Something about the words "based on a true story" flashing across the screen has the ability to capture a viewer's attention unlike anything else. History is full of noteworthy people and events that are just ripe for the screenwriter's picking and often result in hugely successful movies. However, try as they might, filmmakers who attempt to portray anything about the past very seldom satisfy their harshest critics. And we're not talking about Roger Ebert. Professional film reviewers are tame compared to the wrath of nit-picking historians.
One could theorize that there is a purpose to taking creative license with history. After all, historical events and people aren't known for being simple, clear-cut or morally unambiguous. A film allows us to boil down history into something more easily digestible and ethically black and white. Other times, filmmakers want to make a point about a modern issue or ignite wartime patriotism by invoking analogous events of the past, even if that means bending details.
Some historians, for all their complaints, actually give filmmakers credit for generating interest in history in a way that history books are rarely able to do [source: Ward]. Filmmakers frequently admit their lapses in historical correctness but claim to have captured the spirit of the truth. Nevertheless, when a filmmaker inaccurately portrays a beloved historical person or an emotional event, experts are always quick to point it out.
We've gathered 10 movies that many historians find insufferable and others just find laughable.
No one really complains when Disney waters down the grisly Grimm fairy tales with family-friendly overtones. But although Disney has a reputation for putting its own spin on those tales, the company fueled the ire of critics when it rewrote history.
This happened in 1995, when Disney released its own version of the Pocahontas story. In the Disney film, a romance emerges between the Native American girl, Pocahontas, and the British settler, John Smith. The story reaches its climax when Pocahontas throws herself on Smith to save his life.
Disney's brazen disregard for the truth immediately irked those familiar with the well-known story in U.S. history. Although it may be true, as Smith later said, that Pocahontas intervened to save his life, she was only 10 or 11 years old when she made the gesture -- the film depicts them both as adults. The filmmakers completely fabricated the idea that love blossomed between them, and historians dismiss this idea out of hand.
Smith did, however, befriend the young Native American, and she often visited the Jamestown settlement, sometimes bringing gifts and once saving the settlers from an ambush. She eventually did marry a British man, but it was John Rolfe, not Smith.
Were this film not directed toward children (who are less likely to know the real story), it could perhaps be dismissed as harmless historical fiction. But as it portrays real historical figures, critics complain that "Pocahontas" easily misleads children and interferes with the events they'll later learn about.
Conspiracy theories abound regarding the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. But controversy really ignited in 1991 when Oliver Stone released the film "JFK," which posits that one fringe theory surrounding the murder is fact and follows New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison as he investigates it. The theory in question poses that many parties, including the military, FBI and CIA, were involved in a conspiracy to kill Kennedy (perhaps to stop him from pulling out of Vietnam). It even blames Lyndon Johnson for helping in the cover-up.
Of course, there are those who subscribe to this particular theory or others like it. But, if we're to trust the accepted beliefs of most historians, "JFK" is pure fiction. In addition to that, critics of Stone like Patricia Lambert argue that the filmmaker fabricated events that contradict known facts [source: Normey]. For instance, the movie depicts David Ferrie, one of Garrison's suspects, confessing to assisting in the conspiracy. In reality, argues Lambert, Ferrie adamantly denied involvement and offered to take a lie detector test to prove it. Errors of omission particularly incense critics, such as how Stone left out the fact that Garrison's key testimony was brought on by drugging and hypnosis.
The most scathing comments about "JFK" came from Gerald Ford and David Belin, two prominent members of the Warren Commission (the official body that concluded Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman in the assassination). They declared that Stone's film was "a desecration to the memory of President Kennedy" and "a fraudulent misrepresentation of the truth to the American public" [source: Benoit].
People are often surprised to learn how little historians know about the most celebrated playwright of the English language, William Shakespeare. Frustrated by the lack of information, some writers have chosen to indulge in conjecture by weaving tales of historical fiction into the knowledge gaps.
One example of such conjecture is the movie "Shakespeare in Love" (1998). In this steamy romance, Shakespeare finds his inspiration for the play "Romeo and Juliet" after falling in love with a young lady who aspires to be an actress. But historians have no reason to think that such a romance inspired Shakespeare's well-known tragedy. In fact, Shakespeare adapted the play's plot from other sources, so the idea that he developed the story gradually and hadn't figured out the tragic ending by the time he was writing the middle (as the film depicts) is highly unlikely.
There is the respected suspicion, however, that a woman of dark complexion -- known to scholars as the Dark Lady -- inspired many of his sonnets. Hence, critics question why the filmmakers didn't instead focus on this more likely romance. On a related note of inaccuracy, some take issue that the movie features no black characters in a time when London had a significant black population [source: Monk].
Others are quicker to forgive the inaccuracy of this film because it's also replete with winking anachronisms. If viewers catch on to these subtle in-jokes, they're probably less likely to take the rest of it seriously and walk away with mistaken ideas about Shakespeare.
Although hailed as a fascinating portrayal of the ethical dilemmas facing Allied POWs held captive by the Japanese in World War II, "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (1957) was seen as a slap in the face to one esteemed, real-life British officer.
The movie centers around the character of British commander Col. Nicholson, a role that earned actor Alec Guinness a Best Actor Oscar. Nicholson arrives in a Japanese POW camp, where the Japanese are forcing the men to build a bridge that will be instrumental in their military tactics. As the highest-ranking Allied officer, Nicholson takes charge of the operation. Much to the surprise of his fellow officers and to the delight of the Japanese commander, Nicholson seeks to improve his men's morale by forcing them to build a solid, well-constructed bridge. Not until the dramatic end does the obsessive Nicholson recognize the folly of assisting the enemy in war and destroy the bridge.
Although his name wasn't Nicholson, Lt. Col. Philip Toosey was the senior British officer who commanded operations for building the Thai-Burma Railway, the inspiration for the movie. Those who knew the real story objected that it tainted Toosey's honorable reputation. Toosey's obsession was not building the bridge, but rather keeping his men alive. His admirers claim he did the best he could to keep his men safe while not giving aid to the enemy.
Many of the movies we cover in this list share a common theme: They try to infuse sexual tension and a love story between historical people where no romance really existed. Interestingly, "The Far Horizons" (1955) does something very similar to "Pocahontas." It tries to create this tension between a Native American girl and a white explorer, both of whom are well-known in U.S. history. Something about this formula must carry some resonance with American audiences.
"The Far Horizons" is set about 200 years after "Pocahontas," but it's just as inaccurate. The movie centers on the famous expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who were sent by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the Louisiana Territory for the United States. If you're at all familiar with the story, you know that along the way, they encountered a very helpful Native American woman named Sacagawea. In the movie, Sacagawea and Clark fall in love while traversing hostile Native American territory and battling the jealous villain Toussaint Charbonneau.
The only problem is, the movie failed to mention an important historical point: Sacagawea was married to Charbonneau. The explorers hired Charbonneau, a French-Canadian trader, as an interpreter and agreed to let his pregnant wife tag along. She proved extremely helpful to the party but never -- as far as historians know -- made a move on William Clark.
When "Braveheart" came out in 1995, it was an instant success. Director and actor Mel Gibson's portrayal of Scotland's hero William Wallace mesmerized audiences and won the movie five Oscars.
The film is set in 13th-century Scotland, when Wallace returns to his homeland to find it oppressed and taken over by the brutal, pagan king of England, Edward I. After the English soldiers kill Wallace's bride, he becomes enraged and driven to lead the Scottish in a revolt to expel the English. Against all odds, Wallace commands a stunning victory against the English in the Battle of Stirling Bridge. As he continues his revolt, he also has a love affair with Isabella, Edward's daughter-in-law.
King Edward, as far as historians know, never instituted the idea of primae noctis (which allowed the British officers to be the first to deflower a new bride) [source: von Tunzelmann]. Also, the Scottish rebels wear kilts throughout the film, which, according to historians, they wouldn't have sported [source: Barta].
Historians find this conjecture about Wallace and Isabella a little hard to swallow given that, at the time the film is set, Isabella was a baby. Similarly, Edward II is featured as an adult when in reality he was merely 13. Furthermore, the dialogue exaggerates the situation between the English and Scottish in the 13th century. Contrary to what the film portrays, the two countries had enjoyed a general period of peace for about a century beforehand, and the Scottish wouldn't have claimed that the country had never been free [source: Silverblatt].
To his credit, director Ridley Scott employed a thoroughly qualified historian to help him make his film "Gladiator" (2000) as authentic as possible [source: Winkler]. This is despite the fact that Maximus (the main character portrayed by Russell Crowe) is fictional. And yet the movie, set in ancient Rome, still manages to tick off plenty of historians.
In the film, Emperor Marcus Aurelius doesn't trust his son, Commodus, and instead taps Maximus (an esteemed general) to take over and return Rome to the old Republic. Betrayed, Commodus kills his father and orders Maximus' execution. But Maximus escapes, gets captured by slave traders and ends up as a gladiator fighting for his life in the arena.
Historians scoff at plenty of assumptions in this film, especially the notion that Marcus would have wanted a return to the old Republic. In addition to that, the movie compresses Commodus' 13-year reign into what can't be more than two years. Commodus himself was younger and more physically fit than depicted, married and (not to mention) didn't commit patricide [source: Ward].
To add to the seemingly endless pile of inaccuracies, the movie features whole battles that didn't happen, large catapults that would never have been lugged into open battlefields, a breed of dog (German shepherd) that didn't exist at the time and Latin inscriptions with incorrect grammar [source: Ward]. Some have even pointed out the anachronism of Roman officers commanding soldiers who are wielding bows and arrows to "fire" (a term that wouldn't have been used until firearms were invented) [source: Washington Times].
No list of this kind would be complete without "They Died with Their Boots On" (1941), which film historians cite as the quintessential historically inaccurate film. Historian Alvin Josephy Jr. writes that the movie "runs completely amok" with history [source: Carnes]. The story follows U.S. Civil War hero George Armstrong Custer through his life and military exploits, culminating in the controversial battle that took his life along with the 200 soldiers he led.
First of all, the film exaggerates Custer's war record. It also chalks up his military promotion to an administrative mistake, which it wasn't. Not only that, but the movie depicts Custer turning to alcohol in 1865, when in reality he swore off the stuff after an embarrassing incident in 1862. Modern viewers take issue with the movie's stereotypical, one-dimensional depiction of Native Americans as well, particularly Chief Crazy Horse.
What really irks historians, however, is the film's portrayal of the events leading up to the Battle of Little Bighorn. It whitewashes Custer's motivations for entering into the battle, showing him as extremely sympathetic to the Native Americans and writing an emotional letter that pleads their case. He solemnly marches into battle knowing it's hopeless and makes a sacrifice out of himself. In truth, historians believe Custer not only entered battle rashly and arrogantly, but also without such noble intentions for the Native Americans.
In World War II, the Battle of the Bulge was a decisive encounter occurring in 1944 between the Allied troops and the Germans in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium. A triumphant Allied victory, it serves as great fodder for Hollywood.
The film titled "Battle of the Bulge" (1965) is set after the invasion of Normandy when the Allied forces have moved through France and into Belgium. Waiting for bad weather to ground the Allied air support, the Germans suddenly launch an offensive on unprepared troops. The Allies are losing and everything seems dismal until Lt. Col. Kiley realizes that the Germans are running out of gas. Using the gas that English-speaking German spies are hoarding, the Allies set the enemy's tanks ablaze when they come to collect their fuel supplies.
Although filming only 20 years after the actual battle, the filmmakers managed to forget a lot of important details. They shot what's supposed to be a bitterly cold Belgian winter in the temperate climate of Spain and made a half-hearted attempt to recreate the cold weather. The film also lacks the hilly and wooded terrain of the real battle. The Battle of the Bulge was primarily a tank battle, and historians find the tanks in the movie laughably inaccurate. In addition to being unlike the real Tiger and Sherman tanks used in battle, the newer Korean War-era tanks employed aren't even the appropriate color. And although fuel and resources were an issue in wearing down the Germans, historians claim the real scenario was very different from what was depicted in the ending of the movie [source: Niemi].
Using fictional main characters, "Pearl Harbor" (2001) depicts the dramatic Japanese attack on the United States that triggered the nation's entry into World War II. Although the film used realistic explosions, Pearl Harbor historians were underwhelmed with the historical accuracy.
The story follows U.S. military pilot Rafe McCawley, who leaves behind his country to fight Hitler with the British. After returning to his best friend, Danny, and girlfriend, who are stationed in Hawaii's Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the Japanese attack. Rafe and Danny quickly jump in their planes to shoot down the enemy. The boys survive to fight another day as they are soon sent to bomb Tokyo.
Historian Lawrence Suid has said that the film's action bears little more than a "remote resemblance" to the real event [source: McCrisken]. In addition, Rafe and Danny shoot down dozens of planes during the attack, while the real U.S. pilots hit much fewer [source: Flynn]. What's more, no fighter pilots would've been sent to Tokyo to serve as bomber pilots [source: LaSalle].
Some even more ridiculous inaccuracies amuse historians. For instance, the film lifts a fictional line from the Japanese admiral directly from "Tora! Tora! Tora!" -- a 1970 movie about the attack. Also, the idea that a crippled Franklin Delano Roosevelt would get up from his wheelchair doesn't seem to have any basis in reality [source: LaSalle].
If we've learned anything after perusing this list, it's probably that we should watch even seemingly realistic historical movies with a skeptical eye. For more interesting lists, look over the links on the next page.
Sometimes our perception of the past just isn't accurate. Test your knowledge of historical misperceptions with this quiz at HowStuffWorks.
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- "Full Synopsis for Gladiator (2000)." Turner Classic Movies. (Feb. 16, 2009) http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title.jsp?stid=341478&category=Full%20Synopsis
- "Overview for Battle of the Bulge." Turner Classic Movies. (Feb. 16, 2009) http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title.jsp?stid=68208
- "Overview for The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)." Turner Classic Movies. (Feb. 16, 2009) http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title.jsp?stid=69690
- "Overview for The Far Horizons (1955)." Turner Classic Movies. (Feb. 16, 2009) http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title.jsp?stid=4562
- "Pocahontas." Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online.
- Barta, Tony. "Screening the Past." Greenwood Publishing Group, 1998. (Feb. 16, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=np5TA-0215sC
- Benoit, William L. Dawn M. Nill. "Oliver Stone's Defense of JFK." Communication Quarterly, Spring 1998. Vol. 46, Issue 2.
- Carnes, Mark C. "Past Imperfect." Macmillan, 1996. (Feb. 16, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=EOavGxnbh6UC
- Davies, Peter N. "The Man Behind the Bridge." Continuum International Publishing Group, 1991. (Feb. 16, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=k1E_wzIY7xwC
- Flynn, Gillian. "Pearls of Wisdom." EW.com. May 31, 2001. (Feb. 16, 2009) http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,128642,00.html
- LaSalle, Mick. "Hollywood vs. history: Historians say 'Pearl Harbor's version of World War II attack is off the mark." May 29, 2001. (Feb. 16, 2009) http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/chronicle/archive/2001/05/29/DD192071.DTL
- McCrisken, Trevor B., Andrew Pepper. "American History and Contemporary Hollywood." Rutgers University Press, 2005. (Feb. 16, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=AK9bmadu-AUC
- Monk, Claire, Amy Sargeant. "British Historical Cinema." Routledge, 2002. (Feb. 16, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=C-AS7fkHqJ8C
- Niemi, Robert. "History in the Media." ABC-CLIO, 2006. (Feb. 16, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=WVFhcBcv_X8C
- Normey, Robert. "JFK." LawNow. April 1, 2006. Article Archives. (Feb. 16, 2009) http://www.articlearchives.com/humanities-social-science/visual-performing-arts-visual/1606312-1.html
- Silver, Marc. "Pocahontas. For Real." U.S. News & World Report. June 19, 1995. Vol. 11, Issue 24.
- Silverblatt, Art. "Genre Studies in Mass Media." M.E. Sharpe, 2007. (Feb. 16, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=_Mmy8wYWI3EC
- Summers, Julie. "The Colonel of Tamarkan." Simon & Schuster, 2005. (Feb. 16, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=FPafAAAAMAAJ&pgis=1
- von Tunzelmann, Alex. "Braveheart: dancing peasants, gleaming teeth and a cameo from Fabio." Guardian.co.uk. July 31, 2008. (Feb. 16, 2009) http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2008/jul/30/3
- Ward, Allen. "'Gladiator' in Historical Perspective." Classics Technology Center. Copyright 2001. (Feb. 16, 2009) http://ablemedia.com/ctcweb/showcase/wardgladiator1.html
- Washington Times. "Anachronistic howlers." Washington Times .March 21, 2008. Pg. D01.
- Winkler, Martin M. "Gladiator: Film and History." Blackwell Publishing, 2004. (Feb. 16, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=q3Hfhdv_o0kC