10 Things History Got Wrong, Part Five (Movie Edition!)

thingshistorygotwrong5

A Brief History

On September 11, 1297, Scottish forces led by William “Braveheart” Wallace defeated the English at Stirling Bridge.  Amazingly, in the 1995 Mel Gibson movie, the battle of Stirling Bridge is depicted without a bridge!  Hollywood movies regularly get history wrong, and here 10 such movies containing inaccuracies are listed.  What movies would you add to the list?

Digging Deeper

10. One million Years B.C., 1967.

A remake of a 1940 film, this one stars Raquel Welch (the leading sex symbol of the time) as a member of remarkably modern-looking cave people who interact with dinosaurs, although these died out at least 60 million years before cavemen actually lived.  The movie also mixes up dinosaurs from different eras that did not co-exist together.  Even the other ancient critters depicted in the movie are not quite correct; the giant spider never existed and the extinct sea turtle, the archelon, is shown three times larger than it was in real life.

9. Alexander, 2004.

An Oliver Stone film starring Colin Farrell as the golden-haired king, the movie was criticized for overplaying the homosexual tendencies of Alexander and his pals.  To help the movie flow better, many important events were cut or consolidated with others.  For example, the movie simply skips over the conquest of Egypt, without even acknowledging that it happened.  Other events were depicted as being performed by someone other than the actual person the event was historically ascribed to.  Also soldiers are depicted without beards.  Furthermore, Alexander is wounded in the wrong battle, and a battle that took place at night in the rain is shown as taking place on a sunny day.  In addition the enemies of the Greeks are shown to be confused and unorganized, in contrast to the perfectly disciplined and prepared Greeks. Incredibly, one of the main criticisms was that the film was too much like an historical documentary rather than an action film.

8. JFK, 1991.

Nominated for 8 Oscars and the winner of 2, this film received copious amounts of criticism about its accuracy (or rather lack thereof) and innuendo which included the implication that Lyndon Johnson had something to do with the murder of John F. Kennedy.  The film also revolves around a discredited case that which alleged a conspiracy to murder JFK with a man named Clay Shaw at the center of it.  Shaw was acquitted in real life, and serious historians do not believe he was involved with the assassination. The film also portrays Lee Harvey Oswald as a bad shot unlikely to be able to shoot the president, when real-life recreations show that the relatively short shot would not be difficult for almost any marksman. 

7. Cleopatra, 1963.

An epic film starring Elizabeth Taylor as the ethnic-Greek Egyptian queen, Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar and Richard Burton as Marc Antony, Cleopatra won 4 Oscars and was nominated for 5 others.  At a cost of $44 million, it was the most expensive film ever made, however, despite also being the highest grossing film of 1963, the $26 million it earned at the box office was not enough to keep 20th Century Fox from almost going out of business.  Some of the inaccuracies of the movie include the portrayal of Cleopatra by the beautiful and nubile Liz Taylor, when in real life she was not known for her delicate features, although she apparently did use her feminine wiles to good effect.  Caesarion, Cleopatra’s son by Julius Caesar, is shown in the movie being made a Roman citizen, when in fact Caesar never acknowledged the boy.  An anomaly for the horticulturists among the readers, the film depicts philodendrons, which are South American plants and could not have been in Rome or Egypt at the time.  Cleopatra’s palace and furnishings are shown with Egyptian styles that are 1 or 2 thousand years earlier than the setting of the movie, and lastly the movie also prominently features an arch in Rome that was not built until 350 years later.

6. The Left Handed Gun, 1958.

A film about Henry McCarty, better known as Billy the Kid, and starring Paul Newman, the title and the assumption that Billy was left handed show how easily movies can jump to wrong conclusions and perpetuate myths. Billy was not left handed in real life.  People got that impression from the only known photograph of him that appears to show him wearing a pistol on his left hip.  That photo is actually transposed (like a mirror image), and the “Kid” was wearing the pistol on his right hip in real life. The stereotypical gunfights in the film are also not accurate, as the real Billy fought battles, not duels.

5. The Babe Ruth Story, 1948.

Hurriedly made while Ruth was dying, the movie was intended to capitalize on the legend and aura of the “Babe,” America’s greatest sports hero.  Although the movie purports to be a biography of Ruth, it leaves out any mention of his first wife.  Ridiculous scenes include Ruth curing a crippled boy just by saying a passing hello.  Ruth making a promise to another boy dying of cancer and coming through with the homer is fiction, as is the boy’s immediate medical improvement.  It also portrays the famous “called shot” home run as fact, which is dubious at best.  Reviews included comments such as “Worst movie I ever saw” and “Perfectly Dreadful.” Hey, nothing is perfect!

4. The Patriot, 2000.

The title character of this movie that depicted the American Revolutionary War on the southern front is actually a composite of 4 real American fighters.  As Professor Mark Glancy of the University of London states, the film is “horrendously inaccurate.”  Even critic Roger Ebert said, “None of it has much to do with the historical reality of the Revolutionary War.” The title character portrayed by Gibson is not a slave owner in the movie, but in real life the 4 men his character is based did indeed own slaves, and moviemaker Spike Lee complained bitterly about the failure of the movie to depict slavery in the Colonies.  Instead the British are portrayed as barbaric psychopaths, which is also inaccurate.  The worst misrepresentation is of the British burning down a church full of Americans, something that never happened.  The brutal British leader is shown in the movie as being impaled and dying in battle when in real life he died of old age in England.

3. The Great Escape, 1963.

An excellent film based on real events, the movie deviates from reality by making some of the characters composites of the real people involved.  Several of the stars in the film were war veterans, some of whom had been wounded or captured.  The movie jazzes up events to include exciting scenes of an airplane being stolen and a motorcycle leaping over barbed wire, two things that did not happen in reality. The film also fails to acknowledge the contribution of Canadian prisoners of war (POWs) to the escape, although about 150 of them had been involved. The film did portray only 3 prisoners successfully escaping to the Allies, but the ones shown in the movie were not the prisoners who actually made it in real life. 

2. Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957.

This excellent movie not only won a total of 7 Oscars, including the one for Best Picture, it also features a catchy tune that is whistled.  Unfortunately, the inaccuracy starts with the bridge itself.  In the movie it is depicted as a  single wooden structure that is built by Allied POWs and then blown up by commandos, when in real life there had been both a temporary wooden bridge and a permanent steel and concrete bridge, both of which were used for 2 years before Allied bombers destroyed them. The British commander in the movie is portrayed as a collaborating dilettante, whereas the real commander was heroic and intrepid.  Even the name of the river is made up, with the actual name of the river being Mae Klong (changed to Khwae Yai in the 1960s). The real projects of building the Burma railroad and the bridges cost the lives of 13,000 Allied POWs and perhaps as many as 100,000 civilians.  As cruel as the Japanese are in the movie, real life was much worse.

1. Braveheart, 1995.

Starring Mel Gibson in the title role, this film garnered 10 Oscar nominations and took home 5 of the coveted awards. Not one of those awards was for historical accuracy though, and the movie is often ridiculed for its historical inaccuracy.  Aside from the lack of a bridge in the Stirling Bridge battle scene, other blunders include the very name of the film and its title character, Braveheart.  The real “Brave Heart” was not William Wallace but Robert the Bruce, a different character in the movie.  That Scotsmen wore kilts is also inaccurate for the time frame.  The blue paint (“woad”) on the faces of the Scottish soldiers is 1000 years off.  Even the romance plot is entirely made up.  The final death scene (execution of Wallace) leaves out the emasculation of Wallace.  And finally, his defiant yell of “Freedom!” is something Hollywood made up.

For another interesting event that happened on September 11, please see the History and Headlines article: “September 11, 1792: Hope Diamond Stolen!

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

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You may also enjoy the following video for some other “interesting” liberties taken in popular culture depictions of historic events:

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.

  • Cody

    I actually did a paper last semester on the patriot & knew before reading this artcile how inaccurate it was.

  • J. Benedict

    Some changes in these movies I understand because they wante to make the movie more exciting but most of them are just from lazy directors

  • Briana Yost

    This article made me dissapointed in the inaccuracy in Hollywood movies; whenever I watch movies saying they are based on actual events I expect it to be mostly true. It’s upsetting that movie makers don’t study the facts enough to make the movies correct or skip battles, add in romances, and other aspects that really mess up the idea of the true event.

  • rpugliese16

    Was definitely going to bring up the patriot before I went through the list. Very good point about the lack of showing slavery in the colonies during that time.

  • Ellen U

    With all of the historical inaccuracies in these films, I can only wonder how our current time and the events were are now experiencing will be portrayed in film and other media in the years to come.

  • GB

    This just goes to show that Hollywood will do anything to get its money for sequels and give the actors their share of the box office money. It is unfortunate that events are altered or added to make the movie more suspenseful.

  • Pat Vecellio

    It’s always interesting to learn about the Hollywood mistakes when it comes to historical fact. So many people rely on movies to base history, but as shown by this article, that is not a very trustworthy source. The Braveheart inaccuracy is always one of the most talked about historical changes. We just need to remember that movies are not always a good historical reference.

  • J. Ivey

    Reading about the movies and seeing which movies received awards is interesting. It is so interesting because those oscars are not always a reflection on how accurate the movie was or how well written it was. Sometimes,it is just explains the actors and the crew did their job well. I think Hollywood needs to take more time to produce in-depth and well researched and written scripts for the public.

  • Ian Gould

    It’s pretty entertaining and a bit sad to see that these films are so historically inaccurate. Knowing some people, they might actually take these films with a huge degree of historical accuracy instead of taking the time to research and read up on different findings that historians have made about our past. I think that this is really more of a cultural problem than a historical one, since it seems that films like these contribute to our society’s needs to be entertained while watching the news instead of just taking an objective look at the world around them. This phenomenon can also been seen with big news stations and other media outlets which might report information that is too juvenile or might even be down right false.

  • Alysha K

    Honestly I am not surprised by how inaccurately Hollywood portrays historical events in movies. Hollywood has a tendency of changing facts even when they are making books into movies. If they cannot make and accurate rendition of a single book, then I would not expect them to come close to accurately portraying important events in history. The big problem with this is that people trust Hollywood’s versions of “history” and think that is factual.

  • Alex Colucy

    I always figured that a lot of the movies I have watched were historically incorrect, now it makes me want to do some research before watching these kinds of movies.

  • T.Haubert

    With the amount of historical inconsistencies in these specific films I wonder how many movies that are based on true stories are also depicted inaccurately

  • Josh Greiner

    I always knew that most movies had some sort of historical inaccuracy, but I had no idea to what extent.

  • S Eilerman

    Very interesting to see what historical inaccuracies movies have even though I had a feeling most do. Out of the list I have only seen Braveheart but I did not know there was actually a bridge.

  • Reese

    I’ve seen a couple of these movies that were listed, the Patriot being one of them. I couldn’t tell you that I really gave much thought to whether or not this particular movie was accurate or not, but I have often wondered that while watching movies that deal with history. I find it awkward that movie directors/producers can be so wrong about the history, you would think that they would study more about that specific area in history in order to produce the best quality movie.

  • Marisa M.

    Movies are not usually known for their accuracy, unless they are documentaries. It’s not surprising to see that these movies all performed well in the box office while being for the most part off the accuracy mark. Movies will continue to be inaccurate but hopefully they become less so in future years.

  • M Pribula

    I would mention Pocahontas, but that seems like cheating, so lets go with Gladiator. From the shortening of Commodus’s reign to just a few years to the use of dog breeds in battle that would not have existed at the time, the movie, while entertaining, should definitely not be taken as factual.

  • E.Ejsmont

    I am not surprised that these movies have so many historical inaccuracies. But I can see why directors would change certain historical facts to makes the movies more interesting

  • imengri17

    Definitely surprised to find out how many mistakes Braveheart had specifically, but most films with historic context have to have some sort of inaccuracy to make them entertaining.

  • Lexi DeRoia

    That’s crazy to me because I have seen cleopatra and the patriot numerous times!

  • Alex

    It does not surprise me that Hollywood has portrayed history inaccurately, but it does surprise me that JFK received many rewards despite its historical flaws. Movies are more concerned with making a profit and getting a bigger audience than being accurate.

  • ouiareborg

    It amazes me how hard people work to look smart. I stopped reading after a couple of entries. The writer of Braveheart, for instance, is on record as saying the work was his interpretation of events, and admitting it wasn’t completely accurate.

    “The film also portrays Lee Harvey Oswald
    as a bad shot unlikely to be able to shoot the president, when real-life
    recreations show that the relatively short shot would not be difficult
    for almost any marksman.” There are numerous accounts of top marksmen trying to duplicate the “Work” of Oswald on that day, including top people in the CIA, and no one could come close(Just Google).

    Was there any actual research for this list, or did you just make it up as you went along?

    • Daniel Zarzeczny

      The shot on Kennedy was less than 100 yards. A very convincing
      recreation shown on the History Channel puts a guy with a real Carcano
      rifle making the shot with no problem. Obviously, depending on the
      outcome desired, so called experts and recreationists may be prone to
      producing the results that they want. As an average rifle shot myself, I
      could easily make the shots. Whether or not the writers of a movie
      admit they are not going for historical accuracy, the point of the list
      is to point out historical inaccuracy, not a “gotcha” list.

  • Drew K.

    I think it is wild how Hollywood vastly distorted the history behind one of the most iconic movies of all time: Braveheart. One would think that the writers and producers would try and present the story as it actually occurred. Evidently that is wishful thinking.

  • Angelina Huber

    It is true that most of the movies that are based on real events are not always that accurate. However, Hollywood makes these changes in order to make the movie more exciting and much more watchable. It honestly doesn’t bother me when movies do not include the exact facts and details of a story.

  • Alexa B

    I’ve watched a lot of history movies in the past years of my life and I didn’t think they were 100% accurate but this is very surprising and eye opening. This just strengthens the idea of don’t believe everything you see in movies.

  • Cat Tripp

    I feel like there are a lot of movies that are historically inaccurate…they may be really inaccurate or just a few events were inaccurate…I feel like it would be hard to make a completely historically accurate movie besides documentaries, but I am sure they are out there. Most movies nowadays say “based on a true story” meaning that some events may be true or similar to what actually happened. A movie that could be historically inaccurate is Saving Private Ryan. I could be wrong on that one but I thought I heard that it was…obviously the battles in the beginning are true…but beyond that I do not know. This article was interesting to see but I feel like common misconceptions happen a lot in movies.

  • Daniel B

    It’s crazy that most of that was not known. Any producer about to make a movie needs to do his/ her research.

  • Vince Ziccardi

    Whenever I watch historical movies, I never watch them as if they were 100% accurate as depicted in the past. Braveheart is still a great movie despite the critics who do not like the historical inaccuracy. I also think that Disney’s Pocahontas should have been up on this list because there was never a romance between her and John Smith.

  • Lucy Lin

    interesting article! when it comes to Hollywood making history based movies, it’s not always the best source to get the right information about something. Although, I do feel like it’s much more interesting to watch a Hollywood based movie most of the time rather than a boring documentary one then again those can also be interesting and of course it would probably be more accurate.

  • Evin R

    I think that there will always be conspiracy about how JFK’s death truly came about and rightly so. Because of this, I think it’s hard to say in particular whether certain acts are accurate or not. Often history is told from the side of the winners.

  • Nikki Buzalka

    The shocking fact from this article I found is that the JFK movie won 2 Oscars but yet was so innacurate. Wow.

  • Hannah Overberger

    Wow, that’s a lot more historical inaccuracy than I thought movies had.

  • JonK

    I found this article to be very interesting. Last semester I took a History on Film class in which we viewed similar genres of film like the ones above. I learned though that every film no matter what will have some form of historical inaccuracies. This is mostly because how we observe and write about history is often skewed to the presenters points of emphasis. In this class I read an article (which I apologize, I forgot the title and author.) But it dealt with observing the “spirit” of the history in the film. This means taking a look at the scenery, wardrobe, and the everyday actions of the people in the film and making sure that those coexist with how people acted, dressed, and everyday looked. I feel that your critique of these films fails to examine this aspect of history that is portrayed in film.

  • DAVID WARDLE

    I have always watched movies for entertainment. If I wanted an accurate depiction of what happened historically, I would watch a documentary. — DAVID WARDLE

  • Forest G

    While I always expect a little bit of Hollywood magic to spice up a movie, I can’t believe they choose to lie about such mundane things sometimes. A little bit of research could certainly go far in aiding the suspension of disbelief!

  • Ryan Mains

    It is sad to think that Hollywood and its actors would wrongfully depict a historic event just to make it more pleasing to the audience of their choice. It not only shows people the wrong events but also shows that we can “change” history when in actuality we can’t.

  • Aaron C.

    These movies are historically incorrect but they do at least try to make history a little more interesting by using different film tactics.

  • Ali Adya

    When it comes to Hollywood and making movies for a profit; I guess producers will twist the truth to better fit a script and not the truth

  • E.S.

    If Hollywood has changed all of this in these movies, what else do they change? When it says based on a true story, I guess as long as the character has the real name it must be real. It a shame bc basically they lie about the story.

  • Claire Loffarelli

    It amazes me how far off some movies can be about historical events.

  • Amanda Evaleen Lint

    Had to do a review on the patriot its crazy the amount of inaccuracies

  • AN

    the Cleopatra movie from 1963 really had a lot of inaccuracies.

  • Rachael Petrime

    Oh Hollywood why do you do things like this?