The big screen has had a love affair with history since technological advancement enabled the production of historical epics. From 1927’s Napoléon vu par Abel Gance, an impressive five hour silent epic to 2016’s World War II thriller Hacksaw Ridge. The events of history offer screenwriters the potential to create more encapsulating, heart-breaking and thought provoking stories than could scarcely be imagined in the realms of fiction. History will never stop providing the film industry with potential masterpieces, or indeed critical and commercial failures, but what defines a successful historical film and is there a common denominator to success?
As the factors that define success are varied to the tastes of audience, the focus of this article will be upon which historical films best recreate the setting of the historical landscape they are trying to replicate. The multitude of genre and setting is vast with epics, thrillers and dramas, exploring war, love, deception and personal redemption in backgrounds as diverse as Ancient Greece and Rome to modern Europe. Schindler’s List is just one among many that could have fit the bill for this article, but I believe it stands out for differing reasons and is true to the times and events that it portrays.
Schindler’s List is a Steven Spielberg period drama of 1993 focusing on the German businessman Oskar Schindler. Schindler (Liam Neeson) saved the lives of more than a thousand Polish refugees from the holocaust in World War Two. The bleak and sorrowful environment of Poland in the 1940s is imagined simply by the film being shot in black and white. Scenes of Polish Jews being displaced to the Krakow ghettos, only to be later carted to concentration camps on packed out trains are solemn and foreboding. The film gains momentum as Schindler goes from exploiting the Jews to devoting himself to saving them once he realises the horror of the Nazi regime. When watching the film one cannot help but feel the desperation of the time, such is the quality of Spielberg’s direction. The one colour scene of the film creates a vivid impact of the sheer ruthlessness of the atrocities. As Schindler watches a small girl in a red coat hide away during the emptying of the ghetto he believes her to be safe, only to reencounter the small girl in her red coat weeks later, this time dead and being carried to a landfill to be burnt. In Schindler’s List the historical environment of the Second World War is created perfectly in all its sadness, with no big battle or action scenes, just the horrors of the time encapsulated in the story of one man and one community.