When it comes to movies, adding "Based on a true story" gives the filmmakers leeway to make up whatever they want. And just like so-called historical movies often reinterpret (or misrepresent) actual events, they'll also invent entire characters. This is done for a number of different reasons. Often, these fictional characters are composites of many different people. Combining several individuals into one can be a way to tell a story more efficiently. Other times, especially with stories set centuries or millennia before the present, there might not be many details about a person's life in the historical record, so the filmmakers have to invent them. And occasionally, a character in a historical movie might be created for the same reason as a character in any other movie - to make the story better, truth be damned.
Here are some characters from historical movies who didn't actually exist, along with the reasons why filmmakers created them.
The 2016 film Hidden Figures told the story of three African American mathematicians who overcame racist and sexist obstacles to make crucial contributions to NASA's space program in the 1960s. The movie celebrates Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) for their strength and determination. But it also gives plenty of credit to Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), the white mission director who stands up for them in their fight against prejudice. In one scene, Harrison confronts Johnson about leaving her desk for long periods of time only to learn the reason is because the restrooms are segregated, and she's forced to use the only one available to her at the Langley Research Center.
Outraged at NASA's backwardness, Harrison tears down the restroom's "Colored Ladies Room" sign and tells his employees, "Here at NASA, we all pee the same color." In another scene, Johnson is forbidden from bringing calculations for John Glenn's shuttle mission into mission control, until Harrison intervenes on her behalf. Only then is she allowed to deliver her work and watch the launch in person.
It might sound inspiring, except Al Harrison wasn't a real person. Katherine Johnson also told a Vice reporter neither of these two incidents of white allyship ever happened. In reality, Johnson just used the "whites only" bathroom, and she watched Glenn's launch on a monitor from her desk.
In response to the Harrison character, some critics accused the writers of Hidden Figures of relying on the "white savior" trope, diluting Johnson, Vaughn, and Jackson's accomplishments by crediting a fictional ally. The movie actually suggests Harrison is so "enlightened" that he's unaware segregated bathrooms existed until Johnson told him about them - which is highly unlikely to be true about anyone living in America in the 1960s.
But in response to the criticism, director Theodore Melfi denied the Harrison character is problematic. "There needs to be white people who do the right thing, there needs to be Black people who do the right thing," Melfi said. "And someone does the right thing. And so who cares who does the right thing, as long as the right thing is achieved?"
Record executives in musical biopics seldom come off looking great. Since the audience already knows the musician in question is going to become an international superstar, anyone who doubts them is going to look like an idiot. So the scene in Bohemian Rhapsody when Ray Foster (Mike Myers) tells Freddie Mercury and his Queen bandmates that "Bohemian Rhapsody" is never going to be a hit is already questionable. The scene becomes outright ridiculous when you realize that not only did "Ray Foster" never exist, but the executive he was based on, Roy Featherstone, was a big Queen believer from the beginning.
Like many movies "based on" true events, Bohemian Rhapsody tried to inject more conflict into the story than there really was in real life. What salvages the moment is the casting choice. Mike Myers is famously a huge Queen fan in real life, and he used "Bohemian Rhapsody" to kick off his 1992 comedy Wayne's World. Casting a real-life Queen superfan to tell Freddie Mercury that "Bohemian Rhapsody" is terrible suggests the filmmakers were fully aware of the irony.
The Last King of Scotland follows a young Scottish doctor named Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), who travels to Uganda in 1970 in search of adventure. Shortly after he arrives, General Idi Amin takes over the country in a coup. Garrigan becomes Amin's personal physician and eventually one of his closest advisors, but he soon grows disillusioned with Amin's brutality. (And has an affair with one of Amin's wives.) Garrigan eventually decides to slay Amin for the good of the country, but he's caught and tortured before he finally escapes.
The fact that the movie isn't about a king and doesn't take place in Scotland should tell you it's not exactly a documentary. It was based on a 1998 novel of the same name, which was only loosely based on real events. While Idi Amin was very much a real person and really was a homicidal dictator, he never had a Scottish doctor as part of his inner circle.
The closest real-life analog to Dr. Nicholas Garrigan was a white British army officer named Bob Astles. Like Garrigan, Astles went to Uganda in search of adventure. But unlike Garrigan, he actively sought to be a member of Amin's regime, and willingly participated in Amin's offenses. Like Garrigan, Astles became the only white person in Amin's inner circle, but he was less a political advisor than an unofficial fixer who eliminated anyone who stood in Amin's way. At one point, Astles was nicknamed "the white rat" after he forced Ugandan expatriates to kneel before Amin. After Amin's regime fell in 1979, Astles fled to Kenya but was extradited and served a six-year sentence in a Ugandan prison. It's estimated that Amin's regime claimed more than 300,000 lives, but Astles continued to deny any wrongdoing until his passing in 2012.
Lawrence of Arabia is ostensibly the story of T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole), the real-life British intelligence officer who helped spark an Arab revolt against Ottoman rule during WWI. But it's really the story of Lawrence and Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), a tribal leader who introduces Lawrence to Arab culture and co-leads the rebellion from the beginning. The onscreen chemistry between O'Toole and Sharif produced one of cinema's very first bromances.
In reality, there was no single Arab leader who stayed by Lawrence's side for the entire Arab Revolt of 1916. Sherif Ali was originally based on Sharif Hussein bin Ali, a real-life Hashemite leader whom the real Lawrence mentioned in his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. But overall, he was a composite of several different Arab leaders who worked with Lawrence during the rebellion. Like many composites in historical movies, Sherif Ali was created to summarize the accomplishments of many different people. Robert Bolt, the film's screenwriter, wrote that Sherif Ali was designed to represent the "emergent Arab nationalism" Lawrence relied on to destabilize the Ottoman Empire.