The Dark Ages of Film

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.

Dark Ages of Film

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.

7 thoughts on “The Dark Ages of Film

  1. This is very interesting – if I understand the chart correctly, most of the films are set in periods closest to our own time? E.g., the Victorians, World War II? BTW,. I wrote an article about crowdsourcing and Veronica Mars for Nerdalicious a while back. When I was doing the research one of the things I learned was that few historical films are being made anymore. Stephen Spielberg was saying that he was barely able to get Lincoln made and he owns half a movie studio! It was a hair’s breadth from being an HBO movie.I found this incredibly interesting actually — I believe that most of the good writing is now on television and not in the movies.

    1. There are a couple of really important points to address here. Firstly, yes, you are correct; there are a lot more films set closer to our own period. This makes sense, since it seems that filmmakers tend to stick to the source material. Literacy has massively increased since the industrial revolution, so it should follow that there is more source material for them to use. My cut-off point was 1903, but I think the number of films set after this date was significantly greater.

      Secondly, it’s interesting you should mention Lincoln, because just the other day I was watching the commentary for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It seems like they had a lot of interest in their film, and Fox only got it because they put a lot of effort into their bid. And yet, Lincoln was the film that was nominated for 12 Academy Awards. My feeling here is that Hollywood is increasingly hedging on bankable films. Straight biopics might be going out of fashion, but films with a historical setting are still going strong.

      1. Yes, you’re right about them hedging their bets. I don’t know if it has gotten worse with the whole emphasis on fiduciary value for publicly traded companies. I think, for movies, it is more about the demographic than the time period. Meaning studios will make historic pics if they have qualities that appeal to their target demographic: male, 14(?)-24 since they’re the most reliable group of movie goers (much to my surprise!). Pompei is an action film starring an actor loved by nerd culture. Also, it has major special affects. Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter might be similar maybe – vampires used to be big with teens (and well everyone). Here’s a link to the article I wrote for Nerdalicious: About halfway down I talk about the ROI on horror movies – it is something like 2600%. It is really amazing. I had no idea. 🙂

  2. 2600%? That’s pretty damn impressive! Especially considering some of the films I’ve seen struggle to break even.

    I’ve also just remembered that young Abe’s dad is played by the guy that does Benjen Stark. At some point I may write something about actors who pop up a lot in period films.

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