History class is tough – there are lots of dates and names to remember. But when you’re making historical movies, you’d think Hollywood would do some fact checking. Not all films, even if they are historical films about real historical figures and actual historical events, actually honor that history. On this list, films from all decades are revealed as having botched the reality of supposed non-fiction and reminded audiences that it was just a Hollywood flick. From Foxcatcher to Hotel Rwanda, and even 1915’s The Birth of a Nation, many films feature blatant errors and historical inaccuracies that will annoy more than just the average history buff. While George Clooney spiced up the third act of Good Night, and Good Luck, its timeline and the implications of that timeline are way off base. And this list covers more than just the Hollywood endings. The opening scene of American Sniper, for instance, feeds into the claims of Clint Eastwood “pro-military propaganda” by making an Iraqi woman look evil by giving her son an anti-tank grenade, which never, ever happened.
Clint Eastwood’s controversial movie opens with Bradley Cooper’s character, Chris Kyle, watching a woman in Iraq walking out of her house and sending her child to his death. She gives her young boy an RKG-3 anti-tank grenade and Kyle questions whether or not to shoot. According to Kyle’s own book, she had a small hand grenade and there was no such child. Having the woman send her son out on a suicide mission, even though it was completely false, made her look more evil onscreen.
Even the screenwriter confessed to this historical fact gone wrong. One of the glaring inaccuracies in the film that won Daniel Day Lewis yet another Academy Award is that Connecticut was portrayed as voting “no” on the 13th Amendment – a vote against ending slavery. In fact, every single solitary representative in Connecticut’s House voted “yes” for the amendment.
Ron Howard’s film chronicling the Apollo 13 mission featured astronaut Ken Mattingly being involved with the rescue mission, although Mattingly himself confesses to this historical falsity. In the film, he was exposed to measles (true) and bumped from the mission (true), before being called back in by NASA to lead rescue efforts (false). In reality, Mattingly said he had absolutely no assigned role in that rescue; he was a backup crew member who worked with a bunch of teams, not just on one or two projects as in the film.
The character of King Darius was portrayed as present at the Battle of Marathon. The truth is, King Darius wasn’t even there and he died four years later of old age. Though it made for a nice plot point, King Darius was not killed with an arrow by Xerxes’s father at the Battle.
The 1995 Oscar-winning movie has engrained the image of a blue face-painted Mel Gibson in film fan’s minds forever. The truth was, no Scottish warrior at that time would have done such a thing during a battle – nor would they have even been in uniforms. This was done in the movie so the audience wouldn’t be confused about who was on which side. Kind of like how Gibson changed Wallace’s wife’s name from Marian to Murron so the audience didn’t confuse her with Robin Hood’s Maid Marian.
Mel Gibson’s character, Benjamin Martin (who didn’t exist; he is a composite character) opens up to another character about chopping up dead bodies at Fort Wilderness. The body parts were sent “down the Ashuelot” and they originally came from Fort Charles. The truth is, Fort Charles is in Jamaica, the Ashuelot RIver is in New Hampshire, Fort Ambercon doesn’t exist, and Fort Wilderness only exists at Disney World.
CIA operatives called the interrogation scenes in the movie “totally inaccurate” while countless officials have objected to the way in which the film portrays Enhanced Interrogation Techniques as leading to the bin Laden raid. Even Republicans have confessed that this form of torture did not really lead to bin Laden’s courier, which is what happened in the film. In fact, according to the former director of the CIA, the name of the courier came from a detainee who wasn’t even in CIA custody.
The film, starring Don Cheadle, had a classic Hollywood ending that unfortunately was prettier onscreen than in real life. The refugee camp at the end looked like a safe haven for the characters, who seemed relatively well-fed and okay. In reality, that refugee camp was “run like a prison.” The children looked like they had been starving because, unlike in the movie, they had to fight for food.
Django looks pretty fly in those sunglasses and, to be fair, such glasses have existed since the 12th century. However, they were in China. Sunglasses didn’t make it to America until Sam Foster in 1929. Of course, this Tarantino film was set in 1858 – only a 71 year difference.
Walter Raleigh, Clive Owen’s character, is portrayed in this 2007 film as a naval hero who sails by himself to Armada. You might remember the suspenseful scene in which his ship is set ablaze and he swings away on a rope just in time. However, Raleigh was forced to stay on shore. His duties involved organizing defenses on land whereas Sir Francis Drake did the coastal dirty work, despite the fact that he wasn’t really in the movie.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, Alan Turing, was portrayed as a loner who single-handedly built ” the Bombe.” The truth is, Turing was a popular guy in Bletchley Park who made improvements to a machine that had been invented several years prior, however Turing did undeniable aid the war effort himself. The mathematicians from Poland who first invented it did not get much credit in the movie.
Bennet Miller’s 2014 movie about Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz is not the most true-to-history biopic out there. Without giving away the spoiler, when one character kills another at the end of the movie, it implies that it happened shortly after the previous events and as a result of their relationship. There is no evidence to suggest the latter and, perhaps more starkly, the murder happened several years later and, during those several years, the murderer suffered mental health issues.
In the franchise, every pirate rocked massive hats and had a musket or a handgun in their leather straps. Those leather straps, in real life, would only be seen on rich pirates. The same could be said for pistols, which were exclusively for the rich, while muskets were rarely available at all in reality. Plus, no real pirate rocked a hat on the regular, since it was always hot, and hats were only worn to show their position to others.
There is no evidence to suggest that President Lyndon B. Johnson was opposed to the Voting Rights Act (initially) or the civil rights march that made history. In fact, LBJ urged MLK to lead a demonstration like the one in Selma. Unlike the way he was depicted in the film, Johnson (who was by no means seen as a sweetheart) never really served as a blockade on the path to voting rights or the march.
The historical fact about this slice of history was particularly wrong in its depiction of the under-the-counter drug AZT. The movie tries to make Matthew McConaughey’s character a superhero, which is why they made AZT seem unequivocally poisonous. The truth is, many patients have benefited from the drug at an appropriate dosage.
The Stephen Hawking biopic focuses a lot on black holes. At one point, Hawking goes to a lecture on the subject in 1963. While astronomers might have introduced the concept by the 18th century, the phrase “black holes” was not used until 1967. The screenplay seems to have forgotten about physicist John Wheeler, who coined the term four years after the lecture scene supposedly took place.
Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning CIA movie features a pivotal moment in which the mission is called off the very night of the team’s scheduled departure for Iran. Though suspenseful, it’s not true at all. President Carter had previously approved the team’s flight to Tehran. In fact, policymakers in Washington, D.C. and Ottawa had approved it by that time as well.
Sometimes movies favor dramatic endings over historical accuracy. George Clooney clearly felt that way with respect to his Edward R. Murrow biopic. The ending hinges upon the bad guys canceling Murrow’s show because of his McCarthy reports. As it turns out, the show lasted an entire additional season before even being rescheduled.
Though D.W. Griffith claimed everything was accurate in his movie, the Klu Klux Klansmen are glorified in ways that are objectively wrong. There are mass paramilitary actions in the movie, but in real life, the KKK would have done no such thing. They were usually small groups of night riders and only a couple times gathered as a large body to disarm state militias. Nor, as some argue the film depicts, were KKK members justified in any of their violence.