Which History Documentaries are Accurate?
July 17, 2012 11:13 AM   Subscribe

Please recommend good documentaries and TV programs about history that are accurate.

There are a lot of videos online and at my library about history, but I have no idea how accurate they are.

I'd appreciate any recommendations for accurate historical documentaries. I'm interested in all time periods and all kinds of places; I just don't want to waste my time on something that's full of bunk.

I'm inclined to think that anything made by the BBC is likely to be highly accurate, while things aired on the History channel are less likely to be well-supported. Any guidelines along those lines would be great.

I'm not really looking for historical fiction, unless it offers an amazingly accurate depiction of the time that I can't get elsewhere.

Bonus question: Is there a good review site that rates documentaries based on accuracy?

posted by kristi to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Ken Burns' The War (about WWII) and The Civil War are both great.
posted by something something at 11:18 AM on July 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Simon Schama's History of Britain and Power of Art series are fantastic.

Anything Ken Burns. Any of the PBS "American Experience" documentaries. I also enjoyed the Ric Burns (Ken's brother) series on the history of New York City.

Basically, BBC and PBS = good.

(FWIW, apparently the Simon Schama history of Britain series aired in the US on the History Channel. That said, I think that was back in the day before the History Channel became the "aliens are totally real and built the pyramids" channel.)
posted by Sara C. at 11:24 AM on July 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

The Orphan Trains
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:26 AM on July 17, 2012

PBS affiliate WGBH's The Western Tradition - I've since had a lot of the information I took from it confirmed by other, scholarly / reliable sources. Seconding American Experience.
posted by ryanshepard at 11:27 AM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Re how to tell what is respected and what is BS?

Look at who the "experts" are. For example Ken Burns' Civil War talked to the foremost Civil War scholars of the time it was made.

We might know more now due to archaeology or new resources coming to light, or the nuances of the scholarly zeitgeist might have changed in the twenty years since the series was made. But by and large the foundations are there; these are legit historians who are truly considered experts on the Civil War.

On the other hand, take your average History Channel "documentary" on Nostradamus. They're unlikely to interview the world's foremost historian of the occult in 16th century France. They're more likely to interview astrologers, End Times prophecy folks, and some guy who wrote a book about how the prophecies of Nostradamus are totally a real thing. If they do consult legit historians, it'll be people who are lesser known, and usually outside of the main subject of the doc. For example they'll spend thirty seconds talking to a Napoleon scholar, who'll confirm some basic facts that the filmmakers will strategically edit to make it seem like "experts" agree that Nostradamus predicted the rise of Napoleon.
posted by Sara C. at 11:35 AM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Its a little dated now, but the book and PBS/BBS Connections and The day the Universe Changed by James Burke are pretty good for a history of technology and getting a feel for how little things can add up to big things and people in the past really were different from us in their worldview and how they solved problems. The don't really cover a specific time period but are great for gaining an historical perspective of our current world. Also Grombach A little history of the world is a really great 'history light' book of western civilization.
posted by bartonlong at 11:39 AM on July 17, 2012

nthing James Burke. But also, America, by Alistair Cooke. I mean, really!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:57 AM on July 17, 2012

The Great War
Triumph of the Nerds
Dogtown & Z-Boys is good, if limited in scope.
posted by rhizome at 12:20 PM on July 17, 2012

James Burke sucks. He makes fake "connections" between events that aren't really connected. I cannot recommend him.

Ken Burns is awesome.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:31 PM on July 17, 2012

Best answer: Oh, the Ken Burns documentary on Prohibition is super interesting.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:24 PM on July 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Michael Wood has a number of fun docos. A bit breathless, but always entertaining.

If you can find them, see also John Romer's works.

Kenneth Clark's Civilization holds up well.

We in America are still waiting on Mary Beard's Meet The Romans, myself with bated breath.
posted by BWA at 2:53 PM on July 17, 2012

Best answer: I'm not a historian, but these seemed reasonably grounded:

Britain BC and Britain AD, both by Francis Pryor.

The History of a Mystery is interesting.

History of Celtic Britain and History of Scotland, both by Neil Oliver (camerawork a bit cheesy at times — my, doesn't he look dramatic walking across the headlands with the breeze blowing his hair).
posted by Lexica at 7:14 PM on July 17, 2012

I would be careful with Michael Wood. He seems to know his Alexander, but in another of his documentaries I spotted several factual errors and an interview with a known liar in his field.
posted by jihaan at 8:11 PM on July 17, 2012

I've thoroughly enjoyed everything I've seen by Adam Curtis, specifically All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace and The Power of Nightmares and I haven't ever heard any critiques re: their accuracy.

related to the discussion is this video I saw today about how Ken Burns where he says that all narrative is a construction. "all story is manipulation" - Ken Burns: On Story.
posted by chriscollins at 10:57 PM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I like the programmes by John Romer I've seen, his series on Byzantium and on the Bible as history. It's very much him setting out his take done in the glory days when they didn't mind just sticking an enthusiast on camera on location, but the more credible for that imo, rather than claiming spurious objectivity where debate might exist.
posted by Abiezer at 12:35 AM on July 18, 2012

Best answer: "Shoah" is an amazing 9 hour documentary by Claude Lanzmann, consisting solely of first hand testimony of the Holocaust. There are loads of documentaries about this subject, but Shoah seems to me to be in a class of its own.

Bettany Hughes' documentaries on the classical world (the Spartans etc) have relatively restrained speculation.
posted by Gomoryhu at 8:50 AM on July 18, 2012

Response by poster: Great, great answers, everyone. Thanks!

In particular, thanks for the John Romer suggestions - I hadn't heard of him before, and his stuff looks great.

Thanks too for the Ken Burns suggestions, even though I didn't mark those Best Answer - I've seen a bunch of them, but I definitely need to see the Prohibition and National Parks ones.

posted by kristi at 10:02 PM on July 19, 2012

I would be careful with Michael Wood. He seems to know his Alexander, but in another of his documentaries I spotted several factual errors and an interview with a known liar in his field.

Cites, please! Genuinely curious. Esp. about the known liar.
posted by BWA at 5:10 PM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

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