Historical Entertainment

Unbelievable Scenes From Historical Movies That Actually Happened 

Jim Rowley
Updated June 22, 2020 18.7k votes 5.9k voters 577.5k views 12 items

List Rules Vote up the movie scenes that feel like they were made up for dramatic effect - but weren't!

Savvy moviegoers know that movies based on historical events are never completely accurate (partly because people like us point it out). It's easy for a film lover to become jaded and assume that every sensational moment in a historical movie was dreamed up by a screenwriter - but just because historical movies fudge the truth, that doesn't mean they're 100% false, either. 

History itself is full of shocking and extreme human behavior, and sometimes filmmakers don't need to exaggerate what really happened. Sometimes real life does play out like a movie. These 12 movie scenes that actually happened might seem like Hollywood inventions, but sometimes the truth really is stranger than fiction.

Pearl Harbor is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list Unbelievable Scenes From Historical Movies That Actually Happened
Photo: Buena Vista Pictures

Michael Bay's 2001 film Pearl Harbor has caught plenty of criticism over the years, for everything from sanitizing the racism common to the US military in the 1940s to just being a bad movie. But the film does accurately depict one of its biggest moments, when Cuba Gooding Jr.'s Doris Miller commandeers an unattended machine gun to shoot down several enemy planes. 

When the real Doris Miller joined the US Navy as a 19-year-old in 1939, Navy policy prevented Black men from receiving promotions - only allowing them to serve in the "messman" branch. One of Miller's fellow messmen described the job as “seagoing bellhops, chambermaids, and dishwashers.” Miller's battle station was below deck, where his duty was to pass ammunition up to the ship's gunners. 

On the morning of December 7, 1941, Miller was doing laundry for one of the ship's officers when the Japanese surprise attack occurred. Miller reported to his battle station to find it flooded, then went above deck to assist in the counter-attack. He carried his mortally wounded captain to safety. After that, he helped an officer load and fire one of the ship's unattended anti-aircraft guns.

Then, without orders and without even any training, Miller commandeered a second gun and shot down multiple Japanese Zeros. Once his gun ran out of ammunition, Miller returned below deck and pulled several sailors out of the burning water. He was one of the last three sailors to abandon ship, swimming through 400 yards of water and burning oil to shore.

Miller became the first Black sailor to receive the Navy Cross. However, his actions weren't deemed worthy of a Medal of Honor, unlike 16 white servicemen who received one for their actions that day. 

Although some Americans, including Ronald Reagan, believed that Miller's heroics single-handedly ended armed forces discrimination, it still took several more years for the US military to officially desegregate. Today, Miller is remembered as both a war hero and a trailblazer, and in 2020 the Navy named an aircraft carrier after him.

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Titanic is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list Unbelievable Scenes From Historical Movies That Actually Happened
Photo: Paramount Pictures

One way humans try to understand tragic events is to personalize them. The thought of hundreds or thousands of people perishing at once can seem incomprehensible. Instead, we try to process the event through the eyes of one person or a small group. 

Audiences wept during Titanic when they saw the elderly couple holding each other in bed while the ship sank, having given up their seats on a lifeboat so others could live. It feels like a metaphor: the Titanic sinking was a chaotic and senseless tragedy, but some passengers were still brave enough to make the ultimate sacrifice so others could live. 

But a version of this scene really did happen. The elderly couple weren't invented characters but based on real-life couple Isidor and Ida Straus. Isidor, 67, was the co-owner of Macy's department store and a former US Congressman, and he and Ida, age 63, were first-class passengers on the fateful voyage. According to their great-grandson Paul A. Kurtzman, Ida boarded a lifeboat and a ship's officer offered Isidor the chance to join her. Seeing that some women and children wouldn't get a seat on a lifeboat, Isidor declined.

Then, instead of abandoning her husband of 40 years, Ida stepped off the lifeboat to remain with him as the ship went down. James Cameron actually filmed this moment, but didn't include it in the final cut. It's unknown if Ida and Isidor returned to their bed like the movie suggests, but everything else is accurate.

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Saving Private Ryan is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list Unbelievable Scenes From Historical Movies That Actually Happened
Photo: DreamWorks Pictures

The 1998 WWII film Saving Private Ryan isn't based on a true story. Its main characters, Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) and Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) weren't real people, and the US Military didn't order a squad of soldiers to venture behind enemy lines and rescue a serviceman whose three brothers had perished in combat. However, it's definitely inspired by real events and real people.

In 1942, five brothers from the same family, the Sullivans, all lost their lives during the Battle of Guadalcanal. In response, the US Department of War instituted a "sole survivor" policy, which stated that family members of service people who perished in combat wouldn't have to serve. The policy was put into action in 1944, when the US Army brought Sergeant Fritz Niland home after his three brothers were KIA. Niland's story was the direct inspiration for the movie. (Although, unlike Private Ryan, Niland was easily located and didn't require a search party.)

At the beginning of Saving Private Ryan, General George Marshall (a real person) and his staff are debating whether they should, like the title suggests, save Private Ryan. They mention the Sullivan brothers, but the deciding factor is when General Marshall reads "the Bixby Letter."

According to the movie, this is a letter President Lincoln wrote to grieving mother Lydia Bixby, who supposedly lost five sons in the Civil War. Determined not to allow Mrs. Ryan to share the same fate as Lydia Bixby, General Marshall agrees to rescue Private Ryan. 

It might sound farfetched that General Marshall conveniently had a letter from the 1860s that  addressed his "sole survivor" problem in 1944, but the Bixby Letter is very much real. Many of the details about the document are uncertain - there's doubt as to whether Mrs. Bixby really lost five sons, as well as whether she might have been a Confederate sympathizer. It's also possible that it wasn't Lincoln who wrote the letter, but his secretary John Hay. But regardless of the doubts, the Bixby Letter has stood the test of time as one of the most evocative writings about the human cost of war.

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4
Bruno Gaido Really Did Take Down A Bomber And Get Promoted Like He Did In 'Midway'
Bruno Gaido Really Did T... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list Unbelievable Scenes From Historical Movies That Actually Happened
Photo: Lionsgate

One scene from 2019's Midway, which depicts the 1942 raid on the Marshall Islands by Japanese bombers, seems totally unbelievable. In the film, anti-aircraft fire heavily damages a Japanese plane and it careens towards the USS Enterprise aircraft carrierNick Jonas, playing real sailor Bruno Gaido, sees that his ship and crewmates are in imminent danger, and runs across the deck. He jumps into a parked bomber and fires its machine gun at the enemy aircraft.

The Japanese bomber barely misses the Enterprise, but does clip Gaido's bomber. Even more incredibly, Gaido gets promoted on the spot. The moment would appear to be the same exaggerated heroics you'd expect from other Roland Emmerich movies, but according to Gaido's nephew Mike Bortolotti, it really did happen that way.

Gaido actually did leave his duty station and take down the enemy plane - something he wasn't even trained for. Gaido's commanding officer, Admiral William Halsey, witnessed Gaido's heroism, summoned him to the bridge, and promoted him two ranks to Aviation Machinists' Mate First Class. Journalists even interviewed Gaido's mother Clementa about it shortly after it happened. 

Bortolotti's only complaint? Nick Jonas's decision to use a Brooklyn accent. The real Bruno Gaido grew up in Milwaukee.

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