A period film is a film that attempts to faithfully depict a specific time period. This type of film has dramatically improved with advancements in filmmaking, such as the ability to replicate better costumes and set designs using new techniques and special effects. All of these advancements allow the audience to suspend their disbelief and visit the time period the filmmaker is attempting to depict.
The period film can fall into two categories, and then a number of subcategories. They can be an attempt to realistically depict a historical event, or they may use history as a backdrop to create new characters or plotlines that have no historical basis. The first category may also be classified as historical films or biopics. Examples of these include movies like Cinderella Man, or Schindler’s List.
The second type invents characters who fit seamlessly into a time period. For example, the movie Titanic invents characters to explore the emotional content of the real historical event of the Titanic sinking. Other films don’t dwell on a specific historical subject, and their source material may have been written during the time period the director wants to represent. This is the case with the many films based on the fictional work of authors like Jane Austen, William Thackeray, or Charles Dickens. A film like Sense and Sensibility fairly accurately depicts the time period in which Jane Austen wrote, but does not refer to “real” historical characters.
The period film may also be listed as a subclass of the different time periods represented by films. Films like Westerns, Chinese Sword Era films, medieval films, or movies representing the Romantic era may all be subcategorized under the heading of period films. A film may even try to reach further back in time, to prehistory to imagine what life might have been like among the early humans as in movies like Clan of the Cave Bear or Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto.
A period film doesn’t necessarily have to be accurate in order to be successful. In fact, a recent trend in these films is to deliberately use anachronistic elements in order to make the film more relevant to a modern audience. Such is the case with films like A Knight’s Tale, Marie Antoinette and Vanity Fair. The two former films both modernize the periods they represent by scoring the films with rock music. Vanity Fair draws significantly on references to Bollywood to explore the significant influence of India on the British Empire during the 19th century.
Sometimes a period film fails because unintentional anachronisms occur in the film and make the representation of the period less believable or laughable. Although the 1940s version of Pride and Prejudice was enjoyed by audiences at the time of its release, its costuming looks like the directors liberally borrowed from the Gone with the Wind wardrobe collection. Hoop skirts were not common wear in early 19th century England, but they are worn by most of the women in this period film.
It can be difficult to find appropriate settings in which to make the film, especially when filming on location. Getting rid of modern elements, like cars or trains, can pose problems for directors. Often elaborate sets need to be built inside of studios in order to capture an earlier time in history that is free from anachronisms.
Sometimes a film made in an earlier time becomes representative of the time period. Movies like Saturday Night Fever, Mrs. Miniver, or The Best Years of our Lives are “slice of life” films that accurately depict the time in which they were made. Though these were not technically made as period films, they have become so and are associated specifically with the eras or the moments in history they depict.