Why do we care about anachronisms in films?

Our desire for historical accuracy in films, TV programmes and books often tells us more about ourselves than it does about art.

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There’s a frustrating solitariness to noticing temporal errors in movies, literature and art that elude most others. Just like the kid in The Sixth Sense who sees dead people, I – as, I imagine, are many others – am condemned to spot anachronisms. They’re usually not terribly harmful to the narrative but they burrow into your mind and stay there. And unlike with the lifeless baby cradled by Bradley Cooper in American Sniper, there is no broad community of sniggerers to join with you in your accursed attentiveness. I imagine I was not the only person to spot in Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air, set in the aftermath of May 1968, a bottle of Chimay with a present-day label or a coffee served in dainty black espresso cups that became a feature of French cafés only a decade ago, but if others did notice them, they too are suffering in silence.

Neither am I sure how many people noticed the following egregious anachronism in Lynne Ramsay’s debut film Ratcatcher (1999): set on a Glasgow scheme in the late 1970s, the film features at one point a snippet from BBC’s Final Score, where the legendary Tim Gudgin reads out a result from the Scottish Cup: “Stirling Albion 20 Selkirk 0” (Gudgin repeats the scoreline for any incredulous listeners). The problem is, I know that that match took place in December 1984, because I was watching Grandstand that afternoon, as I did every Saturday in that pre-Sky Sports age, when you had a finite number of opportunities to catch the results of the day. Admittedly, this is a particularly arcane example but less so would be the Portuguese film I saw recently set among Angolan immigrants in Lisbon in 1980, where CDs appear on a market stall – most people of my generation would instantly smell a rat, knowing that the compact disc did not come into the world until three years later. Other people, more observant still, have cried foul at the appearance of Rubik’s Cubes and Walkmans in suburban America in 1979 in the movie Super 8 (though, given these were marketed very shortly afterwards, I would be inclined to be more indulgent).

Among several liberties with historical fact taken by Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins, an army vehicle bearing a number plate of a type which was not introduced to Ireland until 1987 is fairly innocuous. But Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall, another film set in Ireland of roughly the same era had far too many anachronisms for me to be able to believe in it. This is no doubt because I grew up about 25 miles from where the film, about the expulsion of local socialist James Gralton in 1933 as an “undesirable alien”, is set and filmed. I initially found the presence of industrial sliced bread in the west of Ireland in the 1930s jarring but it appears to have been first introduced to the UK around that time so it wasn’t inconceivable it crossed the Irish Sea soon after. What I found impossible to digest, though, were the improbably metropolitan names of some of the minor characters, such as Chloe and Christian, that would never have existed among even the most socially ambitious families in 1930s rural Ireland. Some of the accents in the film were also clearly from the more well-heeled suburbs of contemporary Dublin, which even today would sound out of place in Leitrim. And don’t even get me started on the dialogue – are we really expected to believe Irish villagers in the 1930s said things like “on the wrong side of history” or “on schedule”? Of course, most people watching the film would not have spotted these things and Loach and his screenwriter Paul Laverty would scoff at the notion of such trivial flaws overpowering the film’s central theme of social injustice (though, it must be said, anachronisms are far from the only things wrong with Jimmy’s Hall). Even so, it does go to show how an accumulation of minor flaws can undermine the credibility of a film for some viewers.

In historical films and novels anachronism is something writers strive to avoid at all costs but it is ultimately unavoidable – the best you can hope for is to keep them to a minimum and noticeable only by a tiny coterie of demanding experts. One of the more amusing moments in Michael Winterbottom’s meta-textual Tristram Shandy adaptation A Cock and Bull Story was a weaponry consultant played by Mark Williams decrying with great fervour the lack of historical accuracy of the artillery in films such as Cold Mountain. Most goofs of this sort remain invisible to the average viewer though heightened exposure brings its own risks, as the plethora of blogs devoted to anachronisms in Downton Abbey demonstrates. Anachronistic dialogue is one thing any good writer should be able to weed out but one hardly needs to go the whole hog and recreate pristine period language, as Mike Leigh did so wonderfully in Mr Turner. A “neutral” antiquated idiom is often sufficient, taking care to avoid anything that might be egregiously contemporary.

A Cock and Bull Story (Michael Winterbottom, 2005)

Nor is it terribly important to strive for absolute historical accuracy. Does anyone really care that Cassius and Brutus mention a clock striking in Julius Caesar, even though Caesar died twelve centuries before the invention of the first mechanical clock? Does a reference to “popish tricks and ceremonies” by Aaron in Titus Andronicus, set in classical Rome, fatally compromise the play? Like most of his Renaissance contemporaries Shakespeare did not worry too much about anachronisms. Judging by the now well-established trend for staging and filming his plays in updated contexts (in recent years Romeo and Juliet, Richard III and Coriolanus have all got such treatment), neither do most Shakespeareans.

Literary readers might be more demanding (think of Philip Hensher’s criticism of Eleanor Catton’s use of “hello” in The Luminaries) but film audiences are accepting of the diegetic universe of a film being an elaborate artifice. Even casual filmgoers understand that what goes into a movie is at one or two removes from reality and historical films are no different, even if they might seem more authoritative than those set in the present day. These fictional conventions are so strong and understood that they can be broken without disrupting a narrative too much. Mel Brooks’ satirical Western parody Blazing Saddles overspills onto a modern day Hollywood backlot in its final act but it doesn’t exactly erase the memory of what has gone before. In Peau d’âne, Jacques Demy’s 1970 adaptation of Lamartine’s fairy tale, the Blue King and the Lily Fairy arrive at the medieval wedding via a jazzed-up helicopter.

Peau d’âne (Jacques Demy, 1970)

Walker (Alex Cox, 1987)

Alex Cox’s Walker, a biopic of a 19th-century filibuster (played by Ed Harris) who named himself president of Nicaragua, uses cars, helicopters and copies of Time and Newsweek to highlight the parallels between the historical past and the political present – Cox made the film in Nicaragua at the height of the US-funded Contra war against the Sandinistas. Anachronistic music, largely pioneered by Baz Luhrmann (though Pier Paolo Pasolini did it as far back as 1964 by including Odetta and Blind Willie Johnson on the soundtrack for The Gospel According to St Matthew), is also gaining increasing acceptance in films, such as Django Unchained, Marie Antoinette and most recently Selma.

Anachronisms can also give rise, in however inadvertent a way, to enduring ideological constructs. An Elizabethan interest in the Tudors’ Welsh heritage gave rise to a “British” identity that had been forgotten for centuries by the English and which laid the cultural groundwork for the modern British state. The Frankenstein’s monster of the popular imagination is now almost exclusively conceived of as the creation of James Whales’ 1930s films, which has no basis in Mary Shelley’s novel. Renaissance art was almost as a rule anachronistic in its portrayal of biblical themes (ironically, it was a piece of anachronistic costume that helped expose one supposed Renaissance painting in the National Gallery as a fake) and one of the most notable of these anachronisms is the portrayal of Christ and his contemporaries as white Europeans. It is highly unlikely that Jesus and most people living in the Middle East at the time looked Caucasian but we have not exactly shaken off the “white” iconography – only last year Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (itself wilfully anachronistic) and Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings both presented an overwhelmingly white biblical Levant. Proof that, if some anachronisms are big enough and rooted enough, they will continue slipping by audiences for ever.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.