Historical Facts Hollywood Always Gets Wrong

Whether it’s a period costume, unique prop or little-known story brought to life, the movie industry loves to bang on about how authentic historical films are. But just how accurate are they? We asked award-winning historian Tom Holland, author of ‘Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar’ and upcoming biography ‘Athelstan: The Making of England’ to tell us which things movies never get right.

Slaves didn’t build the Pyramids


“The peasants would do it,” says Holland. “It was Keynesian economics – keeping everyone busy, giving them something to do. That [the Pyramids] were built under the lash of the whip? That’s a thing of Biblical epics, not true.”

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There isn’t such a thing as the liberal, modern-thinking hero in the ancient world


“Sword and sandal films used to always have a Christian to provide the moral perspective on the ancient world that the audience can identify with,” says Holland. “Now they no longer have Christians but they always have some kind of liberal popping up. In ‘Gladiator’, it was all about bringing back the republic which is supposedly democracy - and it isn’t. You have to have somebody who embodies contemporary thinking within the film.”

“It’s the importation of smug liberal values into periods where they had no application,” he continues. “It makes for more interesting films if you’re true to the spirit of the time. Films like ‘Ran’, ‘300’, ‘Hero’ – they’re unsettling and brilliant and exciting. You don’t know where you are morally because they’re true to the very frightening and different morals of the age.”

The wrong animals popping up in the wrong countries


“’Troy’ is so awful!” says the author. “They’re trying to make a historically accurate film about something that never happened, i.e. the Trojan War. And on top of that they still make the most extraordinary errors. They’re unloading a load of animals from a ship and there are two llamas. Which come from Peru. Why would you have llamas in a film about ancient Greece?”

Vikings didn’t have horns on their helmets


“Vikings wearing horns and wings on their helmets is only something that happens in Hollywood films. I think it actually goes back to the Victorian period and schoolbook illustrations, but they never wore them.”

Americans taking the credit for everything


“‘Saving Private Ryan’ is the notorious example of that, as is ‘U-571’ where the Americans steal the Enigma machine before America was even in the war. That’s annoying.”

The Romans having constant orgies and eating crazy foods


“The Romans did not eat dormice as much as we’ve been led to believe,” laughs Holland. “They did eat dormice, but not nearly as much you might think from Hollywood films.”

“I’ve never seen the sexuality of the Roman period correctly illustrated,” he adds. “The reason we think Romans had non-stop orgies is because Roman moralists wrote about it. But they wrote about it because they were shocked and appalled by it…A Roman man regarded sex as like going to the toilet. You just had to do it. The idea that Romans were obsessed with having sex is just incredibly wrong.”

The existence of the wise black friend


“You had it in ‘Pompeii’ and in ‘Gladiator’ – a black best friend who will offer noble sentiments. The medieval equivalent (like in ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’) is a Saracen who will embody tolerance and understanding of algebra. In early films, the Crusaders were the goodies and now it’s reversed. And in both cases it’s equally simplistic.”

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Image credits: Rex_Shutterstock, Warner Bros.