Films often take big liberties when it comes to the facts. Some claim ‘based on a true story’, others like to twist the truth a little. But there is a line between fact and fiction, especially when a movie claims it is historical.
A few miss this line completely.
In fact, they went to entirely the wrong field.
It is easy to nitpick on faults made in historical films. Many of them get it wrong because history is never accurate to begin with. But the story 300 told is perhaps the same as claiming it was only the Americans who defeated Hitler. In the movie, King Leonidas and his 300 elite stand alone against a Persian invasion after the latter threatens the Spartans with domination. The film even portrays the Athenians in a poor light and makes it look as if Leo and his crew convinced the Greek nations to rise up against the invaders.
Not quite. First, apart from the 300 elite soldiers, there were twice as many slaves and servants, as well as several hundred Athenians. The Persians weren’t after Sparta – they wanted Athens due to an older beef. In fact, previous to the battle with Leo, the Athenians beat the Persians at Marathon (a battle the Spartans declined to take part in). When word reached Greece that the Persians were coming, they knew they were in trouble and basically had their various navies to rely on. But that would take time to mobilise, which is why Leonidas and co. offered to hold off the invaders until the Greek nations got their ducks in a row. Have no doubt: they were quite outnumbered. But they didn’t exactly do it on their own. It should also be added that the Spartans used to enslave people to run their farms. They didn’t give a damn about freedom or liberty.
Also, they wore way more armour. Way more.
If you went along with Ridley Scott’s retelling of how Christopher Columbus found the new world, you might gain three things: Vangelis is awesome, Chris was a nice guy and those royals were just a pesky bunch of thugs. In the movie, Columbus appears to support the natives, abhor slavery and constantly butt heads with an arrogant royal played by Michael Wincott. It would be Wincott’s character who soured things with the local people by killing them.
The real story is quite different. Wincott’s Adrián de Moxica did participate in a rebellion against Columbus, but he didn’t kill himself as in the film. Instead, Columbus probably had him executed. And he didn’t cut the hands off indians – again, that was Columbus’ doing. Indeed, the Christopher of the movie was pretty much the opposite of the real guy, whose harsh treatment of the natives and his workers alike even upset the royals back in Europe. He was actually quite a shady character, but never – like the movie shows – landed in jail.
Basically, the movie is the story about Bizarro Christopher Columbus.
Look, when Michael Bay makes an historic epic – especially during his Armageddon phase – you can’t really expect a textbook lesson. But the story told in this movie holds very little relation to the actual events of that day. In the film, Ben Affleck’s character joined British forces to fight the Nazis, then returns home only to find the Japanese attack the naval base in Hawaii. Cuba Gooding Jr. joins him and they shoot down lots of Japanese airplanes, all while a valiant Admiral Husband Kimmel fights the stupid mistakes of American politicians.
Though it is often a little geeky to point out technical faults, Pearl Harbor is exploding with them. Some aircraft and ships shown did not appear until long after the attack – one ship design did not emerge until the Sixties. And those nurses couldn’t have worn bikinis, as that hadn’t been invented yet. Best of all, in a newsreel of Hitler conquering Europe, you can see an American tank roll through a German city. The movie wildly overestimates how many aircraft the Americans shot down and most of the characters who did exist are portrayed with major liberties. The biggest is perhaps Admiral Kimmel: unlike the movie portrayal, he actually dismissed reports of an approaching fleet. He also never received detailed information of any sort around the attack and really little of what you see him do on screen actually happened in the real world.
Apparently some Pearl Harbor veterans weren’t happy with it either. Luckily they didn’t fall into that valuable 13-21 teenage boy demographic.
Okay, it is probably not fair to hold an animated movie from Disney to such a high standard. Then again, perhaps it should have avoided retelling a historical story. In the movie, we learn how the English land in the new world, most intent on destruction and pillaging. Standing between their evil ways and the wrath of the local tribes is Pocahontas, who happens to strike up a romance with a British heartthrob called John Smith.
Where to begin… You can’t expect a Disney film to bring the bitter truth, but this one required a lot of sanitising. The Jamestown settlement was HARD. Over half of the settlers died in the first few months – one winter killed all but 150 of 500 people. Starvation was common, there was cannibalism and the settlers, including Smith, captain of the colony, would strong arm supplies from the natives through threats of military force. At the same time new settlers kept arriving – it was a nightmare. Pocahontas did know Smith (and might have saved him), but she was only 10 and there is no evidence they were a couple. And there was very little ‘happy ever after’, as Native Americans today can testify. Pocahontas, meanwhile, was married a man called John Rolfe to keep the peace. The Virginia Company shipped her back to England as the example of a tamed New World savage. She died five years later, age 22.
Imagine what Disney could do for the story of Alan Turing!
You could pick at all of Mel Gibson’s historical movies and find problems. But he does know how to spin a yarn. And this film was directed by Roland Emmerich, another man who knows you don’t put facts in front of a good story. But Braveheart has been discussed to death, so let’s turn to The Patriot. Mel is a homely widowed plantation owner who just wants to make rocking chairs, but the pesky revolution shows up. His son joins, the British get nasty and Mel gets into a guerrilla war with the King’s forces.
The Patriot certainly lifted a new lid on some of that war’s horrors – particularly cannonballs splintering legs… But it forgot a little about a rather prominent part of colonial era America: slaves. And Colonial Mel’s home state of South Carolina had at that time a ratio of two slaves for every one colonist, so it’s not even if he was in a low-slave-quota area. There is no proof that the British soldiers ever did anything like burn a church down with people inside it, though the Nazis did do this once. Whitewashing is one thing, but transferring atrocities? And then there is Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion. Though Gibson’s character was amalgamated from several real people, Marion’s tale rings closest. Alas, he was also fond of slaves and fonder of persecuting Native Americans.
Everything about Heath Ledger, though, is totally and completely true.
Last Updated: September 19, 2013