Good drama, bad history: 11 historically inaccurate films you need to watch
From Westerns to war epics, countless movie producers have brought history to the silver screen – some more accurately than others. Here, author and journalist Eugene Byrne lists 11 of the most historically inaccurate – but rather brilliant – films you need to watch. From The Great Escape (1963) to Dunkirk (2017), these films are "good drama, but bad history"...
There is a particular type of person who will object to certain war movies because they have the wrong kind of tanks. There are classical civilisation enthusiasts who will sneer at films set during the Roman imperial period. (The hero is called ‘Maximus’ because of his maximum bigness as a hero, and if you don’t stop laughing the manager will ask you to leave the cinema.)
Film producers – and everyone who wishes to continue working in motion pictures – want to entertain audiences, and probably do not care that Crusades veteran Robin of Locksley is best mates with a Saracen warrior and that Nottingham isn’t just a three-minute stroll from Hadrian’s Wall. Besides, Robin Hood films are just about a legend; if you’re going to pick holes in the sets and period clothing you’re missing the point.
Because the point is – ultimately – bums on seats. And long before movies were ever invented, playwrights understood the demands of the box office too. No one (probably) came out of the Globe Theatre in 1599 moaning about Shakespeare’s inaccuracies about the Wars of the Roses.
Making a list of the most historically inaccurate films is a major undertaking. It would be far quicker to make a list of movies that are historically accurate (more of that later).
But here, and just for fun, is my look at just a few movies that are good drama, but bad history. Of course, it’s not definitive; you can probably think of many others...
The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)
This delightful old British film matters because Charles Laughton’s portrayal of Henry VIII as a bluff, boozy glutton with a glad eye for the ladies permanently fixed the popular image of him. The real Henry was not like this at all; he would never have devoured a chicken with his bare hands, and in person he was a prude of whose discreet extramarital amours we know little.
The oddest part of the film concerns his marriage to Anne of Cleves, who in the film is a glamour puss who wants a divorce in order to marry her lover – so she and Henry settle the matter over a game of cards! This. Never. Happened. Plus, Anne never re-married and lived out the rest of her life in comfortable and honoured retirement.
Charlton Heston plays a Jewish prince who crosses the Roman Empire and ends up a galley slave before going on to greater things. Like other big Hollywood sword ‘n’ sandal epics of the era (e.g. Quo Vadis (1951), Cleopatra (1963), Spartacus (1960) etc.) it’s big on spectacle and not at all scrupulous about period detail.
Based on Lew Wallace’s hugely popular 1880 novel, Ben-Hur gets one big thing massively wrong; the Romans hardly ever used slaves as galley oarsmen, as it was a job requiring skill and experience. But for that we have to blame Mr Wallace. Besides, who needs historical truth when you’ve got that fabulous chariot race?
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)
Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas star as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in this account of the actual shootout between lawmen and a group of cowboys, sometimes labelled ‘The Clanton Gang’ at Tombstone, Arizona in 1881. The real Earp and Holliday were altogether more colourful and morally ambiguous characters than the heroes of this film.
But then, Westerns always fictionalised the ‘Wild West’, not least because pulp novels and yellow press articles were doing the same thing for eager readers back east before movies were invented. There have been numerous other films made in more recent decades which, while usually works of fiction, often try to portray the West in a more convincing manner, with thorough attention to costumes and weapons, and by adding plenty of bad teeth, dirt and flies.
In this podcast, Hannah Greig and Greg Jenner tackle some of the big debates around historical dramas:
The Great Escape (1963)
Once a staple of Christmas TV schedules (now superseded by the blokey seasonal must-watch-yet-again Die Hard) this film was based on Australian pilot Paul Brickhill’s first-hand account of a massive breakout from a German Prisoner of War (Pow) camp in 1944.
As an American production that aimed to make back much of its investment from American audiences, it took enormous liberties with historical fact by including several US characters where most escapees were British/Commonwealth or from various European countries. While a broadly faithful portrayal of the minutiae of tunnelling and escape preparations, and the capture and execution of the fugitives, it’s hardly proper history. In reality, the three successful escapees were neither British nor American, but two Norwegians and a Dutchman.
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One Million Years BC (1966)
In all the annals of chronological ‘inexactitude’ in movies, this, I would argue, is the most ridiculous film ever made. Here we have humans battling dinosaurs created by stop-motion animation genius Ray Harryhausen, even though dinosaurs became extinct around 65 million years previously. Another problem is that it stars Raquel Welch wearing a Stone Age bikini – though for many cinemagoers at the time this was a major selling point.
Such was the film’s success that Hammer Films later followed it up with When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970), which also pitted prehistoric people – including more bikini-clad ladies – against long-extinct reptiles. Also giant crabs.
Proper historians might say that the real William Wallace was just another violent chancer, though some folk prefer to see him as per Mel Gibson in the 1995 film; a sensitive plaid-clad nationalist fighting for Scotland’s liberation from the filthy English and doubtless liberal democracy and free school milk, too.
The catalogue of historical liberties taken by the script is too long to even begin (ask the internet), but you can’t argue with its epic sense of drama and its equally epic box-office receipts. Plus, it was awfully good for the Scottish tourist industry.
Some people have it in for the Disney animated adventure which depicts a romance between English adventurer and explorer John Smith and the native American chief’s daughter, who would actually have been around 10 or 11 years old when they met. There’s no evidence of any romance between them and she later converted to Christianity and married an English settler named John Rolfe. But depicting a Disney Princess being wed to the guy who probably founded the Virginia tobacco industry was presumably a no-no…
The crew of an American submarine capture an Enigma machine from a German submarine, enduring all manner of hardship in the process. It’s a jolly good piece of drama, but nothing of the sort ever happened and the film caused anger in Britain because crewmen from the Royal Navy’s HMS Bulldog took an Enigma machine from a U-Boat in 1941, before the US had even bothered to turn up for the war.
Film historians at the time called attention to parallels with Objective Burma! (1945) starring Errol Flynn in a drama loosely based on an American special operations raid in Burma during the Second World War. The implication that Americans, who played a very small part in the Burma theatre of operations compared to large numbers of Indian, British and Empire/Commonwealth troops, had somehow won the campaign angered Winston Churchill. The film only went on general release in UK cinemas in the 1950s.
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The Imitation Game (2014)
… In which lone genius Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) cracks the German Enigma codes and so helps us win the war. Praised for its positive portrayal of a man who in real life endured horrible persecution for being gay, and for drawing his achievements to the attention of audiences world-wide, it’s very poor history. The cracking of the German codes (it doesn’t even mention the Lorenz cypher) was a team effort that pulled together an astonishing array of other talent. The scene in which a decrypt reveals German plans to attack a convoy leading Turing to refuse to intervene as it would alert the Germans to the fact that their code had been broken is utterly ludicrous. Such decisions were taken at a much senior level.
Darkest Hour (2017)
The idea that Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), a man whose ideas about race and class were formed in Victorian times, would conduct an impromptu focus group aboard a tube train is, um, highly problematical. The general thrust of the film – that whether or not Britain should hold out against Adolf Hitler following the fall of France was the subject of intense debate, and far from a done deal – is spot-on, mind. But you wouldn’t have heard his speech broadcast live from the House of Commons over the radio.
Listen as Antony McCarten, writer of the historical blockbuster Darkest Hour, considers whether Churchill came close to seeking peace with Hitler in 1940:
So, Ken Branagh single-handedly directs the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the Dunkirk beaches in 1940 by standing at the end of a wooden jetty? And we’re supposed to think that those retired Dutch warships look even slightly like Royal Navy vessels at the time… ?
This film got some military and naval history trainspotters quite cross, but delighted critics and audiences with its tension and grittily realistic feel.
If you want a big sprawling epic that gives a better idea of the real thing, Dunkirk (1958) starring John Mills and Richard Attenborough and directed by Leslie Norman (film critic Barry Norman’s dad) does the business.
And some films that got it (mostly) right…
The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (1966)
Roberto Rossellini’s French TV movie is rich in incidental detail, and a serious attempt to depict Louis’ court and his seizure of power from his mother following Cardinal Mazarin’s death.
Come and See (1985)
A Soviet-era drama directed and co-written by Elem Klimov. Though fictional, its unflinching portrayal of the horror and surreal insanity of the Second World War in Byelorussia have led many to call it one of the greatest war films ever made.
Apollo 13 (1995)
Director Ron Howard’s film about the lunar mission gone wrong is a work of faithful technical detail, though some aspects of the human sides of the story are fictionalised.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
Adopted from Patrick O’Brian’s fastidiously researched novels, this film gives an utterly believable flavour of both the Napoleonic era-Royal Navy, and of the wonders of undiscovered lands.
The dramatized account of the Selma-Montgomery voting rights marches has been widely praised for its accuracy, though some surviving participants raised minor objections.
Eugene Byrne is an author and journalist