13 Pretty Accurate Movies About Historical Illnesses

Throughout history, humanity has been plagued by innumerable diseases that have deeply impacted the course of our global civilization, due to both the number of lives lost and the medical innovations they necessitated. These historical illnesses, including cholera, scarlet fever, gout, and tuberculosis, have left such a substantial mark, it's rare to find a historically accurate film that does not depict the impact of one such disease in some fashion. But how accurate are they? Was TB really as scary as Moulin Rouge! made it appear? Does cholera truly spread as quickly as it did in The Painted Veil?

To depict historical diseases effectively, there are many things that filmmakers must account for in order to properly portray the unique upheaval that emerges. Between the numerous TB movies and leprosy movies, some certainly do a better job of achieving historical accuracy than others. Here are some of the better movie portrayals of historical illnesses that have come out of Hollywood.

  • Moulin Rouge! (2001), starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, is a musical film depicting a love affair between a poet and a singer at Paris’s Moulin Rouge theater.

    Illness: Tuberculosis (AKA TB or consumption)

    How it is portrayed: In the early 19th century, during a time in which Paris's Moulin Rouge theater was at the height of its popularity, the spread of tuberculosis was particularly prevalent. As a disease that thrives in highly populated areas lacking access to adequate hygiene, it can be transmitted easily to other people - and through something as simple as a sneeze. The disease targets various parts of the body, but primarily the lungs, causing bleeding. The cough that Kidman's character develops over the course of the movie is an accurate portrayal of the symptoms; that McGregor's character is asymptomatic accurately reflects the fact that the disease did not always cause symptoms or loss of life for those who contracted it. It was a matter of individual immunities.

    • Actors: Nicole Kidman, Ozzy Osbourne, Kylie Minogue, Ewan McGregor, Jim Broadbent
    • Released: 2001
    • Directed by: Baz Luhrmann
  • The Favourite (2018), starring Olivia Colman and Emma Stone, is a story set in 18th-century England in which two women compete for the favor of Queen Anne. 

    Illness: Gout

    How it is portrayed: Gout, also referred to as "the disease of kings," is an arthritis-like inflammatory disease that impairs the joints caused by consuming foods high in fat. A poor diet and obesity can lead to the buildup of uric acid in the body, resulting in excruciating pain in the limbs. As portrayed in the movie, the queen was known to have suffered from this disease for much of her life, in addition to other ailments. Both the symptoms of the disease and its appearance on Anne's body in the film appear to be accurate, as were the treatments used, including the herbs gathered by Stone’s character in an effort to ease the queen's pain.

    • Actors: Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn
    • Released: 2018
    • Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos

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  • Kingdom of Heaven (2005) is a film set in 12th-century Europe at the time of the Crusades. The story follows a young man played by Orlando Bloom as he follows his father to Jerusalem, where he eventually fights alongside King Baldwin IV, AKA The Leper King.

    Illness: Leprosy

    How it is portrayed: Despite the film's slight misrepresentations of certain contending relationships between the characters, it maintains a historically correct account of Baldwin's struggle with leprosy and rise to power despite his condition. Typically, those diagnosed with leprosy would have been socially isolated, but because of Baldwin's royal standing, he was allowed to continue living among the people of the city. One of the more glaring inaccuracies in regard to his condition, though, is his wearing of a mask whenever in public, as there appears to be no record of Baldwin ever having done this.

    • Actors: Orlando Bloom, Eva Green, Jeremy Irons, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson
    • Released: 2005
    • Directed by: Ridley Scott

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  • My Left Foot
    Photo: Miramax

    My Left Foot (1989) is based on the life of Irish artist and writer Christy Brown, who was born in 1932 with cerebral palsy, resulting in an inability to use all but one of his limbs: his left foot.

    Illness: Cerebral palsy

    How it is portrayed: The film does a good job portraying the physical and social limitations experienced by those with physical disabilities during the 1940s and 1950s, particularly in Dublin. The film also accurately reflects the experience specific to Brown and his family, notably the discovery of his ability to use his left foot to communicate. It also shows how physical and occupational therapy can be used to help individuals with cerebral palsy successfully develop their motor and speech skills.

    • Actors: Daniel Day-Lewis, Ray McAnally, Brenda Fricker, Ruth McCabe, Fiona Shaw
    • Released: 1989
    • Directed by: Jim Sheridan

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  • Little Women

    Greta Gerwig's Little Women (2019) is based on Louisa May Alcott's oft-adapted 1868 novel of the same name. The film tells the story of four sisters living in Massachusetts during the American Civil War era.

    Illness: Scarlet fever

    How it is portrayed: In the film, one of the four sisters, Beth, contracts scarlet fever when coming to the aid of a neighboring family whose child had the disease. The disease is highly contagious and results in a high fever accompanied by a skin rash and severe sore throat. Thanks to the quick care administered by her sisters, Beth recovers from her illness, but her immune system is jeopardized. As is often the case for those who manage to recover from scarlet fever, Beth's weakened immune system leaves her susceptible to other complications, which leads inexorably to her passing. Though scarlet fever is now treatable, at the time the film takes place, the mortality rate was particularly high.

    • Actors: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern
    • Released: 2019
    • Directed by: Greta Gerwig

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  • The Elephant Man (1980) is based on the true story of Joseph Merrick, a man who lived in London during the late 1800s and suffered from a physical deformity believed to have been undiagnosed Proteus syndrome.

    Illness: Severe deformity, possibly Proteus syndrome

    How it is portrayed: The deformity suffered by Merrick during his life appears to be correctly portrayed throughout the film, as his ailment resulted in his being forced into a life as a sideshow attraction. The film shows him sleeping sitting in a chair with his head resting on his knees, which is believed to have been necessary for Merrick so that the weight and size of his head wouldn't asphyxiate him. Additionally, his passing in the film is consistent with Merrick's presumed cause of death - spinal dislocation and/or asphyxiation.

    • Actors: John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller
    • Released: 1980
    • Directed by: David Lynch

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