There may not be anything more attention-grabbing than the words, “Based on a true story.” Something about stories about real people, places or even times, excite movie-goers. Dramatizing events makes for (what many would consider) a more entertaining form of learning than a documentary, for instance. Even historical epics that are otherwise non-factual stories give the impression of an insight into a particular time and place.
The past is simply thrilling to us. But how often do we stop to question what we are seeing. We consume these stories, under the impression that every aspect of them are true, but this is often not the case at all. Characters are added, removed or altered. Dramatic moments or action sequences are exaggerated. Happy endings may even be inserted when there really aren’t any. Goofs, like the famous scene featuring digital watches in Robin Hood, can even slip by us. Why? Because we are consumed by the story. That then, may even be Hollywood at its best.
Despite the trickery, the fibs and the illusions, we very well may never stop loving our biopics, “true” stories, and period pieces. Even so, it might be fun to point out a few of the most catastrophic mishaps such films have to offer. Here’s a list of 15 of the most historically inaccurate films.
15. A Beautiful Mind
This 2001 biopic shares the life and times of one John Nash, a Nobel Laureate in Economics. The mathematician, now 86, is known for his outstanding contributions to game theory and differential geometry. Despite his genius, his mind was not immune to illness.
Nash has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and his incredible journey made for a wonderful film. However, the film differs greatly from Nash’s actual story, and has been highly criticized as a result. In response, the filmmaker has stated that it is not supposed to be a literal interpretation. In the film, Nash’s illness appears years earlier then it really did, most of the characters are made up, and his son from a previous marriage is not portrayed at all. The representation of his symptoms have also been deemed inaccurate.
Following the death of Apple guru Steve Jobs, there was a lot of sadness, and a lot of uncertainty about the company’s future. But perhaps most of all, there was a lot of interest, that is, a desire to know more about the man who brought the world so many beloved products. And so a film was made, starring Ashton Kutcher as the man himself. The movie followed Steve through his college years, up to the production of the first iPod in 2001.
But there were a lot of problems with the movie, as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak has openly stated. According to him, in an attempt to glorify Steve, the film misrepresented him and ignored the efforts of many others who played major roles in his success. Wozniak even refused an offer to consult on the film after being “abhorred” by the script.
13. J. Edgar
John Edgar Hoover is remembered as the founder and first director of the FBI, and as something of a villainous character who often overstepped his Federal jurisdiction. The biopic attempts to capture this, portraying John as a sort of tortured visionary. His passionate fight against communism, as it comes across in the film, is justified by his own conviction that ‘the commies are coming’.
What the film does not show, is that the red scare extended to the harassment and denouncement of liberals including judges, prominent Hollywood figures, artists and more. The film also exaggerates the significance that the Lindbergh kidnapping had on his life and career, while practically ignoring the social significance of John McCarthy and McCarthyism. When all is said and done, this film suffers less from inaccuracy than from choosing a skewed perspective of truth.
12. The Hurt Locker
This film depicts the war in Iraq from the perspective of a bomb disposal team. The team’s new leader is reckless, putting the entire team at odds, and in danger. The film was a huge success, making Kathryn Bigelow the first woman to ever win a Best Picture Oscar. And yet, it was not without its issues.
Shortly after the film’s release, an Iraq war veteran, Kate Hoit, wrote about the many inaccuracies she witnessed in the film. She was immediately put off by the clean depiction of Baghdad, and the fact that the soldiers were not wearing the Army Combat Uniform. She also noted that the bomb squad, shown taking on these dangerous situations by themselves, would never be alone in the streets. Protocols were abandoned and incorrectly followed, and alcohol was shown being consumed in a war zone. Ultimately, Hoit recognized this was a movie for civilians, not for vets.
11. Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Depicting Queen Elizabeth in one of the most patriotic period films of the last fifty or so years, this one was expected to be great. But that was not the case. Instead, costumes, sets, music and the power exuded by the Virgin Queen, all work together to provide a highly romanticized version of the story. Cate Blanchett played Elizabeth, but even she had to admit the film was no way to learn history.
When it comes to historical inaccuracy, perhaps the most telling moment occurs when Charles Howard cries out, “we’re losing too many ships.” Actually, England did not lose a single ship during this battle. Dr. John Dee is shown consulting with the Queen, when in reality, he was travelling the continent during the period portrayed. Even Infanta Isabel of Spain is shown as a baby when she would have been 21 years old at the time. Indeed, the film is more about telling a compelling story, and less about presenting facts.
10. The Patriot
This portrayal of the American Revolution is little more than patriotic propaganda, especially in its overly-villainous depiction of British soldiers. The story follows a peaceful soldier who is driven to the battle field when his son is killed by a British soldier. One of the most notable inaccuracies is the movie’s willingness to attribute crimes committed by the Nazis in WWII, to British soldiers of the 1770s. This is especially true of the scene in which old men, women and children are burned to death in a church.
When watching this one, it is important to keep in mind that most of the plot is pure fiction, and many of the events never happened. The final battle itself even incorporates elements of other famous battles. Ultimately, the film is an action melodrama with a backdrop that is a wildly untrue portrayal of the American Revolution.
9. Pearl Harbor
With Michael Bay, it’s always a ‘go big or go home’ mentality, so it’s of course best to take his historical epic with a grain of salt (or two, or three). It is the dramatic retelling of the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which led to the US joining WWII. Strangely enough, the film was a major box office hit, but was a critical bomb, receiving six raspberry award nominations.
Perhaps the problem was its gross misrepresentation of the event. Although the film’s producer claimed they tried to be accurate, Pearl Harbor survivors could point out many problems. Details such as the childhood scenes featuring a biplane crop duster (an aircraft that would not yet have been invented) stand out, drawing attention to the historical inaccuracy. Ben Affleck’s character being in the Eagle Squadron was another huge oversight, since active duty soldiers were prohibited form joining. Even the depiction of the Japanese characters has been criticized.
This war epic is based on a graphic novel which was itself, based on the Battle of Thermopylae. The battle is widely recognized as one of the most unfair fights of all time; however, the math is definitely off. The 300 Spartan soldiers, unable to match their opponents, formed an alliance with the Greek city states, giving them a grand total of 7000 soldiers. Furthermore, the heroic portrayal dismisses the fact that they were brutal conquerors with many slaves. Not to mention, the film depicts a boy’s right of passage as the slaughtering of a wolf, when in actuality, it was to kill one of their many slaves. One of the oddest moments however, comes when Leonidas refers to Athenians as “boy lovers,” since the Spartans themselves had pederasty instituted.
Although the film’s title is basically a moot point, what remains is the fact that the Spartans held their own (with 7000 soldiers) against a Persian army of over 100,000. Either way, the film received mixed reviews, receiving both standing ovations and booing during public screenings.
7. Shakespeare in Love
Here we have a lovely romance between a young Shakespeare and his muse. The story is, however, just a story, but its period backdrop is too specific to not recognize historical inaccuracies. Set in the Elizabethan era, there are a couple of problems to note immediately. The characters drink out of modern day pilsner glasses, the Queen attends a play she would have certainly had performed in her own court, and (at the tail end of the bubonic plague) theaters would have been closed anyway.
The story itself is not to be taken for truth, since it is not likely (or at least not evidenced) that Romeo & Juliet was a story taken from an affair Shakespeare himself had. Furthermore, that Viola herself was transformed into a character in Twelfth Night in the final scene, disregards how much time had passed between the two plays.
This epic drama follows a man’s fall from General to slave, where he only finds respect by rising through the ranks as a gladiator. In an attempt to portray the Roman empire well, several historians were hired to consult on the film. And yet, many inaccuracies were included for entertainment and narrative purposes. It should be noted that at least one consultant left the film because of changes being made to the script.
Although Maximus is a fictional character, some of the other characters are based on real historical figures. Still, the facts have been skewed. For instance, the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius died, not at the hand of his son Commodus, but in battle. Upon his passing, Commodus was made his successor. Commodus, however, did engage in show combat but was not murdered in the arena. In actuality, he was killed in his bath by the wrestler Narcissus. His reign lasted 12 years, although the film depicts it as much shorter.
Perhaps the biggest failing of this biopic is its intentional alignment with the documentary. The film opens with a montage of old and recreated footage, giving the impression that it will deliver simple truth. It doesn’t. In a radical move, it then aligns truth with conspiracy, lending credence to the popular idea that JFK’s assassination was a ploy all along.
Despite his believable breakdown and confession, the real David Ferrie always maintained his innocence. The mega conspiracy used in the narrative was based on a famous 1967 spoof, which was revealed to be untrue in 1972. Moreover, the real life key witness (Perry Russo) was drugged before giving his testimony — something that the film never shows.
This epic medieval drama attempts to depict the adventurous tale of William Wallace, a 13th century Scottish warrior who led the battle against King Edward I. Impressive battle scenes put this film on the map — historical accuracy did not.
Scottish Historian, Ewan J. Innes goes so far as to state that the film “hasn’t an iota of fact in it.” First of all, the year 1276 is wrong. In 1276, Scotland and England were at peace, Alexander III was alive, and it wasn’t until his death three years later, that trouble began. Meanwhile, Isabella Princess of Wales was a mere nine years old, living happily (unmarried) in France. Innes also notes inaccuracies within the battles themselves, and noted that the Scots all wearing plaid is a costume oversight.
At a certain point, Disney decided to branch away from its typical princesses and spice things up, drawing on true stories of women around the world. And so, Pocahontas became the first historic, non-white, (non-princess) princess, who exhibited intelligence and bravery. All of that is great if you’re willing to overlook the racial stereotypes, and even better if you don’t know the real story.
In reality, there was no romantic relationship between Pocahontas and John Smith. He was a short bearded man of 28, and she a girl of 11. She saved John Smith’s life, not because she loved him, but because she was apparently a rambunctious child who saw a man about to be murdered by her father, and chose to stop it. After John was saved, Pocahontas’ father considered him a son, and Pocahontas would visit him in Jamestown, but stopped when she believed he was dead. As she grew, she was meant to marry a man named Kokoum but instead was converted to Christianity and fell in love with a man named John Wolf, whom she married and bore one son from. She died at age 21 from an English disease after visiting King James and Queen Anne.
Admittedly, Sofia Coppola’s depiction of France in the years leading up to the French Revolution is quite aesthetically pleasing. Vibrant colors, exquisite costuming and (ironic) modern pop music, gave the film an overall visual power that is almost enough to distract from the historical accuracy — almost. This unusual approach allowed the film to take a number of artistic liberties, resulting in much of the Queen’s portrayal to be more of an interpretation than anything else.
In the film, the young Queen is shown as being naive, innocent and unaware of social protocols. This emphasizes her youth, but disguises the truth. In actuality, Marie-Antoinette was an intelligent young woman who involved herself in politics. The lack of politics in a film about the Royal state and the French Revolution leaves much to be desired — even if the aesthetics don’t.
This epic about Alexander the Great has been so controversial that a whopping four versions of it exist. Although the story attempts to make use of milestones in Alexander’s life, they are generally misplaced in time and place. Time is so condensed that the actual layout of events is difficult, if not impossible, to retrieve from a viewing.
Many real people were depicted as much younger than their real ages. Iranian historians were displeased with the portrayal of Persians. Indian historians were upset by the fictionalized account of Alexander being severely wounded by an arrow at the Battle of the Hydaspes. With all the negative reviews, this 175 minute film garnered six nominations at the Raspberry awards, and is to this day, Oliver Stone’s biggest failure.