Issue 7: Feature Article—The Fact-Based Films of Martin Scorsese (Part 1)

This issue, we begin our look at some key figures in the world of fact-based film. We start with the one and only Martin Scorsese. In this first of our two-parter on the acclaimed director (not to mention, writer, producer and actor) we provide a short filmography of his main fact-based works…

Dubbed ‘America’s greatest living filmmaker’, Scorsese has made an immeasurable contribution to cinema. His pure love and knowledge of film; his devotion to traditional filmmaking techniques; and his ability to fill the screen with epic, sometimes operatic, stories, and larger than life characters have cemented his place in film history.

In the second part of our Scorsese feature, we’ll dig under the surface a little to examine some of his fact-based films more closely. However, for this issue we’ve set out a short filmography (focussing on his work as a director), highlighting the key fact-based works to (re)acquaint yourself with. We’ve divided our list into:

Based on – Films that tell a specific story from real life.
Inspired by – Films influenced by real life but featuring a largely fictional narrative.
Rumoured/forthcoming – Films that are in the works, in production, or in the can.

Based on…

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
This five-time Oscar nominee tells the story of Wall Street lupus, Jordan Belfort; following his rise to hedonistic wealthy stock-broker through to his corruption-soaked fall. Written by Terence Winter, it was based on Belfort’s memoir of the same name. This was Scorsese’s fifth collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s a full-on R-rated ride that includes sex, drugs, 500+ f-bombs…and people making obscene amounts of money.

The Aviator (2004)
DiCaprio takes on the role of Howard Hughes in this biopic of the director and aviator’s life from the 1920s through to the 1940s. Nominated for eleven Oscars, it won five and features incarnations of Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, Jean Harlow and Errol Flynn. Written by John Logan, the film is credited for re-invigorating knowledge about Hughes’ contributions to the world of aviation, and for its treatment of his increasingly paranoid tendencies.

Kundun (1997)
This historical epic tell the story of the fourteenth Dalai Lama (or ‘Kundun’), who was forced to escape from his native Tibet when communist China invaded. The story spans the years 1937 to 1959. It was nominated for four Oscars and praised for its cinematography, but criticised for its episodic plot. Screenwriter, Melissa Mathison, based her script on interviews with the actual Dalai Lama, who consented to having his story told on screen. The film also features his grandnephew, Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, as the adult Dalai Lama.

Goodfellas (1990)
This gangster classic is the subject of this week’s analysis.

Raging Bull (1980)
Robert De Niro is self-destructive boxer, Jake LaMotta, in this black & white classic that ranks as one of the best films to be overlooked by Oscar (it won two, but lost Best Film to Ordinary People). Notable for so many things, not least the balletic fight sequences, the film became an instant classic and has remained a stalwart in ‘best films of all time’ lists ever since. Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin adapted the script from LaMotta’s memoir, Raging Bull: My Story. We’ll get more into this film next issue.

Inspired by…

Hugo (2011)
Based on Brian Selznick’s novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and written by John Logan, this is a beautiful film that eschews its ‘kids adventure’ storyline to become a love letter to cinema itself. Set in 1930s Paris, the fact-based interest here is the depiction of George Melies, an early filmmaking pioneer known for many technical and narrative developments in the earliest days of cinema.

Gangs of New York (2002)
It’s that man Leo again. This time, Mr DiCaprio stars as Amsterdam Vallon, a young man who returns home to the violent Five Points slum in 1863, only to get mixed up with Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day Lewis), who killed Amsterdam’s father years before. Written by Jay Cocks and ostensibly based on Herbert Asbury’s non-fiction account of the same name, this is a fictitious story set against the backdrop of a meticulously-researched period of history. There’ll be more on this next week.

Casino (1995)
Dubbed ‘Goodfellas in Vegas’ on its release, this is actually quite different in substance and content. De Niro is ‘Ace’ Rothstein, a gambler and Mobster who gets handed the keys to the kingdom when he’s put in charge of the Tangiers casino in 1970s/80s Vegas. It’s based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Nicholas Pileggi, who co-wrote the script with Scorsese. While the Tangiers is fictitious, Rothstein is based on Frank Rosenthal, who ran the Stardust, Fremont, and Hacienda casinos. Joe Pesci’s character of Nicky Santoro is based on real-life Mob enforcer, Anthony Spilotro.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Scorsese’s most controversial work to date; this wades into the story of Jesus Christ (from Christmas to Easter). Based on the novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis and adapted for the screen by Paul Schrader, it ruffled all kinds of feathers by depicting the Son of God as a man with lustful urges. Is a film about Jesus based on fact, or pure fiction? We’ll leave that debate for another forum…

Boxcar Bertha (1972): Barbara Hershey stars in a loose adaptation of Sister of the Road, Ben L. Reitman’s autobiographical account of radical and transient, Bertha Thompson. This was Scorsese’s second feature (after 1967’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door?). Scorsese was hired to direct the film by ‘king of the B flick’, Roger Corman.


Devil in the White City
Just announced this week, Scorsese will once again team up with DiCaprio for this adaptation of the non-fiction story of two men, an architect and a murderer, who both indulge their passions at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

Silence (2016)
Based on the novel of the same name by Shûsaku Endô, this project has had a long gestation period, but will finally reach cinema screens next year. Set in the seventeenth century, it tells of two persecuted Jesuit priests who travel to Japan to find their mentor and spread the teachings of Christianity. While fiction, it has its roots in historical fact and characters based on real life counterparts.

A Scorsese-directed biopic of the iconic crooner’s life has been rumoured for some time…here’s hoping that one day it’ll come to fruition. What the betting it’ll be that man DiCaprio as ‘ole blue eyes(?)

Now that we’ve completed our little run-down of Scorsese’s fact-based films, next time we delve a little deeper into how he brought some of these stories to the big screen.

Issue 8 of RSL is out on 31 August.