Action movies are usually, by their very nature, unrealistic, but the more realistic action movies are, the more audiences tend to enjoy them. That’s probably because a large part of the enjoyment of such high-octane flicks is vicarious wish fulfillment, and it’s a lot easier to put oneself in the shoes of a protagonist in a film that is, at the very least, plausible and factually accurate.
Usually, those action movies set in the past are the ones that suffer the most from flights of fantasy, letting important historical details slip in the name of cinematic glory. On the rarest of occasions, however, historical action movies are cleverly constructed, and are more accurate in regards to time period and setting than most would expect or notice.
‘The Rock’ - J. Edgar Hoover Did Have Classified Documents Stashed Away, And They Did Get Burgled
When a group of former US Marines goes rogue, steals rockets, and threatens to launch them at San Francisco from Alcatraz Island in The Rock, the FBI brings in a team of outcasts to shut them down, including former SAS Captain John Mason, the only inmate to ever escape Alcatraz. FBI Director Womack describes Mason as such:
Okay. 1962: J. Edgar Hoover is the head of the FBI - some say the country. It's no secret that he kept secret files on prominent Americans and Europeans. De Gaulle, British members of Parliament, even the prime minister. I mean, this guy had dirt on everybody in the world...
Mason was the British operative who stole the files, but our Bureau agents caught him at the Canadian border. Of course, the British claimed that they never heard of him. So we held him without trial until he gave up the microfilm. But he never did.
It all sounds very cloak and dagger, but the basic facts of the story, minus Mason’s character, are correct. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover really did have thousands of pages worth of “Official and Confidential Files” that contained his personal notes on political leaders, media figures, and anyone critical of the FBI, among other things. The files were initially kept out of FBI Central Records, but in 2005, they were accessioned by the National Archive and transferred over.
It’s also true that a burglary of sorts exposed Hoover’s secret stash of classified tea, though Sean Connery was not involved. In 1971, a group of political activists used the opportunity of a Muhammad Ali/Joe Frazier bout to break into an FBI office in Philadelphia and take secret files that Hoover was keeping on anti-war protestors and various civil rights activists. Then, they passed those files on to The Washington Post, kickstarting what became a congressional investigation into Hoover’s actions.
Like The Rock’s mysterious microfilm, many of these files were never recovered.21217Glad they got this right?
'Jaws' - The Crew Of The USS 'Indianapolis' Really Did Get Eaten By Sharks After Delivering The Atomic BombPhoto: Universal Pictures
In a soliloquy that Spielberg calls his favorite scene in Jaws, Sam Quint spins the shark-infested story of his doomed voyage aboard the USS Indianapolis:
Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. We was comin' back from the island of Tinian to Leyte, just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in 12 minutes. Didn't see the first shark for about a half an hour. Tiger. Thirteen-footer. You know how you know that when you're in the water, Chief? You tell by lookin' from the dorsal to the tail. What we didn't know... was our bomb mission had been so secret, no distress signal had been sent. Heh.
Y'know, by the end of that first dawn... lost a hundred men. I dunno how many sharks. Maybe a thousand. I dunno how many men, they averaged six an hour… So, 11 hundred men went into the water, 316 men come out, and the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945. Anyway... we delivered the bomb.
It’s perhaps one of the greatest speeches in Hollywood history. It’s also entirely historically accurate, right down to the gory details. The USS Indianapolis did go on a secret mission to deliver the atomic bomb to the island of Tinian, and they succeeded, only to be sunk on their journey to the Philippines thereafter. And while 300 crewmates are estimated to have perished on impact and dozens of the survivors would have been lost to things like drowning and dehydration, it is true that a very large number of the rest were consumed by sharks. The only thing Quint gets wrong is the date: The Indianapolis went down 15 minutes into July 30.
As survivor Tony King recounted to The History Channel in his own Quint-esque monologue:
Men started getting ideas that the ship wasn’t far in the distance. Promises of pretty girls carrying fresh buttermilk biscuits, or a cold drink just over the horizon. It wasn’t hard to be talked into things out there. So, a group of us swam off, following the leader, not wanting to be left behind. There were a lot of sharks. So many. I’d see them swimming below me. So many friends. Gone.1717Glad they got this right?
'The Mummy' - The Wrappings And Techniques Used To Mummify Imhotep Were Actually What Would Have Been Used At The TimePhoto: Universal Pictures
The Mummy franchise - and in particular, the first film - centers around the goings and comings of one Imhotep, a real-life historical figure who was mummified for real and worshipped for millennia thereafter.
Of course, all that "rising from the dead" business is fictional, so The Mummy had to lean hard into Imhotep’s “origin story” to squeeze in some historical accuracy, and that’s exactly what the filmmakers did.
Though the exact methods and ceremonies behind mummification were sacred secrets that have been lost to the sands of time, what archaeologists do know of the process makes it into the movie. Imhotep’s embalmers wear jackal masks, authentic to mummifications in the 27th century BC, and perform all the known tricks, including excerebration. Imhotep himself is wrapped in the same style as other mummies of his era, with a herringbone weave around his torso and a figure-eight wrap around the rest of him.
However, although other cultures practiced mummification on the living, there’s no evidence that ancient Egyptians did, so the real Imhotep probably didn’t experience quite so horrific a demise.17510Glad they got this right?
‘Gladiator’ - Gladiators Were Awarded Wooden Swords As A Symbol Of Their Earned FreedomPhoto: DreamWorks Pictures
When Maximus Decimus Meridius finds himself enslaved after a series of tragically unfortunate events, he falls under the enforced tutelage of Antonius Proximo, who teaches him the ways of the gladiator. In time, Proximo reveals that he, too, was once a regular combatant in the arena, until he was granted freedom, and a symbolic wooden sword, by Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Though neither Proximo nor Maximus actually existed, the story the former passes down to the latter is true enough. Gladiators really did battle in the hopes of being granted freedom and, when they achieved it, they really were gifted with a rudis, a wooden sword designed for training but symbolic of so much more.
With rudis in hand, the ex-gladiator could retire from mortal combat to a much-less dangerous career, if they so chose. Many, like the fictional Proximo, used their newfound freedom and moderate celebrity status to train new generations of gladiators. The very best of the rudis-bearers became summa rudis, referees of the Colosseum who enforced the rules with whips.1518Glad they got this right?