What are the most historically accurate period movies/series?
June 13, 2014 2:06 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for examples of period movies/series - particularly of ancient times - that are absolutely, obsessively, flawlessly historically accurate. As in 'if I emerged from a time machine, that's how it would be' accurate, or universally-blessed-by-eminent-historians accurate.

Aside from the obvious parameters (costume/set), I'm also thinking in terms of speech, gestures, expressions and mannerisms, and other little historical touches that would make these things stand out for accuracy.
posted by scrm to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
This is a popular question in the Ask Historians subreddit.

Here's one example.
posted by empath at 2:22 AM on June 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Many of Kurosawa's films come to mind, like The Hidden Fortress.
posted by rmmcclay at 2:36 AM on June 13, 2014

Barry Lyndon?
posted by oh pollo! at 3:23 AM on June 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Gerald Winstanley and the Diggers/Levellers political movement in 1650s republican England... Winstanley
posted by Mister Bijou at 3:38 AM on June 13, 2014

You might also be interested in the Reel History feature on the Guardian website that reviews the accuracy of past and current films
posted by runincircles at 4:21 AM on June 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

The further back in time you go, the more difficult this could be - not only because there's stuff we don't know, but also because there's just been way more ensuing time for things to change, and the modern filmmakers often have to "contemporize" a lot of things just so people know what the hell is going on. I'm thinking particularly in terms of what you said about details like gestures - those are definitely things you wouldn't have as much of an understanding of today, so if I were, say, making a film set in ancient Rome, I may not necessarily use the real gesture they used in the Collusseum to indicate someone should die, because we wouldn't recognize what it means; and I'd fall back on the "thumbs down" that we do recognize.

That said - you may want to check out the book Past Imperfect for recommendations. It's an anthology of 60 historians reviewing 60 different historical films, for accuracy. Sometimes what's really cool, too, is they get into discussing the events at the time a given film was made, so you understand why a filmmaker tweaked the historical record in a certain way.

From that book, I especially remember Hester Street and Go Tell The Spartans getting high marks for historic accuracy; they're about 1890's Lower-East-Side New York and the Vietnam War, but they're supposed to be pretty right on the money.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:48 AM on June 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

This post on Ex Urbe is a good discussion of why total historical accuracy isn't possible or even necessarily desirable.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:54 AM on June 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

Breaker Morant?
posted by jbickers at 7:28 AM on June 13, 2014

The BBC production of Miss Marple starring Joan Hickson gives a very exacting picture of a certain milieu of 1955 Britain. The first five are more firmly set than the last five.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:18 AM on June 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Master and Commander has breathtaking attention to detail, and is true to the language and attitudes of the period-- it's the most time-machiney movie I can think of.
posted by Erasmouse at 8:46 AM on June 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

I studied under a Roman history prof that would regularly insist that the most accurate representation of ancient Rome could be found in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and that all other movie representations were shit.
This was in the early to mid '90s, so I wonder where he stands on more current productions.

I also had some friends who studied Early American history and did living history work. They worked on "The Last of the Mohicans" making sure the clothes, weapons, structures and housewares were appropriate. They could point to some flaws but overall were pretty happy with what they saw.
posted by Seamus at 9:04 AM on June 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Visconti's 'The Leopard' seems like a good candidate.
More recently, 'Dazed and Confused'
posted by lowest east side at 10:07 AM on June 13, 2014

I keep forgetting Freaks and Geeks wasn't actually made in 1980.
posted by whuppy at 10:20 AM on June 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

HBO's Rome gives a pretty fictionalized string of storylines--two central characters were woven out of whole cloth and all--but all of the backdrop stuff and cultural practices one sees are very well-researched. Are there discrepancies? Sure. Still, the level of accuracy is really impressive. The DVD has a feature that offers pop-up notes elaborating on the things portrayed in the show and often citing the sources from which they were derived.

Another HBO show, "Band of Brothers," is also pretty impressively accurate... though one has to note that it was based on a book by Stephen Ambrose, who can sometimes be kind of a sloppy scholar. The book and the show both follow a specific unit through the war, and many of the survivors of that unit are shown in interview clips before each episode. There's a little bit of narrative license here and there (one episode follows a character whom the viewer is told died at the end, but in reality he survived and went on to a long and successful military career), but for the most part it's very, very accurate.

All that said: my medieval history professor always held that "Monty Python's Holy Grail" was as accurate as medieval history ever gets. (Same with "Life of Brian" -- comedic stuff and all, but for many years the background work was some of the most accurate depictions of the time period one could find in cinema.)
posted by scaryblackdeath at 10:38 AM on June 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Not ancient, but "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" is stunning in its portrayal of post-war/Cold War England and Europe.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 1:04 PM on June 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

More recently, 'Dazed and Confused'

Seconded. That 70s Show is surprisingly accurate, too.
posted by Room 641-A at 8:50 PM on June 13, 2014

I haven't seen it (or read it), but The Name of the Rose comes to mind. This list concurs, and also suggests The Passion of Joan of Arc.
posted by hydrophonic at 12:28 PM on June 15, 2014

I meant this list.
posted by hydrophonic at 7:54 PM on June 15, 2014

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