How accurate is Hollywood history?

Daniel Bettridge
Yahoo UK Movies Features

Those cinemagoers who crammed into cinemas to watch James Cameron’s 3D re-release of ‘Titanic’ might not have noticed that the ‘Avatar’ director has tinkered with his record shattering epic. Amongst the digital re-mastering, one scene, where Rose looks up at the night sky, has been completely re-worked. It’s all in the name of historical accuracy of course, as its predecessor wasn’t an exact representation of the star-pattern survivors would have seen on the fateful night of 15 April 1912.

Not every director is as fastidious with the past of course, with Hollywood history often slammed for getting its facts wrong. But is this fair? We ran some of Hollywood’s most celebrated history flicks past film history professor and all-round expert Dr Mark Glancy to find out.

Titanic (1997)

James Cameron and his crew tried to do the Titanic justice during their big screen treatment. The costumes and sets were also meticulously researched to ensure the right fabrics, furnishings and even crockery were used, whilst some shots were even filmed on the real wreck.

[Related content: 'Titanic 3D' review - is it worth it?]
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The expert’s view: “It’s a good example of an approach to history that focuses on the furnishings... But it pushes the real characters to the margins and invents a wild melodrama as that’s what the audience is really interested in. That has to compromise its sense of history, these character’s don’t exist.”

Expert rating: Fair.

Braveheart (1995)

Often seen as one of the worst examples of Hollywood history. Some of the many ‘niggles’ historians have with it: kilts weren't worn in Scotland for some 300 years after Wallace's lifetime; the film’s hero was actually a landowner of some renown and not a poor villager; the implied relationship between Wallace and Isabella of France was unlikely, as she would have been three at the time of the battle where she supposedly fell for the blue-faced hero.

The expert’s view:
“In the end it doesn’t matter so much if the characters are wearing the right shoes, or whether the painting over the mantle is in character. If you re-write history and impose values that are harmful to a group of people, that seems to me to be a much larger crime.”

Expert rating: Poor.

The Conspirator (2010)

Robert Redford’s historical drama tells the story of Mary Surratt, the first woman to be executed by the US Government after her role in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. It was applauded by academics upon its original release, but it didn’t make for the most entertaining of spectacles.

The expert’s view: “Its history was good. Redford did his homework and had the backing of American Historical societies who endorsed the film. But accuracy can be very dull… there’s a sense that history is messy, there aren’t good and bad values. That in the cinema is unsatisfying; people much prefer the Mel Gibson version of history where good is very satisfying and defeats bad.”

Expert rating: Historically excellent, dramatically poor.

Birth Of A Nation (1915)

Originally called ‘The Clansman’, legendary director D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film has gone down in cinema history as one of the era’s most innovative productions. It’s also infamously racist, inflammatory in its heroic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan.

The expert’s view: “The ultimate bad history film. It’s so rampantly, openly, celebratory racist.”

Expert rating: Poor

The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Based on the novel of the same name, Brad Pitt stars as the titular outlaw in a Western that foregoes the familiar shoot’em’up staple and instead provides a stark and unerringly accurate portrayal of life in the old west.

The expert’s view: “There have been so many Jesse James films over the years and the usual approach is to make him into a populist hero; a smiling, grinning, handsome fellow who loved his family and only robbed because he had to. This was a film that turned the myth on its head and said that Jesse James was actually a psychopath who killed people because he enjoyed it and because it was the only way of life he knew.”

Expert rating:
Excellent, except that it does not acknowledge Jesse James’ racism.

U-571 (2000)

Despite what the film may say, the first Enigma machine was in fact seized by British officers from HMS Bulldog in 1941. When the USA joined the war later that year, they had already cracked the Nazis' code. But this is only one of many inaccuracies in a film that was so fictitious it led then Prime Minister Tony Blair to describe it as “an affront to the memories” of those involved.

The expert’s view: “Re-writes history in a way that is very insulting, it does seem to be Hollywood throwing its weight around and saying ‘we can re-write history as we please and take away British achievements’.”

Expert rating:

The King’s Speech (2010)

Tom Hooper’s Oscar-winner certainly takes some liberties, but it is in fact almost as accurate as it is entertaining apparently. A moving portrayal that of George VI's struggle with his stammer that gets the personalities of its Royal protagonists almost spot on. But it’s not without its faults.

The expert’s view: “The focus of the film is on the relationship between Lionel Logue and George VI and in that it I think it’s very accurate. The politics are not, but I don’t think they’re inaccurate in a harmful way because what it does, which so many historical films have to do in their little two hour running time, is telescope events and make it clear why this story is important…they’re understandable dramatic necessities.”

Expert rating: Good, though the portrayal of Churchill is ridiculous, he just keeps showing up.

Pearl Harbor (2001)

Michael Bay's re-imagining of the Japanese attack on the US naval base in Hawaii was dismissed by many real-life Pearl Harbor survivors as grossly inaccurate.

The expert’s view: “It’s an absurd film. One of the really horrible things it does is make an exciting spectacle of the bombing of Pearl Harbor where 2000 people were killed. So in addition to all of its inaccuracies and wild improbabilities, a devastating military attack is turned into a kind of computer game.”

Expert rating: Poor

Gallipoli (1981)

Yes it’s Mel Gibson again (though not in the director’s chair). This time he stars in a portrayal of life in Australia in the 1910s that also highlights the horrors idealistic young soldiers faced as they signed up for service in the First World War.

The expert’s view: “It’s reasonably accurate, it tells a very compelling story, it’s a very powerful film.”

Expert rating: Good

The Patriot (2000)

The film’s thrilling finale is the Battle Of Guildford Court House. In the movie Gibson’s troops triumph over the British, but in reality it’s a battle the American's actually lost.

The expert’s view:
“It’s horrendously inaccurate and attributes crimes committed by the Nazis in the 1940s to the British in the 1770s.”

Expert rating:
Poor, poor, poor.

Dr Mark Glancy teaches film history at Queen Mary University of London. He is the co-editor of The New Film History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)