Although it may sound easy to depict a notable piece of history on screen, it can actually be quite difficult. The sheer number of historical movies that focus on the wrong person prove this point. Despite having books and research material that spell out exactly what happened, films can falter if their makers choose the wrong angle from which to come at the subject. They need to remember that the most interesting person is not always the most obvious one. In other cases, they're foiled by having multiple significant players with different viewpoints. Knowing which one to pick or how to blend them can be tricky.
This list will highlight some of the most notable examples. Keep in mind, we aren't saying these films are bad. While several of them certainly are lackluster, a few - like Braveheart and Argo - are considered legitimately great. Regardless of quality level, a strong case can be made in each instance that the story had someone else who would have made a better hero, or at least a vital co-hero. Some of these are instances where the hero has been fictionalized to the movie's overall detriment. Others are simply historical movies that focus on the least interesting character rather than the one with the most potential for good drama.
Again, some of these movies are high quality, some are not. It's fun, though, to consider how each of them might have been different had they not gone with the "wrong" hero.
- Photo: Columbia Pictures
Byron De La Beckwith was tried twice for the 1963 slaying of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, both times resulting in hung juries. The evidence against him was overwhelming - the weapon was his, its scope had his fingerprints all over it, and his car was spotted in the neighborhood on the day. He even insinuated to fellow Klansmen that he was guilty. Nevertheless, all-white juries in the South failed to convict him. Evers's widow, Myrlie, spent years seeking justice, finally getting it in 1994, when the aging De La Beckwith was brought to trial again and found guilty.
Rob Reiner's Ghosts of Mississippi tells this whole story, yet makes the main character a white lawyer, Bobby DeLaughter (played by Alec Baldwin). Myrlie (Whoopi Goldberg), who spent decades continuing her late husband's work and pushing for another trial, is a mere supporting player. Film critic Roger Ebert was one of many criticizing that decision, writing that the filmmakers "see their material through white eyes and use the Myrlie character as a convenient conscience." He added that "the emotional center of the film should probably be" her.
The inspirational part of the story is not the attorney finally getting a conviction - it's the widow who refused to abandon her quest for justice. Ghosts of Mississippi is weaker for minimizing her.
- Released: 1996
- Directed by: Rob Reiner
- Photo: Paramount Pictures
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were two of the most important explorers the world has ever known. The 1955 drama The Far Horizons is about their journey through the Louisiana Territory. Fred MacMurray is Lewis, Charlton Heston is Clark, and Donna Reed is (an improbable) Sacagawea, the Indigenous woman who guides them. A good movie could certainly be made about Lewis and Clark, and a good one could be made about Sacagawea, as well. This is neither.
Filmmakers in the '50s often believed every movie needed a romance, so The Far Horizons creates an entirely fictional love affair between Lewis and Sacagawea. It's an absurd conceit, especially when you consider that, in real life, she was married and her husband was along for the trek. In its desire to spend time on this preposterous fiction, the movie tends to push Clark into the background. Since the story is supposed to be about his and Lewis's exploration, sidelining him and moving Sacagawea to the forefront seems like a betrayal of its own supposed intent.
- Released: 1955
- Directed by: Rudolph Maté
- Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures
Argo is the thrilling true story of how the CIA rescued six American embassy workers during the Iran hostage crisis. They did this by staging a fake movie production in the country, which allowed "exfiltration" specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) to get into the country and help the workers escape.
No one could argue that Mendez is a worthy hero. He absolutely played a major part in bringing those workers home. Mendez should, however, be a co-hero. Despite acclaim from critics, audiences, and Oscar voters (who named it best picture), Argo seriously downplays the contributions of two prominent Canadians who were driving forces in the mission. Ambassador Ken Taylor is depicted briefly, but embassy employee John Sheardown is ignored altogether. Both men helped scout the airport, secured the necessary visas, and opened their homes to the rescued individuals for 79 days, among other things.
In minimizing their role in the rescue, Argo moves Mendez front and center, incorrectly making him seem like the sole mastermind. It's exciting, but not altogether truthful.
- Released: 2012
- Directed by: Ben Affleck
- Photo: Universal Pictures
Ridley Scott's American Gangster is based on the story of Frank Lucas, a notorious Harlem kingpin who supplied hard substances in the 1970s. Denzel Washington plays him, and the film charts his rise in the underworld. In a parallel story, Russell Crowe is Richie Roberts, a New Jersey detective who performs his job under a strict moral code, but is a loser and a louse in his personal time. The paths of the two men cross, leading to Lucas eventually getting pinched and turning informant.
Given that the title is American Gangster, the film probably should have been solely about Lucas. He was a fascinating character - a guy who made his money through illicit means, yet also showed great generosity to the people in his community. Roberts wasn't needed, especially when you consider that the real guy was only tangentially involved in prosecuting Lucas, and the on-screen version of him is actually a composite of many law enforcement officials. Focusing on him as much as on Lucas created the need for some kind of dramatic payoff. That led the filmmakers to come up with the bogus claim that Lucas ratted out dirty cops.
- Released: 2007
- Directed by: Ridley Scott