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

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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:


About Author

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.