealing just how much it annoyed them.
Two fingers to the lot of them.

They are annoyed about the idea of being done over in battle by a buffty, but are just too PC chicken livered to say so.

We should invade them again some time soon, and watch them go squealing to the real Germans.

Dominic Straiton

20th November 2019 at 12:39 pm

Gare Austerlitz didnt bother them though.

Jim Lawrie

20th November 2019 at 2:38 pm

I had to look ha tup.
Like a lot of cowards, they don’t mind dishing it out.

If the Waterloo station incident happened now, Corbyn would cave in.

Michael Lynch

20th November 2019 at 2:09 pm

The French are a curious race. They seem to love the Germans and hate the Brits. It’s like they can’t see past their loathing over Agincourt or something. They even still blame us for failing to stop the Nazi invasion. Even though they had 5 Million troops to our 500,000! Whilst they also like to bang on about Nazis resistance they go moot at the mention of the Vichy government. They hate having to face up to the fact that Marxist elements in the government had already done deals with Hitler before a single German tank rolled through the Ardenne, hence the lack of leadership with their own defense. They also hate having to admit that the Vichy Gendarmes were more efficient at rounding up Jews than the SS were. Yes, they certainly are curious people.

Linda Payne

20th November 2019 at 12:19 pm

I think if the historical aspect is entirely bent then people won’t want to watch it anyway, writers have artistic licence using facts as foundation for their story; I’ve been watching the crown, I hardly beleive that Jackie Kennedy really admitted to taking hard drugs to the Queen over high tea but most of the political facts are there, the acting is good and the production brilliant

Michael Lynch

20th November 2019 at 11:37 am

Was Gilliot there? Was Shakespeare there? What a load of old nonsense. All drama, all art in fact, is reduction of the truth. Besides, Hollywood is the biggest culprit of twisting historical fact to suit interest. Just look at the story of Captain Bligh and the Mutiny on the Bounty. I also remember watching the Churchill film and nearly left the cinema over that embarrassing scene on the tube train. Especially the moment when Churchill got up to leave to rapturous applause from the passengers. There was an Indian woman, in full Sari dress, looking on admiringly. Given that Churchill was rabid about the question of Indian independence it was just too much to take. I note it was dropped from the DVD version!

Dominic Straiton

20th November 2019 at 11:53 am

The BBC are becoming past masters at re writing history to suit a woke agenda. World on fire an embarrassing example.

Michael Lynch

20th November 2019 at 1:59 pm

They’ve been at that since the beginning. As Orwell once pointed out, they left out mention of Trotsky in a 25th Anniversary radio broadcast just to please Stalin at the time. Orwell said it would be like leaving out Nelson from anything done about Trafalgar! It was almost as if they thought the Russians would stop fighting the Nazis if they’d heard it on the radio! Twisting the truth is what middle classes do best. They just can’t help meddling and making things worse.

Andy Bolstridge

22nd November 2019 at 2:41 pm

Godo job we have “Churchill: The Hollywood Years” to put the record straight. What did happen to all those Cockney Irish living in London?

but TV has always been happy to adapt history if it suits them – Eleanor “the fair” played by a black actress, Roman legionaires living in Britain were all black apparently, etc.

But then, this is based on Shakespeare and he took liberties anyway – Richard III was a hunchback horror, apparently.

Neil John

20th November 2019 at 11:27 am

There’s a battlefield museum? I wonder why? One of my highly educated French PhD students asked about my “Remember Agincourt” tee shirt, she’d never been taught about Agincourt and what happened there, so I ‘educated’ her on the history and the French defeat. Her response, “oh we lost, that’s why they don’t teach it in French history at school”, seems the French are kept deliberately ignorant of their history, just like us in the UK only the good bits that fit the narrative are allowed, try asking UK students about the English Civil War and you’ll mostly get blank looks…

Dominic Straiton

20th November 2019 at 4:11 pm

To be fair no one in England has hears of the battle of Castillion. The never ending thousand year war will continue well after we are all dust. Its not arrows or guns today. The 5th republic ensures Macron is Louis. Freedom and the V sign are alive and well

Dominic Straiton

20th November 2019 at 8:59 am

Films shouldnt be taken as fact, even when the scotch nats insist it is.

Ven Oods

20th November 2019 at 8:14 am

The outrage at ‘Francophobia’ seems strange. Would Gilliot argue for a more nuanced portrayal of Hitler?
England invaded France, and France reciprocated. Shit happens, as they may have said in ‘Deadwood’.
I’ve always wondered about the Bayeux tapestry, since it was woven at the behest of the victors. No possible bias there?

Jim Lawrie

20th November 2019 at 12:19 pm

Imagine a film about Hitler that depicts The French as, in his view, wayward Germans, crying out for a corrective invasion.

brent mckeon

20th November 2019 at 7:09 am

Historical movies/Hollywood are never accurate and most always have a political motive. Remember a few years back viewing via the Irish society a first showing of Michael, a story about Michael Collins. A prof of history gave a brief introduction and started with: I give this film 8 out of 10 for entertainment, at best 3 for political expediency and less than 2 for historical accuracy. We all loved the movie (8 for entertainment) and no one was offended by the movies historical rubbish. Tell Gilliot to get a life, a real life not one woven in with social media.

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