A Period Piece is Not Always a History Lesson


When I first heard that people were getting upset with Roland Emmerich’s new thriller Anonymous, I didn’t really comprehend why.  I realized that the film was a vehicle for the infamous anti-Stratfordian theory, which claims that Shakespeare didn’t write any of his plays and couldn’t have due to his commoner background, but I still didn’t see how a thriller directed by the person responsible for 2012 and Independence Day could ever influence Shakespearian study. Then I began talking with my co-workers, librarians who field questions at a reference desk, and started to see how a ridiculous thriller like Anonymous could cause a shock wave of facepalms in the academic community.

National Treasure, The Da Vinci Code, even Shakespeare in Love; all of these films were on my co-worker’s list of movies that they frequently get asked questions about. “I remember right after The Passion came out,” my friend began “we received a slew of calls from people asking for the bible verse where a crow plucks out one of the thief’s eyeballs.” It seems that almost any film concerning a historical figure or historical event inevitably leads to some people seem reading that film as pure history. Earlier this year I made fun of NASA for putting out a statement reassuring everyone that the found footage horror film Apollo 18 was a completely fictitious but now I can’t really blame them. It turns out misunderstandings like this are fairly common, where people confuse entertainment for truth, but where does the responsibility fall for these misinterpretations and why is Anonymous particularly diabolical in its blurring of these lines?

What makes Anonymous a particularly bristly example of this problem can best be summed up in an interviewer’s statement to Emmerich and his response about the history in Anonymous.  “Screencrave: This is definitely a sexy, history lesson for people to get at the theaters! Emmerich: Exactly!” Emmerich is asserting that his film can viewed as a history lesson despite the egregious amount of inaccuracies contained within, in short he is claiming to be a historian when in reality he’s just a filmmaker.  Over the years film has been a popular medium used to explore historical inaccuracies and social truths. So when a film comes out challenging historical fact but is based solely on conspiracy and speculation it muddies the water of film as a conveyor of truth.  Of course though, we must take some responsibility as viewers ourselves and cannot entirely blame Emmerich for tweets like: I think I now understand why I wasn’t as big of a fan of Shakespeare as some. Because he’s a total FRAUD AND A LIAR! #Anonymous

We live in a world of endless information and misinformation and cannot always blame the production of misinformation on those who produce it, the blame is shared between those who produce it and those who buy into it. Sure conspiracy theories may be fun to chat about and who doesn’t prefer “sexy history lessons” to those taught by Dr. Plain & Tall, but if we go out to enjoy these fantastic indulgences we should always be aware that first and foremost we are consuming entertainment.  If Roland Emmerich really wanted you to believe that Shakespeare was a lousy drunk he would’ve made a skewering documentary with forked tongued English professors casting shadows of doubt; instead he made a thriller with “bitchy caricatures” of Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd. This is the man whose answer to what would happen in 2010 was: mega arcs and Woody Harrelson surrendering himself into a volcano.

Anonymous is already playing in a limited set of theaters and is opening in more this weekend. The reviews have been fairly scathing across the board but I still think that this would be a movie worth viewing just to see how it frames itself as a conveyor of truth and as an argument for the 1%. What do you think? How should a film like this be promoted? Should films be used as a vehicle for the truth or just for entertainment? Please leave some comments below so that we can continue our discussion of the different ways Hollywood has given English professors heart attacks and how to get a ticket for an arc when the world ends in 2012.

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