I spent most of high school sleeping through history classes (just kidding, Mr. Parks!), but with The Green Zone clamoring into theaters and re-writing recent history, it seems obvious that I’d be in the mood to open up those dusty textbooks.
There’s a lot of arguments about whether films should be historically accurate (or accurate to their source materials in general), but most of the time, truth in history gets gutted for entertainment reasons. Personally, I don’t care because 1) films are all lies anyway and b) history can be difficult to pin down.
Nonetheless, there are some glaring examples of films that took a few core nuggets of truth and surrounded them with fantastical, beautiful, entertaining errors.
The Pitch: Slavery is abolished in a courtroom by Matthew McConaughey.
The History Lesson: As you may know, slavery was not ended in the 1830s. The main problem of the film is that it tends to overplay the importance of the Amistad court case by intimating that it did more than it actually did to end slavery in the United States. As an international trade issue, it was certainly paramount, but slavery still thrived at the time.
On a secondary level, Martin Van Buren is seen campaigning throughout the film (which wouldn’t have happened back in the 1830s or 40s), and people have an overly-prescient knowledge of the Civil War (an event that wouldn’t erupt until two full decades later). The growing movement toward war is hindsight weaving its way into the story.
However, the film does get President Van Buren’s facial hair incredibly accurate.
The Pitch: A greased-up, shirtless Leonidas defies his government and takes 300 soldiers to block The Hot Gates against the Persian invaders. Also, there’s a hunchback involved.
The History Lesson: It seems a little absurd to fault such a stylized movie that’s based on admittedly fictionalized source material, but it’s also interesting to see what it gets right amongst what it gets wrong. It suffers mostly only from hyperbole.
In reality, the people of Greece saw a definite need to defend themselves, no one was seducing Leonidas’s wife back home, there were far more than 300 fighters (more like 7,000) blocking the approximately 100 meter-wide pass, those fighters came from all over Greece, and Xerxes was not a giant drag queen. Also, the depictions of the Persians are exaggerated greatly to create an archetypal bad guy whereas in real life, Persia suffered its fair share of terrorism from the Greeks.
However, there was in fact a traitor named Ephialtes who sold out his people to the Persians by informing them of a smaller path to take, and Leonidas sent the rest of the forces home when he realized they were being routed. Plus, Xerxes did have a crew of bad ass soldiers called The Immortals at his disposal, and the Persian army took heavy casualties at the hands of a much smaller force.
The Pitch: Leonardo DiCaprio draws Kate Winslet naked, and a ship sinks.
The History Lesson: The entire main story here is fake. There was a Joe Dawson on board, but no Jack from Wisconsin. Rose is fabricated, and so is the diamond. Probably. This is really a true entry into the historical fiction genre that uses the backdrop of something that really happened to tell the story of something that really didn’t. There are several boat crew members and aristocrats featured that existed and were on the boat, although it’s difficult to know if the portrayals are accurate.
In the case of Molly Brown, she’s shown in a fairly different light than in real life, and many of the historical figures portrayed die in different ways on screen than they did on the boat.
Also, reports confirm that there was absolutely no Celine Dion music on board the ship.
The Pitch: Mel Gibson paints his face blue and challenges those nasty Brits because they are trying to take his land and rape his women.
The History Lesson: Opposite of Titanic, where a historical event plays backdrop to fictional characters, Braveheart actually takes a historical figure and completely distorts the events surrounding him. I could care less whether kilts existed at the time or not (they didn’t), but they’ve given him a real-life love interest that isn’t possible, turned him into a poor farmer when he was actually a knight, and slathered on some face paint for good measure.
The only explanation for how glaringly wrong the story gets its history is that it was actually based on the poem “The Acts and Deeds of Sir William Wallace, Knight of Elderslie” by Blind Harry of which William Wallace was the inspiration.
However, despite the awesome amount of inaccuracies, it is true that the real William Wallace was hanged, drawn and quartered, strangled, gutted with his bowels burnt in front of him and then beheaded. So the movie actually holds back a bit there.
The Pitch: Spartacus leads a band of slaves in an uprising against their brutal Roman masters, and everyone has a sudden identity crisis.
The History Lesson: The real Spartacus commanded troops in the Third Servile War, but wasn’t born into slavery as the film claims. His story actually mirrors that of the one told in Gladiator (another major historically flawed film). He became a slave after being captured in battle.
The character Gracchus seems to be an amalgamation of two people who lived a few hundred years later, and there was no Praetorian Guard in existence during the Third Servile War (so them in the citadel wouldn’t have been possible).
In addition to these, the villainous Crassus was never made emperor of Rome, Spartacus wasn’t dramatically crucified (he died in battle), and the real-life Lentulus Batiatus didn’t win an Oscar.
The Pitch: Americans on a submarine make a major discovery that aids in code breaking during WWII.
The History Lesson: Britons on a submarine make a major discovery that aids in code breaking during WWII.
Brotherhood of the Wolf
The Pitch: Two men kick everyone’s ass and hunt a werewolf that seems to be killing a ton of French people.
The History Lesson: You’re shocked, I know, but Brotherhood was based on true 18th century serial killings. You probably expect me to mention the werewolf elements as historically inaccurate, but you’re in for another shock. People at the time blamed the killings on a wolf-like creature called the Beast of Gevaudan.
So if the supernatural element isn’t what’s inaccurate, what is? The martial arts. There’s no evidence to support that the modern-style of martial arts used in the film was present.
And, okay, the fact that they make the werewolf myth into a reality is most likely not accurate historically either. You got me.
The Birth of a Nation
The Pitch: The KKK solves racism in the South, and the country is held together.
The History Lesson: The most obvious thing to point out here is that Birth of a Nation celebrates a completely dead historical perspective: that the KKK held the South together during Reconstruction against the chaos of carpetbaggers and federal government intervention.
Historical perspective and controversy aside, there are a ton of factors in this movie that just aren’t bolstered by facts. For one, Congressman Stoneman is based on Representative Thad Stevens, but there are dissimilarities between the two. For two, the movie depicts major military movements enacted by the Klan that just plain never happened (or at least weren’t recorded).
I’d like to make a joke here, but my 10th grade history teacher Mr. Parks taught me to never end on a KKK joke. It’s just in poor taste.
So I leave you with the question:
What other films make you cringe at how badly they portray history?