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When Professor of Latin Kathleen M. Coleman finally saw the finished product after months of work as a historical consultant for the film Gladiator, it was not quite what she expected.
Coleman had put in hundreds of hours helping screenwriter David H. Franzoni create a script that accurately represented the Roman Empire at the time of Emperor Commodus.
But at the preview, Coleman was surprised to discover that much of her hard work had fallen by the wayside, and that the final version of the film bore little resemblance to the last version of the script that she reviewed.
Coleman told the studio not to list her in the credits.
But some still held her responsible for the film's inauthenticity.
David Lupher, a classics professor at the University of Puget Sound, criticized her over "classics-l," an informal e-mail list of academics, because she was "thanked" in the credits.
"I trust she blushes all the way to the bank," Lupher wrote.
Coleman, who specializes in early Roman literature and spectacle, says she felt Lupher had unjustly misrepresented her and she had to repond.
"I felt it necessary to state precisely the extent of the labor I had put into this job, and to emphasize that as a consultant I was powerless to exercise any control over the use that was made of my advice," she says. "That is a foreign feeling to a scholar."
But Franzoni, who also produced the film, says that logistical problems at times hindered their precision.
"When we got in full swing of production there were script problems and we were rewriting. Cries for accuracy were lost in the thunder of this being made," Franzoni says. "Most historians have an agenda and are willing to bend the facts to make the agenda work...So it's not just filmakers."
Coleman saw three versions of the script, but emphasizes that the last version she saw only somewhat resembled the eventual film.
"I was not aware of the extent to which the script would be rewritten," she says.
Franzoni, whose wife found Coleman while watching a Learning Channel documentary on original Roman gladiators, says he recognizes where the film went wrong.
"If the movie had been entirely prepared beforehand we could have done a better job," he says. "We were trying to get the overall picture correct."
Coleman says the film's producers prioritized the glamour of the film over its historical accuracy.
The dialogue in the movie, Coleman says, was just one of many misrepresentations that she spent hours trying to correct.
Even Franzoni admits he was "bothered" by some of the semantics. He points out that addressing the Emperor Commodus as "sire"--a title used in the middle ages--was nonsensical.
"I didn't write most of the dialogue," he says. "That was one of the other writers."
Coleman feels that her impact was minimized because she was not present for the actual filming of the movie.
"The process of creating the film while the camera is running poses the greatest challenge for the historical consultant," Coleman says. "As far as I know, they didn't have anyone [on the set]."
And for the most part they didn't. Franzoni says that for the production in England they hired a consultant who was not familiar with the German background against which the scenes were set.
For a film to be historically authentic, Coleman says she believes that a consultant would need to be taken on for at least a year with absolute commitment to accuracy from both sides.
"It's absolutely critical to have a team of consultants in confidence with the director," she says.
Coleman says she realizes the difficulties of creating historical accuracy, particularly for fictional stories that depend heavily on characterization.
"Many facts are objectively verifiable," Coleman says. "Cultural assumptions are more difficult."
Franzoni says it was difficult for Coleman to evaluate not whether something had happened historically, but whether it could have happened. Coleman agrees, and says that movies present a unique challenge for scholars.
"The world of scholarship reaches a very narrow audience and film has the potential to reach an exponentially larger audience," Coleman says. "The convention of using historical characters in fictional stories is well established. But film is such a strong medium that there's a special responsibility."
Franzoni says it is difficult to convince those making the movie that historical accuracy is important, partly because many of them don't understand the history. Franzoni contrasts Gladiator with The Patriot, which he says gives Americans credit for things they didn't do.
"The majority of those going to the movie are not going to care whether it's the 3rd or the 7th [army] division. It's one thing to know that you're not getting it right. It's another thing not to care," Franzoni says. "We cared."
When Coleman was approached about consulting for the movie, she was impressed that the team at Dreamworks SKG, which produced the movie, "seemed interested in trying to achieve authenticity."
"I could see that a new film about the Roman empire would be very successful in generating interest," she says.
Franzoni says he has received a letter from a teacher in Oakland who was using the film as way to teach non-English-speaking students the origins of their language.
But the increased interest does not justify the historical inaccuracies to Coleman.
"I'm frustrated to think that all those errors could have been avoided," she says. "It just seems a shame that they went a certain length of the way, but not the whole way."
At the preview, Coleman met producer Stephen Spielberg and mentioned several errors in Latin quotations and inscriptions.
Spielberg asked her to send a list so that corrections could be made through voice-overs and digital re-imaging. But although she sent the list, the corrections were never incorporated. Franzoni said he believed the list never made it to Spielberg, who has a history of correcting errors in his films.
Coleman says she believes that the Hollywood vision of Rome is based more on 19th and 20th century interpretation than on primary reasearch. She points to the work of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema as feeding the "sword and sandal" look of prior films.
Franzoni also criticizes previous Hollywood portrayals of the Roman empire.
"To me, Spartacus is one of the biggest lies put on the screen," he says, referring to the classic film.
When he was writing, Franzoni did not look at any of the old Roman movies.
"I only watched All's Quiet on the Western Front and Seven Samurais," he says.
Coleman receives several inquiries a week about historical aspects of the movie, and tries to answer every one of them.
"I'm a little backlogged," she says.
The compensation she received was a welcome addition to the moderate salary of an academic.
"With my fee I was able to buy a kit for a tiny greenhouse that sits on my deck and is a true Dreamwork," she says.
As to whether she intends to work on Hollywood films in the future, Coleman says, "I think one consulting job will do."
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