The lives of historical figures have provided Hollywood with film fodder for decades. Biographical movies aren't necessarily as accurate as they claim to be, though. From Bohemian Rhapsody to Braveheart, inaccurate biopics prove that great films don't always make for great history lessons.
Inaccurate films about historical figures tell mistruths that range from the mild to the outrageous. Some biography movies merely compress events, re-order chronologies, or create composite characters to streamline storytelling; others twist facts and misrepresent historical figures in offensive ways. What bio movies don't say about historical figures is sometimes as important as what they do say: biopics that lie by omission tend to glorify historical subjects by ignoring inconvenient truths that are nonetheless important windows into their lives.
But no matter how they may twist or ignore the facts, all the films on this list sacrifice accuracy in some way to sugarcoat, whitewash, misrepresent, over-dramatize, or over-simplify the past.
The Oscar-winning biopic The Imitation Game follows lonely, eccentric mathematical genius Alan Turing's attempts to create a machine to help a team of British codebreakers crack SS messages during WWII. Though a leader in decoding German military secrets, Turing is harboring his own secret: he's gay in an era when it is a crime. Turing discovers that John Cairncross, a member of Turing's team, is spying for the Soviets, but Cairncross has discovered Turing's secret and uses it as leverage to protect his position. Turing plays along for a time but ultimately reveals Cairncross to be a spy. After the war, Turing is arrested for homosexuality.
Alan Turing indeed played a significant role at Bletchley Park, the estate that was the actual base for Britain's secret codebreaking efforts during WWII. He was, however, less self-absorbed than the film's depiction. Despite what the movie portrays, Turing's successes came thanks to the earlier work of Polish codebreakers, who are granted virtually no recognition in the film. Cairncross was a spy at Bletchley, but he had no contact with Turing. What's more, Cairncross's blackmailing of Turing in the film is entirely fictional - it amounts to what historian Alex von Tunzelmann calls an egregious act of "slandering a great man's reputation."
Actors: Keira Knightley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Charles Dance, Matthew Goode, + more
Directed by: Morten Tyldum
The Theory of Everything is a loving portrait of Stephen Hawking's marriage to Jane Wilde and how she helped him persevere through ALS to become an internationally celebrated physicist. In the film, Hawking and Wilde meet while they are both students at Cambridge University. They marry and start a family soon after Hawking's ALS diagnosis, but Wilde becomes increasingly alienated from his life.
Though the film is based on Wilde's memoir, it nonetheless fails to represent the complexities of their marriage accurately. In her memoir, Wilde was explicit about the fact that marrying Hawking and providing care for him meant she would more or less give up her professional career. The film largely sidelines her ambitions, though, and she is transformed into a character who solely exists for Hawking.
Wilde has also expressed disappointment that the film didn't go far enough in depicting the responsibilities she accepted. The Theory of Everything also downplays the significant role Hawking's relationship with Elaine Mason - whom he later married - played in the breakdown of the marriage. His marriage to Mason caused an estrangement between Hawking, Wilde, and their children. The film also fails to touch on rumors that Mason neglected and abused Hawking.
Actors: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Harry Lloyd, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, + more
Directed by: James Marsh
The feel-good musical The Greatest Showman imagines P.T. Barnum as a man who celebrated difference as he built an entertainment empire. Though best known for establishing the circus that bears his name, Barnum was indeed a showman through and through, frequently investing in other forms of entertainment. According to the film, he was in danger of suffering from his ambition, as he almost lost himself in an affair with Swedish singer Jenny Lind.
But Barnum was not the big-hearted advocate for inclusion the film imagines. Not only does The Greatest Showman whitewash his exploitative practices, it conveniently ignores the fact that a 25-year-old Barnum first made his fortune by displaying the body of Joice Heth, an elderly enslaved woman whom he claimed had nursed George Washington. When Heth passed in 1836, Barnum sold tickets to her autopsy.
The film also purposefully manipulates details of Barnum's private life to formulate a rags-to-riches story about a charismatic, ambitious man who followed his dreams. The real-life Barnum wasn't an orphan, and moreover, Lind didn't quit her tour because she fell in love with Barnum; she stopped when she tired of the touring lifestyle.
Actors: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya
Directed by: Michael Gracey
Boasting a hummable score, the Disney musical Pocahontas imagines a romance between the titular Native American princess and English explorer John Smith during the founding of Jamestown in 1607. Pocahontas and Smith's love transcends boundaries in an era brimming with cultural tensions; the English are overrunning Powhatan land, and both communities see one another as "savages." Though Pocahontas saves Smith's life just before her father slays him, their romance must end - he returns to England, and she remains with her community.
Both Pocahontas and John Smith were real historical figures - that much is beyond dispute - and the relationship between native groups and English colonists in the Tidewater region of Virginia was both volatile and cooperative. The young woman known as Pocahontas - which was probably her nickname - eventually traveled with her husband, John Rolfe, to England, where she met King James I and passed at the age of 20.
Smith did eventually return to England, where he passed in 1631. But a romance between Pocahontas and Smith almost certainly did not happen: Pocahontas was around 11 - not a teenager - when Smith arrived in Virginia, and there is no evidence they engaged in an affair. Though John Smith claimed Pocahontas saved him from losing her life, scholars continue to cast doubt on his account.
Actors: Mel Gibson, Christian Bale, Billy Connolly, Linda Hunt, Frank Welker, + more
Directed by: Eric Goldberg, Mike Gabriel