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10 Gross Historical Movie Mistakes

Updated on October 29, 2011

While a good history book can be exciting, interesting, and captivating, a good historical film can many times be more so. But, it is always important to keep in mind that historical films are not historical fact. While this may seem obvious (and ridiculous to even state), many times a historical event is reduced to a specific actor, line, or scene in a movie when it comes to public memory. Over time, these falsities become facts - facts that, untrue, must be dismantled. While these inaccuracies can be written of as artistic license, audiences nevertheless do accept them as fact (as a ridiculous example, many viewers believed the Amityville Horror to be a true event following its release in 1979). And sure, many of these examples are minor, and seemingly unimportant, but they nevertheless illustrate the difference between fact and film.

Apollo 13 (1995)

In the 1995 Ron Howard drama film, a famous line (that you've no doubt heard, even if you haven't seen the movie) is misquoted. After Kevin Bacon's character (John Swigert) stirs the module's oxygen tanks and causing an explosion, Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) tells ground control "Houston, we have a problem." In reality, however, the line (actually spoken by Swigert) was "Houston, we've had a problem." Filmmakers apparently changed the quote and character speaking it so as not to confuse audiences as to when the problem actually occurred. Certainly a minor change, but the now famous quote is, nevertheless, historically inaccurate.

Swigert during the ordeal
Swigert during the ordeal

Thirteen Days (2001)

Not so much an inaccurate scene, line, or event, but a problem with inaccurate framing. Following President Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Special Assistant Kenny O'Donnell through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film is surprisingly accurate. The way the film is shot and laid out, however, is not completely accurate. Like any film, Thirteen Days needed protagonist and antagonist, friend and enemy. To do this, the film sets the crisis up as not dissimilar from films like Pearl Harbor: America is going about its business and all of the sudden the CIA finds the enemies unwarranted missiles in Cuba pointed right at the U.S.; neat, simple, and creating the antagonist (Soviets) / protagonist(Americans) dichotomy. Instead of exploring the faults of both countries during the Cold War in an unbiased nature, the film frames the events in such a way as to show the Soviets as the evil enemy, attacking out of the blue, and America as simple victims, asking "why us?" The film, however, does not show that, like the Soviets, Kennedy and America were also actively partaking in the Cold War prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The film glosses over Kennedy's foreign policy of placing clandestine special forces teams in foreign countries to disrupt communist governments, or the failed Bay of Pigs, or U.S. nuclear weapons in Turkey pointed at the USSR.

Was America the victim in the Cuban Missile Crisis? What of the failed invasion of Cuba just a year before (pictured above)?
Was America the victim in the Cuban Missile Crisis? What of the failed invasion of Cuba just a year before (pictured above)?

Gladiator (2000)

In the 2000 film "Gladiator," popular ruler Marcus Aurelius favors Russel Crowe's character as the next ruler of Rome over his son, Commodus (played by Joaquin Phoenix). Knowing this, Commodus kills his father in the night, setting the story of the movie. Commodus becomes an over-bearing, unpopular Emperor, and Russel Crowe's family is killed, and he becomes a lowly Gladiator. Just one problem - Marcus Aurelius actually died a historically accurate, yet less dramatic, slow death from the plague. On top of that, Commodus actually ruled Rome as a quite popular Emperor for almost twelve years.

The real Commodus. Not as good looking as Phoenix, huh?
The real Commodus. Not as good looking as Phoenix, huh?

Public Enemies (2009)

Two important scenes early in the film ultimately set up the antagonist (Johnny Depp) and protagonist (Christian Bale) as badasses who will later go head-to-head against each other. One problem - both scenes are totally inaccurate. In the first scene, Johnny Depp's John Dillinger is shown exploding out of an Indiana jail in an intense shoot out, making him out to be a cool nerved killer. In reality, during this breakout, John Dillinger was in a different prison in Ohio, and had almost nothing to do with the breakout shown in the film. The breakout in Indiana also ended with only a few shots. In another scene that sets up Christian Bale's character (Agent Melvin Purvis) as an intense agent who always gets his man - no matter what. The audience sees Purvis hunting down famed robber Pretty Boy Floyd, and killing him with deadly accuracy as the robber flees into an apple orchard. From this, Purvis is then promoted, and neatly placed to stop John Dillinger. The killing of Floyd, however, occurred four months after the death of Dillinger (which would be four months after the end of the film). Also, Purvis did not kill Floyd, but only fired upon him - along with a large group of other agents. While the film uses these scenes to make both Dillinger and Purvis almost superhuman manly men, they both, in reality, died quite human deaths - Dillinger was shot leaving a theater, while Purvis committed suicide.

Melvin Purvis (left) & John Dillinger (right) - not quite Christian Bale and Johnny Depp, huh?
Melvin Purvis (left) & John Dillinger (right) - not quite Christian Bale and Johnny Depp, huh?

Pearl Harbor (2001)

Yes, yes - a truly terrible historical film. Filled with historical inaccuracies? You betcha. After the Japanese begin their attack on Pearl Harbor, Josh Hartnett and and Ben Affleck's characters get in their planes and take down a few Zeros. Apparently, ending the movie following the attack on Pearl Harbor was just too depressing, so the Doolittle Raid was written into the script as a sort of "comeback by the good guys." While two American pilots did get off the ground following the attack (there were actually 17 total Americans who got off the ground), none of these pilots had anything to do with the Doolittle Raid the following year. While the Doolittle Raid is also made out as a sort of "revenge" strike in the film, it was actually a PR bombing that had almost no effect on the Japanese war machine. An entire article could be written on the inaccuracies of this film...

George Welch, one of the American pilots who made it off the ground during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Not quite as "dreamy" as Josh Hartnett.
George Welch, one of the American pilots who made it off the ground during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Not quite as "dreamy" as Josh Hartnett.

Black Hawk Down (2001)

Where to begin? In one particularly gut-wrenching scene, a private falls out of a chopper. While the movie makes it seem as though he fell because his chopper moved out of the way of an RPG, in reality, he fell because of inexperience (and because he was forced to carry an extra 40 lbs. of ammo that day). This mistake helps to better create tension between good and bad guys, but throws out the idea that war is brutal and many times people don't just die from the enemy. For a movie called "Black Hawk Down," the film also leaves out a critical event. While the film shows two Black Hawks being hit, in reality, a third Black Hawk was hit. In an event that the filmmakers deemed unexciting, the chopper was able to land safely in the green zone. Black Hawk Landed Safely? Kind of a boring title...

One of the few photos taken during the actual events of Black Hawk Down.
One of the few photos taken during the actual events of Black Hawk Down.

U-571 (2001)

In the film, a group of American submariners pose as a Nazi re-supply crew to board a disabled German U-boat in order to steal the Enigma code machine, thus allowing the allies to crack German codes. Simple and very pro-American, yet very wrong. In reality much of the work done in capturing and decoding the Enigma system was done by Poles and the British. In 1928, Polish intelligence captured an Enigma code machine, and later decoded it. And in 1941, the British Destroyer HMS Bulldog forced a German U-boat to surface, capturing a later model Enigma machine. Yeah - basically, the entire movie is untrue and lends no credence to the united effort of allied forces.

The HMS Bulldog (right) capturing a German U-Boat in 1941.
The HMS Bulldog (right) capturing a German U-Boat in 1941.

The Deer Hunter (1978)

One of the most disturbing and memorable sequences of the film are the scenes involving Russian roulette. A metaphor for war as a whole, the game of Russian roulette had audiences talking for years. If you guessed that this scene is historically inaccurate, you're right. During the entire span of the Vietnam War, even before and after American involvement, there is not one recorded case of Russian roulette ever being played. The explanation for this is simple. During the time of the war and just after, policy makers played up Soviet involvement in the war in order to get more Americans behind it. Direct Soviet involvement, however, was almost non-existent. Thus, the question arises - why would Vietnamese soldiers be playing a game of eastern-Russian origin? They wouldn't, and they apparently never did. Also, before it was ever set in Vietnam, the script involved characters playing Russian roulette in Las Vegas. The studio, not impressed with this idea, pushed writers to set the script during the Vietnam War (during this time, the war - as a film-able subject - was still taboo at this time, and studios wanted to break this taboo to get the green). Certainly, this is a problem, as the public memory with regards to the Vietnam War has absorbed this historically inaccurate event.

No historical picture for this one. Why? Because it never happened...
No historical picture for this one. Why? Because it never happened...

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

While the opening of the film is very accurate, the rest of the film is not so. While not a specific event or scene, one of the biggest inaccuracies of the film (and many World War II films for that matter) is the age of the actors. From Tom Hanks to Ted Danson, and Paul Giamatti, many of the officers are just too old. The average age of an American officer was 26, while an EM/NCO was around 22. The concluding battle is also highly inaccurate. In the film, a group of 101st paratroopers are guarding a bridge on the Merderet River from a detachment of the battle hardened Second SS Panzer Division. All of this, however, is untrue. The Merderet River bridges were an objective of the 82nd Airborne, not the 101st. Furthermore, the Second SS Panzer Division did not fight in Normandy until July (not June), and they did so at Caen against British and Canadian forces. The close-cropped shaved haircuts of the German soldiers throughout the film are also highly inaccurate (this inaccuracy ties them with modern day skinheads in order to truly portray the Germans as the bad guys of the film).

The Sullivan brothers, who all died aboard the USS Juneau (the inspiration behind Saving Private Ryan's storyline).
The Sullivan brothers, who all died aboard the USS Juneau (the inspiration behind Saving Private Ryan's storyline).

Braveheart (1995)

Talk about artistic license. The film contains many historical errors which either guide the plot or develop characters. For instance, William Wallace is shown as a lowly peasant, who begins a revolution because the English kill his wife. Untrue. The real William Wallace came from a noble background, who revolted because of things like land and taxes. In fact, many of the tyrannical decrees by Edward I, such as the primae noctis decree (in which an English nobleman can sleep with a Scot on her wedding night) never actually existed during this time. Other errors include a betrayal of Wallace by Robert the Bruce, which never occurred. Also, Wallace, at one point is shown to have had relations with Isabella of France (The wife of Edward II). In reality, Isabella was a small child during this time period. Kilts were also not worn by Scots during this period. The list goes on and on and on...

The real William Wallace
The real William Wallace

Honorable Mention - Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

While not billed as an accurate historical film, Raiders of the Lost Ark does contain a huge inaccuracy. Set in 1936, Indiana Jones travels to the ancient city of Tanis (just outside of Cairo Egypt) to find the lost Ark of the Covenant. Also in Egypt are a large division of Nazis searching for the Ark. This, however, is terribly inaccurate. In 1936, Egypt remained a possession of the British government. It would have been nearly impossible for such a large contingent of German troops to work in Egypt without the British government knowing, nor would the British government allow such an expedition. The German Akrika Korps did not land in Egypt until 1941, 5 years after the movie takes place. While the film shows the Nazis as the discoverers of Tanis, this is also not true, as the city was explored in the previous century.

German troops in Egypt, 1941. The film is a off by a little bit...
German troops in Egypt, 1941. The film is a off by a little bit...


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    • mabrgordon profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Birmingham, Alabama

      Thanks DeborahNeyens. I just left a very "creatively oppressive" job, so the articles are just pouring out of me.

    • DeborahNeyens profile image

      Deborah Neyens 

      6 years ago from Iowa

      Interesting hub. Welcome to Hubpages! You've done a lot of good work in just a few days.

    • Cogerson profile image


      6 years ago from Virginia

      Excellent hub....I really enjoyed reading this movie hub....great details that are presented in an educational and informative manner....good to see a new HubPage movie writer...I look forward to reading more of your Hubs in the future. Voted up and awesome.

    • point2make profile image


      6 years ago

      Interesting hub. Some of the information really surprised me. Thanks for the education.

    • cooldad profile image


      6 years ago from Florida

      Great hub, very, very interesting. I always take movies at face value, but I didn't realize some of the huge inaccuracies in the ones you mentioned. Good work here.


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