The lives of historical figures have provided Hollywood with film fodder for decades. Biographical movies aren't necessarily as accurate as they claim to be, though. From Bohemian Rhapsody to Braveheart, inaccurate biopics prove that great films don't always make for great history lessons.
Inaccurate films about historical figures tell mistruths that range from the mild to the outrageous. Some biography movies merely compress events, re-order chronologies, or create composite characters to streamline storytelling; others twist facts and misrepresent historical figures in offensive ways. What bio movies don't say about historical figures is sometimes as important as what they do say: biopics that lie by omission tend to glorify historical subjects by ignoring inconvenient truths that are nonetheless important windows into their lives.
But no matter how they may twist or ignore the facts, all the films on this list sacrifice accuracy in some way to sugarcoat, whitewash, misrepresent, over-dramatize, or over-simplify the past.
- Photo: Buena Vista Pictures
Boasting a hummable score, the Disney musical Pocahontas imagines a romance between the titular Native American princess and English explorer John Smith during the founding of Jamestown in 1607. Pocahontas and Smith's love transcends boundaries in an era brimming with cultural tensions; the English are overrunning Powhatan land, and both communities see one another as "savages." Though Pocahontas saves Smith's life just before her father slays him, their romance must end - he returns to England, and she remains with her community.
Both Pocahontas and John Smith were real historical figures - that much is beyond dispute - and the relationship between native groups and English colonists in the Tidewater region of Virginia was both volatile and cooperative. The young woman known as Pocahontas - which was probably her nickname - eventually traveled with her husband, John Rolfe, to England, where she met King James I and passed at the age of 20.
Smith did eventually return to England, where he passed in 1631. But a romance between Pocahontas and Smith almost certainly did not happen: Pocahontas was around 11 - not a teenager - when Smith arrived in Virginia, and there is no evidence they engaged in an affair. Though John Smith claimed Pocahontas saved him from losing her life, scholars continue to cast doubt on his account.3,049662Is this a big difference?
- Photo: 20th Century Fox
The feel-good musical The Greatest Showman imagines P.T. Barnum as a man who celebrated difference as he built an entertainment empire. Though best known for establishing the circus that bears his name, Barnum was indeed a showman through and through, frequently investing in other forms of entertainment. According to the film, he was in danger of suffering from his ambition, as he almost lost himself in an affair with Swedish singer Jenny Lind.
But Barnum was not the big-hearted advocate for inclusion the film imagines. Not only does The Greatest Showman whitewash his exploitative practices, it conveniently ignores the fact that a 25-year-old Barnum first made his fortune by displaying the body of Joice Heth, an elderly enslaved woman whom he claimed had nursed George Washington. When Heth passed in 1836, Barnum sold tickets to her autopsy.
The film also purposefully manipulates details of Barnum's private life to formulate a rags-to-riches story about a charismatic, ambitious man who followed his dreams. The real-life Barnum wasn't an orphan, and moreover, Lind didn't quit her tour because she fell in love with Barnum; she stopped when she tired of the touring lifestyle.2,489579Is this a big difference?
- Photo: Paramount Pictures
Braveheart may have commanded the box office and the Academy Awards when it was first released, but its portrayal of the life of 13th-century Scottish folk hero William Wallace is hardly accurate. The film depicts Wallace as a kilt-clad, salt-of-the-earth warrior who develops a vendetta against the English after they violate and slay his wife. Bent on revenge, he leads his Scottish countrymen in an uprising against the forces of King Edward I of England. In the process, he woos a princess, gets sold out by future King of Scotland Robert the Bruce, and is captured and slain by the English.
Though this plot makes for riveting entertainment, it's terrible history. While Wallace was indeed an important leader in Scotland's resistance from England, the film plays fast and loose with the facts of his life and world. Wallace was more elite than the film presents - he was born into a life of privilege as a son of the Scottish gentry. Historians agree he didn't fight against the English to avenge a slain bride - he, like many Scottish elites, didn't think the English had a right to intervene in Scottish affairs.
The princess with whom Wallace has an affair in the film was never even in England until after Wallace's time. Moreover, Robert the Bruce was a fierce defender of Scotland before becoming king in 1306 - and he, not Wallace, was referred to as a "brave heart." The film even misrepresents Wallace's garb: medieval Scots didn't wear kilts.2,643632Is this a big difference?
- Photo: United Artists
Birdman of Alcatraz may have earned Burt Lancaster an Academy Award nomination for his performance as real-life inmate Robert Stroud, but the film is more fiction than fact. The biopic follows Stroud's life in captivity; after being imprisoned for ending someone's life, the film depicts Stroud as a rebel hero challenging the authority and confines of the American prison system. He finds solace by breeding, studying, and treating birds in his cell.
In real life, Stroud was not the misunderstood hero the film portrays. He routinely fought his fellow inmates and guards - including, as shown in the movie, one guard whom he slew with a knife in 1916 - to the point that he was placed in solitary confinement. Stroud transformed his cell into a laboratory; an unsanitary space, cluttered with bird excrement and dissections. After studying birds in his cell for decades, Stroud published a book about canaries.
The film tends to glorify and exonerate Stroud, although he was diagnosed as a psychopath.1,669393Is this a big difference?