If screenwriters and directors were required by penalty of law to showcase history without any artistic license, a trip to the movies would be nothing but a mindless bore. However, if you learned your history from some of these Hollywood blockbusters, you might not want to showcase that knowledge in school or they'll stick you in the "special" class with the double-sided erasers.
Source: Imagine Entertainment
Source: Universal Pictures
No one does a war film better than America. We hold the gold standard patent to producing big budget battles that fill the screen with wild gunfire and explosions while underhandedly contemplating the strange duality of human nature and its never-ending lust for blood, power, and freedom. But what about truth? That comes in a distant seventh behind control, lust, and six-pack abs that look good on a wide screen.
U-571 is a prime example of that notion when you realize that the British Navy, not the Americans, captured the Enigma decoder, one of World War II's most pivotal moments, using a destroyer and not an outdated submarine to trick the Germans into believing they were one of their own. Also, Matthew McConaghey could never be mistaken for British or German, no matter how much Meisterbrew you've consumed.
Source: Warner Bros. Pictures
Miloš Forman's almost comical look at one of the universe's greatest musical minds also took one of the greatest and most comical liberties with his story for the sake of a juicer plot line. And for a film that contains perhaps the most famous fart scene of all time, the embellishment still tops it in comedy.
It is true that Mozart had his share of rivalries with people such as composer Antonio Salieri, but Salieri wasn't nearly as successful in tanking Mozart's career as the film might have led you to believe. In fact, their relationship was more of a friendly rivalry, the way the way that, say, two neighborhood bars have with each other's customers or Philadelphia Eagles fans have with the Oakland Raiders (only with way more spilled human blood in the latter).
Source: Paramount Pictures
Forget the fact that the film's timeline is more screwed up than a calendar that lists 31 days for the month of "Fabulary." Forget the fact that the film completely ignores the fact that the real William Wallace grew up in a privileged family instead of as a muck-crawling peasant. You can even forget the rather glaring fact that all of the Scottish lower class in the film may not have had any money, food, or adequate housing, but still had access to a top notch orthodontist.
It's rather hard to ignore the very glaring fact that no one in Wallace's time wore kilts, simply because riding into war at the speed of the Scottish wind on a galloping horse would turn your balls into mince pie before the British could ever have a chance at them.
Source: Paramount Pictures
It's hard to imagine that an old film like Houdini starring Tony Curtis way back in 1953 could be so close to the actual history of the man and still get so much of it wrong. The final scene featuring Houdini doing his famous "Water Torture trick" and passing out in the arms of his beloved after he is rescued from what appears to be a serious drowning couldn't be more laughable if Curtis' final words were "Houdini out!"
Houdini may have died from one of his tricks, but the root cause is still a little sketchy. The night before his passing, he was punched in the stomach by some students who offered to sketch the man in his dressing room to prove his claim he could withstand any blows to the gut. He collapsed during the attempt after failing to ready himself for the punch and a doctor who examined him shortly thereafter determined he had acute appendicitis and required hospitalization, which Houdini refused because, being the professional showman, he had a show to do. In the end, infection may have had more to do with his death than magic, although the movie and the man's tragic end would have been cooler if a doctor pulled a rabbit out of his abdomen halfway through the operation.
6. The Patriot
Source: Centropolis Entertainment
It should come as no surprise that one of Hollywood's leading movie stars makes this list more than once. While it's sad to see Hollywood taking history so liberally on such a grand and epic scale, it does give me hope that a retelling of the Conan O'Brien/Jay Leno controversy will contain more guns and armored hardware than a Gaza Strip garage sale.
Francis Marion, the man who served as the historical basis for The Patriot, has a rather checkered history that can become very bewildering, depending on the person you're talking to and on what side of the Atlantic Ocean they live. And while Marion was a major contributor to the Revolutionary War and help achieved statehood for South Carolina in the days following the conflict, he wasn't a red, white, and blue Rambo either. The "Swamp Fox" owned slaves, participated in some very bloody warfare against the Cherokee Indians, and married his own cousin. Although, in his defense on that last one, he was from South Carolina.
5. Jefferson in Paris
Source: Touchstone Pictures
When a controversial film stars the likes of noble American statesmen Thomas Jefferson, you're bound to rustle more than a few bald eagle feathers.
This Merchant-Ivory film stars Nick Nolte as the founding father during his time as the U.S. French ambassador and the controversial affairs that have plagued his name more than 200 years after his death. Putting that notable footnote aside, the whole film is awash in glaring mistakes such inventions he claimed to make but never did, his indifferent attitude towards emancipating the slaves, and the fact he actually spoke fluent French. But the biggest mistake of all? Nick Nolte as Thomas Jefferson?!? What's next? "Coming this summer, The Day Lincoln Was Shot starring Gary Busey."
Source: Walt Disney Pictures
The words "peanut butter" and "poisonous snakes" go better together than "accurate historical drama" and "animated Disney film." Disney has made more than their share of flagrant historical mistakes when trying to turn legendary pieces of literature and famous moments in history into animated entertainment for children who can't sit still long enough to learn which talking animal got the U.S. into the Cold War.
But Pocahontas deserves special mention because it seems to go out of its way to save face and finish a motion picture before the bar at Disneyland's Club 33 closes. First of all, the actual Pocahontas (real name: Matoaka) is around 11 or 12 when she first met John Smith and since Smith was an adult, their relationship was more of a friendship than a love affair. She also didn't refuse to leave her homeland, but was instead kidnapped by the British and later married John Rofle before converting to Christianity.
And just guess who voices John Smith in this hysterical historical clusterf***? That's right, Mel Gibson! This man is witness to more historical fabrications than the majority of the NSA, the CIA, and the federal legislature combined.
3. A Beautiful Mind
Source: Imagine Entertainment
When a movie overlooks a few minor details for the sake of making a better story, it's easy to see that the director has his best intentions at heart. When a movie outright ignores entire chunks of a man's life to turn a scumbag into some kind of gushy superhero with a heart that pumps caramel for all the children of the world to enjoy, then it's easy to see that the director might have some kind of mental illness.
And it's probably not far off from the mental illness that John Forbes Nash suffered from before becoming the heroic subject of Ron Howard's Oscar winning film A Beautiful Mind. The film blatantly ignores the seedier aspects of the mathematician's life. For instance, he was a huge bisexual philanderer even during his marriage and fathered a child out of wedlock, leaving the mother destitute with the son being shuffled around a series of foster homes. He even admitted to believing that aliens from outer space were communicating with him instead of the conspiracies about communists smuggling bombs into his college that were featured in the film, which made the man look eligible for the National Mental Health Association's "Humanitarian of the Year" award by comparison.
2. The Sound of Music
Source: 20th Century Fox
Admit it. You might be the manliest man in the history of manhood. You might wake up every day and eat nails for breakfast and chew on broken glass for dinner. You might have a pair of testes that can shift the formation of tectonic plates every time you accidentally sit on them. But you've seen The Sound of Music and you secretly liked it.
Here's the cure: the actual Georg Von Trapp was a kind-hearted gentleman and Maria Von Trapp was the hot-tempered bitch. Sure she could be caring and kind and had deep affection for the children, but she could go from Mary Poppins to Mary Queen of Scotts at Mach 2. She often erupted in angry outbursts that seemingly came from nowhere, slammed doors, and threw whatever she could get her hands on during her temper tantrums.
And no, Mel Gibson was nowhere near the development of this movie...as far as I know.
1. Pearl Harbor
Source: Touchstone Pictures
If you're citing a Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer movie in a historic research paper as a credible source of accurate data, historians should have the legal authority to authorize a bottomless fund to invent the ability to travel back into history and remove you from it. It's beyond sad when the duo's most historically accurate film on their resumes is Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
Pearl Harbor, however, has so many historic inaccuracies and mistakes that it would take a team of hardcore fact checkers who run caffeine through their veins to find all of them and a group of indentured gnomes to commit all of them to paper. So here instead is its most egregious: the first shot in the film of the actual Pearl Harbor features a not-so-subtle background shot of the USS Arizona Memorial, the infamous ship that sank and took its brave crew of 1,177 men down with it.
The whole thing is full of pre-dated vehicles, from the crop duster in the film's 1920s scenes that wasn't built until 1934 to Spitfire helicopters that had four propellers when they should have had three. The stories of 2nd Lts. George Welch and Danny Taylor were heavily fictionalized, so much so that the entire love triangle angle was completely pulled out of thin air and never happened in real life. They even misspelled the names of important landmarks like Mitchel Field, spelling it on a sign with two "Ls" instead of one.
But here's the most egregious: the first shot in the film of the actual Pearl Harbor features a not-so-subtle background shot of the USS Arizona Memorial, the infamous ship that sank and took its brave crew of 1,177 men down with it. I wonder if Bay also wrote the script with one of those pencils with the double-sided erasers. Nah, why be that cruel? That's assuming he knows how to write in the first place.