This frenetic, computerized gorefest bludgeons and butchers history, recasting the ancient Battle of Thermopylae fought between the mighty Persian Empire and an army of Greeks into a crude and uncomfortably racist romp. Sure, director Zach Snyder can justifiably say his movie is based on the Frank Miller comic book, not Herodotus or Xenophon, but tell that to the generation of American kids who’ll now forever associate Persians with hapless, degenerate sissy men.
The film makes the heroic Spartans — whose digitally enhanced abs ripple in the Hellenic half-light — into champions of freedom and democracy. This when Sparta was in reality one of the least free city-states in all of Greece and notorious for its exploitation and mistreatment of a vast population of slaves, known as Helots. Helot uprisings were a common feature of Spartan history. As for the Persians, 300 makes them out to be swarthy, spineless dissemblers. Their emperor is more campy circus freak than towering monarch; their habits are debauched and debasing. They seem to be able to defeat the noble, muscular Greeks only through deceitful schemes. Of course, this characterization is absurd. Generations of Persian rulers governed over a sprawling, cosmopolitan empire, which included many Greek cities. Some historians argue the Persian campaigns in the Greek peninsula were tantamount to that of a powerful state trying to subdue some rowdy hill-dwelling outliers — an exaggeration too, perhaps, but nowhere near as grotesque as the falsehoods given garish life by 300.
“Truth is the first casualty in Hollywood’s war,” read the headline of the London Telegraph‘s take on The Patriot. Principal among the movie’s gross inaccuracies is the portrayal of British soldiers as evil, bloodthirsty sadists. In one scene, redcoats are seen rounding up a village of screaming women, children and old men, locking them in a church and setting the building ablaze. No such thing ever happened in the Revolutionary War. What’s worse? An almost identical crime — one of World War II’s most notorious atrocities — was carried out by Nazi soldiers in France in 1944. Meaning not only did the film paint a portrait of the British as cruel killers, it compared them to history’s worst: the Nazis. As Stephen Hunter, a film critic and historian told the Telegraph, “Any image of the American Revolution which represents you Brits as Nazis and us as gentle folk is almost certainly wrong.”
Another of the film’s egregious oversights lies with lead character Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), based on several real-life players in the American Revolution, including Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion, a militia leader from South Carolina. The movie depicts Martin as a family man and hero who single-handedly defeats countless hostile Brits. According to the Guardian, however, evidence suggests the Swamp Fox was a man who actively persecuted Cherokee Indians (killing them for fun) and regularly raped his female slaves. In fact, The Patriot turns a blind eye to slavery altogether, a decision that received much attention from critics including director Spike Lee. “For three hours The Patriot dodged around, skirted about or completely ignored slavery,” Lee wrote in a letter to the Hollywood Reporter. “The Patriot is pure, blatant American Hollywood propaganda. A complete whitewashing of history.”
The Far Horizons
Lewis and Clark are sent to survey the newly acquired territory of Louisiana in this film starring Fred MacMurray as Lewis, Charlton Heston as Clark and Donna Reed as Native American guide Sacagawea. Aside from the obvious miscasting (a common occurrence in movie depictions of Native Americans), there is one glaring flaw, one that can be chalked up to nothing more than standard Hollywood convention: Sacagawea and Clark have the hots for each other. This love affair was never mentioned in any historical accounts of this expedition, making the attraction between the two seem completely implausible, especially since French-Canadian trader Toussaint Charbonneau, Sacagawea’s husband, was also on the trip.
The desperate flaw of Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, starring Russell Crowe, was its aim to transform a much cherished legend into a real historical drama. The story of this heroic English medieval outlaw has lingered for centuries and has been told in countless formats, including TV series, a 1973 Disney film and the cult-favorite Mel Brooks parody, Men in Tights. Scott’s version loads up the tale with history, or what it claims is the real “untold” story of Robin Hood.
It rightly pours cold water on the myth of the benign crusading King Richard the Lionheart — a key ally to Robin in earlier renditions of the tale — and depicts the monarch instead as a bloodthirsty gold digger. He gets killed off early in the film, but the clever revisionism ends there. What follows is a misguided mess that muddles the story with an overexaggerated French conspiracy and a tiresome earnestness about liberty and the rights of a king’s subjects. More than just being historically inaccurate, Robin Hood saps the joy out of the Robin Hood legend, which, after all, is a trickster tale of a rogue in the woods stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. None of this is evident in Scott’s fable, played out with a hulky, dour Crowe plodding on a beach, bellowing at enemies that didn’t really exist.
Mel Gibson’s Scottish epic about Sir William Wallace is riddled with so many inaccuracies that it’s hard to know where to begin. How about the kilts? Scotsmen in the 13th century didn’t wear belted plaid. Gibson’s Wallace is born poor, while the real Wallace was the son of a noble landowner. Oh, and at one point in the film he appears to be wielding nunchaku, with no explanation of how the Chinese weapon came to exist in medieval Scotland. Furthermore, Wallace never met — much less impregnated — the Princess Isabella, who was 9 years old and not a Princess at the time this movie supposedly takes place. Details, details.
Director of movies like Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, Roland Emmerich released this prehistoric-action film in 2008 to tepid reviews. A.O. Scott of the New York Times called it a “sublimely dunderheaded excursion into human prehistory,” while another critic said the film took itself “far too seriously” and didn’t help matters by being historically and archaeologically inaccurate. In one scene, locals in what looks like ancient Egypt are forced to build pyramids — the earliest of which were not built until about 8,000 years later. The movie was also incorrect in depicting woolly mammoths as participants in the building of said pyramids. Furthermore, woolly mammoths would probably have died of heat exhaustion in the desert. Wasn’t that obvious to anyone else?
Oliver Stone’s JFK was under assault for its interpretation of history before it was even released. The film follows district attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), who puts a businessman on trial for plotting with Lee Harvey Oswald and others to kill President John F. Kennedy. It’s a riveting account of a number of often complex conspiracy theories about who shot JFK and why. According to the movie, it was possibly some combination of the U.S. government, the Mafia, the CIA, the Dallas Police Department, Cuban leader Fidel Castro and even President Lyndon B. Johnson. Many took immediate offense to the movie’s loose, sometimes psychedelic, account of history. One key scene, involving a character named “X” (Donald Sutherland), who spills out most of the conspiracy’s details, almost certainly never took place. Critics of the real-life Garrison assert that he was just trying to gain publicity for himself, knew that his case had no validity, and proceeded regardless despite knowing that it would ruin a man’s reputation.
This megabudget production was widely panned by critics upon its release. Historians didn’t think too highly of it either, bristling at the artistic license it took in rearranging the chronology of events surrounding the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as well as the movie’s simplistic, sappy nationalism. One World War II veteran whose actions were supposedly recast in the film described the whole work as “trash” and “oversensationalized and distorted.” TIME’s review yawned at the ponderous fictional relationships of Pearl Harbor‘s imagined protagonists — another gripe among the historical purists. As we wrote in our pages, “megahistory and personal history never integrate here.”
The King's Speech
Colin Firth makes an excellent King George VI — so excellent, in fact, that he earned himself an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. But that doesn’t make The King’s Speech a historically accurate film. As Christopher Hitchens points out in Slate, Winston Churchill was a close friend and supporter of Nazi-sympathizer King Edward VIII (George VI’s brother, who abdicated the throne in order to marry a divorced socialite, leaving George to stutter his way through the monarchy). In the movie, though, Churchill is constantly portrayed as being on George’s side. The filmmakers also fudged the chronology: The King’s Speech gives the impression that George VI and his speech therapist worked together for only a few years in the mid-1930s, when in reality the two began their relationship as early as 1926. Of course, none of that seems to matter to the Academy, which nominated The King’s Speech for a whopping 12 awards.
Shakespeare in Love
Shakespeare in Love, winner of a Best Picture Oscar (over Saving Private Ryan, no less), paints a portrait of William Shakespeare as a playwright hopelessly in love with the star of his latest play. Director John Madden, screenwriter Marc Norman and playwright Tom Stoppard envisioned a world in which the inspiration behind Romeo and Juliet was Shakespeare’s own tumultuous experience with forbidden love. In the film, a young William (Joseph Fiennes) falls in love with Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), the daughter of a wealthy merchant who is betrothed to another man. Of course, the film never pretended or desired to be rooted in fact. But its liberal use of the life of history’s most famous writer may have misled ill-informed moviegoers into believing that the bard was just a run-of-the-mill, untalented and unsuccessful playwright who got lucky.