• Fri, May 2 - 2:27 pm ET

The 14 Most Offensively Inaccurate Historical Movies Of All Time

Mel Gibson as William Wallace in BraveheartSo the movie Belle comes out in the U.S. today, and in case you haven’t heard of it, you’re in for a real (if extraordinarily historically innacurate) treat.

It’s an entire film based on the 1779 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of Admiral John Lindsay and an enslaved African woman in his household known as Maria Belle. Dido was sent to live with her uncle, William Murray, the 1st Earl of Mansfield, where she was brought up as a free gentlewoman while her uncle made some really crucial and ground-breaking rulings on the legality of slavery in Britain.

That’s all very interesting, but it also happens to be pretty much everything we know about this woman, except that she spent about thirty years at Kenwood House, where her treatment and standing is essentially unknown, and later married.

But the problem is, that’s not a very interesting story, right? So why not fill in the details of her life and turn it into a 104-minute extravaganza!?!?! Which is what they did, in case you were curious. Because sometimes the true stories that movies are based on aren’t nearly exciting enough to get butts in seats. So you gotta fill in some tantalizing details, just like these other movies that made our list of the most offensively inaccurate historical movies of all time. Enjoy!

1. Pocahontas

Other than the constant singing and the friendly woodland creatures, which were totally accurate to real life, probably the most egregious inaccuracy in this Disney film was the fact that a love affair sprouted up between Pocahontas and the settler John Smith. Especially considering she was only ten or eleven years old at the time. Yikes.

2. JFK

It’s hard to know what’s fact and what’s fiction in the mystery surrounding John F. Kennedy’s death, but Oliver Stone’s 1991 film made more than a few people pretty angry when he gave weight to one conspiracy theory over the others. The movie says that agencies as high up as the FBI and CIA conspired to kill Kennedy, and that even Lyndon Johnson was responsible for assisting with the cover-up. And even with the real-life events that it does depict, it gets them wrong, showing suspects confessing who didn’t, and neglecting to reveal that some other confessions were obtained under drugging and hypnosis.

3. 300

Ah yes, where to begin? This movie was based on the real-life Battle of Thermopylae, but most aspects of the Spartan culture were portrayed incorrectly. For one thing, they didn’t go roaring into battle almost entirely naked; they wore bronze armor, and for another, the Persian king Xerxes was presumably a real-sized man, not an eight-foot tall oiled up behemoth sent her to dazzle you with his shiny shiny skin.

4. American Hustle

There are a bunch of issues, such as the fact that the character Christian Bale portrayed had absolutely no qualms about the scams he was running on people, and that the real story behind Abscam was more about political corruption than a character-filled caper. But the real problem between the movie and history was that in the original version, Jennifer Lawrence won the Oscar.

5. Gladiator

Aside from the fact that the character that Russell Crowe plays never existed in real life, there are some other issues as well. Namely, that the emperor Commodus was pretty well-regarded and actually reigned for thirteen years, versus the few months or maybe couple years that Joaquin Phoenix held the throne in the film. And when he did eventually die, it wasn’t in the ring, but in the bath at the hand of a wrestler named Narcissus.

6. Marie Antoinette

Obviously there were some costuming choices for this film that were made in opposition to what actually took place, but the main inaccuracy has to do with Marie and her husband Louis’ inability to conceive. In the movie, it created a conflict because Louis is afraid of sex and refuses to have it, but in reality their delay in producing an heir was because Louis had phimosis, a condition in which the foreskin of the penis cannot be fully retracted. It was later fixed with an operation, and the two of them did ultimately have children.

7. Braveheart

The second of many films on this list to involve Mel GibsonBraveheart took some especially egregious liberties with history. The list is long, but historians’ main problem with the story is that Scotland’s William Wallace has an affair with King Edward II’s wife, Isabella of Spain…who as it happened, was only two or three years old at the time. Just a teensy detail.

8. The Impossible

This film about the 2005 tsunami was extremely powerful and difficult to sit through, but it becomes less so if you try to do any research about it. Look around as much as you want, but it’s pretty hard to find any details of what actually happened, aside from the fact that the real-life couple was Spanish while the actors who played them in the movie were English.

9. The Patriot

Hello again, Mel Gibson! Couldn’t help but notice you made another inaccurate movie, this time about a Revolutionary War hero. In the film, he’s portrayed as a heroic, intelligent family man, but in real life, he was a slave-owner who didn’t get married until after the war, and spent some of his days raping and murdering native Cherokee peoples. Fun!

10. Won’t Back Down

This movie bills itself as a pro-teacher movie about ‘beating the system’, but when one of our editors started digging around in the true story, she found that it was essentially a propaganda film to discredit teacher’s unions. So it’s not true…at all. It’s the true story of something that might have happened if a set of circumstances took place…except they never did.

11. Shakespeare In Love

We hardly know anything about William Shakespeare himself, so any interpretation of his motives is essentially fair game. But in this particular retelling, it shows Shakespeare being inspired to write Romeo And Juliet by his own real-life romance, allowing it to instruct him as to the ending as he went. Except we know that Shakespeare borrowed heavily from (some would even say plagiarized) other sources for that particular play, and many others, so the theory that it’s an autobiography of sorts is highly inaccurate.

12. Pearl Harbor

I know, I know. How could a movie starring the impeccable Ben Affleck ever be inaccurate or crappy? Well, you start with allowing Rafe and his fighter pilot friend Danny to shoot down dozens of planes during the initial attack, even though those stationed in Hawaii that day hit far fewer. Then you send Rafe and Danny to Japan as bomber pilots, even though that makes absolutely no sense and never happened in real life, and have a crippled FDR stand up out of his wheelchair. (Because DRAMA.)

13. Elizabeth: The Golden Age

For one thing, Mary Queen of Scots was actually French, and not the Brit she was portrayed as in the film, and for another, Queen Elizabeth was almost twenty years too young in the depiction. The movie takes place in 1585, when Queen Elizabeth was fifty-two, but she was played by Cate Blanchett, who was only thirty-six at the time of filming. And for another thing, Elizabeth couldn’t have been courted by Ivan the Terrible during that period, because he died in 1584. Whoops!

14. They Died With Their Boots On

This film is often cited as one of the most ridiculous as far as inaccuracies, and it follows Civil War hero George Custer through his career, up to the Battle Of The Little Bighorn, where he would eventually lose his own life, along with two hundred of his men. First of all, it gives Custer a better record than he actually has, and implies that one of his military promotions came about solely as an administrative mistake, which isn’t true. It also shows him turning to alcohol in 1865, which is unlikely given that he’d sworn it off in 1862 after ‘an embarrassing incident’.

And then there’s the way the relationship with between the whites and the Native Americans were portrayed, with Custer shown as a sympathetic war hero who sacrifices himself to a battle he knows is hopeless, surrounded by one-dimensional Native American characters. Whereas in reality, Custer’s actions appear to have been driven by ignorance and arrogance and an underestimation of his enemy.

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  • Historyteacher

    Pearl Harbor is pretty bad, but in fact the bombing raids over Japan did actually occur( just without Affleck and Josh Hartnett.) This event is known as the Doolittle Raids. Now I’m not saying that somehow Alec Baldwin was actually there, but he did play Jimmy Doolittle who planned the raids on Tokyo in 1942. For further info, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doolittle_Raid

    • Nbl

      I think she meant that fighter pilots from Pearl Harbor didn’t become bomber pilots in the Doolittle raids. Especially considering a lot of PH’s fighter pilots were out at see with the carriers.

  • Jenni

    Pocahontas might be the most offensive. But only because it’s illegal to paint with ALL the colors of the wind.

    • MCR

      Probably every Hollywood western involving Indians, pre-1970, are tied for first place, but I suppose we can take that as read.

  • LaLa

    Actually Mel Gibson did the voice of John Smith in Pocahontas. So he’s technicality in three on this list.

  • gothicgaelicgirl

    The Pocahontas thing used to annoy the shit out of me,lol I haven’t the heart to tell the kids that Pocahontas died in her early twenties…

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  • MCR

    Interesting description of Won’t Back Down. When I saw it, I wondered why there was so much extraneous, negative chatter about unions scattered throughout the movie. Now it makes sense.

  • Pappy

    You left out one of the most appalling inaccuracy from Bay’s Pearl Harbor: It shows the Japanese bombing civilian targets, like the hospital, which they never did. And it DOESN’T show the Americans bombing civilian targets in retaliation, which they totally did.

    I’m not pointing this out just to bash Americans. They were understandably enraged and heartbroken about their friends and fellow soldiers being mass-murdered in a sneak attack. But facts are facts. The Japanese pilots made a point not to attack civilian targets because it was regarded as highly dishonorable behavior, and the Americans did because they were angry and wanted to inflict as much physical and psychological damage as possible. Michael Bay is a dishonest, money-grubbing scumbag.

    • FemelleChevalier

      “The Japanese pilots made a point not to attack civilian targets because it was regarded as highly dishonorable behavior…”

      Oh yes, the Japanese soldiers didn’t bombed American civilians during WWII in Pearl Harbor. They only raped, pillaged, tortured, experimented on, and murdered the innocent civilians – men, women, pregnant women, children, babies, and elders – of neighboring Asian countries. What honorable behavior that is to treat Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Thais, etcetera as sub-humans as ordered by the Emperor himself.

      What the Americans did aren’t acceptable in itself, but the Imperial Japan wasn’t innocent, either. Facts are facts.

    • Nbl

      Thank you! I was going to post the same thing. If you’re going to point out Americans attacking civilians while the “honorable” Japanese only attacked military targets then at least tell the whole story. Look at Nanking. Oh and yes Japan did try to attack American civilians. Look at the so-called “balloon bombs” the Japanese sent to mainland America.

    • Pappy

      Point taken. My knowledge of WW2 atrocities is clearly lacking. I just loathe Bay and his rah-rah-America-is-the-greatest propaganda. But you make a legit point and I admit I don’t have the full story. Thank you for enlightening me as to humankind’s universal capacity for appalling behavior. I should have been more circumspect in my defense of, well, any group of people I suppose. Truce?

    • FemelleChevalier

      Of course. Just a misunderstanding and all; no biggie. I just grew up listening and being made aware of Asian WWII survivors: soldiers, guerrillas, and comfort women.

    • Nbl

      If you want to learn more about World War II, not the just the bare bones shown in schools, and the horrors done by both the Allies and the Axis, watch “World at War”. It’s a pretty long series so you probably have to break it up and it was made it in the 70′s or 80′s so not great quality but its very informative. It interviews people who lived through everything and gives you the prespective of all party’s involved. Including the Germans and the Japanese. It also reminds you that we fought with one of the most inhumane and tyrannical dictators (not to mention world class asshat) in history, Stalin.

    • Pete

      Yeah God forbid Americans actually believe America IS the greatest… It makes far more sense to live in a country that you hate.

    • Pete

      umm no

  • Nbl

    The worst part of Pearl Harbor for me was that in naval uniform, Alec Baldwin looked disturbingly like my dad (also a navy pilot) and my dad HATES Alec Baldwin. Fictional movies based on true historical events make me sad because there are so many amazing true stories that should be told but never do. My family used to go to Oahu for thanksgiving every year (my mom hated cooking thanksgiving dinner) and one year we went a week later to watch Navy play Hawaii in a bowl game. We always stayed at the military hotel there. That year I started talking to an elderly gentlemen just to be nice and pass the time. He was there for the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was on the Arizona at the time. He told me his whole life story and how he met his wife and what he experienced during the war. I was more captivated listening to him talk for those two hours than I ever was in a movie theater.

  • MarianD

    Watched The Golden Age in my high school history class way back when. We had spent the whole year studying tudor England and I have never seen 20 teenagers so angry.

    • MCR

      It warms my heart to know that teenagers can get angry about historical inaccuracies.

  • John

    Also let’s talk about the fact how the main Americans in The Patriot were Australian, then again it is a Roland Emmerich film. “It doesn’t really matter if this movie’s a success or not, because it’s already out there” – R. Emmerich

  • RW

    In defense of 300, I think (or at least what I got out of it anyway) is that the story is being told to the latest batch of soldiers heading out to battle, so – like all good stories – the badassery is maybe a little exaggerated to pump up the troops. Xerxes being larger than life, giants in battle, elephants and rhinos of gargantuan proportions, fighting nekkid (which is often how warriors were portrayed in art – increasing their badass factor exponentially), building a wall of carcasses 20 feet high – I think it’s all just “the fish were THIS big” kind of enhancements to the tale to make everything seem more exciting as Dilios tells the story to psych the soldiers for battle. It’s more like extreme and deliberate embellishing than historical inaccuracy.

    Especially given that Dilios was sent away before the final battle that killed everyone, so even as a viewer you know he’s making shit up about what went down in the final battle. But again, he went for something defiant and gloriously epic to wind the troops up.

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