Nothing captivates a viewer quite like the prospect of a film “based on a true story." Stories about real people, places and events tend to add an extra element of magic to a movie. Some directors seem to believe that their artistic license enables them to venture far beyond what could be reasonably defined as "historically accurate." Audiences then proceed to consume these films under the incorrect assumption that these movies are completely true.
Characters are added and removed, romantic interests are created, moments are exaggerated — or fabricated entirely — and dates changes. Despite some truth bending and trickery, many of these films are widely beloved by fans, though they rarely prove to be very popular amongst historians.
Let's take a look at the 15 Most Historically Inaccurate Movies Ever.
Though many of these films have been out for years, massive spoilers lie ahead. Scroll at your own peril!
15 Shakespeare in Love (1998)
This Best Picture Oscar winner stars Joseph Fiennes as a young, broke Shakespeare with writer's block who meets his dream girl and is thusly motivated to write one of his most famous plays. While the story is not one draped in historical accuracy, the background and setting draw the eye to inaccuracies that stand out. The characters drink out of modern beer glasses and the Queen attends a play publicly; any plays she would have seen would have been performed in her own court. Add to that the theatres would have been closed anyway in the dying days of the bubonic plague outbreak, and you've got yourself a fairly impossible scenario.
The film creates an alternate universe where Shakespeare’s inspiration for ‘Romeo and Juliet’ mirrors his own experience in forbidden love. Luckily, screenwriter Marc Norman never pretended the film was rooted in fact, but its liberal take on the life of the most famous writer in history undoubtedly mislead numerous viewers into thinking Shakespeare was essentially a run-of-the-mill starving artist at one stage, just like countless others.
14 JFK (1991)
Director Oliver Stone has an obvious love for making historical films, and this thriller tracks a New Orleans District Attorney (played by Kevin Costner) who uncovers that there's more to the Kennedy assassination than the official story. The opening of the film is a montage of both archived and recreated footage, giving the audience the impression the movie will take more of a documentary approach. *Spoilers* It doesn't. It convincingly merges truth and conspiracy, putting weight behind the popularisation of JFK conspiracies in the years since his assassination.
The conspiracy used in JFK was based on the 1967 spoof, The Case of Jim Garrison, which was revealed to be false in 1972. In the film, key witness Perry Russo is shown freely giving his testimony, though in reality, he was drugged before his testimony. A vital scene in the movie is David Ferrie’s breakdown and confession, though that has been proven to be a figment of the director’s imagination; Ferrie has always maintained his innocence.
Stone's thriller even managed to strongly imply that Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy's successor in the White House, was a driving force behind the assassination, though very little evidence exists to support that claim.
13 Gladiator (2000)
Another Best Picture winner that was a bit light on the facts, Gladiator is an epic historical drama directed by Ridley Scott, starring Russell Crowe as the fictional Roman General, Maximus Decimus Meridius. Maximus is betrayed and falls from General to slave, where he gains widespread respect fighting as a gladiator. While several historians were hired to consult on the film's historical accuracy, it’s interesting to note that one left because of changes to the script.
Some of the characters directly around Maximus are real historical figures, though the facts have been blurred. In the film, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius is killed by his son Commodus, though in reality he died of chickenpox. Regarding Joaquin Phoenix’s snivelling, incestuous and creepy portrayal of Commodus, historical records indicate that he was nothing like this, and that he was a well-liked ruler for over a decade. He did fight in show combat, but was never murdered in the arena — in fact, he was strangled in the bath by his wrestling partner/lover Narcissus. We would have paid to see that spin-off movie.
12 U-571 (2000)
In this turn of the century war film, a German submarine is commandeered by disguised American submariners as they attempt to capture the Enigma cipher machine. U-571 is so inaccurate, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair labelled it “an affront to the real sailors." The film is based on the real story of "Operation Primrose," where the U-110 was captured, not the U-571. There were no Americans involved, as the operation was undertaken by the British before the U.S. had even entered the war.
Director Jonathan Mostow’s film gives the American squad credit for capturing the enigma machine and helping crack the encrypted Nazi messages. None of these Americans actually had anything to do with the codes being broken, it was a joint effort between Polish and British mathematicians in a far away office. An honorable mention goes to this movie for starring Jon Bon Jovi, who gets shot over the side and goes out in quite a “Blaze of Glory.”
11 Apocalypto (2006)
Set in the Mayan Kingdom in the face of its demise, the rulers insist the key to survival is to build more temples and offer human sacrifices. Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), one of the young men captured for sacrifice, runs away to avoid his death. The use of the real ancient Mayan language throughout director Mel Gibson's film gives the film a true sense of authenticity, one that isn’t mirrored by its historical accuracy.
The Mayans in the film were portrayed as radical savages, which was more akin to the Aztecs; the Mayans were a reasonably peaceful people. Mayans also rarely performed any human sacrifice. If they did, it was against treacherous elites, never commonfolk. Additionally, the movie ends with the arrival of the Spaniards, which didn’t happen in Mexico until around 400 years after the Mayan collapse.
10 300 (2006)
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice helmer Zack Snyder's breakout hit, 300 is an adaptation of Frank Miller’s 1998 comic series, which itself is a fictionalized retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae. The battle is definitely one of the most one-sided efforts in recorded history, though not quite on the scale the film would lead you to believe. The 300 Spartans were unable to match their enemy and formed an alliance with other Greek city-states, pushing their ranks to around 7,000. And while their attire revealed chiseled abs that looked great on camera — and served as a source of inspiration for the Halloween costumes of fraternity brothers nationwide that year — the Spartans would have worn actual armour instead of the glorified loincloths featured in the film.
The Persian Empire were also represented inaccurately in the film. Xerxes certainly wasn’t a weird, bald giant with a deep voice and an effeminate appearance, and the Persian Empire actually prohibited slavery because of their Zoroastrian beliefs. In fact, the Spartans were one of the largest owners of slaves in Greece. Another odd inclusion is the Spartans teasing the Athenians for being “boy lovers,” when Spartans themselves weren’t all that shy about their Pederasty.
9 10,000 BC (2008)
This Roland Emmerich-directed prehistoric epic follows D’Leh, a young mammoth hunter, though his journey to ensure the safety of his tribe. This is far and away the worst film on this list, and one of the worst-ever efforts from the Independence Day: Resurgence helmer, though one that wouldn't likely have been saved by a more accurate depiction of prehistoric life.
10,000 BC’s astounding choice to have woolly mammoths living in the desert was one thing, but then making them help create the pyramids was an extra level of madness. Nevermind the fact that the pyramids weren’t constructed until about 8,000 years later. The tools used by prehistoric man were also historically incorrect: the film is supposedly set in the mesolithic age, and use of metal of any kind didn’t take place for at least another 6,000 years. Thankfully for moviegoers, Emmerich appears to returning to his "blow everything up" roots this summer, and by the looks of things, he's done a bang-up job.
8 Marie Antoinette (2006)
Sofia Coppola’s eye catching depiction of France in the lead up to the French Revolution is a beautiful film. The vibrancy of both colour pallette and costuming gave the movie a unique visual look, one that almost helped disguise the historical accuracy. The almost fantastical approach to the setting allowed Coppola to take (a bit too much) artistic liberty, resulting in the portrayal of France’s iconic Queen being more of a painting than a photograph.
Coppola’s visual style caused issues too. Clothes were dyed colours unavailable at the time, and even a pair of Converse shoes can be spotted under a dress. But the greatest liberties were taken in the storytelling department. In the film, Marie Antoinette and Louis-Auguste share a bed together, which they didn’t. Her seduction took a few months on screen. In real life, it was seven years. The main issue with the film is that there are no politics. It seems people don’t like her, but it’s not made clear why. All the time is tediously spent between shopping, eating, being fettered upon, and a sexual liaison with Count Axel Fersen — one which is historically disputed.
Marie Antoinette isn’t the most offensive portrayal of a historical figure, it's just a boring one.
7 The Last Samurai (2003)
Tom Cruise stars as Nathan Algren, an American military advisor hired by the Japanese after being captured in battle. While Japan did hire foreign military advisors, they never once hired an American, as their advisors were mostly French. While one can forgive the change of origin for the military advisor, it is still doubtful a retired Civil War veteran could become a master samurai at all, let alone in such a short period of time. Many shots in the film see Algren helping teach the Japanese how to shoot muskets, when at that time most Japanese men were already adept at shooting repeating rifles.
Samurai fought in this period to stay atop the social classes, though in The Last Samurai they are portrayed as nobleman fighting for the greater cause. Ken Watanabe’s character is based on the real life Saigo Takamori, who committed ritual suicide or “seppuku,” and did so in defeat, not while being shot at by gatling gun fire.
While Cruise's film is a highly entertaining effort, if you find yourself desiring a more accurate depiction of late 1800’s Japan, check out the 1980 miniseries, Shogun.
6 The Patriot (2000)
This portrayal of the American Revolution follows Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson, in his second appearance on our list) as he leads the Colonial Militia after his son is murdered by a British officer. The film is more akin to American patriot propaganda, particularly in the unfair representation of the British Soldiers whose depiction is reminiscent of the Nazi’s in World War II. This is most prevalent in the scene where the soldiers burn the elderly, women and children to death inside a church. Jason Isaacs’ evil British colonel was based on the historical figure Col. Tarleton, and there is no evidence that he ever broke the rules of engagement, let alone by shooting a child in cold blood.
While Gibson’s character is a sympathetic father in The Patriot, it is historically recorded that the man on which his character was based, Francis “The Swamp Fox’ Marion, hunted Native Americans for sport and raped his female slaves. He also didn’t have his children until after the war — when he married his cousin. While watching this movie, definitely keep in mind that it's almost entirely a work of fiction, albeit entertaining fiction. No fact typifies the inaccuracies in this movie quite like the final battle of Guilford Court House, where Martin defeats his nemesis. In reality, the Americans lost that skirmish.
5 Alexander (2004)
This epic about Alexander the Great's conquest of the world has been met with controversy since its release, including a threatened lawsuit against director Oliver Stone (another repeat offender on this list) and Warner Bros. for the film's inaccurate portrayal of history. One of the lawyers involved in the case, Yannis Varnakos, said that “the production company should make it clear to the audience that this film is pure fiction."
Critical scrutiny from historians comes from the fact that the movie is more of a reduction and compression of Alexander’s life events, rather than an accurate biopic of the man's achievements. The filmmakers condense several of his key life events into smaller ones, and some of his actions are even attributed to different individuals from those in history. The majority of actions and milestones depicted did in fact occur, though in different times and locations. For example, three major battles, the Battle of the Granicus, the Battle of Issus and the Battle of Gaugamela, are all merged into one. It is immensely difficult to piece together the proceedings of Alexander's life, due to the inconsistencies of his historical records — so much so that there have been 4 Director’s Cuts since the film's release to try and fix this issue.
4 Braveheart (1995)
Director/star Mel Gibson's third appearance on this list, Braveheart follows William Wallace, a 13th century Scottish warrior who begins a revolt against King Edward I of England. The film dramatizes a lot, and the timeline is heavily altered, as real life historical figures' ages simply don’t line up. Historians have taken issue with the film's battle scenes as well, as the film depicts armies haphazardly running into the enemy rather than actual tactical warfare. The famous kilts which make the Scottish stand out against their English opponents are also being worn about 300 years too early.
The biggest inaccuracy is Wallace’s romantic interest. In the film, Wallace seduces King Edward II’s Wife, Isabella of France, and the resulting child was Edward III. According to the history books, Isabella was just 3 years old at the battle of Falkirk, and Edward III wasn’t born until 7 years after Wallace’s death. Those timeliness don’t really seem to add up. To add icing on the cake, remember the Battle of Sterling Bridge depicted in the film? It didn't feature a bridge in real life.
3 Argo (2012)
Directed by and starring Ben Affleck, the 2013 Best Picture and Screenplay-winning movie follows an undercover CIA agent masquerading as a Hollywood producer in order to rescue 6 Americans in Tehran during the U.S. hostage crisis in 1980. The offensive portrayal of Iranians as bearded fanatics was just the beginning — essentially none of the film's most memorable moments ever happened.
A major point of contention in the film is the American government's resistance to the film crew plan. This was never an issue; in fact, they chose the film crew option out of 3 options offered by the CIA right off the bat. Affleck’s version of events sees the crew almost get lynched by a group of Iranians in Tehran's Grand Bazaar. In reality, this never happened, mainly because they were never there. Another conflict comes when their plane tickets are cancelled and later reconfirmed, where the real-world wife of the Canadian ambassador personally pre-purchased tickets.
Speaking of the Canadian influence, President Jimmy Carter acknowledged that “90% of the contributions to the ideas and the plan were Canadian." New Zealand also helped, but the movie lays all the praise on the U.S. There was no interrogation, and definitely no last second chase on the airport runway with crazy Iranians wielding automatic weapons. One of the actual diplomats noted that the CIA’s fake cover story was “never tested and in some ways proved irrelevant." That doesn’t make for a very exciting movie though, does it?
2 Pearl Harbor (2001)
Michael Bay’s 2001 retelling of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor doesn’t have much in common with reality, apart from the fact that Japan did of course bomb the United States in 1941. The movie follows fictional characters Danny and Rafe, who are stationed in Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor during the attack, seeing them hop into planes to shoot down the enemy fighters. They live through the battle before being sent to bomb Tokyo.
Historians state that only a few Japanese fighters were ever shot down, while in the movie the number is well over 20. Also, fighter pilots would never have been sent to Tokyo to bomb targets. What’s more is that Rafe would never even have been allowed in the British squadron, as it was a violation of neutrality. The ultimate fictionalization comes when it is revealed that Rafe is not only a master aviator, but well-trained in the ancient art of Origami. An oddity, considering that Origami was only discovered by foreign troops after the war. These all pale in comparison to the moment when President Roosevelt stands up from his wheelchair to make a dramatic speech, of course.
1 Pocahontas (1995)
A Disney classic, Pocahontas tells the story of an English soldier and the daughter of an Algonquin chief as they become romantically involved when the English colonists invade Virginia in the 17th Century. These inaccuracies seem a bit strange when talking about a beloved children’s movie, but there are plenty of them to speak of. In the film, Pocahontas and John Smith are both adults, though history records that Pocahontas was roughly 10 years old at the time Smith arrived.
Moreover, Smith’s story of a child rescuing him from being killed by her tribe may not even be true, as evidence of the incident is scarce. What historians do know is that the romantic ending is starkly contrasted by the real life of Pocahontas, who was married off to another man, renamed Rebecca and converted to Christianity before dying at the ripe old age of 22. We're not so sure that ending would have sat very well with the kids, though.
What movies have you seen that take artistic license with history? Did we miss any of your favorite liberty-taking films? Let us know in the comments!