Issue 4: Article—Films that Rewrote History

Each issue, RSL offers up that perennial internet favourite: the themed list. For this issue, we take a quick look at films that have done more than take liberties with history – they’ve just plain made it up…!

JFK (1991)

JFK1What’s the story? It’s about the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on 22 November 1963. Kevin Costner stars as New Orleans DA, Jim Garrison, who finds there’s more to the story than what the authorities want everyone to believe. It was directed and co-written by Oliver Stone and based on the books, On the Trail of the Assassins by Garrison, and Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy by Jim Marris.

What’s the problem? The problem is that while there are conspiracy theories galore concerning the JFK assassination, Stone presents his one as historical fact. The film might be a good yarn, but probably best to take it with a pinch of salt.

Amadeus (1984)

AmadeusWhat’s the story? In eighteenth century Vienna, pious court composer Antonio Salieri becomes consumed with jealousy over the ‘God-sent’ talent of impetuous newcomer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The film, which stars F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce, was directed by Miloš Forman, with a screenplay by Peter Shaffer, who adapted his own stage play, Amadeus. The film won eight Oscars.

What’s the problem? In the film (and play), Mozart is presented as a childish and vulgar buffoon who, when not exhibiting his genius as a composer, amuses himself with boorish antics and jokes about bodily functions. In truth, according to historians, the rivalry between the two great composers was one of friendly competition, rather than murderous jealousy. And Mozart was far from the loutish clown portrayed on screen.

U-571 (2000)

U-571_movieWhat’s the story? In 1942, the US Navy boards a World War II German submarine in a bid to capture its Enigma cipher machine, which is allowing the Germans to transmit war codes that can’t be cracked by the Allies. The film was directed by Jonathan Mostow, who also co-wrote alongside Sam Montgomery and David Ayer

What’s the problem? Coupla things. 1. The first capture of a naval Enigma machine was carried out by the British military. 2. The Americans weren’t in the war at the time. Other than that, the history is spot on! Fiction dressed up as historical fact.

Spartacus (1960)

SpartacusWhat’s the story? In the first century BC, a slave leads a violent revolt against the Roman Republic. Kirk Douglas stars, with a supporting cast that includes Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov. Winner of four Oscars, it was directed by Stanley Kubrick and the screenplay, by (the then blacklisted) Dalton Trumbo, was based on the book Spartacus by (the also blacklisted) Howard Fast.

What’s the problem? It may be a bit churlish to point out the historical inaccuracies in Spartacus (given that it helped to end the blacklisting of alleged Communist-sympathising writers). However, it does present the life of the real Spartacus, who was not born into slavery, as the movie claims, and met a very different death than that portrayed. The film also takes liberties with some of the other characters and historical events portrayed.

They Died with Their Boots On (1941)

tdwtboWhat’s the story? A fictionalised account of the life of George Armstrong Custer – tracing his exploits from his arrival at West Point to his death at the battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876. Errol Flynn is the dashing hero and the film was directed by Raoul Walsh, with a screenplay credited to Wally Kline and Æneas MacKenzie.

What’s the problem? Too many to mention! From his progression through the military ranks to his treatment of Native Americans – this is a textbook example of the sanitised biopic in which the subject is presented in the best possible light. It came out the year the US joined WWII, so had a ready-made audience eager to watch the exploits of a home grown war hero.

Bravehart (1995)

BraveheartWhat’s the story? Mel Gibson takes on the role of thirteenth century Scottish rebel William Wallace, who leads an uprising against the tyrannical English ruler, Edward the Longshanks. It was ‘based on’ Blind Harry’s poem, The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace. Gibson directed and Randal Wallace wrote this five-time Oscar winner.

What’s the problem? You really can’t do a list on this topic without a nod to Braveheart. For all its plaudits and accolades, there are many glaring historical inaccuracies. From kilts to names, events to characterisations, you’ll find little here that resembles actual historical fact. It was also accused in some quarters of being Anglophobic – but then Hollywood has always loved its English baddies.

Next time, we take a look at some films that have portrayed real life journalists.

Issue 5 of RSL is out on 20 July.