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While the newly-released Pompeii has been praised for its well-researched reconstruction (and destruction) of the ancient titular city, it’s an exception to the rule for historical epics. Sam Shedden picks out seven films that suffer from glaring historical inaccuracies.
When it comes to historical epics, Hollywood has the habit of twisting the events to make a movie that little bit more exciting. Sometimes this can actually improve the whole film. Take gangster flick The Untouchables. Sean Connery’s character, Jim Malone, the tough Irish beat cop (bizarrely with a Scottish accident) never actually existed, unlike the rest other “untouchables” portrayed. But they get a pass because he’s such a great addition to the cast.
On other occasions the screenwriters just take things too far and butcher historical fact to the point that it can barely be called ‘historical’ at all. Here we run through ten of the most wildly inaccurate movies.
10,000 BC (2008)
Granted, it could be argued this movie adopts a mythical setting. However, the fact it was rubbish and got deservedly savaged by audiences and critics alike means it’s fair game.
Historical Truth: ….. Not many….errmm… humanity was around in 10,000BC, so that’s one thing. Unless of course you’re a Creationist – in which case they got absolutely nothing right.
Pure fiction: Where to start? Egyptian pyramids and massive cities being built by slaves on woolly mammoths is a pretty big blunder. There’s no evidence that mammoths were ever domesticated (or worked in construction), and as the hunter-gatherer lifestyle was in vogue back then we didn’t start to form cities till around 4000BC . Also, seeing as there is the small matter of an Ice Age during 10,000 BC , the movie world seems a remarkably temperate place.
Oh yes I’m going there. Ridley Scott’s epic story about a Roman General betrayed by his Emperor, who fights for a chance to avenge his murdered family by battling as a gladiator, is a fantastic movie. However, there are some heavy-handed fictions surrounding Scott’s depiction of Joaquin Phoenix’s character: Emperor Commodus.
Historical Truth: Commodus was a bit of a megalomaniac. He often stressed his status as a source of god-like power. He also fancied himself as a bit of a warrior and regularly participated in gladiatorial combat. And like the movie he didn’t fight fair – often battling amputees or wounded soldiers.
Pure Fiction: The movie compresses Commodus’ 13-year reign into no more than two years. The real Commodus was also younger, stronger, married and more physically fit than the movie portrays, and he didn’t kill his father.
Zack Snyder’s stylish action flick is an adaption of Frank Miller’s comic-book take on the legend of 300 Spartan Warriors who faced off against thousands of Persians in 480 BC. As it’s based on a graphic novel we can overlook the fantastical half-human, half-beast creatures that King Xerxes employs – but there is still much that has been made up.
Historical Truth: It is largely accepted that there were 300 Spartan soldiers at the Battle of Thermopylae. The Spartans were pretty bad-ass. They received brutal warrior training from birth. The battle was ended by the enemy being informed of a hidden path and outflanking the Greeks.
Pure Fiction: The Spartans get all the credit here. What the movie neglects to mention is that while 300 Spartans came to Thermopylae spoiling for a fight – they were also joined by 6,000-7,000 Greeks from other cities. King Leonidas sneers at the Athenians for being “boy-lovers”, but Spartan society actively encouraged homosexuality. Spartan leaders used homosexual sex and love as a way to foster stronger bonds amongst its warriors, yet this is totally ignored in the movie.
Mel Gibson’s starring role as Scottish hero William Wallace, as he fights for freedom against the English, captured the hearts of many. But while there was of course a real William Wallace who battled the English in the 13th century, the film added some fictional tidbits to sex up the story.
Historical Truth: The outnumbered Scots did indeed score a great victory against the ‘Auld Enemy’ at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297, and were led by William Wallace.
Pure Fiction: Firstly, where the hell was the actual bridge in that aforementioned battle? Secondly, Wallace’s relationship with French princess Isabella has no basis in fact: she would have been around nine-years-old at the time of Wallace’s death (as Stewart Lee so wryly noted). As for the Scottish warriors’ attire, kilts weren’t invented until several hundred years after the 13th century.
It may seem like a cheap shot taking a dig a Disney’s movie about a Native American who falls in love with an English explorer as the British begin colonisation of America. However, the story has angered many Native American historians for its fluffy portrayal of a dark time in their history.
Historical Truth: The real John Smith was indeed captured by the Powhatan Tribe that Pocahontas belonged to, and Smith did claim in his memoirs that the young daughter of the Chief threw herself over him to stop him getting his brains bashed in.
Pure Fiction: In Disney’s cuddly world, after fighting, the Native Americans and the English all make friends and settle together. In reality it was a terrible time for the natives. Waves of European diseases and opportunistic land-grabs wiped out 90% of the indigenous population.
Pearl Harbor (2001)
Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett play two American pilots who get caught up in the Japanese World War II attack on Pearl Harbor. But just how accurate was this $140 million war epic’s depiction of the attack that brought America into the war?
Historical Truth: The nurse corps led by Kate Beckinsale are portrayed as dedicated and tireless in the face of numerous casualties. This is a fair representation: the nurse corps were some tough ladies.
Pure Fiction: A lot to choose from here. Admiral Kimmel was not actually on the golf course when the attack happened. Recent declassified documents revealed that Washington received warnings of Japanese aggression three days before attack, but took no action. Someone messed up in a big way.
Another World War 2 movie makes the list. This tale of American submariners who successfully steal the German’s secret code is so inaccurate it deeply annoyed the British government.
Historical Truth: The capture of the Enigma codebook, which the German Navy used to send encrypted fleet messages, was a massive win for the Allies. An Allied ship boarded a German sub that it forced to surface with depth charges and claimed the valuable encryption book.
Pure Fiction: USA! USA! USA! Oh wait hang on, the entire operation was done by the British! The actual operation took place in May 1941, seven months before the Americans even entered the war.
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Spot any other historical inaccuracies in movies we’ve missed?