Movies that based themselves in famous historical context can be great, as they have an extra edge of relevance to entirely fictional productions. But once a movie production is underway those real events that form these foundations can take massive abuse at the hands of directors and writers. Here are some of the most notorious examples.
Battle of the Bulge (1965)It’s difficult to remember a war movie where so little attention was actually paid the sequence of events or the equipment used. Given that it’s basically a story about an armoured incursion, it fails to show any of the real armoured vehicles used in the battle, using Korean conflict era equipment instead. Best of all is the climax where the tanks are stopped just short of the fuel dump. A real event, that happened at the start of the battle, not at the end.Bridge over the River Kwai (1957)Great performances and some reference to real events don’t change the irrefutable fact that the bridge is still there, and was not blown into tiny pieces by a dying Alec Guinness.
Braveheart (1995)I know some people that love this movie, especially the Scots, but it’s almost entirely inaccurate from beginning to end. The list of mistakes and anachronisms in here is substantial. But a few highlights include; the appearance of kilts a good 300 years before they actually were worn, and Wallace seducing a women who was 3 years old at the time, and in doing so fathered a child born seven years after his death.
They can take away our freedom, but not our ability to make shit up!
The Patriot (2000)Another English-bashing epic with Mel Gibson, and yet another that treats history as more of a guideline than an actual code. The nice guy Mel Gisbson plays is called Benjamin Martin, but is based on Francis “The Swamp Fox” Marion. He wasn’t a nice person, but a slave owner who spent his life actively persecuting and murdering indigenous Cherokees. But then so much gets altered in The Patriot that characterisations are a minor issue. In the final engagement, the Battle of Guilford Court House, the Americans are ultimately triumphant. Sadly, in that particular real event, they lost, and quite heavily. Maybe Mel should stick to romantic comedies.
U-571 (2000)I enjoyed this movie, despite its revisionist view of how America won the war, and captured the Enigma machine so they the allies could decipher the German codes. To put the historical record straight is was HMS Bulldog that cornered U-110, and got hold of an Enigma decoder six months before the USA even entered WII. And, the Polish had already cracked the basic Enigma cipher without ever having a machine in their possession. So U-571 is all at sea.
Titanic (1997)There aren’t really ways to describe how little regard to the factual events this movie has. It treats the true story of that night as rumour, recognizable only as deja vu and dismissed just as quickly. I accept that the characters are fictional, but almost everything that happens, with the exception of the ship sinking is utterly made-up, and very badly in most cases.
There are many good examples, but my personal favourite is the one where Jack tells Rose about fishing on Lake Wissota. That’s a neat trick Jack, because it’s a man-made lake near Chippewa Falls, which was only created when a dam was built on the Chippewa River, six years after the Titanic sank. Sloppy research Mr. Cameron!
The Untouchables (1987)Yes, I accept this is a drama, but it does deal with real historical figures – specifically Al Capone and his Bureau of Prohibition agent nemesis Eliot Ness. Contrary to the events portrayed in this movie, the two never met in a courtroom or anywhere else for that matter.
Gladiator (2000)I love this movie, but just about everything in it is made-up, inaccurate or just plain wrong. Marcus Aurelius wasn’t murdered, but died of Chicken Pox. Commodus didn’t die in the arena, but strangled in his bath by a wrestler called Narcissus, a full 12 years after Marcus Aurelius died. And love interest Lucilla was exiled to Capri and subsequently executed on Commodus’ orders for plotting against him long before his own demise. Maximus Decimus Meridius is an entirely fictional character, who borrows from at least three historical figures, but represents none of them specifically. Gladiator is big on spectacle, but short on real history.
300 (2006)Given that the events portrayed in 300 happened 480BC, so some margin should be given for how precise any depiction could be. But, contrary to the movie we do know that at the start of Thermopylae, the Greeks actually fielded 7,000 men all told. And they fought not half a million, but about 80,000 Persians. Not quite as impressive as the film portrayed, but still not bad odds. When the final battle came Leonidas had his 300 Spartans plus 900 Helots and 700 Thespians at his disposal. So counting isn’t a strong point of ‘300’.
Pearl Harbor (2001)This film gets one fact right, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7th 1941. Almost everything else is mucked up to some degree or another. The order and position of the ships on Battleship row is wrong, as are the geography locations of the airfields. The P-40 fighters are also much later versions. Additionally it suggests that the Japanese hit the ships and then went after the airfields, when in fact they hit both at the same time. Names, places, events, they all go in the grinder…
Just how little they cared in this movie about history is demonstrated wonderfully by Evelyn’s first appearance at Pearl Harbor, where she walks past a building emblazoned with the sign “Est. 1953”.