If you're a fan of historical movies, comedies probably aren't your first pick. Of all the movie genres, comedies have the least obligation to be factual when it comes to history. People don't see Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure for an in-depth analysis of Napoleon's tactical genius. They want to see him chilling in late-'80s SoCal.
But this doesn't mean historical comedies are complete nonsense. Many of these movies still put in the effort to make things as accurate as possible, whether it's something big like the depiction of a historical figure, or smaller details like costumes and props. Other comedies, like Monty Python's Holy Grail and Life of Brian, might not make much of an effort to factually retell events, but still make valid points about the time periods in which they're set. They might not be literally accurate, but they can still be truthful on a deeper level.
Bottom line, plenty of historical comedies offer more than just laughs if you're willing to give them a chance.
- Photo: Cinema 5
The Movie: The legendary King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table scour 10th-century England in search of the Holy Grail.
What It Got Surprisingly Right: While the overall story is based on Arthurian legend, many of the details and characters in Holy Grail are actually based on real historical events (even if they didn't all happen in England in 932 AD). The story of the Black Knight is based on the tale of a Greek wrestler named Arrhichion of Phigalia, who kept competing right up until his demise and won a posthumous victory. The chanting monks who are seen whacking themselves in the face with boards are based on 14th-century flagellants, who flogged themselves to atone for the plague. Medieval armies really did launch cows via catapult at their enemies like the French do in Holy Grail (although, in reality, the cows were deceased and infectious). And above all, many of the movie's scenes make valid satirical points about the Middle Ages. Sir Bedevere's "trial" to determine whether a villager is a witch satirizes the medieval scientific method, for example.
Where It Took Comedic License: The movie is full of anachronisms for comedic effect, (i.e., "Spam" is mentioned during the Camelot sequence, but it wasn't invented until 1937), so we'll focus on the biggest inaccuracy: It satirizes various aspects of medieval history regardless of when they actually happened. The film is set in the year 932 AD, but this is arbitrary. King Arthur was most likely a legendary figure and not a historical person, but even so, Holy Grail takes place several centuries after Arthur was reported to have lived. Most early British chroniclers dated Arthur's exploits to the sixth century AD. While different plagues like leprosy did ravage Europe in the 10th century, England didn't specifically have a known bubonic plague outbreak that century, and the flagellant phenomenon happened centuries later. Finally, in the real England of 932 AD, nobody would have known what the Holy Grail was because the first legends about it weren't written until 1180 AD.
- Actors: John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman
- Released: 1975
- Directed by: Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones
- Photo: Orion Pictures
The Movie: Two SoCal slackers get a crash course in history when a time traveler helps them nab historical figures to help them pass their history test.
What It Got Surprisingly Right: Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure is an '80s teen comedy and proud of it, but the filmmakers still went to great lengths to get the little things right. In 2020, clothing historian and writer Hilary Davidson gave Bill & Ted a shout-out for the impeccably accurate Regency-era costumes during the scene when Bill and Ted make off with Beethoven. The costume department did such a good job that Davidson created the "Bill & Ted Test." Basically, if your film has less accurate costumes than Bill & Ted, you blew it.
Where It Took Comedic License: Most of the historical figures in Bill & Ted are clearly based more on popular conceptions of them more than on historical fact. George Washington didn't really have wooden teeth. Napoleon wasn't actually short. Beethoven would have been almost fully deaf by the time Bill and Ted met him, so he wouldn't have been able to hear them at normal volume. But it was still accurate enough for Bill and Ted to pass the test, right?
- Actors: Keanu Reeves, George Carlin, Jane Wiedlin, Diane Franklin, Al Leong
- Released: 1989
- Photo: IFC Films
The Movie: In this dark comedy by Veep creator Armando Iannucci, various Soviet functionaries jockey for power following the passing of Josef Stalin in 1953.
What It Got Surprisingly Right: Dictatorial regimes are always reliable sources for absurdity, and much of the comedy in The Death of Stalin doesn't have to exaggerate the truth much. After a national radio broadcast of Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 23, Stalin really did force the musicians to return to the studio and rebroadcast it immediately for his own enjoyment. Near the end of his life, Stalin really did like to invite a small inner circle over to his country home to watch movies, and he really was watching a Western with four Politburo members the night of his stroke. Even the circumstances of Stalin's demise are historically accurate: Shortly before his passing, Stalin had become convinced Russia's best doctors were plotting against him and sent them to the gulag. On the night of his stroke, the country's best doctors weren't available to treat him.
Where It Took Comedic License: Most of the inaccuracies are small ones made to streamline the storytelling, i.e., Beria's real trial took months and not a day like the film suggests. But overall, the film's portrayal of events and people is largely accurate.
- Actors: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs
- Released: 2018
- Directed by: Armando Iannucci
- Photo: Orion Pictures/Warner Bros.
The Movie: Born in the stable next to the one where Jesus was born, Brian Cohen is an everyman who gets mistaken for the Messiah. After Brian falls in love with a freedom fighter named Judith, he gets swept up in the movement to liberate Judea from Roman rule and is eventually martyred.
What It Got Surprisingly Right: In addition to being a legendary comedian, director Terry Jones was also a passionate historian, and both Holy Grail and Life of Brian reflect that. The films are obviously farcical, but they still make valid points about the eras in which they took place. Life of Brian faced backlash for supposed blasphemy when it premiered in 1979, but today it gets credit for how accurately it depicts religion and politics in first-century Judea - especially when compared with other, "serious" Biblical epics about Jesus. The "what have the Romans done for us?" scene echoes real rabbinical debates about the pros and cons of Roman occupation. Brian accurately depicts the Jewish nationalist movement of the first century as diverse and often at odds with itself, while also avoiding the trope of blaming the Jews for Jesus's crucifixion. The film's satirical points, while not literally true, are definitely reflective of a deeper reality. The ending, which depicts Brian being crucified while a crowd sings "Always Look on the Bright Side of the Life," is specifically parodying other Biblical movies that depict Jesus's end as rhapsodic rather than the harsh execution it was.
Where It Took Comedic License: With the entire plot and most of the characters. Saying that Life of Brian makes valid satirical points about deeper historical truths is really another way of saying that it's not really trying to be factually accurate.
- Actors: George Harrison, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Michael Palin
- Released: 1979
- Directed by: Terry Jones