One of the most overused publicity ploys is bestowing an award. Preferably to someone famous. Preferably to someone famous who will show up and accept it. Most any award will do, better if it has the word 'best' in it.
The latest entity to join this congratulatory bandwagon is The History Channel. It has decided to hand out an award for the best film representing a significant historical period. Among this year's nominees is the revolutionary war epic The Patriot.
Hmm ... seems to me I remember quite an outcry from historians about some glaring inaccuracies in that Revolutionary War drama. Foremost was a horrifying depiction of British soldiers burning down a church with Americans locked inside. Very disturbing. Also very untrue.
There is a lot of debate about what obligations a filmmaker has to the truth in depicting historic events. Artistic license, of course, is a leniency granted to those attempting to entertain, but it is accompanied with the in-escapable burden of responsibility to the facts. I would think The History Channel would hold historical dramas up to a bright light of inspection when determining their worth as authentic and accurate insights into the past.
But The History Channel, in creating this silly and superfluous award, is concerned with publicity, not posterity. The publicity it generates, though, might not be worth the damage to its credibility if the movies it honors distort our perceptions of history.
It is, I'll admit, difficult to make an entirely factual movie about real events. The truth, annoying as it is, can get in the way of a good yarn. The director on whose movie I'm currently working, a World War II drama, is obsessed with accuracy. He has hired three military and technical advisers. (One of them, being a bit long in the tooth, falls asleep on occasion, but he's always woken up for the important stuff. Like lunch.)
The truth is not just good for moviemaking, it's good protection against negative publicity. Nothing hurts a historical drama more than having critics lash out at a film's inaccuracies. Such backlash KO'd Hurricane, Denzel Washington's movie about boxer 'Hurricane' Carter. It also inflicted some damage on Thirteen Days (another History Channel nominee), which was a riveting movie, and, for the most part, accurate. But when you're documenting one of the most significant and terrifying episodes in our nation's history, the experts and critics will take you to task if you drop the ball on any points of fact.
The truth not only sets you free; it can keep you free - from bad word-of-mouth.
Lawrence Mitchell Garrison is an LA-based freelance publicist and writer.