This afternoon, apart from watching a very enjoyable Game of Thrones episode, I have been attempting to compile a reasonably thorough list of all the historical films. This is a hard thing to do. My list was compiled from two Wikipedia pages; its list of historical drama films and (because this has to be separate for some reason) its list of Asian historical drama films. What I was trying to do, was establish whether there were any periods that cinema actively avoids. I found out a lot more than that.
This graph shows the 600-odd films that I included in my data, stacked cumulatively so that you can get a general impression of when these films are set. Get your head round that while I delve into the boring stuff. If boring stuff isn’t your thing, feel free to skip right to ‘Dear film industry’.
I feel slightly obliged to go into this for anyone who might want to use this data for more serious uses. I should say up front that there was a fair bit of fudging. Wikipedia is not the foremost resource for serious number-bashers, even if it is very useful for a mildly-interested blogger. I could find no better resource in the short amount of time I wanted to dedicate to this project.
I copied the data directly from Wikipedia, and edited it so that the dates the films were set in would display as data points. This meant that any film that took place over a number of years had to be cut down to one year. I went for the earliest year, because this is usually the year that gets a subtitle at the start of the film. I also used negative figures to indicate dates BCE.
I did the same thing for the dates the films were produced in, and tinkered with the titles a wee bit. There are still a lot of inconsistencies in there, but for my purposes it works. I then formatted the two numerical columns with colour scales so that a casual observer could draw some easy conclusions.
Dear film industry
One of the immediate conclusions I drew was that when historical films started popping up in about 1903, you weren’t making many films about the Watergate scandal. This is perhaps obvious; the film industry has been trying to predict the future almost since it’s foundation, but it hasn’t nailed it just yet. I didn’t want this to interfere with my conclusions too much, so I decided to make 1903 the cut-off date for ‘history’. Sorry late-modern fans.
Trying to find out whether there was a ‘dark ages’ of film kind-of reminded me of the following scene from The Invention of Lying. Essentially, Ricky Gervais’s character exists in a world where people can’t lie, and no-one has an imagination. He works at Lecture Films, which produces films about historical periods, read from a manuscript by a lecturer. Gervais has been covering a ‘boring’ century, so his scripts suck.
The reality of the situation is very different. Film makers aren’t historians, so they don’t know about the cool stuff that is going on in each century. More often than not, they are remaking films that they already have the rights to, or are covering stories that have been famous from antiquity, possibly just from a different angle.
On the curve of my cumulative graph, there is a clear decrease in the number of films from about the turn of BCE-CE. It increases from about 600-1300CE, and again from 1700 onwards. Draw your own conclusions, but to me, this suggests that historical films tend to follow the source material. This may or may not be a bad thing. On the one hand, film makers are sticking to what is attested, and relying on primary source material. On the other, it means that a great story-telling medium such as film – which can be used to invent stories which fit into what we know about an era – is neglecting history. Please let me know what you think.
If you are interested in having a look at my data for yourself, please check out my Dark Ages of Film spreadsheet.
Edit 12/06/2014 Randall Munroe’s ‘What If’ blog has answered the amusing question of whether any wars were shorter than the combined film filmography about them. It is worth checking out.