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.
Birdman of Alcatraz may have earned Burt Lancaster an Academy Award nomination for his performance as real-life inmate Robert Stroud, but the film is more fiction than fact. The biopic follows Stroud's life in captivity; after being imprisoned for ending someone's life, the film depicts Stroud as a rebel hero challenging the authority and confines of the American prison system. He finds solace by breeding, studying, and treating birds in his cell.
In real life, Stroud was not the misunderstood hero the film portrays. He routinely fought his fellow inmates and guards - including, as shown in the movie, one guard whom he slew with a knife in 1916 - to the point that he was placed in solitary confinement. Stroud transformed his cell into a laboratory; an unsanitary space, cluttered with bird excrement and dissections. After studying birds in his cell for decades, Stroud published a book about canaries.
The film tends to glorify and exonerate Stroud, although he was diagnosed as a psychopath.
Actors: Burt Lancaster, Telly Savalas, Karl Malden, Thelma Ritter, Edmond O'Brien, + more
Directed by: John Frankenheimer
Ashton Kutcher stars in Jobs, the first biopic about Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. The film traces the titular character's early career path from Reed College dropout to the CEO of one of the most profitable companies in the world.
To be fair, Jobs doesn't sidestep all of Steve Jobs's unsavory history: he denied that his first daughter was really his, for example. The film tends to glorify Jobs's genius, however, and overstates his role in developing Apple. In the process, it minimizes co-founder Steve Wozniak's contributions. Wozniak has called the film inaccurate and specifically called into question how he and Jobs are portrayed.
Actors: Ashton Kutcher, James Woods, J.K. Simmons, Lesley Ann Warren, Matthew Modine, + more
Directed by: Joshua Michael Stern
Amadeus centers on two composers in 18th-century Vienna: Antonio Salieri is competent, but lacks brilliance; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a musical genius whose childishness and arrogance deeply offend Salieri. A rivalry is born between the two, and it ends with Salieri claiming responsibility for Mozart's premature passing.
Though the film has been heralded as a brilliant study of genius and mediocrity, its central story has no basis in fact: Salieri was not behind Mozart's passing. While Salieri was a composer who matched Mozart's acclaim, and rumors persisted of a rivalry between the two men, the historical record suggests that they may have been collaborators. The film's depiction of Salieri does the historical figure no favors - he is cold, calculating, and aloof where Mozart is jovial, excitable, and extroverted.
Salieri's focus on his work and dismissiveness towards human relationships is further highlighted by the fact that he is presented as a lonely bachelor who lusts after his music students - in reality, Salieri was happily married with children. The manipulation of facts to transform Salieri into a villain in Mozart's life story was purposeful, and screenwriter Peter Shaffer defended the film by saying it "was never intended to be a documentary biography."
Actors: Jeffrey Jones, Cynthia Nixon, Christine Ebersole, Abraham Murphy, Tom Hulce, + more
Directed by: Miloš Forman
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