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.
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 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
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