Hollywood History

“Hollywood History”
The entertainment industry has grown exponentially in the past century and is in every facet of life now, including historical topics. Many television shows and movies are historically based and try to recreate a historical event or time period for the viewer to emerge in. As a historical scholar, I have begun to question the accuracy of these portrayals. As I’m sure many other historical scholars have discovered, no entertainment based historical movie or show is completely accurate. No matter what, every historical publication will have its imperfections.

The movie, although a multiple prize winning film, is full of historical inaccuracies[1].The main problem that most historians have with the film is that the 54th Massachusetts regiment is portrayed to contain many fugitive slaves that escaped the South and joined the fight to help free other slaves. This was simply the not the case. Every African American soldier of the 54th Massachusetts was actually a freedman. This completely dissolves the theme for the character that Denzel Washington plays. One major thing that the movie does seem to present accurately is the initial distrust of an all-black regiment to the North. Although the North fought to end slavery, many Northerners still considered African Americans inferior and did not trust them to fight the war[2]. In the movie, a reporter asked Col. Shaw (Matthew Broaderick) “Will they fight? A million readers want to know.” Shaw then replied “A million and one.” This is a very accurate symbol of the North’s fear that African Americans were servile and wouldn’t have the courage to fight. Although many of the themes throughout the film seem to follow historical evidence, the directors and writers also added in effects and inaccuracies to draw in the audience and make the story seem more progressive. Further exploration of the movie reveals more minor inaccuracies such as the attack on Ft. Wagner being from the south rather than from the north[3], Col. Robert Gould Shaw was the only real person[4], and the fact that Shaw accepted the command of the 54th as soon as it was offered[5]. Beyond those infractions, many scholars have agreed that the dialect and costumes used in the film are at least mostly accurate.
To read more from the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts regiment, go to http://54th-mass.org/tag/54th-massachusetts/ or you can watch the movie at http://viooz.ac/movies/1571-glory-1989.html.

Hell On Wheels
AMC has now entered its fourth season of the critically claimed TV series “Hell on Wheels” which follows westward expansion with the Union Pacific Railroad following the Civil War. Protagonist Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) is an ex-confederate soldier that is immediately put in charge of a “cut” of African Americans working for the railroad (most are portrayed as ex slaves). The show, like most in our entertainment industry today, lands with a foot in both camps of being accurate or inaccurate. Some prevalent themes, such as a bitterness and willingness to fight of ex-confederates is completely accurate for the time period, but other themes such as Thomas “Doc” Durant (chairman of the railroad) getting along with African Americans simply would not have happened in that time period. The title of the show refers to the name of the traveling town to which all the characters call home. As the railroad moved west, the town would move with it[6]. Even with the completely false plot of vengeance that drives Hell on Wheels, I still believe it can give an educational insight to what life was like in the reconstruction period of the US. Hardships such as cholera, disease, Indian attacks, depression, wildlife, winter, rain storms, and social prejudices are all well-represented. In the latest installments of the show, the thread of carpet-baggers taking advantage of the horrible situation is also introduced.

Why it all matters
Although I personally enjoy both of the historical titles mentioned, I do long for a more accurate display of the Civil War and history in general. As a historian, I often pay more attention to the mistakes and inaccuracies than I do the plot. More importantly, many Hollywood portrayals of history are teaching a false history. Most Americans do not study history on a regular basis, or do their research on a topic before or after watching a movie. I do not think directors and writers should be held responsible or liable for fibbing a few facts to sell to the masses, but rather the viewers should be aware that not every fact in movies and shows are accurate. I would consider this more of a call for society to become more scholarly and do research rather than rely on entertainment for a historical basis of knowledge. On the opposite side, I believe movies and shows like these can give viewers an idea of what it physically looked like to live in or after the civil war and some problems that one might encounter.

1. Glory won at least 14 awards and was nominated for many more.
IMDB. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097441/awards
2. Hitorical Society of Massachusetts, “54th Regiment!” masshist.org. http://www.masshist.org/online/54thregiment/essay.php?entry_id=528. September 17, 2014.
3. Pohanka, Brian C. Civil War Trust, “Fort Wagner and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.” civilwar.org. America’s Civil War Magazine. http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/batterywagner/battery-wagner-history-articles/fortwagnerpohanka.html September 17, 2014.
4. Hickman, Kennedy. “Civil War: Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.” militaryhistory.about.com. http://militaryhistory.about.com/od/1800sarmybiographies/p/rgshaw.htm. September 17, 2014.
5. Civil war Trust, “Robert Gould Shaw.” civilwar.org. http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/biographies/robert-gould-shaw.html. September 17, 2014
6. Randall, J.G. and David Herbert Daniel. The Civil War and Reconstruction, “The Post Civil War South.” http://www.civilwarhome.com/postwarsouth.html. September 18, 2014
7. American Experience: 25 Years, “Hell on Wheels.” pbs.org. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/tcrr-hell/. September 18, 2014


12 thoughts on “Hollywood History

  1. jacobaloweryuca says:

    Disney has been one of the worst conveyors of misguided and fallacious history. While I agree that it is up to the public to research for themselves the truths and lies, I would say that the ones involved in the writing process for these movies and shows should take responsibility for the inaccuracies. The truth might often not be as romantic or exciting to the masses, but I hate that appealing to particular demographics for the sake of selling seats has always been and will remain more important that relaying honest depictions of historical events. In my American History through Film class last year, we discussed how it can be very dangerous to perpetuate these inaccuracies such as in Pocahontas. That film in some way, shape or form, has influenced and often provided the basis for young people’s perceptions of Native Americans and the early days of colonization. Also, a film such as a Aladdin conveys the mystical, romanticized portrayal of the Middle East as in 1001 Arabian Nights, which was a racist and misunderstood interpretation of the Middle East. I definitely agree that it is up to the public to take it upon themselves to understand the accuracies and inaccuracies and the reasons and implications behind the truths and fallacies. Great post!


  2. gkamarunas1 says:

    I love Hell on Wheels. I do agree about the inaccuracies. After watching up to season three I find myself thinking this is not realistic. Such as Durrant attitudes towards blacks. I especially find Elliams and Bohannons relationship very unrealistic. Besides this, I find that the more realistic portrayals of historical events such as these mentioned do a better job than Disney as +jacobaloweryuca said. Try Pocahontas. Very frustrating even if it is a children’s film.


  3. moonsierra says:

    I am intrigued by your blog post. I am a movie and television fan myself, and I am always a bit worried when a new adaptation of a war or some momentous event in history comes out. As a history major, I always find myself spending the majority of historical movies or television shows pointing out the inaccuracies to the people around me. I completely agree that the presentation of false history can be dangerous. For example, you mention the film Glory, which presents the African-American soldiers as runaway slaves instead of what they actually were, which was freedmen. This representation can add to the idea that many have about race relations between northerners and African Americans, which is that all northerners were abolitionists. Also, you mentioned that only one person in the movie was a real person, and that character was the white Colonel. For the majority of Americans to better understand the Civil War and the African Americans who fought in it, I think Hollywood needs to spend more time researching and finding real people upon which to base their movies.


    • K. Epps says:

      One of my personal frustrations with Glory (which I do believe is a solid film, though the bar is pretty low) is that it is ostensibly a film about black soldiers, but the central character is the white commander. That makes sense on one level (since he is an actual historical figure), but it still seems a little backwards to me, and it isn’t too surprising given that Hollywood doesn’t have a great track record in presenting well-rounded, believable black characters even in films about the African American community.


  4. jmccloud1993 says:

    Throughout high school and college, my teachers have always warned us that watching a movie instead of reading the book is not the best idea because of the information presented in this post. Movies are not always factual. The creator of the movie is trying to sell tickets, not make sure the storyline is historically accurate. For historians, this is a sensitive topic because we want to see what really happened. One thing I found interesting about the post was the fact that the slaves portrayed during Glory were freedmen. I assumed they were escaped slaves from the South. In the end, do you think the significance of the movie would have decreased that much if they were portrayed as free slaves fighting for the North? If so, by how much? Either way, they were heroes for what they did but some people might not find it as inspiring. The same thing applies for Hell on Wheels. Do you think the inaccuracies completely change the significance of the show? Please let me know. Great post, Jarod.


    • K. Epps says:

      Some all-black regiments were composed of mostly slaves, including units that I research (the 1st Kansas Colored, 2nd Kansas Colored, and a collection of Missouri regiments), but unfortunately there are no movies about these men.


  5. mpthomas10 says:

    It has been several years since I’ve seen the movie Glory, but I am a fan of Hell on Wheels. I will agree that there tends to be a number of inaccuracies with any historical piece presented for entertainment purposes rather than teaching purposes. However, with examples such as these, it is important to look at the factual parts as well. Many times when hit movies or shows like these come along it will spark interest in viewers to do their own research on the subject. These shows and movies may not be portraying the full truth, but they do cause many viewers to attempt to obtain the truth and be more informed about a historical subject.


  6. chris72493 says:

    Very interesting post. The thing you have to realize is, these movies can’t stay completely true to the source material, they have to take some creative licence. Fact is, not every single part of the war would make for an entertaining movie. I haven’t seen Hell on Wheels, but I may have seen part of Glory. I personally am a fan of the movie Gods and Generals, which has a bad reputation for being historically inaccurate, and some call it a Confederate Propaganda film. The fact remains however that it is very enjoyable. While we may get annoyed with historical inaccuracy in Hollywood, we have to look at these movies for what they are: movies. Meant to entertain, not inform.


  7. ngarrison123 says:

    I was a huge fan of Hell on Wheels when it first came out, but due to the lack in accuracy, I kind of started to stop watching it little by little. The acting was great and I was familiar with several of the actors, and I love to hate some of the characters, but I too wish that there was a more realistic version of a Civil War epic on television. Another one that comes to mind that occured during that time period is the Hatfields and the McCoys but again it wasn’t entirely accurate either. Mark Twain referenced the affair in Huckleberry Finn as an illusion to the Civil War and Reconstruction, but the event was a well known ordeal at the time of war.


  8. jarredhf says:

    Sadly, films that are mostly faithful to the historical events they portray are hard to come by. As a history lover it saddens me, but pure history doesn’t make as much money as the Hollywood versions of historical topics. Tweaking is done to maximize the potential audience that will enjoy the film. But in all reality it is too difficult to do justice to the source material in these films, or even lengthy documentaries. So much is left out for the sake of a ensuring a compatible time bloc for television, or a shorter (and cheaper) movie in terms of cinema. Some of the best Civil War depictions to this day are Gods and Generals, and its accompanying film Gettysburg. But because of their poor performance in theaters, a planned third movie titled Last Full Measure, was never completed.


  9. Terra Lain Votaw says:

    The film industry does use their creative licensing to its full advantage, but I wouldn’t completely discredit them as a historical source. Movies are what gets people who aren’t big history lovers into the same topics that we pour our lives into. As long as, especially with children’s movies, you go in with the idea that, “Okay, this is an interesting adaptation of the time period, but it isn’t going to be 100% accurate. If I actually find it interesting, I can research the topic on my own and learn more.” That’s how people learn what they like!


  10. I agree with you in that Hollywood tends to be inaccurate with its historical-based productions. I also agree that the entertainment industry should make accuracy its highest priority when making films about historical events such as the Civil War, World War II, etc. Jarredhf is correct in that an increase in historical accuracy leads to a box office bust and a historical movie with minimal accuracy lands at the top of the box office.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s