Hollywood often gets history completely wrong, and biopics in particular often make their subjects look better, like when The Patriot ignored the fact that Mel Gibson’s character was a murderer and a rapist. All the films on this list of the most inaccurate historical movies have major historical problems. These inaccurate movies based on true stories change all sorts of things, from the gruesome tactics used in the real William Wallace’s execution to the way Roman emperors died in Gladiator.
The movies based on true stories that are wrong include Braveheart, JFK, and Pocahontas, all of which take major liberties with the facts. In the case of Gladiator, one of the historical advisors even quit because of all the problems. Some of the movies make intentional choices to change history, like in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet or Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. But viewers who aren’t up on their history might not realize all the problems with a movie like 10,000 BC, which shows wooly mammoths building the pyramids.
A Beautiful Mind is another award-winning movie based on a true story that leaves out quite a lot. John Nash, played by Russell Crowe in the movie, had a number of sexual relationships with men, including one that got him fired from his job in 1954. On top of that, Nash abandoned his first son, refusing to marry the boy’s mother because her working-class background felt beneath him.
And while the film glorifies Nash’s relationship with Alicia, played by Jennifer Connelly, it fails to mention the time Nash threw her to the ground at a mathematics department picnic or the fact that the two divorced in 1963.
The Patriot tells the story of the American Revolution through the eyes of a vengeful father played by Mel Gibson. He joins the war when his son, played by Heath Ledger, is murdered by a British officer. But in the hyper-patriotic retelling, the British become as evil as the Nazis. In one scene the British soldiers burns down a church full of women and children. In another, a British Colonel breaks the rules of engagement by shooting a child. There is no evidence that the British committed these acts during the American Revolution.
But one character got a much rosier portrayal. Mel Gibson’s character was based on Francis Marion, known as “The Swamp Fox,” and he doesn’t exactly make a sympathetic hero. He married his cousin, hunted Native Americans for sport, and raped his female slaves. And here’s another twist: the movie ends with a battle where Mel Gibson defeats his nemesis—even though the Americans lost the skirmish that it’s based on.
The main love story in Braveheart, between William Wallace (played by Mel Gibson) and Isabella, has a few historical problems, since Isabella was only three years old at the time the film is set. And that’s only the beginning of the problems with Braveheart. The Scots didn’t wear kilts in the thirteenth century, for starters, and England was actually at peace with Scotland when the film takes place. The entire execution scene is much tamer than what William Wallace actually endured, which included having his penis sliced off and his beating heart pulled from his chest.
Gladiator won the Oscar for Best Picture—so apparently the Academy doesn’t consider historical accuracy when handing out awards. The movie was so problematic that one of the historians hired to consult on the film’s history left because the script was so wrong and another asked not to be mentioned in the credits. Among the many historical problems, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was not killed by his son, Commodus, played by Joaquin Phoenix. He actually died of chickenpox, which is way less dramatic.
In the movie, Commodus came off as an incestuous creep when history portrays him as a well-liked ruler. And he wasn’t murdered in the arena—he was killed in the bath by a wrestler. Which seems like a pretty awesome thing to include in a movie!
Yes, 300 Spartans did hold a pass against an invading Persian army in the Battle of Thermopylae. But the 2006 movie 300 even gets that wrong. The Spartans were not alone; in fact they were supported by as many as 7,000 other Greeks—in spite of the fact that the Spartans get all the credit. But one of the biggest problems with the movie is how it portrays the Persians.
In the movie, the Persians are treated as bloodthirsty savages led by the ruler Xerxes, who is portrayed as an effeminate bald giant. In reality, the Persians had one of the most advanced empires in the world when they took on the Greeks—and they had banned slavery, unlike the Spartans who were one of the largest owners of slaves in Greece. In fact, the movie faced a backlash in Iran because of the insulting portrayal of the Persians.
Cate Blanchett’s Queen Elizabeth looks really good for 52 in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. And maybe that’s because Cate Blanchett was only 36 when the film was shot. That’s only one of the problems with Elizabeth: The Golden Age, which takes a lot of liberties with history. For example, Ivan the Terrible, who courts Queen Elizabeth in the movie, died the year before the film was set. The gowns might be amazing in the movie, but the history had a few problems. It downplays Elizabeth’s political power and her ability to rule, while playing up the romantic flirtations with Sir Walter Raleigh.
And the movie’s major military conflict between the English and the Spanish Armada are also full of problems. The Spanish attack wasn’t a surprise, and Elizabeth’s inspiring speech actually came after the battle, not before. Plus the speech is completely different from what the queen actually said.
It doesn’t get much worse than mammoths building the pyramids. In the 2008 movie 10,000 BC, the historical inaccuracies are everywhere. The epic follows a mammoth hunter who is apparently a time-traveler, since the Egyptian pyramids were build around 2400 BC. The movie journeys from the ice age to the Egyptian age with no mention of the millennia in between, showing mammoths in the Nile Valley building the pyramids.
The time-travelers have also somehow discovered ships, horseback riding, and steel, thousands of years before any existed. At some point, you just have to give up and start laughing.
Disney makes a lot of changes to their movies, like removing the most tragic parts of the Beauty and the Beast story or dropping the necrophilia and rape from Sleeping Beauty. And Pocahontas is no exception. Pocahontas was a real person, and she did not have a romantic relationship with John Smith—that would have been creepy, since Pocahontas was only ten years old when the English arrived in Virginia. The cheerful Disney ending, which shows a reconciliation between the Natives and the English, is also completely wrong, as English settlers attacked and wiped out Native populations.
And although Pocahontas did decide to stay with her people when John Smith returned to England, that’s not where the story ended. She was kidnapped by the English who took her across the Atlantic as a curiosity for the English court, where she was forced to marry an Englishman named John Rolfe. Not exactly a Disney ending.
Clint Eastwood directed the biopic J. Edgar, about the life of FBI founder J. Edgar Hoover, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. The film made Hoover look like the man who single-handedly saved America from a communist invasion, but it fails to mention the excesses involved in Hoover’s attack on the “Red Menace.”
In his take-down of communism, Hoover also targetted liberals, federal judges, senators, union members, and black nationalists, using the power of the FBI to target his political enemies. Hoover’s investigation created files on more than 200,000 people and organizations–most of whom were not connected with communism at all. The film also focuses on Hoover’s rumored homosexuality with very little evidence, glossing over the FBI’s investigation of gay government employees as security threats to the country.
No one expects historical accuracy from a Michael Bay movie, and Pearl Harbor is no exception. Unsurprisingly, the director upped the carnage in his retelling of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, showing over twenty Japanese fighter planes shot from the sky when the real number was under five. Ben Affleck also would not have been allowed to join the British squadron to bomb Tokyo. And he must have had some time-traveling powers, since there’s no way he could have handed out origami cranes to his girlfriend—origami was relatively unknown in America until after the war.
There are a number of other problems with the film, like showing Marlboro Lights and rimless glasses before they existed, or showing Korean War vehicles during World War II, but in the grand scheme of the historical problems with Pearl Harbor, those things seem relatively minor.
Oliver Stone’s JFK opens with a montage of real and recreated footage, which definitely gives the movie the feel of a documentary rather than a work of fiction. But the 1991 film throws out a number of conspiracy theories with very little evidence, even one that was proven false in 1972, nearly two decades before the movie’s release.
The biggest problem in JFK might be the “magic bullet theory.” The theory claims that Lee Harvey Oswald could not have shot President Kennedy alone—there had to be a second gunman on the grassy knoll. But sadly for conspiracy theorists everywhere (and Seinfeld fans), Alex von Tunzelmann argues that the “bullet’s trajectory continued normally downwards and was consistent with a shot from the book depository.” So much for that theory.
Marie Antoinette has been called Gossip Girl in eighteenth-century France—and that’s part of the movie’s fun. But there are a lot of historical blunders in the movie, which takes a lot of liberties with the timeline and the historical context. The extravagant clothes, the insanely lavish parties, and the decadent treats are probably the most accurate part of the film. Even there, however, filmmaker Sofia Coppola took some liberties, using dye colors that weren’t available in the eighteenth century. And the film also doesn’t get around to explaining the actual grievances behind the French Revolution—which didn’t just revolve around Versailles’s extravagance.
Oh, and Marie Antoinette never said her most famous line, “let them eat cake.”
Did William Shakespeare really find the inspiration for Romeo and Juliet from a love affair with a beautiful noblewoman? Probably not. After all, Romeo and Juliet was based on an Italian story, so Shakespeare couldn’t have struggled much to figure out the plot. But it makes for a good story in Shakespeare In Love. Still, there are some historical problems with the movie, including the fact that Queen Elizabeth I never entered a public theater—instead, she had plays performed for her in her many palaces.
There are a few other minor historical inaccuracies, like characters using modern beer glasses and theaters being open during a plague outbreak. But even if forbidden love didn’t inspire Shakespeare, it’s still a fun movie.