Here are a few films that many historians find insufferable and others just find laughable.
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 films. However, try as they might, film makers who attempt to portray anything about the past very seldom satisfy their harshest critics.
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. Film makers frequently admit their lapses in historical correctness but claim to have captured the spirit of the truth. Nevertheless, when a film maker inaccurately portrays a beloved historical person or an emotional event, experts are always quick to point it out.
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.
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. 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).
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 makers 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.Critics complain that “Pocahontas” easily misleads children and interferes with the events they’ll later learn.
“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 audiences.
“The Far Horizons” is set about 200 years after “Pocahontas,” but it’s just as inaccurate. The movie centres 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.
The movie centres 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.
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). Also, the Scottish rebels wear kilts throughout the film, which, according to historians, they wouldn’t have sported.
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. Far from a scrappy commoner who clawed his way up from the mud to defend his homeland, William Wallace was actually a knight from a noble family, and his father Malcolm wasn’t killed by the English, but fought on the English side in exchange for political favour.
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. In addition, Rafe and Danny shoot down dozens of planes during the attack, while the real U.S. pilots hit much fewer. What’s more, no fighter pilots would’ve been sent to Tokyo to serve as bomber pilots.
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.
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.
My views? I love all the above films for pure entertainment value and they spark the imagination, there’s plenty of reading to be done if you follow my links for the factual write-ups but are we really bothered if the historical facts are bent a little in the cinema after all “that’s showbiz folks!”
ps. There were more than 300 Spartans at the battle of Thermoplae
See you soon,,,, Jimi.