History Movies Have an Exposition Problem

Have you ever been invited to a gathering where you don’t know anyone? If so, you may relate to the experience of awkwardly shuffling from room to room, fueled by nothing but hors d’oeuvres and raw anxiety. Eventually, you may have mustered the courage to sidle up to the outskirts of a gaggle of fellow party-goers. If their mirth lulled you into a false sense of security, perhaps you piped up to ask what the impetus for their laughter was. 

“Oh, nothing,” came the politely ruinous brush-off. “Just an inside joke.”

Even in cinema, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. That’s why exposition—the way a writer communicates key background info to their audience—is a fine art. The greatest storytellers are masters of it, weaving delicate, spellbinding tapestries of world-building. Viewers are quick to call out contextual inadequacies, so successful screenwriters are those best attuned to their expositional needs. Most importantly, it’s widely understood that clumsy exposition spells trouble at the box-office.

Unfortunately, it seems that memo hasn’t reached many of cinema’s history nerds.

Among period pieces, blunders of exposition are only too common. For many filmmakers in this niche, on-screen exposition has barely evolved past what Gone With the Wind offered in 1939. At that time, we were less than a decade removed from silent films, so it’s understandable that screenwriter Sidney Howard mostly mirrored the exposition of his silent predecessors: title and intertitle cards packed with on-screen text freckled with schmaltzy ellipses. But what’s the excuse for this kind of lazy exposition today? And why do so many alternative forms of exposition fall flat in historical films?

I suspect that for many, the root cause is a typical one: hubris. History screenwriters are often guilty of the same if-you-know-you-know gatekeeping as cliquish party-goers, and their historical exclusivity has the same alienating effect. Their exposition is perfunctory, and they leave uninformed viewers in the dust, failed by inscrutable scripts lacking narrative context.

As a lover of historical films, I’ve seen this frustrating pattern play out over and over again. With repetition, I’ve come to recognize some trends in fumbled exposition. Below are the three screenwriter archetypes I’ve identified, voiced by the inner monologues I picture for each:

  1. The Blockbuster Maker: “My audience is probably at least casually familiar with the history. I only ever write scripts around mainstream history that’ll do well with test audiences. And I always like to open with at least one paragraph of on-screen text, preferably two. Gotta manufacture that sense of grandeur. My main focus is the feelings I can pull from the audience. The bigger the feelings, the bigger the box office. We’re going to treat them to Big Performances from Big-Name Actors with a Big-Time Director. Ideally, I want viewers to ugly cry during the final scene. After that, they should hum thoughtfully as my closing wall of on-screen text prompts somber reflection … and then see the movie three more times.”
  2. The Armchair Historian: “My audience? I’m picturing nothing but good ole salt-of-the-Earth history buffs. I’ll pack in lots of intermediate-level history references for us to wiggle our eyebrows and elbow each other over. You’ll always know when an important historical figure comes on-screen, because I’ll make sure to include their name in the dialogue right as they turn to the camera and the score swells. Subtle! Honestly, how could anyone not appreciate all the high school history key terms I’ve peppered the script with?! Oh, right. I forgot that not all moviegoers collect Mort Künstler prints. Go figure.”
  3. The Elitist: “The audience should be made up of serious film people, the type to polish their spectacles and jot down notes between acts. If you don’t know who Lars von Trier is, this script isn’t for you. Plebeian audience members who fall behind will be left behind. This film is very important and very smart and painfully historically accurate. I’m essentially the Armchair Historian archetype if they had a more impressive pedigree and the self-satisfaction to go with it.”

If these are the mindsets that lead to historical exposition failures, what does the mindset of a master historical screenwriter sound like? It’s as straightforward as this: Start with the foundational belief that a script should be crafted for diverse audiences with varying levels of historical literacy. There’s genuine respect and appreciation for novices and experts alike. Neither aloof nor on the nose, the exposition serves to reconcile this disparity, guiding viewers to common ground and equal footing. As the theater curtain rises, it’s as if the writer extends a warm hand of welcome that a relieved audience accepts with a grateful smile.

Before I sign off, I wanted to leave you with a few recommendations. Here are a handful of period pieces I think get the exposition exactly right. If you give one a try, I hope you’ll drop us a comment to tell us what you think!

Lore (2012)

After their high-ranking Nazi parents flee from imminent Allied capture, abandoned teenager Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) leads her siblings cross-country in search of family. This German-language coming-of-age film is light on dialog but heavy on visual symbolism and disillusionment. Screenwriters Cate Shortland and Robin Mukherjee feel no need to overexplain the unexplainable, and they use neither intro nor outro text to orient the viewer. Instead, exposition is masterfully delivered via breadcrumb trail. Throughout the film, the specter of Nazism looms, always at the very edges of the audience’s peripheral vision. It’s a quiet devastation.

Titanic (1997)

Another film with no intro or outro text, this modern classic from James Cameron is a sprawling epic of the human experience. The film follows characters Rose DeWitt Bukater and Jack Dawson as they develop a forbidden connection across a yawning class divide. The backdrop? The tragic final voyage of the RMS Titanic. Exposition comes primarily by way of character dialog, which mostly succeeds in sounding natural. It’s a period piece that requires no previous knowledge to understand, and despite its reign as one of the biggest blockbusters of all time, it remarkably suffers from none of the downfalls of the Blockbuster Maker archetype. I cry every time I watch it.

Chernobyl (2019)

This five-part HBO miniseries from screenwriter Craig Mazin creates the most perfectly sustained tension I’ve ever encountered on-screen. It’s a harrowing watch, a real-life horror story outside the bounds of the horror genre. It rolls its exposition out torturously slowly, binding the viewer in near-paralyzing dramatic irony. When it comes to period pieces of the recent past, this is one of the best.

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