Have you ever wondered how historically accurate Hollywood’s biggest blockbuster epics are? We’ve done the research (and paid attention in our high school history class) and we’re ready to give out grades. But even though a lot of films mix fact with fiction for the sake of the story, most of these historical heavyweights have won countless awards so you know they’re worth a watch.
1. Bohemian Rhapsody
It’s time to ask, is Bohemian Rhapsody the real life, or is it fantasy? Thankfully, it’s mostly real life, the timeline however, was definitely tampered with for dramatic effect. The film’s claim that the band broke up isn’t in fact false, they were burnt out and on an amicable break from touring, that’s all.
Queen was already on tour at the time they performed at Live Aid not reuniting after a fight. Furthermore Mercury is believed to have been diagnosed with AIDS two years after Live Aid. Still, tonight, or any night you’re watching Bohemian Rhapsody you’re going to have yourself a real good time.
2. Shakespeare in Love
In fair London, where we lay our scene… of Shakespeare In Love. It’s not the worst depiction of the bard Hollywood has given us, and most of the characters are based on real people, but as far as historical accuracy goes, it could be better.
William Shakespeare is toiling away over “Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter” when he loses his muse. He finds inspiration in a new romance with Viola, leading to the creation of Juliet (alas, poor Ethel, we hardly knew thee) and eventually Twelfth Night. It’s all nice enough, only Twelfth Night was written 6 years after the film is set. Oh, and Viola is entirely fictional.
3. Grace of Monaco
Darling Grace Kelly, you deserved so much better than this movie. That’s not to say that Nicole Kidman doesn’t deliver a good performance as she always does, but the script was definitely not doing her any favors. While there was a crisis caused by Charles de Gaulle attempting to blockade Monaco, it really was all about taxes.
Grace never made an impassioned speech about the meaning of Monaco, and de Gaulle did not show up to the party, nor did defense secretary Robert McNamara who was probably preoccupied with the Cuban Missile Crisis. The historical accuracy of this biopic is hardly passable, but at least aesthetically, it’s all very pretty.
4. Elizabeth: The Golden Age
It’s 1588 and the Spanish Armada has set their sights on England’s shores, so far so good. Alas, Elizabeth: The Golden Age then veers off course: enter Raleigh. As much as we’d love to watch true talents Cate Blanchett and Clive Owen flirt as Queen Elizabeth and Walter Raleigh, there’s no evidence to support a romance between the two.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age then puts historical accuracy aside, as the Spanish didn’t sink a single ship, according to the real-life Raleigh’s writings from that time. Nor did Raleigh race off alone into the Armada, he was relegated to the shore, and his role was land defense.
5. The Revenant
The bare bones of The Revenant are right, Hugh Glass was a frontiersman on a fur trapping expedition in 1823. And while we all wish it wasn’t so, Glass was mauled by a bear (yikes). Left for dead, Fitzgerald, a fictional character, couldn’t have murdered Glass’ son, because he too is fictional.
The revenge plotline of The Revenant makes for a compelling motivation for the movie, but once the real Hugh Glass recovered from his wounds, he continued fur trapping and trading. Eventually, Glass was killed in a Native American attack — whether or not the spirit of his historically undocumented wife visited him will remain a mystery.
6. The Blind Side
Everyone involved in the real-life story depicted in The Blind Side is alive and perfectly able to corroborate or contradict any of the events depicted in the film. So what did Michael Oher have to say about the movie made about his early life?
Oher has said he “liked the movie as a movie” but “had a hard time loving it.” Fair enough, since some facts were fudged for the film, like his prior knowledge of football before being taken in by the Tuohys. The road to Michael’s eventual adoption was altered for dramatic effect, but the happy ending remains true, and that’s all that matters.
Just to clarify, 300 isn’t complete nonsense. Sparta is a real place, as was King Leonidas and his 300 soldiers who held back the Persian army of emperor Xerxes. But, boy oh boy did they take liberties with the way this story was brought to the big screen.
Xerxes, by all historical accounts was an anatomically normal human male, but in 300 is depicted as a hairless giant. Xerxes sends his fiercest armies, from territories that definitely didn’t fall under the Persian Empire, and an absolutely absurd battle rhino, to fight the Spartans. History aside, it’s hard not to get swept up in the action. “This is Sparta!”
8. The Patriot
From the outset this movie is historically muddled. Mel Gibson’s Benjamin Martin is based on a few figures from the American Revolution, as is his adversary British baddie Colonel Tavington — but what were those “rules of war” Martin keeps accusing the Colonel of breaking?
There were no “rules of war” until the Geneva Convention some 80 years after the American Revolution. Additionally when Tavington heartlessly herds a hoard of people into a church only to set it on fire? Never happened. And in the end, Martin leads the charge against General Cornwallis, while in actuality, that battle was won by one General George Washington. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?
While a lot of elements of Argo seem like they’d be something only a Hollywood scriptwriter could come up with, like using a fake film to smuggle six American diplomats out of a hostage situation at the embassy in Iran in 1979, all that’s actually historically accurate. It’s the third act that deviates from fact.
The real Tony Mendez (played by Ben Affleck) said that the whole operation went off “smooth as silk,” which means that the nail-biting end was more about action than accuracy. Ah well, Argo won three Academy Awards, so we have a feeling they’re A-okay with the decision to take a little artistic license.
10. The Last Samurai
If the assistance of an American Civil War veteran during the Satsuma Rebellion in Japan sounds a little far fetched, you’d be right. Although the Japanese did bring in foreign military advisors, they were mainly French — no Americans were involved.
Nationality aside, Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) couldn’t have possibly become a master Samurai in such a short period of time. And Algren teaching the Japanese how to shoot muskets is just silly seeing as they were already acquainted with rifles. Lastly, while ninjas add an element of excitement, they weren’t around in 1877. Still, recommend a screening of The Last Samurai for entertainment value at least.
Repeat offender of a-historical epics Mel Gibson is back with Braveheart, and this time he’s got a Scottish accent and, of course, a kilt. William Wallace was a Scotsman who rebelled against King Edward I, but aside from that, how far from fact does this film veer? Let us count the ways.
Wallace uses nunchucks at one point, which weren’t really a thing in medieval Scotland, the Battle of Stirling Bridge should have happened on a bridge not in a field, and Wallace never sacked York. But we challenge anyone not to get fired up when they hear the rallying cry, “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!”
12. A Beautiful Mind
Brilliant mathematician John Nash did indeed win the 1994 Nobel Prize in economics for his work on game theory (along with John Harsanyi and Reinhard Selten) but some of the less savory details of his life, like his schizophrenia, get glossed over. Incidents confirmed by firsthand accounts, which would paint Nash in an unflattering light, are left out.
And that heartwarming acceptance speech Nash gives as he gazes lovingly at his wife Alicia? The couple divorced 31 years prior. But, A Beautiful Mind really is a beautiful film, albeit a bit fictionalized, and if you don’t believe us then the four Academy Awards it won might convince you.
13. Pearl Harbor
In Pearl Harbor, everyone looks absolutely fetching in their 1940s outfits, but as perfectly curled as Kate Beckinsale’s hair is, costuming isn’t all the makes a movie historically accurate. Perhaps Pearl Harbor could have consulted a couple of experts, because we’re pretty positive fighter pilots wouldn’t have been sent to Tokyo to shoot down targets.
Leaving the correctness of the construction of the military plane props to the real history buffs, there’s still the fact that Ben Affleck’s American “Rafe” would never have been allowed in a British hospital, and the love triangle the film focuses on couldn’t have happened. And lest we forget, the fictional President Roosevelt rising from his wheelchair to make an impassioned speech.
14. The Sound of Music
We don’t want to crush everyone’s love for this classic film, but…the truth was a little less romantic. Yes, there was a whole lot of singing, but only after the family’s bank collapsed did they become The Von Trapp Family Choir. And unfortunately that’s not all.
Maria confesses in her memoir that she didn’t marry Georg out of love for him, but out of love for the children. And finally, the family didn’t flee the Nazis through 200 miles of mountains, rather they simply took a train to Italy, before traveling to the United States. Details be darned, The Sound of Music will always be one of our favorite things.
If you swap out the name “Maximus” with Spartacus, and combine the story of Spartacus with that of Commodus (ignoring the century between them) Gladiator does indeed get a lot right. However, in this instance it’s actually a case of the truth being stranger than the fiction.
While Commodus is definitely dislikable, he’s not nearly awful enough according to historical accounts. Commodus engaged in all sorts of debased acts, and was even known to force people to beat themselves to death with pinecones — truly cruel and unusual if you ask, well, anyone. And while a blowout between Commodus and Maximus is thrilling, the real Commodus was strangled in the tub by a wrestler named Narcissus.
16. 10,000 BC
Oh no, where to even begin? The film’s premise is a mammoth hunter, D’Leh, must go on a dangerous quest to rescue his love, Evolet, who was captured by warriors on horseback…except that humans didn’t domesticate horses until thousands (6,500 to be exact) years later. And then there’s the matter of mammoths.
In maybe the strangest choice, there are mammoths shown to be building the Egyptian pyramids, despite the film (and mammoths) taking place in the Ice Age, a full 8,000+ years before the pyramids. If you sacrifice substance for style, and treat the film like a sci-fi fantasy, then it’s all pretty epic.
17. The Greatest Showman
We might actually prefer the Hollywood version of P.T. Barnum’s life to the truth, which was, unfortunately, considerably more opportunistic. The Greatest Showman is obviously a musical, and while we wish people broke out into spontaneous song and dance, that’s not where the movie strayed.
P.T. Barnum was in truth, not exactly a bastion of tolerance and acceptance. Early in the years of his traveling troupe of “freaks” Barnum’s greatest attraction was an elderly African American slave woman he marketed as the nursemaid of George Washington. Not cool, Barnum. Knowing that, Hugh Jackman in a top hat is far more preferable.
We love Amadeus for “the music, the madness, the murder.” With it’s flair for the flamboyant and some seriously standout performances, Amadeus is inarguably an excellent film. Fortunately, being an award-winning film doesn’t have anything to do with historical accuracy, because Salieri certainly did not murder Mozart. In fact, they were friends.
From the very beginning history is altered to suit the plot, seeing as the real Salieri wasn’t the bitter bachelor Amadeus would have you believe, but actually a father of eight. And in Mozart’s diary he wrote rather congenially about Salieri, inviting him to the opening of his opera “The Magic Flute.”
19. Bonnie & Clyde
The story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow is world famous, riveting everyone as much now as it did in the Depression Era. So, we already know that the stickup artists actually went on a prolific crime spree — but they weren’t the Robin Hood-types you see on screen.
They weren’t robbing the rich and giving to the poor. They were actually robbing small-town shops and farmers’ banks, and all for themselves. Perhaps a real-life member of the Barrow Gang has said it best, “The only thing that ain’t plumb silly the way they play it is the gun battles.” We’ll take the stylish Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway over the real deal any day.
Is Titanic king of the world of historically accurate Hollywood movies? Not quite, but that’s okay, we love it anyway. Romance is just more romantic when it’s a tale of forbidden love, so we’ll ignore the fact that Jack and Rose, had they been real people, probably wouldn’t have met aboard the real Titanic.
The mingling of first and third class passengers would’ve been highly unlikely — much like the idea that first class was a snooze-fest and steerage was a swingin’ good time. Thankfully the presence of Picasso’s masterpiece “Les demoiselles d’Avignon” in Rose’s room is completely preposterous, and the real painting is on view, without water damage, at the MOMA in Manhattan.
21. Mary Queen of Scots
It’s off with her head and off with the facts in this film covering the clash between Mary, Queen of Scotland, and her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. While we’re all for more diversity in Hollywood, in terms of historical accuracy, there would’ve been far fewer people of color in 16th century England.
Regardless, the real reason to gripe about the film’s anachronisms, is the meeting between the two queens, who never met in person. The pair weren’t friends as the films first depicts, and at most, they were pen pals with some pretty potent animosity. As a film about two feisty women fighting, however, it’s well worth a watch.
22. Cool Runnings
Who doesn’t smile when they hear, “Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme, get on up, it’s bobsled time.” History shows that audiences love a good sports movie, and an underdog movie even more. But history also shows that Cool Runnings, marketed as “based on a true story” isn’t all that true.
The first ever Jamaican bobsled team did compete in the 1988 Winter Olympics, but the backstories the movie gave their characters aren’t based on any true stories at all. The results of the race, and when the team walked to the finish line, however, was real, and we’re happy to applaud that momentous moment.
23. The Imitation Game
For a film largely about code breaking, you might be surprised to find out that there’s actually too much espionage written into the script for it to have stuck to reality. In The Imitation Game Alan Turing discovers that Bletchley Park colleague John Caincross is a Soviet spy, except the two would never have met.
Blackmailed by Cairncross over his homosexuality, Turing covers up Cairncross’ crime, a capital crime itself, and wholly imaginary. Also imaginary? Detective Nock, and his suspicions that Turing is himself a Soviet spy. Nonetheless, inaccuracies and all, Benedict Cumberbatch acts this one out of the park.
24. Dallas Buyer’s Club
We don’t want to knock Matthew McConaughey’s return to form in The Dallas Buyer’s Club, but this isn’t about acting (because he really earned that Academy Award), it’s about historical accuracy. Ron Woodroof was real, as was his HIV diagnosis, but Hollywood definitely used creative license in telling his story.
Jennifer Garner’s character Dr. Saks isn’t based on anybody, since Woodroof’s real-life doctor was a man named Steve Pounders, and contrary to the film, were pretty positive they didn’t have a flirtation. Oh, and despite the film’s claims of effectiveness (or lack) of certain AIDS/HIV medications, we recommend trusting a doctor, not The Dallas Buyer’s Club.
If Lisztomania, the supposed biopic of Hungarian composer Franz Liszt is wrong, we don’t want to be right. Is it the most bizarre film based on a historical figure you’ll ever see? Without a doubt. Was it historically accurate in any way? Absolutely not. But once you hear the plot, you’ll have to watch it just to believe it was ever made.
Lisztomania features Roger Daltrey (of rock band The Who) as a wild partying Franz Liszt, Ringo Starr plays the Pope, there’s a spaceship attack by the ghost of Liszt on German composer Richard Wagner, who’s a zombie and dressed as Adolf Hitler for some reason. Who needs factual accuracy when you have a plot this great?
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