Any Resemblance Is Intentional: The Best Fictitious Historical FilmsMovies Lists Historical Fiction
Augusto Pinochet wasn’t a vampire. Obviously, there’s no way to prove that; he died nearly two decades ago and we still don’t know how to prove someone is a vampire. But Pablo Larraín’s film about him, El Conde, isn’t interested in facts or realism. Larraín’s satire expands on something increasingly present in his previous period films: A poetic license that separates a historical figure from the restrictive pages of, well, what actually happened. By getting creative with history, makers of fictitious historical films are allowed to play not just with how real people become symbols, but unpack how decades of context and conflicting ideologies have defined the person regardless of their life and death.
Historical biopics make things up all the time, not letting mundane reality get in the way of their pointedly dramatic story. The Fictitious Historical Film is much more ethical in how it portrays real people than queasily revisionist films like The Imitation Game, which downplays Alan Turing’s queerness, Saving Mr. Banks, which offers a sentimentalized version of corporations, or RRR, which reaffirms India’s nationalist caste system.
To qualify as a Fictitious Historical Film, there should be little doubt of the dramatic invention going on, which can be signposted by genre elements like fantastical beings, alternate realities or easily disprovable “historical” events.
Here are some of the best movies that willfully stretched that “based on a true story” subtitle:
Vampire! By depicting Pinochet as a bitter succubi longing for death in his isolated compound, surrounded by narcissistic and avaricious family members, the impact of the former Chilean director can be surgically opened up by a scalpel of metaphor. Fascist psychology is laid bare, its temptations and symptoms tainting pretty much every character. There’s a real sense of futility to the last days of Pinochet (Jaime Vadell) as he reckons with the fact that there’s no way to separate a fascist leader from their movement—in many ways, being deified means it’s impossible to ever die, even if you want to. Larraín’s period films have increased their creative liberties over time (Spencer distilled all of the complex pressures surrounding Princess Diana into a conveniently intense three-day vacation) but only in El Conde do we see historical figures extend beyond their own history, in the process revealing what about their influence endures into our time.
Loro and Il Divo
There’s a lot of connective tissue between Larraín and Paolo Sorrentino’s historical films; the Italian satirist behind The Great Beauty and The Young Pope is equally interested in moments when an individual is consumed by a complex system, and how power affects our most intimate behavior. His glimpses into Italian political spaces, Loro and Il Divo, each look at a former Prime Minister—Silvio Berlusconi and Giulio Andreotti respectively (both played by Toni Servillo). While the films are accurate in how they portray the swirling circles of corruption, Sorrentino indulges in his trademark (well, Fellini’s trademark) surrealisms to show the intoxication of Italy’s power abuse, and to give access to behavior that was kept behind closed doors. It’s more clear in the bloated, scattershot Loro—for better or worse, invention is the key to understanding the emotional fallout of populist corruption.
Okay, so most of the things in Forrest Gump did happen, but none of them happened through serendipitous crossovers with Forrest Gump. This may be the nadir of the Fictitious Historical Film, where the latter half of 20th century America only happens through the incidental actions of a completely apolitical Southern man. Here, history is observed with the unfocused eye of someone dragged to an art gallery; nothing is scrutinized or reinterpreted by centering Forrest’s perspective, and everyone chuckles at the stuff they remember for 142 minutes. Forrest’s ignorance of his historical context may seem harmless, but all the things that occurred around Forrest didn’t happen from sheer happenstance—hundreds of real people were politically motivated and active, and largely suffered for their efforts. You’ll end this film knowing less about American history than when you started, so vacuous is its expansion of the past.
Richard Nixon’s Appearances in Black Dynamite, Watchmen, X-Men: Days of Future Past
Few figures are committed to history more forcefully than presidents, who dedicate themselves not just to their populace (and sometimes a rockface) but become emblematic of the changes of the era they serve in. It’s hard to think of a more important Hollywood moment than the Nixon years, where countercultural independent work evolved into the biggest hits. In the 2000s and beyond, the severity of Nixon’s reign lent itself to pastiche, with many heightened genre pieces mocking his memorable voice, appearance and domineering personality. Superheroes have interacted with him more than any other president with alternate-past adventures Watchmen and X-Men: Days of Future Past. Broad comedies like Black Dynamite and Dick lampooned how serious his injustices were, making satirical attacks that were not possible during his punitive tenure. These films cheekily take advantage of how little integrity remains around his memory—they didn’t influence Nixon’s cultural downfall, but they certainly reflected it.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Sometimes you don’t need to unpack the context that defined historical greats—in fact, you can remove them from it entirely. Excellent Adventure could be seen as a manifesto of irreverence: Low-achieving high schoolers Bill and Ted show a complete disinterest in the consequences and side effects of transplanting Joan of Arc, Napoleon, Sigmund Freud or Socrates to late-‘80s California (or the fact that it’s probably not a good idea to put Genghis Khan in a school). Excellent Adventure’s comedy comes from flattening the lattice-like complexities of history for the numbingly reductive purposes of a high school education. Is this film about the End of History? Nice try, you won’t catch us doing political analysis on Bill & Ted that easily.
Quentin Tarantino’s Revisionist Trilogy (Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)
Nobody tells Quentin Tarantino what can or can’t be in his movies, including a history textbook. Three of his most recent films, all period pieces, have culminated in pulpy, wish-fulfilling barrages of scum-cleansing violence that may not have happened, but do succinctly express the deep desires of what we secretly want out of historical fiction—to amend the past’s mistakes. Of course, the real ways that Hitler, plantation owners and Manson cult members died were depressingly unjust, but Tarantino is tapping into an blatant but crucial opportunity afforded by fiction: Why can’t we make things up to satisfy our frustrations with injustice? The ephemeral limitations of writing about history are defied; filmmaking as fantasy is reaffirmed tenfold.
The Converse shoes that appear in the background of Sofia Coppolla’s Marie Antoinette mean literally everything. By staging the story of France’s last queen through MTV aesthetics and with her traditional perceptiveness of girlhood-becoming-womanhood, Coppola bridges the centuries of academic study and popular opinion that chastised Marie Antoinette for her naivety, ignorance and superficiality to make her story feel vibrant, urgent and modern. How else could we possibly realize that the ways her girlhood was commodified and punished are still relevant to the misogyny that still pervades our society? In letting modern style invade the world of pre-revolution France, Coppola is not arguing that the French proletariat were wrong in dethroning the royals, but that one young woman deserved better than being scorned by the world thereafter. History is a distanced act; filmmaking is an intimate one.
Dreams isn’t just the last major work from Akira Kurosawa, it’s one of his most personal films. The fantasy consists of eight vignettes drawn from Kurosawa’s own dreams and marks a unique collaboration between the Japanese legend and the wave of Western filmmakers he inspired. George Lucas helped fund the film (he previously executive produced Kagemusha), aided by Steven Spielberg—and Martin Scorsese stars in one segment as none other than Van Gogh. It’s a particularly poignant meeting point for, arguably, two of the greatest filmmakers to ever live—the bandaged, dirty painter stands in a field and pithily explains his self-injury and artistic process. Kurosawa pinpoints exactly where historical figures live eternal, not in galleries but in our consciousness, with the filmmaker’s thoughts of Van Gogh not just centering on the man but transporting him into his paintings. You can’t picture a more direct example of historical greats belonging to memory more than history.
I’m Not There
Todd Haynes understood that the factual account of an artist’s life and the fluid expressions of their art are incompatible, especially in the rote, reductive form that music biopics favor. Like Velvet Goldmine 10 years prior, Haynes fictionalized a multifaceted person and music scene to bring Bob Dylan to life—fracturing him into six distinct personalities that create a contradictory yet harmonic patchwork of someone who elided simple explanation. Cate Blanchett and Heath Ledger stand out (as they always do) in their depictions of a man jaded with the social and romantic pressures of an unfeeling industry, but most radical is Marcus Carl Franklin as “Woody,” a young, Black vagabond musician who is denied safety and care throughout his travels. Paradoxically, I’m Not There seems at points uninterested in decoding the man Bob Dylan, and is happier to explore how one person alters themselves through intersections with their art.
Look Who’s Back
This German satire, adapting a massively successful 2012 novel, does what tons of B-movies and cheap sci-fi series have done over the years: Bring Hitler back to life. He rematerializes in contemporary Berlin, but everyone thinks he’s a method-acting stunt comedian. That doesn’t stop him becoming a media sensation, with a documentary crew following his interactions with normal Germans who show an unnerving willingness to slip back into overtly fascist attitudes. Look Who’s Back is unsophisticated in its dissection of modern hate, and its sole trick of doing Borat-esque vox pops starring Adolf Hitler soon gets old, but it shares comparisons with El Conde beyond the impossible longevity of its dictator protagonist. A dictator returning from the grave may seem shocking and far-fetched, but how much of what they stood for has been permitted to remain since they passed? Have they, through the festering of vile attitudes, always been invited to stick around?
Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.