Scotland the Bravehearted – historical accuracy in fiction

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It’s been nearly 20 years, but I think I might finally be ready to forgive Braveheart. As a history graduate who specialised in that era, this is a big step for me. I used to rant at great length about the dreadful historical errors that riddle that film. But recently I’ve been doing some freelance work writing historical narratives, and it’s made me re-evaluate my own perspective on this.

Why all the anger?

I used to hate Braveheart with a fiery passion. The Battle of Stirling Bridge was missing the vital bridge. Mel Gibson impregnates a seven year old girl who’s living in another country. The kilts. And so on and so on. When Lee and Herring did their ‘freedom’ sketch, they could have been speaking for me.

 

Why should I let go?

But writing about the Middle Ages again, trying to create an exciting non-fiction narrative from the limited events of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, has forced me to change my tune. It’s not that I’ve accepted inaccuracy – I am sticking to the truth as we know it – but turning that truth into a story involves making subjective choices about emphasis and interpretation. Even as a trained historian writing about real history, I’m projecting my own perspective, my own agenda, onto the past.

Was Robert the Bruce an inspired national hero or a calculating opportunist? Was Julius Caesar a power-grabbing ego-maniac or a realist who saw that the republic couldn’t govern an empire? The minute we start exploring questions like these, we’re no longer in factual territory. But we can’t turn history into stories without making a decision on which way to show it.

My friend Clare2043 actually called me on this six months ago. She’s studied historical film from a film-making perspective, so views it rather differently from me. As she pointed out, historical films are something we create, rather than flashes of reality. They represent us interacting with the past, using it to explore modern concerns – in Braveheart, questions of freedom, oppression and national consciousness. The aim isn’t to present factual truth, it’s to create a great film that encourages us to take an interest in the past. If that leads us to explore the truth afterwards, then great. While Braveheart led to a massive worldwide delusion on the subject of William Wallace, by fostering interest in him it also vastly increased the number of people who were well informed about the era.

Why does it still matter?

This isn’t to say that this doesn’t matter. Marina Oliver, in Writing Historical Fiction, points out that an inaccuracy can destroy the credibility of your story for a well informed reader. And those well informed readers, the ones who know history, are the ones most likely to pick up a work of historical fiction or historically set fantasy. They’re also the best advocates, enthusiastic about material that deals with their favourite subject, connected to others who will be interested. You want them on board.

And using real history can strengthen your fiction. Look at some of the tips everwalker picked up in a recent workshop with Tim Powers. That man knows how to use history in fantasy.

Drawing the line

I still think that Braveheart went far further than it needed to in messing with reality. The truth of that period was far more exciting, there was no need to piss Hollywood nonsense all over it. But at least it was an enjoyable film, so while I’ll still criticise it, I no longer hate it. The Patriot, on the other hand? Urgh.

So if you’re writing or reading fiction set in the past, think about where the inaccuracies go. What do they contribute to the story? And in factual terms, do they really matter?