Can history have suspense if we know how it ends?

Theory: It is impossible to make a ‘big history’ film work, because everyone knows how it’s going to end.

Evidence: From my ‘dark ages of film‘ spreadsheet, here are some examples of films where you probably already know the basic plot, or at least a major event:

  • Gandhi
  • The Charge of the Light Brigade
  • The Young Victoria
  • The Alamo
  • Marie Antoinette
  • Elizabeth: The Golden Age
  • The Other Boleyn Girl
  • Braveheart
  • The Passion of the Christ
  • Alexander
  • Troy

We know that India eventually gains its independence; we know that the Light Brigade is decimated, we know that Victoria shacks up with Albert and they have lots of sex. We know that Davy Crockett and the Texans are wiped out, but that Texas resists Mexican occupation. We know that Marie Antoinette gets the chop (but she doesn’t say ‘let them eat cake’, and neither does anyone else). We know that the Spanish Armada is defeated and Elizabeth dies single. We know that the ‘other Boleyn girl’ doesn’t end up with Henry. We know that William Wallace dies, but that Scotland gets independence (in its defence, I didn’t know this before, but I was only seven when it came out). Jesus dies at the end. Alexander conquers loads and then dies. Paris and Helen briefly shack up before Troy is crushed.

This blog is partly inspired by the show ‘Conversations With Myself About Movies’. In particular, the episode about Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’, because most of the events of the film are common knowledge. We all know how the story of Abraham Lincoln ends.

Maybe I’m being too critical here. I mean, I doubt I’d have the same problem if I was reading a book. Almost all of historical films are adapted from one or more books. This is just another means of telling a story, right? Well… no. Films have set themselves up as more than that. They are entertainment; excitement even. The stories are supposed to be gripping. If you know how the story is going to end, then all you are wondering is, how are they going to show it?

With non-history films, let’s just pick an example; the Matrix. The first time you watched that film, you really didn’t know how it was going to end. Micro-histories like Aguirre, the Wrath of God are also fine. You don’t necessarily know the story, so you can engage with it on a deeper level.

And to that, I have two words; ‘Inglorious Basterds’.

Yeah, you didn’t expect Tarantino to be the saviour of historical movies, did you? If you haven’t watched it, the premise is this; Brad Pitt and a squad of Jews break into Nazi-occupied France and go on a rampage, before using a film premier to try and kill Hitler. Meanwhile a French Jew and her black projectionist boyfriend also come up with another plan…

So this starts off looking like a micro-history. I know Hitler didn’t die in a cinema, so I’m not thinking about the climax. When Pitt and his guys are trying to bluff their way round, pretending to be Italians, I am genuinely concerned for them. And then they go and kill Hitler. Suddenly I can’t approach historical films with such confidence any more. I can’t be certain that they will end the way I think. At any moment, someone could machine-gun a Nazi before his true downfall has come.

What do you think? Do you enjoy historical films on the same level as others? Have a read of my anachronism post, and see whether it gets you worked up.

6 thoughts on “Can history have suspense if we know how it ends?

  1. ‘Inglorious Basterds’ is a great example of an alternate history. I don’t think many of us really expected that ending. A good case of creative historical fiction..😉

    I think it’s still entirely possible to enjoy a “big history” film even if we already know roughly how things will turn out. It all boils down to how the writers and directors handle the material and what they choose to focus on. “Titanic”, while not a true history film, captured audiences with the fictional love story set aboard the ship. We all knew the ship would hit an iceberg, break up, and lead to the deaths of most of its passengers but it’s the love story and setting that made it a blockbuster.

    1. Hi Kelly, thanks for your comments. I half take your point about Titanic (which is one of many new stories that are set against a historic backdrop). However, I still think that, from the first reveal of the ship, you are waiting to see how it sinks.
      You’re absolutely right that it is the modern storyline that is the blockbuster, but without that backdrop, it would be a lot less interesting. Setting a film aboard the Titanic tells you what the obstacle in the story-arc will be, and there is an expectation, rather than a surprise.

  2. I think the magic of historical films is seeing the world you imagine as you read history recreated in gorgeous three-dimensional living color. For me, I’m thrilled to see historical events brought to life on film. Titanic is an interesting example because James Cameron created suspense by putting a fictional love story in the middle a historical event. The suspense doesn’t come from the history, but the fictional love story.
    One thing that creates suspense is when you care about the main characters.(e.g,, character driven plot). For recreated history with no non-historical story lines, it is more suspenseful knowing that Caesar will be stabbed when you care about Caesar and want him to stay on screen for longer.
    I guess the thing with George RR Martin is that mixing and matching history lets him surprise people.

    1. Hi Jamie, sorry for not replying sooner! I think I get the point that you and Kelly are making about Titanic. In that film, I think they were pretty clear in the opening scenes that the ship would be going down. They even got the geeky reconstruction bits out of the way fairly early on, because the focus wasn’t on the ship going down, it was on what happens to those two individuals-

      ROSE, LET JACK ON THE RAFT!!!! There’s enough space for two of you goddammit!! It will still float!

      Ahem.

      I think there are some truly great films that can take real-world events and give them a genuine sense of pathos. They build up the humanity of their characters, and make them incredibly relatable. For example, I think HBO’s Rome did a great job of portraying Anthony and Cleopatra, especially considering how many generations have modified their story. I guess in those circumstances, knowing how that particular story was going to end didn’t sully my enjoyment of that storyline. So maybe it is just a question of writing, like the video says.

  3. I’d watch a movie about the Hellraisers anyday.
    Some people are just… unique enough that they’d be a blast onscreen.

    Who wouldn’t want to see Tesla cowering from a woman’s undergarments?

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