Pretty much everyone knows most movies aren’t real. Fewer know that seeing the words “Based on a True Story” or “Based on Real Events” doesn’t really mean that the movie is truer. Something is lost somewhere on the road that takes a story from real life to scripting, to editing, to filming, to editing, to release. Certain elements of the real story are amped up, and others are invented entirely for the purposes of the movie. In some cases, the person on whose life the film is based might have been a fabrication, too.
So all those heroes we see on TV, those remarkable people who overcame the odds and made great things happen… might not be such great folks after all. Some of them did live up to the stories we tell about them, and are fully deserving of praise. Others are shady, self-serving, and have duped millions. Here are some of those latter gems.
10 Leigh Anne Tuohy (The Blind Side)
The Blind Side is a heartwarming story about white people helping uplift a black man - a black man who eventually becomes an NFL player. Now that’s a movie! It won Sandra Bullock an Oscar.
Leigh Anne Tuohy, played in The Blind Side by Sandra Bullock, has become a renowned symbol of the triumph of compassion over prejudice, which she parlayed into a TV gig and a book. But why stop there?
In December of 2014, she posted a photo of herself with two young black men on Instagram, explaining that another woman had wondered if they were up to no good, and so she decided to head over there, demand that they tell her what they were up to, and then give them bus money when they told her they were going to a basketball game. “Accept others and stoping [sic] seeing what you want to see!!!” she implored. This, after interviewing two young black men about what they were doing, making them take a photo with her, and then posting it all to Instagram so everyone could see how great she is. I know I’m inspired, but more than a few people took exception to her continued white savior-ing. To each their own.
9 Chris Kyle (American Sniper)
He’s the killingest sniper in American history. He’s also not a good guy.
It’s not just that he has lied about his life - we know for sure that he slandered Jesse Ventura and claimed to have punched him in the face in a bar fight, which is a weird thing to lie about. It’s that he wrote things like this, and didn’t seem to have a problem with it: “Our [rules of engagement] when the war kicked off were pretty simple: If you see anyone from about sixteen to sixty-five and they’re male, shoot ‘em. Kill every male you see. That wasn’t the official language, but that was the idea.”
You can argue about whether what he did was right until the cows come home, but there’s no denying he was a dangerous racist who found a bit too much pleasure in killing people that sound, judging by his words, like they were innocent.
8 Ed and Lorraine Warren (The Conjuring; The Amityville Horror)
The Conjuring was a great horror film, and just one of the most recent movies to be based off of the “real life” work of demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren. Tiny catch: ghosts and demons aren’t real (it’s true, look it up), and the Warrens spent decades making a ton of money off of gullible people.
‘The Amityville Horror’ is also based on their adventures, and is easily one of the most profitable con jobs they ever pulled. Though the Warrens always maintained the accuracy of the story, the plot began to unravel when people who were involved in that story came clean and admitted to making everything up.
Expect a ‘based on a true story’ follow-up to The Conjuring sometime soon.
7 Mother Teresa (Mother Teresa of Calcutta)
To some, the idea that Mother Teresa was anything less than saintly is, well, sacrilege. And yet somehow people have found plenty to criticize.
She was friendly with Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier. She mismanaged funds, established medical centres with poor standards of cleanliness and care, and was (perhaps not shockingly) a supporter of some pretty terrible ideas. These include your run-of-the-mill anti-women stances against abortion and birth control, and then also insane nonsense like this quote of hers: "I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people."
Translation: I would have nothing to do if poor people weren’t poor.
6 Frank Hopkins (Hidalgo)
This is a special one. Hidalgo tells us the story of Frank Hopkins, a long-distance horse racer and ex-military man who overcomes his alcoholism to go to the Middle East and win a 3,000 mile race through the unforgiving desert.
Guess what: not true.
Tall tales were clearly easier to get away with back in the day, which is why Hopkins also got away with saying he was in Wild Bill’s Wild West Show (he wasn’t) and that he once rode from Germany to Mongolia (he didn’t).
Somehow, all of this slipped by Disney’s million lawyers, studio execs, and cartoon animals, because Hidalgo did come with a “Based on a True Story” tag when it was released in 2004.
5 Herman Boone (Remember the Titans)
Coach Boone is one of the most inspirational characters in movies, a heroic figure who brings together a community divided by racially motivated hatred by coaching his high school football team to the championship. Unfortunately, almost none of it is true.
Deadspin has a great article detailing how people who used to play on Boone’s teams have claimed that he was harsh to the point of abusive, and that Boone has tried to adopt the untrue hero narrative of the film as his life’s story. To be fair, the movie’s legacy let him meet Obama. He also has a trophy named for him. Sometimes, it pays to lie.
4 Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (The Hurricane)
He was a professional boxer who was wrongly convicted of murder and locked away for close to 20 years, before finally being released when it turned out the testimony against him was bunk.
It doesn’t make it right that he was locked away for a long time, but there are numerous dark marks on Carter’s record that the film “The Hurricane” doesn’t address.
The New York Times reports that prior to his long spell in prison, he had spent four years behind bars for multiple muggings. The Daily Beast backs that up and says “The Newark Star-Ledger, his hometown newspaper, later explained that ‘he was sent to…reformatory for breaking a bottle over the head of a man from whom he stole a wristwatch and $55.’ ”
It also shares a quote of his from the Saturday Evening Post: “my partner and me…used to get up and put our guns in our pockets like you put your wallet in your pocket. Then we go out in the streets and start fighting—anybody, everybody. We used to shoot at folks.”
Not exactly the upstanding guy the movie makes him out to be.
3 Mahatma Gandhi (Gandhi)
Yup. Mr. Peaceful protest himself, it turns out, wasn’t the best person. Specifically, he would make young women bathe with him, and sleep in bed with him, while he was nude. According to the International Business Times, that includes “a grandniece and the wife of his grandnephew, who were both 18 when they started sleeping in the same bed as Gandhi, who was 77 years old at the time.”
Weirdly, this is something that used to be commonly known - he was criticized for it by pretty much everybody at the time - but over the years his story has tended to skip over that unsavoury tidbit in favour of his political action.
He claims he did it to test his self-control.
2 Richard Phillips (Captain Phillips)
It’s hard to believe (mostly because he was played by Tom Hanks), but Richard Philips, the captain who heroically put himself in danger to protect his crew from Somali pirates, was also not the greatest of dudes.
The Guardian has a few choice quotes from people who served under him on the ship featured in the film, the Maersk Alabama, notably that "No one wants to sail with him,” and that when the pirate danger loomed, Philips did not follow protocol. The anonymous crewmember added "He didn't want anything to do with it, because it wasn't his plan."
Another crewmember alleges that not only did Philips not follow instructions, but he probably wanted to run afoul of pirates.
What a leader.
1 Alexander the Great (Alexander)
A couple of undeniable facts about Alexander the Great:
He is one of the most influential people of all time, and changed the world in dozens of ways.
Heaps of people died along his road to glory.
Was it a good thing that Alexander conquered an enormous chunk of the known world? It might have been. His empire-building opened up many new avenues in trade and knowledge sharing, which set the stage for all of human history that followed. But his armies killed thousands. He personally killed people, and had his enemies crucified. ‘Great’ he may have been, but he was far from what we would consider heroic.