When it comes to historical films, you have to allow for a certain amount of creative license. For one thing, there’s a huge swatch of history for which we lack any sort of reliable visual or audio record of how people actually spoke, dressed, or went about their daily lives. And real life rarely follows a convenient narrative arc neatly organized into rising action, climax, and falling action. Often, in order to turn a historical film into effective entertainment, some liberties have to be taken with the actual history.
As a result, there are few historical films you can use as research into how things actually were during their respective time periods. But most period pieces at least get most of the details right — if only to establish verisimilitude, that "truthy" feel. Some historical movies don’t do a very good job at this, and some — like the films on this list — irritate actual historians to no end because they get their history so very, very wrong. And they’re not comedies, where the wrongness might be part of the joke. These are serious films that want us to believe that we’re getting a magical glimpse into the past — and instead have become the historical films historians can’t stand to watch.
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy remains a stunning tragedy in our nation’s history: a young and popular president shot to death in broad daylight while seated next to his wife and surrounded by Secret Service agents. It also remains fertile ground for conspiracy theories involving everything from the CIA to communist spies to the Mafia. Oliver Stone’s main ambition seems to have been cramming every single one into his incredibly well-made film, and the historical accuracy suffered as a result.
According to The Baltimore Sun, the director said of his 1991 film JFK, "This isn’t history, this is movie-making. I’m not setting out to make a documentary." In that sense, the movie is a towering triumph because it is as far from a documentary as it can possibly get. Yet Stone’s film is so well-crafted that it often makes people think it’s more accurate than it is.
The Washington Post calls JFK "barely factual." Stone used the trial of Clay Shaw on charges brought by District Attorney of Orleans Parish, Louisiana, Jim Garrison in 1969 as the core of his script. But as Edward Jay Epstein wrote in The Atlantic, Garrison’s case fell apart when it was revealed that his key witness had been drugged and recanted his testimony. Stone solves this by deleting the actual witness and replacing him with a fictional character played by Kevin Bacon — and that’s just one of many brazen fabrications Stone presents with the utmost seriousness.
Gladiator is a great movie. The story of a Roman general who is betrayed by the treacherous son of the emperor and forced to fight as an anonymous gladiator in order to get close enough for his revenge, it evokes the Roman Empire extremely well, even if it is a film notorious for the magical pillow that appears under Russell Crowe’s head during his death scene.
But as good-looking and dramatic as Gladiator is, when Daily History broke down its historical accuracy, it was found to be wanting. From the clothes worn by the German barbarians in the film’s opening battle to the extreme unlikelihood that Emperor Marcus Aurelius would — or could — convey imperial power to a general as depicted, the movie gets a lot of stuff wrong. For example, in the film, the emperor doesn’t like or trust his son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), who then murders his father in order to seize the throne. But in reality, Aurelius named Commodus co-emperor 14 years before his death, and Commodus took power peacefully.
Most egregiously, of course, the film shows Emperor Commodus dying at the hands of Russel Crowe’s Maximus. Commodus was widely disliked, and he was assassinated in his bath in 192 CE after ruling the empire for 12 long years. It’s little wonder that many of the consultants hired to guide the historical accuracy of the film asked not to be listed in the credits.
U-571 is a tense, entertaining war movie about an American submarine crew that poses as German sailors to board a damaged German U-boat and steal the Enigma code machine on board. The Enigma machines were used to decrypt coded messages for the Nazis, and the Allies’ inability to crack those codes was a real problem in the early days of World War II. That gives the story some great stakes and real tension.
Unfortunately, it also makes the film probably one of the least historically accurate ever made. Where some historical movies are content to get a few details here and there wrong, according to The Guardian, U-571 is "so inaccurate that it was damned by the UK parliament as an affront to the real sailors."
That’s the number one problem: The film was inspired by Operation Primrose, in which a crew of British sailors boarded a German submarine and captured the code books that were needed to use the Enigma machines. As The Guardian notes, the Allies already had several working Enigmas. What they lacked were the code books. And all this was accomplished in 1941 — a year before the film’s setting, which means the entire mission would have been meaningless. Add in the fact that U-571 was never captured but was actually sunk — in 1944.
The Last Samurai
Samurai are cool. In this 2003 film, Tom Cruise plays a former US Army officer who’s going through some serious PTSD and who takes a job helping to modernize Japan’s military. He’s seduced into supporting a doomed but noble samurai rebellion, training to become a samurai warrior even as the way of life they represent is about to be destroyed forever.
It’s an excellent narrative, and it’s largely based on the true story of Saigō Takamori. As historian Mark Ravina explains, after helping to restore the power of the emperor in what is known as the Meji Restoration, Takamori was shocked when the emperor stripped the samurai of their power and privileges, and he led a rebellion. Unfortunately, the film isn’t very concerned with historical accuracy. As War History Online notes, while it’s true that Japan hired Western consultants like that, none of them were American. And the samurai were also familiar with modern weaponry and would have used firearms in their battles.
Worse, the samurai cause isn’t presented realistically. In reality, it was more about class. The creation of a modern professional army elevated a class of people the samurai regarded as beneath them, and the main motive was to maintain their power and wealth. And, of course, the film shows ninjas attacking the samurai. Ninjas make everything better, but Japan hadn’t seen actual ninjas in centuries by that point in history.
Mel Gibson’s 2000 film is pretty blatant about its intentions — you don’t call a movie The Patriot if you’re offering up a fair and balanced view of the American Revolution. Gibson and director Roland Emmerich consulted with the Smithsonian Institution to get the details right, and the sets and costumes are pretty spot-on as a result. And the story, about Gibson’s South Carolina farmer and war veteran who reluctantly joins the rebels when his family is violently and brutally attacked, is affecting and well-done.
The filmmakers were obviously worried that they didn’t have a strong villain for the story, however. As The Guardian points out, the portrayal of the British army officers is outlandishly fictional — every British person in the film is a sadist and a war criminal, in that order.
And as the Los Angeles Times notes, the film completely gets the plight of Black Americans wrong. The decision to make it clear that Gibson’s character is not a slave owner despite living in South Carolina is forgivable, but Blacks are presented as freely fighting alongside their white neighbors in the Continental Army. While there was some discussion of raising Black units during the war, this never actually happened, and the fact is that most of the Black people in the southern colonies at the time were, of course, slaves — something the film simply ignores.
Argo is a great movie. Based on the real-life rescue of American diplomatic workers hidden by their Canadian peers for months after the Iranian revolution in 1979, it’s easy to see why it won the Oscar for Best Film in 2013. The story of a fake sci-fi film production funded by the CIA as cover for a tense rescue operation is entertaining as heck.
It’s too bad that almost nothing shown in the film actually happened. It might as well be considered fiction.
Sure, the whole fake film operation that allowed the Americans to assume the identities of a Canadian film crew in order to escape Tehran is 100-percent true. But as Indiewire reports, almost all of the details in the film are wrong. Scenes like the one in which the Americans are forced to somehow pretend they know what they’re doing in a public market while suspicious Iranians watch them closely, or when the Iranian Revolutionary Guard chases their plane as it races for takeoff, simply never happened. And as Slate notes, the character of Lester Siegel (memorably portrayed by Alan Arkin) is entirely fictional, erasing several real heroes who actually existed and risked their lives to perform the rescue.
Roland Emmerich is a director known for two things: Big, splashy effects-driven movies and wild historical, scientific, and general inaccuracy. That doesn’t make his films any less fun to watch, but it does land them on lists like this one.
And 10,000 BC may be Emmerich’s greatest achievement in terms of historical inaccuracy. As IO9 notes, the film’s list of lavish historical errors include depicting people building the pyramids in Egypt using woolly mammoths when woolly mammoths would have been extinct for thousands of years, depicting civilizations using steel (the earliest examples of which date to about 1800 BC), and enormous, thriving cities thousands of years before the invention of agriculture … or, you know, the invention of cities. And as Slate notes, most of the trappings of civilization the film shows — monuments, language, and farming — wouldn’t show up for thousands of years.
This is some ambitious historical inaccuracy, is what we’re saying. There are so many goofs in this film, in fact, that TREY the Explainer, who specializes in noting inaccuracies like this, had to make three whole videos to capture them all.
Everyone loves 300 as a movie. Gerard Butler in a loincloth shouting "This! Is! Sparta!"? Hyper-stylized battle scenes? A King of Persia who’s apparently 16 feet tall and not entirely human? The Immortals? Yes, please.
But for a film explicitly based on real people and a real and extremely important historical event (the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC), its entire attitude toward historical accuracy is pretty laid-back. We hope it’s not necessary to explain that the legendary Spartan warriors probably didn’t go into battle wearing what are essentially loincloths and body oil — as History Vs. Hollywood explains, they most likely wore armor like every other sensible fighting force of the time.
The Guardian notes that just about every aspect of the invading Persian army is wrong, too. In the film, the Persian Emperor, Xerxes, summons warriors from all corners of his empire to throw at the Spartans. But in reality, the warriors that are shown come from much later in history — and most were never under the control of the Persian Empire, even at its largest extent (which was pretty large). Finally, the film’s worst sin is positioning the Spartans as defenders of democracy and freedom. In reality, they were a society built on the exploitation of slave labor. But you wouldn’t know that from the film.
Enemy at the Gates
Enemy at the Gates is a 2001 film starring Jude Law and Ed Harris as rival snipers — the former defending Stalingrad for the Soviet Union, the latter part of the invading Nazi forces — who engage in an epic showdown that turns the tide of the battle. It’s a tense and gritty story set against one of the most famous battles in modern history — it’s estimated that as many as two million soldiers died over the course of the siege. Many see the battle as a turning point in World War II, as the Nazi forces were trapped and slowly whittled down over the course of five months, until they finally surrendered because they literally had no food or ammunition left.
According to historian Antony Beevor, Paramount Pictures bought the script with the understanding that it was based on a true story, which was awkward, because he had just discovered evidence that the whole story was essentially an invention of Russian propaganda. Although Law’s character, Vasily Zaitsev, was based on a real (and quite legendary) Soviet sniper, there was never a rival Nazi sniper, much less a complex game of sniper chess between the two as depicted in the film. The director, Jean-Jacques Annaud, continues to describe the film as based on a true story.
There’s little doubt that Winston Churchill was one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th century, or that Gary Oldman’s performance as the former British Prime Minister in 2018’s Darkest Hour is incredibly good. Churchill was an incredibly capable leader and remains an incredibly important historical figure, but as good as it is, the film gets much of the story wrong.
First and foremost, Churchill is portrayed as a drunk, broken old man when World War II erupts. But as Antony Beevor explains in The Guardian, although he’d been pushed out of the main corridors of power, Churchill still had a lot of influence and support in the government and the Conservative Party at the time. Worse, as The Atlantic details, the pivotal scene where Churchill rides the London Underground and is convinced by a group of "ordinary" Londoners to resist Hitler to the last breath is "utterly mythical." As Beevor says dryly, the London Underground was a place the snobbish Churchill "had never set foot in his life."
The film also avoids many of Churchill’s flaws — like his flagrant racism and classism — while giving credit for his brilliant leadership to a chance encounter with a bunch of anonymous citizens on a train. Churchill was many things, but none of them are on display in this otherwise gripping film.
This 1995 film starring Mel Gibson depicts the very real William Wallace and his very real First War of Scottish Independence during the 13th century. It’s a stirring, exciting story, and Gibson’s performance remains iconic in modern cinema — but it gets a seriously failing grade when it comes to historical accuracy. Literally. Historian Alex von Tunzelmann gave it a "Fail" in her review for The Guardian.
Von Tunzelmann’s laundry list of historical errors is striking in how easily some could have been avoided. The opening voice-over declares that King Alexander III of Scotland died in 1280, when he actually died in 1286. William Wallace is depicted as growing up poor, whereas the real Wallace was wealthy. And the Battle of Stirling Bridge is set in a grassy field where there is an incredible lack of bridges. It’s almost like they’re not even trying. In order to engineer a love interest for Wallace (and some drama), the film also plays fast and loose with time and space. As War History Online notes, Princess Isabella, who becomes pregnant with Wallace’s child after they fall in love, was in reality nine years old when Wallace died.
Perhaps the most blatant indication that the filmmakers just didn’t care is the way the Scottish warriors are costumed. On the one hand, they paint their faces as if they’re the ancient Celt and Pict tribes that lived in Britain during Roman times. On the other hand, they’re wearing kilts, which wouldn’t be invented for centuries.
If all your knowledge about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart comes from the excellent, multiple-Oscar-winning 1984 film Amadeus, you think you know three basic facts: One, Mozart was a musical genius (true). Two, Mozart loved a good fart joke (also true). And three, Antonio Salieri hated Mozart and conducted a cruel gaslighting campaign to drive him insane and probably indirectly caused his death (almost certainly not true in any way).
It’s an amazing film, but it tosses facts out the window in favor of drama. Historian Alex von Tunzelmann called the film "laughably wrong" in The Guardian. She gave the film credit for accurately portraying some of Mozart’s more childish and fart-loving personality traits but noted that the whole Salieri-hated-Mozart business was fiction drummed up after both were dead by Russian writer Alexander Pushkin. She also notes that the film explicitly makes many of Mozart’s later works seem like failures, when in fact they were uniformly successful, and that the whole business with Salieri dressing up like his dead father to commission the Requiem happened in a completely different, Salieri-free way.
As BBC Culture notes, Peter Shaffer (who wrote the play the film was based on) was up-front about the lack of facts in this historical story, saying, "Obviously Amadeus on stage was never intended to be a documentary biography of the composer, and the film was even less of one."
You might be surprised to learn that a film directed by Michael Bay, a man best known for blowing things up in movies about giant robots, is not regarded as a well-researched historical film based in something resembling reality.
While the actual attack on Pearl harbor is rendered fairly accurately, the film is riddled with mistakes. According to Entertainment Weekly, Ben Affleck’s character joining a British fighter squadron created for American pilots (because the US hadn’t yet entered the war) isn’t totally crazy — but he wouldn’t have been able to keep his officer’s commission when he did. War History Online notes that the film’s depiction of Japanese planes bombing a hospital never happened, as the Japanese restricted their attack to military targets only. But films require villains to do terrible things, so making up this detail helped to make the Japanese seem deserving of good old American vengeance.
While big changes like that might be done knowingly in the service of a better story, the filmmakers got small details wrong, indicating a general lack of research. One obvious example is the cigarettes shown in the film. Sure, folks in the 1940s smoked like there was no surgeon general’s warning on each pack (because there wasn’t), but showing people smoking Marlboro Lights 30 years before they were introduced is just bad history.
Windtalkers came out in the halcyon days of 2002, when Nicolas Cage was still a bona-fide A-List movie star and not a slightly crazy B-movie icon screaming about the bees. This was a prestige film telling a story from World War II that doesn’t get a lot of attention: the Navajo Windtalkers.
They really existed, and the US armed forces did, in fact, rely on Navajo code talkers during the war. As the CIA itself explains, the Navajo language was ideal because of its complexity, rarity, and lack of written form, which gave the Germans and Japanese nothing to work from. The code talkers then took it a step further by using a sort of "word association" code that further obscured the true meaning of the messages.
So far, so good, but as Seattle PI notes, it’s when we get to the actual plot of the film that everything goes wrong. In the story, the code talkers are so vital to the war effort they cannot be allowed to be captured. Nic Cage stars as the PTSD-suffering soldier assigned to protect his "windtalker" at any cost — and to kill him if it looks like he’s going to be captured. This is simply not true: The code talkers were certainly useful and contributed tremendously to the war effort, but the capture of a single code talker wouldn’t have lost us the war, and no one was ordering summary executions on the front lines to keep them out of enemy hands.
You might not remember this 2006 film starring James Franco since it didn’t exactly set the box office or awards season on fire. Depicting the early days of aerial combat in World War I, the movie should have been great fun. Instead, it’s a historical nightmare — and the reason is pretty simple: The military adviser they hired to consult on the film was a fraud.
As noted by War History Online, none of the airplanes shown in the film are historically accurate: The Germans are shown flying Fokker D1s, which were used in World War I but weren’t as common as the film makes it seem. The Americans are shown flying Nieuport 17s — but these planes had actually been decommissioned before the Fokker was in the air. According to producers, this was an aesthetic choice because the planes were visually dissimilar, making it easy for audiences to tell the two sides apart in dogfights.
But as The Guardian reports, the real answer might be simple incompetence. The man hired to be the military adviser on the film, John Livesey, was a fraud who invented a military career and eventually wound up in jail. Livesey claimed to have served in the Parachute Regiment (with a medal for gallantry) and to have fought in the Falklands war and Northern Ireland. In reality, the expert the producers were paying to ensure that their film got the details right had served just a few years … in the Catering Corps.
Oliver Stone’s whole aesthetic could be described as "reality-adjacent," so literally no one expected his 2004 epic historical drama Alexander to be an educational film about the man who once conquered most of the known world. But the movie is so disdainful of historical fact that it’s basically a work of fiction.
As DailyHistory.org notes, Stone completely distorts just about every detail of Alexander the Great’s life. The historical figures are depicted as younger than they actually were, and Stone deletes important battles from the story, combines others for no reason aside from convenience, and misrepresents how formidable Alexander’s enemies were, especially the Persians. That means the film actually fails in one of its main reasons for existence: exploring the military genius of Alexander.
According to War History Online, one of the biggest problems with the film is its depiction of Alexander’s sexuality. Alexander marched with his armies in the fourth century BC, so our modern-day conception of sexual orientation and morality simply didn’t apply, and yet the film insists on treating his possible bisexuality as a major scandal when it almost certainly wouldn’t have been. And as DailyHistory.org notes, we actually don’t have enough evidence to judge Alexander’s sexuality one way or another.
Just because your film is an animated feature aimed at kids doesn’t let you off the hook for historical accuracy. Disney’s Pocahontas is a delightful movie … that unfortunately fails pretty big-time when it comes to getting its facts straight. Kids may assume that the movie is pretty accurate, which means it’s teaching those kids a version of history that’s totally wrong.
According to Bustle, the worst (and creepiest) thing the film gets wrong is Pocahontas’ age. In reality, she was about ten years old when she met 27-year-old Captain John Smith. The film makes her into an adult and spins a totally fictional tale of a romance between them — which would have been really horrifying if true. The film builds to the big moment when Smith returns home to England and Pocahontas decides to stay behind with her family — but in reality, Pocahontas did marry an Englishman many years later and sailed to England with him.
As noted by The Guardian, the film also distorts history by toning down the colonial violence inflicted on the Native Americans by the British. The film strongly implies that the Native Americans were just as violent and intent on fighting as the British and then depicts everyone coming together to strike a new peace accord. In reality, the British brought along several nasty diseases that killed off about 90 percent of the population, allowing the Europeans to just grab all their land.
Shakespeare in Love
It’s true that we know next to nothing about Shakespeare’s life — there are entire periods of his life that are a complete blank. That makes it easy to just make stuff up, of course, but it’s almost certain that almost nothing shown in Shakespeare in Love is true.
As reported by The Daily Collegian, the film suggests that Romeo and Juliet and several other works by the Bard were inspired by an actress Shakespeare loved. She breaks tradition (and the law) by dressing as a man to pursue her love of acting. In reality, Shakespeare’s plays liberally borrowed from previous stories, reworking old plots. This was pretty common back in those days. As noted by The Guardian, this also doesn’t make much sense because the film is explicitly set in 1593, and many of the works he supposedly writes weren’t composed until nearly a decade later.
There’s also a subtle but striking inaccuracy in that the film has exactly zero characters of color. This might seem to make sense if you’re not familiar with history, but the as the BBC writes, there was actually a sizable Black population in London at the time. While you can accept there not being any people of color as main characters, not having any in the background at all is a complete history fail.
Black Hawk Down
Black Hawk Down is a thrilling war movie. Depicting the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993, the movie follows a group of US Special Forces soldiers who have to fight their way through the streets against the forces of a vicious Somali warlord.
That’s based on a real event, and the film does a reasonably good job of depicting the desperation of urban warfare. Unfortunately, as The Guardian points out, the film gets a lot of really important aspects of the events absolutely wrong. For one, it ignores the high number of civilians killed in the action, making it seem like everyone who dies was a voluntary combatant. It also completely ignores the presence of child soldiers, preferring not to deal with the complex moral questions attached.
Perhaps most egregious is the way the film portrays the American forces not only as mostly white but also as acting alone when, in fact, they were supported by a large number of Pakistani and Malaysian soldiers. These soldiers were our allies and were heavily involved in the battle, but they are completely deleted from the story — the only Pakistanis we see are fawning servants waiting for the soldiers back at their base. Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf was so irritated about this that he denounced the movie.
John Wayne was one of the biggest stars of all time. He also wasn’t above putting his personal politics into his films, and as Yahoo! News reports, he made The Alamo as a vehicle for a certain view of American patriotism that wasn’t exactly historically accurate. While the broad strokes of the Battle of the Alamo — which saw about 200 Texans fight a professional Mexican army of thousands — are true enough, Wayne made several changes that go against history.
First and foremost, it makes it look like the Texans were fighting for the American way when, in fact, they were fighting for their own claim to the land: Texas hadn’t even declared independence when the battle broke out and was years away from becoming a state. Wayne wanted to show heroic Americans defending their liberty when it was actually desperate Texans fighting to keep ownership of their land.
As academic Steve Jones notes, the film’s inaccuracies extend to specific historical figures, many of whom are depicted in wildly incorrect ways. One example is James Bowie, who, in reality, was too ill to fight in the battle. The film shows him valiantly battling the Mexicans despite this inconvenient fact. Davy Crockett is shown dying a spectacular, heroic death involving a mortal wound and a big explosion, but in truth, he was probably taken prisoner by the Mexicans.