Where Hollywood Tries to Meet History

Susan Ronald, the author of The Pirate Queen – Queen Elizabeth I, Her Pirate Adventurers & The Dawn of Empire, reflects on the recent relationship between film and history.

When I was seven years old, I was browbeaten into becoming a child model in one of my mum’s charity fashion shows in Los Angeles, where Hollywood greats like Janet Leigh and Jayne Mansfield were the main attraction. While we were backstage at the dress rehearsal, I overheard Janet Leigh say to my mum (who was admiring her latest movie script) that, ‘History has nothing to do with Hollywood. Hollywood is entertainment.’ That was 1958, and but for a few notable exceptions (like Attenborough’s Gandhi), Ms Leigh's words still ring true.

Naturally, as an Elizabeth biographer and historian, I have watched Hollywood’s recent contributions to the Elizabeth (and the Tudor) legend with a combination of trepidation and admiration. The trepidation comes from the fact that Hollywood has not exactly won its spurs by verisimilitude, and every time it tries to show the ‘truth in history ’, it's like those proverbial fingernails grating slowly down the full length of the blackboard. Ouch. Nothing is right. Everything is out of sequence. People are fictionalised. Facts? What are facts? Let’s tear them out of the script and scatter them to the four winds... they only get in the way of the story. All that being said, my admiration comes in when I see fabulous actors, the sumptuous costuming (even if it is from the wrong century), and millions spent on a spurious script that is based on the other side of my coin: history as told by Hollywood.

And it would seem that the latest Mr Tudor in Hollywood is Michael Hirst, first famed for his bodice-ripping series Desperate Housewives, and lately for television’s raunchy, The Tudors. Mr Hirst has also been heavily involved in Elizabeth-The Golden Age starring Cate Blanchett, Clive Owen, and Geoffrey Rush. When this film first came out in the US and the UK, I was interviewed by Newsweek and the BBC amongst others, and asked a raft of questions about the film, the actors, why we are so fascinated with Elizabeth, and whether the film accurately portrayed history. Perhaps wrongly, I asked only to be quoted on matters pertaining to my expertise: history. But now I feel it's time to break my silence. As a piece of entertainment, Cate Blanchett is Elizabeth. She portrays the Queen's intellect, wit, playfulness, fragility, and indecisiveness with an aplomb rarely seen in cinematic history. Geoffrey Rush, as her eminence grise, creates a presence in the film that is far greater than his role on screen. Though uneven, parts of the script – and mind you those are the parts lifted from the real Elizabeth’s words that have come down to us - are brilliant. As a piece of history, it's laughable. Ralegh was never aboard ship with Drake or Lord Admiral Howard, nor was he the mastermind behind the battle at Gravelines (nor was he anywhere near there). I suppose I should add as well that if Bess Throckmorton became pregnant with her first son shortly before the Armada, she would have gone down in history as having had the longest gestation period of any mammal ever.

But does it matter if Hollywood takes a grain from history and turns it into a virtual harvest? Does it matter if the Earl of Leicester, the Earl of Essex, or William Cecil Lord Burghley have all been written out of the script? Perhaps not. Does it matter if we all go away believing that the Spanish Armada was purely and simply a ‘Catholic Plot’ against poor, innocent, Protestant England? Absolutely. I'm afraid I subscribe to the line that "history matters" and that it is dangerous for us to believe that fiction is indeed fact. I'm not surprised that the Vatican expressed deep concern over the way the Armada was portrayed. If I were Spanish, I might equally be quite upset at how Spain is shown through Philip II minus his hatchet chin. That's not to say that there is not a grain of truth to the storyline. Telling one side of a story might make for good Hollywood entertainment, but it is dangerous for us as spectators to take that version of the ‘story’ away with us, and pass it off as ‘history.’So my message to you is that as spectators, we need to pass along a disapproving message to all filmmakers: when you portray history, you must do it responsibly. I write that as a native ‘Angelino’. Trust me. I know both sides of the story.