Movies are meant to be fun. They are an escape from reality and a way to enjoy ourselves, possibly learn a lesson, or reinforce a cultural ideal. However, they are not meant to be history lessons, and we try not to treat them as such. A medieval battle scene filmed as it would have truly taken place would be far less interesting visually and dramatically than what we're used to.
However, when a movie chooses to set itself in a particular time period, or uses a certain historical event as a major plot element that the audience is supposed to take seriously, it sets itself up to follow certain rules in its given reality. Jumping around and borrowing from different time periods, fudging important details, having half-real and half-fictional characters - these sorts of things break the rules.
It turns out a lot of history movies that just make up their own histories have many of the same actors turning up over and over. Certain actors are drawn to films that appear to be historical but aren't constrained by the rules of reality. We've found the all-stars who stand out to us - but which of these performers most loves history but not accuracy?
- Photo: The Patriot / Sony Pictures Releasing
The Case Against: Mel Gibson is the granddaddy of them all when it comes to historical epics with little regard for historical accuracy. It doesn't seem to matter which era it is - if there's a chance to put on a historically questionable costume and film some sort of torture sequence, Gibson is game. In one of his best-known roles, Braveheart, he dons a tartan kilt about 500 years before they would have been worn.
In another Gibson historical vehicle, The Patriot, the British soldiers of the American Revolution are cartoonishly evil, rounding up an entire village, locking them in a church, and then setting it on fire. Sure, it makes for some high drama, but nothing like that ever happened. Gibson also lent his vocal talents to the Disney animated film Pocahontas, which completely changed the young Native American woman's life to fit the Disney princess formula.
Gibson doesn't limit his accuracy-lacking historical filmmaking to acting either; he has also directed some pretty big hits with their own fair share of fudging the facts. His Mesoamerican thriller Apocalypto is based on Aztec history, but decided to call the characters Mayan for some reason. And his sensationalistic mega-hit The Passion of the Christ contains information pulled from alleged anti-Semitic sources that are not a part of the historical record or the Gospels.
Biggest Offenders: The Patriot, The Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto, Braveheart, Pocahontas
Non-Offenders: We Were Soldiers
Final Grade: F585131Accuracy-ignoring actor?
- Photo: Pearl Harbor / Buena Vista Pictures
The Case Against: Ben Affleck isn't just Matt Damon's buddy, Casey Affleck's brother, or the fifth dude to play a live-action version of Batman in the last 30 years; he also makes incredibly suspect history-based movies.
Shakespeare in Love gets off to a historically dubious start by setting its story in the 16th century, but then the overall tone, the queen, her courtiers, and the London scene are rooted in the 20th century. The dates are all mixed up, as well; the action follows a rivalry between The Rose and The Curtain in London during 1593; however, both theaters were closed that year due to the plague and social unrest.
Also, Colin Firth mentions his plantations in America about a decade before Jamestown. But perhaps the most egregious disservice that Shakespeare in Love performed to history was that it beat Saving Private Ryan for the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1999.
Another Oscar-winner, Argo, also played with accuracy. The biggest differences between reality and the film are that the real mission went off smoothly and without the complications presented in the movie's climax. Also, Canada was integral to the rescue and is barely mentioned. Pearl Harbor was history by way of Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer, meaning there are weapons and vehicles from multiple eras, cartoonish bad guys, and nonexistent team-ups.
Biggest Offenders: Shakespeare in Love, Pearl Harbor, Argo
Non-Offenders: Dazed And Confused
Final Grade: D33852Accuracy-ignoring actor?
- Photo: Shakespeare In Love / Miramax Films
The Case Against: Surely when historians look back on our era, Gwyneth Paltrow will be judged far harsher for her controversial Goop brand than she will for the historical accuracy of her movies. But let's not forget - she did star in Shakespeare in Love.
The supposedly historic romantic comedy featuring the immortal bard has quite a few strikes against it: it swaps out the 16th and 20th centuries; it sets a theater rivalry in a year when those theaters were closed; it mentions American colonies a decade before they existed; and it introduced the world to Jacob Fiennes. Also, in a year of great movies - 1999 - it won the Oscar for Best Picture, beating out fellow nominees and history classics Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line.
Paltrow's other notable foray into history films, her starring role as Sylvia Plath in Sylvia, is complicated to say the least. The film does stick mostly to real events from the author's life, but misses her essence completely. Plath's daughter and her friends have condemned the film, saying it oversimplified Plath, her depression, and her relationship with her husband. They also suggest it goes so far as to fetishize her suicide to play into the personality cult that has formed in the wake of Plath's untimely demise.
Biggest Offender: Shakespeare in Love, Sylvia
Non-Offenders: Contagion, Emma
Final Grade: C25057Accuracy-ignoring actor?
- Photo: Gladiator / DreamWorks Pictures
The Case Against: A younger Russell Crowe did his part, along with Ridley Scott, to bring the sword-and-sandal epic into a new millennium with Gladiator. Unfortunately, it also brought along the genre's penchant for simply inventing history to fit its narrative. The film combines the story of Commodus and Spartacus, reverses the history of Rome, and sets things several hundred years later than it should have. But it sure did win a lot of Oscars.
Crowe repeated his history-ignoring yet Oscar-winning ways and made A Beautiful Mind the next year, which tells the story of Nobel Prize-winning math genius John Nash, who had schizophrenia. He's hospitalized because of his delusions, but with the support of his wife, he is able to stabilize and experience a dramatic remission.
The biographical film conveniently leaves out huge aspects of Nash's life, such as his homosexual experiences, his illegitimate child, and his divorce after only three years of marriage to that wife who saw him through his worst days.
Crowe portrayed boxer James Braddock in Cinderella Man, and the film set up his ultimate opponent Max Baer as a villainous evil-doer who purposely killed two men in the ring. In real life, Baer did blame himself for two inadvertent boxing-related deaths, but one occurred days after the match and other factors were involved. The guilt and stress drove Baer to smoke and drink heavily, and plagued him with recurring nightmares. Baer even raised $10,000 for one fighter's widow.
While the film Les Miserables, starring Crowe, is based on the musical sensation and is just fine in its historical setting as far as we're concerned, Crowe's choice to take a lead role requiring a high level of singing ability will factor into our evaluation of his decision-making capabilities when tabulating our final score.
Biggest Offenders: Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man
Non-Offenders: Master And Commander: Far Side of the World, Robin Hood
Extra Discredit: Les Miserables
Its Own Thing: Noah
Final Grade: D+24882Accuracy-ignoring actor?