236 voters

Historical Movies That Changed One Detail (And Made The Story Worse)

June 30, 2020 1.3k votes 236 voters 12.9k views12 items

List RulesVote up the movies that made unnecessary changes to the real-life story.

As we all know by now, so-called historical movies are far from historically accurate. Filmmakers routinely change all sorts of details large and small. They often do this to make the story "better." A real-life event that happened over several days might be compressed into one scene to make it more compelling. Or several real people might be combined into one just to make the story less confusing. 

But sometimes, these so-called improvements are less interesting than what actually happened. Here are a number of historical movies that would have been even better if they'd stuck to the truth. 

  • In Apollo 13, as the mission is returning to Earth, the movie tries to amp up the tension by introducing a new problem. One of the original goals of the Apollo 13 mission was to collect moon rocks. But once the mission went awry and the moon landing was canceled, the rocks were never collected. NASA had calculated the original return trajectory by including hundreds of pounds of moon rocks. Without these rocks, the Apollo 13 was returning to Earth at a shallower and more dangerous angle. 

    The actual Apollo 13 did face difficulty reentering Earth's atmosphere, but it wasn't because the crew couldn't gather moon rocks; it was because the Odyssey Command Module was still attached to the spacecraft, which altered the way the ship's weight was distributed. As the movie makes clear earlier, the lunar module was supposed to be used to land on the moon and then left behind, but since it had the only functioning air support system, it was the only way the astronauts could return to Earth. Instead of inventing the moon rock problem, the film easily could have used the lunar module problem to show how precarious the rescue really was: The lunar module was the one thing that could have saved the astronauts, but it easily could have eliminated them on reentry.

    • Actors: Tom Hanks, Bryce Dallas Howard, Ed Harris, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise
    • Released: 1995
    • Directed by: Ron Howard
    Odd change?

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  • Braveheart's Battle of Stirling is often called one of the most epic battle scenes in any film, but it's definitely not because of its accuracy. In the movie version, after Sir William Wallace delivers the requisite rousing speech, the Scottish forces meet the English army in a field. The Scots overcome the numerically superior English by tricking them into sending their heavy cavalry into the Scottish lines, which allows the Scots to attack the English archers. The Scots rout. 

    The biggest difference between the Braveheart version and the real skirmish is obvious when you learn its real name: the Battle of Stirling Bridge. The real battle was fought on a bridge instead of a field. It was just as momentous for William Wallace and Scotland, and probably would have been just as cinematic as the Braveheart version. At the real Battle of Stirling Bridge, the Scots used the narrow bridge to force the larger English force into a bottleneck. Wallace trapped the English as they crossed the bridge, and many English soldiers either jumped or fell into the water and drowned. 

    The reason for the change was simple logistics. During the filming of the sequence, a Scottish extra reportedly asked director and star Mel Gibson why they weren't filming on a bridge, and Gibson explained that filming on a bridge was too difficult. The actual exchange is even better. Gibson said, "The bridge got in the way," and the extra replied, "Aye, that's what the English found."

    • Actors: Mel Gibson, Sophie Marceau, Brendan Gleeson, Brian Cox, Catherine McCormack
    • Released: 1995
    • Directed by: Mel Gibson
    Odd change?

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  • The 2014 biopic The Theory of Everything tells the life story of famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking. But the film doesn't focus on his scientific achievements (and received some criticism for that). Instead, it focuses mainly on his personal life, especially his relationship with his wife, Jane Hawking. So it's curious that the film still glossed over one of the messier parts of Stephen Hawking's personal life: his divorce. In the movie, Stephen and Jane meet, fall in love, and marry. As Stephen's physics career takes off, Stephen begins to develop ALS; his and Jane's lives are turned upside down. Jane's difficulty in caring for Stephen puts a strain on their marriage. Eventually, they realize it's no longer working, and he leaves her for his caregiver, Elaine Mason. 

    The movie presents the split as amicable and respectful, but in reality, it was much more contentious. Jane and Stephen's divorce was drawn-out, bitter, and culminated with a screaming fight on vacation. Portraying this accurately would have definitely made for a more compelling film. Even Jane Hawking herself thought the filmmakers should have included it.

    • Actors: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Harry Lloyd, Emily Watson, David Thewlis
    • Released: 2014
    • Directed by: James Marsh
    Odd change?

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  • The 2004 biopic Ray tells the life story of legendary R&B musician Ray Charles, and it spends considerable time on his childhood. Ray goes blind at just 6 years old, but his mother Aretha, who values independence, teaches him the importance of self-reliance. Ray's independence, the movie suggests, is the exact same quality that allows him to become a music icon.

    But that's only half the story. The real Ray Charles had two mothers who shaped his early life, and his biopic omits one of them. Ray was also raised by one of his father's former wives, a woman named Mary Jane - young Ray called Aretha "Mama" and Mary Jane "Mother." According to Ray Charles biographer David Ritz, Mary Jane's approach to parenting was the opposite of Aretha's. Instead of fostering independence, Mary Jane "indulged" Ray. According to Ritz, the real Ray Charles grew up to be strongly independent, but he also had a self-indulgent side, too. By misrepresenting Charles's childhood, the movie creates a character much more one-dimensional than the real Ray Charles ever was.

    • Actors: Kerry Washington, Jamie Foxx, Terrence Howard, Regina King, Warwick Davis
    • Released: 2004
    • Directed by: Taylor Hackford
    Odd change?

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