Hollywood always talks about striving for authenticity, but more often than not either poetic licence or the desire to make sure America gets credit for anything good that’s ever happened in the world ever gets in the way.
That leads to war movies like ‘U-571’, which applauds the US for smashing the Enigma code (Benedict Cumberbatch might have something to say about that). Then there’s 'Braveheart’, which manages to get almost every historical detail wrong - even suggesting that William Wallace was the father of Edward III.
But not every Hollywood production plays so fast and loose with history… some are extremely accurate - especially for a movie!
The compelling story of the final few hours in Hitler’s bunker at the end of WWII is lauded for its accuracy by war scholars and is based on a number of well-researched books, including one by the Führer’s secretary Traudl Junge (played in the movie by Alexandra Maria Lara) who was present. “There’s certainly never been a better depiction of Hitler,” says historian James Holland.
The film has come under fire for humanising Hitler, but the fact he was nice to his secretaries and dog Blondi is known to be true, while actor Bruno Ganz is said by one of Hitler’s biographers to be the closest person ever to capturing the leader’s true speaking voice.
Joachim Fest’s 2002 book 'Inside Hitler’s Bunker’ was one of the research sources and compiled its story from available accounts by survivors of the bunker, the dimensions and confinement of which was painstakingly and effectively recreated. “The confined spaces of the bunker combined with really rather numerous eye-witness testimonies certainly helped the film-makers,” adds Holland. “We know exactly what the Führerbunker looked like, its proportions, its decor, making it much easier to recreate convincingly.”
'The Right Stuff’
Adapted from Tom Wolfe’s book of the same name, this 1983 drama tells the story of the American space race and the travails of the Mercury 7 astronauts during the Fifties and Sixties. Wolfe’s extensively-researched book focused a bit more on gung-ho test pilot Chuck Yeager (Sam Shephard) than the movie, but for the most part this is an extremely faithful account of the space programme.
There was some poetic licence ? a character appears in the film after he would have been dead in real life and some of the characters talk about serving at a particular airforce base when they didn’t. Perhaps its most picked-apart moment is when Gus Grissom (Fred Ward) lands his module in the sea where it ends up sinking after he opens the hatch - some criticise him for panicking, he said it was a problem with the craft. The film doesn’t take a stance, which doesn’t make it inaccurate. But let’s face it, if that’s your biggest worry, they’re doing pretty well.
Some say that Spielberg’s 'Saving Private Ryan’ is a flag-waver for accuracy, but many D-Day experts disagree. In fact, it’s his most recent historical movie that does better. Says James Holland, “They made an excellent attempt to recreate the language of the day as well as [demonstrating] forensic attention to detail.”
Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) was thought to have had an affair with his African-American housekeeper, while Lincoln himself did tell those long, long stories, including the one about the hero Ethan Allen which was actually one of his favourites.
'Tora, Tora, Tora’
A thoughtful and careful account of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, this 1970 movie had several strengths, one of which was collaborating with Japanese filmmakers (initially Akira Kurosawa but he ended up dropping out) to create an almost two-pronged and highly objective film. What’s more, they had access to lots of people who were actually part of the offensive, including Japan mastermind Minoru Genda who was uncredited as a consultant.
So thorough was the production in its preparation that it took three years before it was ready to go before cameras and then required eight months of shooting. The result is considered to be one of the most accurate war movies ever made. If you really want to be picky, the model makers accidentally built a bridge on the right side of the Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi. In fact, it was on the port side.
Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black carried out hours of research and interviews to construct his Oscar-winning screenplay about Harvey Milk, California’s first openly-gay elected official, which is set in the San Francisco of the Seventies. The result is very close to reality, thanks to the openness of Milk’s real-life colleagues and the fact that many of his personal possessions were donated to San Fran’s GLBT Historical Society.
Director Gus Van Sant also shot the film at some of the exact locations where the original events happened. Because of its comparative recentness, several of the participants were on-set, while photographer Danny Nicoletta (played on-screen by Lucas Grabeel), who worked at Milk’s camera shop, was a consultant. Thanks to access to lots of documentary footage, the filmmakers were able recreate many of Milk’s public appearances, including the time he stepped in dog poo in front of television cameras.
What they don’t show is that he actually set that up, going to the park beforehand and leaving the faeces there so he’d be able to get it on his foot in full view of the media.
Jim Lovell was there - he’s played by Tom Hanks in the film - and he told the New York Times that the details inside the shuttle were “amazing”. He wasn’t the only person involved in the operation to speak positively about Ron Howard’s 1995 drama.
Top NASA engineer John Aaron, who helped get the astronauts home following the explosion, has said, “I thought the 'Apollo 13’ movie was probably the best space re-enactment movie that’s been done.” Meanwhile, even original crewmember Ken Mattingley (played by Gary Sinise), who was grounded because of a possible illness, said, “it?s a pretty good movie”.
The stirring and poignant depiction of the 54th regiment during the US Civil War won three Oscars, including Best Supporting Actor for Denzel Washington. It tells the story of the first troop made up of African-Americans and much of its action was derived from letters written by its real-life white commander Colonel Robert Shaw (Matthew Broderick).
The movie’s been praised for its battle scenes, especially the climactic and ultimately doomed skirmish at Fort Wagner and part of that was probably due to the presence of historian and Civil War expert Shelby Foote as technical advisor who has also worked on a number of award-winning documentaries about the period.
Fuelling the authenticity was the presence of thousands of a die-hard war re-enactors who participated in the film helping to make it as realistic as possible.
Photos: Moviestore/Everett/20th Century Fox/Rex/Snap