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.
Mel Gibson's Oscar-winning Braveheart focuses on William Wallace, the Scottish warrior who led a revolt against King Edward I of England. Perhaps because of Gibson's image as a big-screen hero, the movie takes a fairly standard storytelling approach. Wallace is outraged when English soldiers slay his new wife, spurring him to fight tirelessly against the country oppressing his people. It's a case of sticking history into an easy-to-digest revenge formula, especially when you consider there's no evidence to suggest the real Wallace was married at the time.
Robert the Bruce is a supporting character, but he could have been the lead. Whereas Wallace is shown as a fairly black-or-white guy, Robert had shades of gray, having fought for both the English and the Scottish at different times. Several defeats nearly caused him to give up, but then he saw a spider displaying endless determination in trying to swing from one wooden beam to another. That sight inspired him to continue fighting. He also had true motivation for revenge. His sister Mary was imprisoned in an iron cage, and he had to hide his daughter Marjorie in a convent for protection. And let's not forget that the name "Brave Heart" was given to him, not to Wallace.
Although it remains a popular film, these true facts suggest that making Braveheart about Robert the Bruce would have been more sensible. Instead, the filmmakers contorted Wallace to fit into a conventional Hollywood movie template. Angus Macfadyen, who played Robert, tried to give the man his due with Robert the Bruce, a 2019 biopic he co-wrote and starred in.
Directed by: Mel Gibson
Although it earned $198 million at the North American box office, Pearl Harbor inspired a significant amount of animosity among moviegoers. The movie is ostensibly about the notorious Japanese strike on an American naval base in Hawaii. That's what viewers came to see. Instead, they got way too much of a corny romantic triangle between the two male leads, Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett), and a pretty nurse named Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale). It takes a full 90 minutes until the event takes place on screen.
To give people what they wanted and expected, the movie would have been smart to spend more time on Doris "Dorrie" Miller, portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr. Unlike the fictional Rafe and Danny, he was a real person who received a Navy Cross for valor, making him the first African American to achieve that honor. Miller not only carried wounded cohorts to safety in the aftermath, he also bravely manned antiaircraft artillery to fire at the enemy, despite having no formal training on how to use it.
By fully portraying a genuine hero rather than inventing two idiots and shoving them into a hackneyed romance, Pearl Harbor could have been both thrilling and inspirational.
Directed by: Michael Bay
U-571 is an old-fashioned, God-bless-America tribute to the brave men who served our country in WWII. It's about the crew of the American submarine S-33. They sneak aboard a disabled German U-boat to nab an Enigma machine - an encryption device used to send secret messages. The red, white, and blue heroes are played by A-list stars including Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, and Jon Bon Jovi.
How, given its patriotic tone, could U-571 possibly have focused on the wrong heroes? To answer that, you have to consider that Americans never did what the film shows them doing. U-571 is based on Operation Primrose, during which the crew of a British ship, the HMS Bulldog, boarded a German sub and seized an Enigma machine. Changing the nationality of the characters for the movie serves no logical purpose. After all, there were plenty of "big name" British stars in 2000, when it was released.
The crew of the Bulldog deserved to be the heroes, not the fictional S-33 crew. Britons were not pleased, with one lawmaker slamming the movie as an "affront to the memories of the British sailors who lost their lives on this action."
Directed by: Jonathan Mostow
A movie called Geronimo: An American Legend would have to be all about Geronimo, right? Nope. Walter Hill's 1993 film certainly has him as a character, but the central figure is Lt. Charles Gatewood, portrayed by Jason Patric. He's an Army lieutenant assigned to capture the Apache leader and his tribe. Much of the film focuses on that hunt, in addition to the behind-the-scenes bureaucracy of forcing Indigenous peoples to live on reservations.
The Washington Post's Desson Howe astutely observed that the movie forces Geronimo to be "the prey, not the protagonist" and called it a "whitewash." The thing that's most surprising about the decision to generally diminish the titular figure is that, in every other way, Hill was dedicated to honoring Native Americans. He even hired an activist to verify the tribal affiliation of each Indigenous actor on the production.
As for Geronimo himself, he's played by Wes Studi, a more-than-capable actor who earned raves for his work in Dances with Wolves and The Last of the Mohicans. Casting a performer of his caliber and then making him second banana to Patric led to a movie that was understandably ignored by audiences and pilloried by critics.
Directed by: Walter Hill