Movies that Butcher History

  • Disney's Pocahontas--she was 12! ug.
  • Titanic--thank god one of the officer's descendants sued James Cameron's lying ass
  • Braveheart--sad, but true; can still be enjoyed for chopped-off legs
  • Malcolm X--Spike Lee is revisionist at times
  • Tombstone (see below)
  • Wyatt Earp (see below)
  • Anastasia--real history is not quite as musical...
  • Star Wars Episode I--Anakin did NOT build C-3PO, it just doesn't work
  • Red Dawn--Soviets and Mexicans? Oh, wait, that was the 80's
  • Anna and the King--(thanks SamGray)
  • The Patriot--(just saw it...not so much butchered history as just hilariously unlikely history...and its almost 3 hours...could have cut out about 2 of those...Americanized Braveheart)
  • u-571--see note below (thanks to Johnny)
  • Nixon and JFK--I really enjoy Oliver Stone's total disregard of any reputable source for history. I think 99% of the time he just goes with whatever cracked ideas come into his head.
  • The Green Berets--(thanks sebreq)

The only one of these that I've seen is Star Wars -- Why do you say Anakin couldn't have built C3PO?

ah, no real reason, I guess, except that it smacks of the terrible commercialization of the prequels. Funny C-3PO doesn't say something like "Ah I remember Jabba the Hutt" in Return to the Jedi or "Hey, Luke, I knew some kids on this planet back in the day"...not a great answer, but the only one I have

The Phantom Menace will appear a much better movie if, before you comment, you admit that it's a children's movie.

I have read, heard, and occasionally believed that the Star Wars movies are much more than a children's series, but more a modern myth. For that I enjoy the original episodes IV,V, and VI. The Phantom Menace showed me nothing but a display in Toys R Us. Perhaps I have elevated Lucas' motivations to too high a level. I doubt I will see episodes II and III.

One thing I've always admired about the Star Wars universe is that, no matter what the plot discrepancy or general nonsensical thing, the fans themselves always find a way to explain it. A notable example is the "I made the Kessel Run in under twelve parsecs" thing, which I'll forego explaining unless someone is actually interested.

In this case, though, it's fairly simple- C-3PO's a droid, so he would have had his memory wiped sometime between episodes III and IV, most likely when Anakin turned to the dark side and the droids left his possession. Hence, no "hey, jabba!" or "ooh, i was created here!" or "Skywalker? I had a master named Skywalker once."

I'll bite. Since I never gave the "Kessel Run" line a second thought, what's the problem and justification (I'd probably see the problem instantly if I took the time to look up the definition of "parsec").

I believe parsec is a measure of distance, not time. So Han's boast is quite a bit like saying you ran 100 yards in 300 feet.

I believe most of the justification is that Han is just making up an impressive story, and his own ignorance shows through.

Shalom, y'all!

L. Bangs

Hmm, my two cents (tho that whole "Star Wars" entry is a bit of a joke): in one of the few star wars novels that I have read when they started coming out about 6 years ago, I remember (vaguely) that the Kessel run was an extremely trecherous area of space (wormholes? dark matter?) and that running it was like running through a cave blind. There aparently wasn't a set course through to Kessel, so Solo's quick (or short) trip may well have been something to brag about. But again, I am not in any way a master of Star Wars trivial.

The only TRUE nerd to post here: If you assume that the M.F. can hit relativistic speeds, it will see the distance it travels as shorter than the distance a still observer would measure...i think. Thus saying you travelled over 4 miles, whereas a still observer would call it 8 miles, really means you were going really-really fast. This all assumes speeds slower than light though, and that would rule out interstellar travel almost immediately. so nevermind.

Yes, and now I must return to my comic book store, where I dispense the insults, rather than absorb them...

Never seen Red Dawn??? Didn't it ever occur to you that while you were pining away in class, America could have been ransacked by a Russo-Mexican allied force????

Interesting list. What about Anna and the King? Anna and her young son never saved the royal family, and Chulalonghorn certainly never made that statement about his father and "the only woman he loved." There was never a romance between Anna and Mongkut! Also, although the character Tuptim was based on an actual person, in reality she was NOT executed!!! I like Jodie Foster, but this movie was pure Hollywood fantasy.

"Wyatt Earp" based on history? Although "Tombstone" took license with fact. "Wyatt Earp" completely reinvented it. "Earp" was way too long and completely revisionist. Let's face it, "Tombstone" was by far the better western. At least the firearms and costumes were authentic. Several new histories (Inventing Wyatt Earp for one) agree that with the exception of the overly simplified "COWBOY" gang-EARP fued, (both films completely missed the political and ecomonic issues of the region) "Tombstone" was closer to actual events.

I stand corrected, my friend. Perhaps I should just put both films on the list as typical "historical" movies that miss the facts. I suppose I enjoyed "Wyatt Earp" for its more gritty "realism" than the more mythologized "Tombstone". But if "Earp"'s realism was faked, I can't support either one.

tombstone was fairly close to the events, but the characters were made to seem friendly and sociable. the earps were actually thought to be assholes by many of the people in tombstone, dodge, or whereever. "tombstone" was waaay better than "wyatt earp" in my opinion, except, though i hate to admit it, "wyatt earp"s Doc Holiday was much closer to the actual look of Doc. He was tall, slender and sickly looking. but val kilmer was a much better choice, either way, jus for enjoyment purposes

Over in Britain, there's been a pretty big outcry over U-571, the movie about capturing the Enigma code machine. Apparently the Brits captured the machine, but the movie (for marketing reasons, perhaps?) changed the heroes to good ol' Yanks. Of course they were Allies, but I can see why they may be a little upset...

Johnny Waco

thanks for reminding me of U-571, Johnny. I have read two books on Enigma, and yes, it is true that 3 different attempts were made (by the British) to recover coding information from captured/sinking U-Boats during the war. Instead of the Enigma machine itself (whose functions were well known to the cyptologists at Bletchley Park), these missions were trying to recover "cribs", or information that would supply the Allies with a way into the u-boat codes. The Short Weather Code Book was the most prized possession that the British recovered during the war. I saw an interview with on of the British officers involved in one such operation, and he personally saw nothing wrong with U-571, and thought the whole idea "spendid". But I believe the film deserves a place on the list.

Let's not lose sight of the fact that the United States Navy captured the U-505. I don't know what the crypto haul was from that little caper, but the U-boat itself currently resides at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry.

Thanks for the information; I was unaware of U-505...hmmm, perhaps some more reading is in store for me on the subject...

Regarding The Patriot (which I have not seen), I just read an interesting article over at Salon which states that its butchery of history is actually quite severe.

Thanks for the review; although I don't know anything about Nazi film making besides "The Triumph of the Will"(?), I enjoyed the description of the hidiously cliched characters in The Patriot. My friend said that she found it very Disney-esque in its treatment of history. The more I think on it the less I like the film.

Is there any movie, excluding documentaries, that doesn't butcher history?

hmmm, excellent question. I think that when I use the word "butcher" I am trying to evoke the *intentional* and unnecessary misinformation that is so often packed in movies that try to play themselves off as "historical". Also, I'm a new high school teacher, and find the fabrications of these movie makers have been scooped up by my students, much to their detriment.

You might consider another Mel Gibons epic, The Patriot, a movie rife with historical inaccuracies as well as very bad acting.

thank may notice that The Patriot is already on my hall of shame. Its a laughable experience in cheesy melodrama, not to mention giving a large viewing audience the wrong impression of both the rebel and British experience in the war.

The most amusing thing for me were the "Masterpiece Theatre" african-americans. I'm black and I don't think we are that sensitive. I mean legally we couldn't learn to read or write. I think most of the black people in The Patriot spoke better than most southern whites at that time.

Good point: I thought the cookie-cutter token white racist soldier and the token soulful slave trying to win his freedom was just plain old offensively cliched. The fact that Mel Gibson's character had to be such a "perfect" hero that even though he was a plantation owner in South Carolina the Africans who worked on his farm weren't slaves but just worked for his family made me say "Ug"

Thanks for this list! I hadn't realized the historical errors in some of these movies (or the extent to which they were wrong). Does anyone know of any resources that discuss these things in more depth? A book, perhaps, that discusses the errors in movies (and maybe other media) that distort history?

I'm not sure there is a book about bad history movies (Maybe I should copyright the idea...hmmmm...), but there is an insightful book about general misconceptions about history. I wish I could remember the author, but the book is titled Lies My History Teacher Told Me. Since I'm a history teacher myself, I do like to check to make sure that I'm not filling in more chapters of that book!

I was wondering if there are any popular movies (by this I guess I mean Hollywood stuff, as opposed to maybe PBS specials) that do a good job with the history they cover.

Also, I was wondering about the movie "Elizabeth". Is this one historically accurate?

I will definitely check out that book you mentioned. Thanks for the recommendation.

you're welcome. "Elizabeth" I don't know how good or bad it is historically. I liked the movie tho. As for an accurate history movie, I would suggest "Black Robe", which is a story of a french jesuit missionary in eastern canada around 1750. It is, from my studies, a highly accurate exploration of both european and native american viewpoints, traditions, clothing, etc. "Black Robe" came out in the mid '80s, I believe.

Thanks for the suggestion. I take it, though, that since you only mention one movie, that it is hard to find movies that accurately portray history? Would it be very difficult to construct the opposite list, or have many items in it? Would that be a futile effort?

whoa, now that would be tough! Now that you've thrown down the gauntlet, tho, I may have to try to construct one...

I think that almost all "historical" movies are doomed to failure, if for no other reason than the nature of history. Very few events or people from the past can have their lives cut into 90-minute characterizations, and if they did, they'd probably be rather dull to watch.

I look forward to whatever you might do.

I agree that historical movies probably are nearly impossible, but I guess I'd just like to know if a movie is at least trying to be faithful to the original events, instead of distorting things so much like the movies you've listed here.

The Green Berets by John Wayne certainly manages to butcher history.

I don't doubt it, tho I have only seen the cover. "Well, comeon now, pilgrims, we're gonna hitch up the wagon train and head up to Den-ang. Who'sa with me?" Thanks for the suggestion.