10 Most Historically Inaccurate Movies

Movies are movies, not history classrooms. I’ve always accepted that when I walk into a movie theater I’m going into an ENTERTAINMENT presentation, not an EDUCATIONAL presentation, so I accept that I can neither expect nor assume that a “historical” movie will be historically accurate… and I’m fine with that.

Having said that, Yahoo put up a great article on those films that have taken the most liberty with those pesky little “facts” and I thought I’d share it with you here in no particular order.

10) 10,000 B.C.
Director Roland Emmerich is usually a stickler for realism (see: sending a computer virus via Macintosh to aliens in Independence Day). So we hate to inform him that woolly mammoths were not, in fact, used to build pyramids. Heck, woolly mammoths weren’t even found in the desert. They wouldn’t need to be woolly if that were the case. And there weren’t any pyramids in Egypt until 2,500 B.C or so.

9) Gladiator
Emperor Commodus was not the sniveling sister-obsessed creep portrayed in the movie. A violent alcoholic, sure, but not so whiny. He ruled ably for over a decade rather than ineptly for a couple months. He also didn’t kill his father, Marcus Aurelius, who actually died of chickenpox. And instead of being killed in the gladiatorial arena, he was murdered in his bathtub.

8) 300
Though this paean to ancient moral codes and modern physical training is based on the real Battle of Thermopylae, the film takes many stylistic liberties. The most obvious one being Persian king Xerxes was not an 8-foot-tall Cirque du Soleil reject. The Spartan council was made up of men over the age of 60, with no one as young as Theron (played by 37-year-old Dominic West). And the warriors of Sparta went into battle wearing bronze armor, not just leather Speedos

7) The Last Samurai
The Japanese in the late 19th century did hire foreign advisers to modernize their army, but they were mostly French, not American. Ken Watanabe’s character was based on the real Saigo Takamori who committed ritual suicide, or “seppuku,” in defeat rather than in a volley of Gatling gun fire. Also, it’s doubtful that a 40-something alcoholic Civil War vet, even one with great hair, would master the chopsticks much less the samurai sword.

6) Apocalypto
This one movie has given entire Anthropology departments migraines. Sure the Maya did have the odd human sacrifice but not to Kulkulkan, the Sun God, and only high-ranking captives taken in battle were killed. The conquistadors arriving at the end of the film made for unlikely saviors: an estimated 90% of indigenous American population was killed by smallpox from their infected livestock.

5) Memoirs of a Geisha
The geisha coming-of-age, called “mizuage,” was really more of a makeover, where she changed her hairstyle and clothes. It didn’t involve her getting… intimate with a client. In the climactic scene where Sayuri wows Gion patrons with her dancing prowess, her routine – which involves some platform shoes, fake snow, and a strobe light – seems more like a Studio 54 drag show than anything in pre-war Kyoto.

4) Braveheart
Let’s forget the fact that kilts weren’t worn in Scotland until about 300 years after William Wallace’s day and just do some simple math. According to the movie, Wallace’s blue-eyed charm at the Battle of Falkirk was so overpowering, he seduced King Edward II’s wife, Isabella of France, and the result of their affair was Edward III. But according to the history books, Isabella was three years old at the time of Falkirk, and Edward III was born seven years after Wallace died.

3) Elizabeth: The Golden Age
In 1585, when the movie takes place, Queen Elizabeth was 52 years old – Cate Blanchett was 36 when she shot the film – and was not being courted by suitors like Ivan the Terrible (who was dead by then). And though the movie has her rallying the troops at Tilbury astride a white steed in full armor with a sword, in fact she rode side saddle, carrying a baton. She was more of a regal majorette than Joan of Arc.

2) The Patriot
Revolutionary War figure Francis “The Swamp Fox” Marion was the basis for Mel Gibson’s character, but he wasn’t the forward-thinking family man they show in the flick. He was a slave owner who didn’t get married (to his cousin) until after the war was over. Historians also say that he actively persecuted and murdered native Cherokees. Plus, the thrilling Battle of Guilford Court House where he vanquishes his British nemesis? In reality, the Americans lost that one.

1) 2001: A Space Odyssey
According to this film, in year 2001 we would have had manned voyages to Jupiter, a battle of wits with a sentient computer, and a quantum leap in human evolution. Instead we got the Mir Space Station falling from the sky, Windows XP, and Freddy Got Fingered. Apparently the lesson here is that sometimes it’s better when the movies get the facts all wrong.

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51 thoughts on “10 Most Historically Inaccurate Movies

  1. "2001: A space Odyssey" was made in 1968 and set in the future. What has this to do with history. accurate or inaccurate. It just happened to be set in a future whose date has passed. In that case maybe you should include "1984."

  2. ‘Artistic license’ is a cop-out. If movie makers don’t want to be constrained by reality, they shouldn’t make movies about real people and real events. What I wrote a script that suggested the 1997 version of Titanic originated with an idea proposed by Brittany Spears and that James Cameron had help from George W. Bush in writing the script? That’s just artistic license, isn’t it? Would any of these film makers want their own life story treated the way they treat historical figures? Of course not. If they can’t deal with the truth, they should stick to fictional stories — of course, a movie about a romance on a passenger ship wouldn’t sell without the cachet of the name Titanic. Come to think of it, if you can’t find enough compelling drama in the true stories that took place on Titanic, you aren’t much of a story teller. I don’t mean to pick on Camerson … Lord knows Mel Gibson has been making the same movie over and over again. Don’t the characters in Apocalypto, The Patriot and Braveheart all have many of the same characteristics as his Riggs character in the Lethal Weapon movies?

    1. Ok, first off you need to watch a Mel Gibson movie if you think he has done the same movie “over and over again” Honestly. With close to 60 credits to the man’s name, its clear that he doesn’t play the same character.

      There are similarities in plot with Patriot and Braveheart, however his character is totally different in each. None of which are anything like Riggs. That made no sense at all.

      And as far as your criticism of Titanic. I would like to know what story you might apply to “the ship sinks”. It’s the only historical part of that movie. Fabricating a group of characters to sympathize with is the only way to give heart to that story. You sarcastically suggest that a lovestory needed the Titanic, but in reality a story about the Titanic wouldn’t have been compelling without the lovestory.

      These movies have a sense of familiarity to them because of the shred of history they are clinging to, but its the fiction that makes it interesting.

      Its no worse a violation to history to make an inaccurate movie than it is to tell fiction about a future that will no doubt be offended when it comes to pass differently too.

      I want my silver jumpsuit fashions, jetpacks and flying cars that the year 2000 was supposed to bring.

  3. Having 300 on the list really pisses me off.

    First off- it is NOT based on, “the real Battle of Thermopylae” it is based on the graphic novel 300 by Frank Miller. It’s the first line in the description of the movie on wikipedia


    Second- If they were trying to be historically accurate, they probably wouldn’t have fictional creatures in it. The guy with blades for arms, the giant messed up monster that was chained, etc.

    Once again, it’s based on a “fictional comic”. The actual history behind it just made for a basis, but was not intended for Frank Miller’s version of the story. If he wanted to be accurate, he probably wouldn’t have mentioned that it was “fictional”.

  4. To be fair, The Patriot got some of the costumng close and gives some idea of the kind of fighting that went on in the Carolinas during the Revolution. But there is much more that is seriously wrong with it than there is right. The gigantic Hollywood sized cannon in the climactic battle scene is a good starting point; they are about 8 to 10 times the size of the ones used at Guilford Courthouse or Cowpens, and the ruined mansion looks like a leftover set from Gone With the Wind. In the real American Revolution there wasn’t a French soldier south of Virginia after they blew the attempt to retake Savannah.
    What really makes this one so flagrant is that there were historians from the Smithsonian and dozens of knowledgeable reenactors working on the film and their advice was completely ignored.

  5. I like the idea of this list (as well as the 2001 joke most seem to have missed) and I would agree that some movies made some clear intentional artistic license with the story to reasonably make it more enjoyable. BUT, the real point IMHO is how often the real story is more interesting than the one made up (which is IMHO most often the case for the listed movies… my favorite one to hate is Elizabeth, but I also thought it was boring). For example, the real story at the beginning of Navigator (so many that could have made the list) is that Hughes took up the plane himself, did the maneuver the other pilot said couldn’t be done, which required crashing the plane. Hughes then climbed out of the wreckage, walked over pass the pilot, and said, “That’s how I want it done.” That would have made a cool scene. And, the stuff about how he burned his clothes also made up and it hurt the story. How can we get the message to Hollywood that accuracy counts? And, how about a list of the most accurate historical movies?!?

  6. Whoever it was at Yahoo that wrote the article, should be fired. As should the editor that OK’d the story.

    To include 2001: A Space Odyssey on the list is absolutely wrong.

    I hope that very few people read that article because I’d hate to think they would believe that what they were reading was FACT.

  7. (Type your comment here. Make sure you’ve read the commenting rules before doing so)

    While I agree that some on the list were inaccurate, THE most inaccurate movie of the past 300 years was omitted from that list. Oliver Stone’s “JFK” is without any doubt, without any hesitation, without any debate THE most historically inaccurate movie ever recorded on celluloid. The amount of made-up “facts” and Oliver Stone’s total ignorance or willful disregard for the mountain of evidence that points to Lee Harvey Oswald (and no one else) MUST earn him the title as the most dishonest film maker in modern history. It would a post of 5,000 words to record all of the misinformation found in JFK. To make a long story short–that movie SHOULD have been named “Dallas in Wonderland.”

  8. Yeah, I’ll take a number and get in line: 2001: A Space Odyssey does not belong on this list. As for the others, yes, they may be inaccurate (at times, blatantly), but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth watching. As a history major, I realize how crucial history (and its interpretations) is to the outlook we have on the present. That being said, the films listed were all produced with the objective of entertaining — a goal that was largely fulfilled. If, however, I want a lesson in history, I’ll crack open a textbook.

  9. I haven’t seen every movie on this list, however there are some flaws in the yahoo list, as many have pointed out. 10k BC, I haven’t seen, however just from the previews i can’t argue. Gladiator, Last Samurai, Memoirs, Elizabeth, Braveheart, and I think the Patriot as well were all actually quite accurate to the settings. Costumes, props, scenery, accents and lighting were all fairly accurate. I will give the stories the credit that has been given by others that this is historical fiction. Yahoo should really look closer at the movies it puts on this list and put out a more accurate list of the inaccurate.

  10. Since this is all about accuracy, it’s worth pointing out that Yahoo is also incorrect about The Last Samurai. (Spoiler) Technically, Ken Watanabe did die of seppuku. His hand on his knife sealed the deal. Sure it was assisted seppuku, and he did have a body full gatling slugs, but at least the filmmakers, in their stretched artistic vision, gave a nod-off to the real story in history…

  11. I didn’t know movies had to be historical. Hell, I didn’t know history books had to be historical. Let’s be honest here; most high school text books have taken more liberties with “history” than any of these films. Unless you’re an avid history fan or took too many classes in college and stumbled into a history major, you’re going to take it at face value. I remember high school. My text book basically said, “the natives of the Americas were here. We had a good dinner with them. God Bless America.”

    I think it’s a better aim to be pissed off at the majority of a populous for taking any information they like, and without even researching it, concreting it into their minds as fact (not to mention passing it onto their children). I can’t remember which, but I recall “The Last Samurai” being on The History Channel or A&E and I hope to all that is unholy that it wasn’t the former. My memory sucks, so I’ll ask you to forgive if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall any of those movies claiming to be historical or factual.

  12. I could care less about accuracy. I don’t watch 300 for its educational value. If this were the History Channel, that would be another story.

    But as for The Last Samurai, I dug that movie until the absolutely stupid ending where SPOILER all of the minorities are mowed the fuck down by the guns, but of course, whitey Tom Cruise lives to tell the tale. People in the theater were laughing at how stupid it was.

  13. Do biopics fall into this category? They are after all a depiction of past events, a little more centred on one person perhaps, but I think they have as much if not more requirement to be accurate. Any thoughts?

  14. Instead of joking around- 2001– (heck 1984 would have been funnier), I request that one glaring omission off Yahoo’s stupid list be in its stead.

    Kingdom Of Heaven
    And that includes the director’s cut, folks.

    I don’t mind a few changes in a film for dramatic purposes or a period war battle, for example, cannot be re-enacted because there’s a Wall Mart now in that spot. But I do mind it when in films like Kingdom where there is more than a few dramatic licsenses, and those licenses get in the way of the story to the point where the film makes no sense.

    The best things about most of these films is that for a number of people, it gets them to do research on thier own. Like 300, Folks might be surprised that 700 Thespians were with the 300 right to the death and that it wasn’t a storm that took down the Persian ships, but rather, The Battle Of Salimis.


  15. The one thing that people completely miss about 300 is that it makes no bones about it being historically inaccurate. It is a movie not ABOUT historical accuracy, and they did NOT set about making a historically accurate movie. This is about legends, about myths, and how events in the past can get blown up and exaggerated by those who tell it. The very first person who chronicled this story no doubt passed it along to another, exaggerating this is and that, and then passed it along to another, the story getting larger, more exaggerated and more fantastic with each telling. So yeah, Xerxes is NOT 8 foot tall. Well DUH? To people back then, he probably seemed like it. In their minds he became bigger and badder and taller. The story went until it finally arrived with Frank Miller, and he added his own exaggerations to it, and then Zack Snyder got it and added even more exaggerations to it, in keeping with what has been done to the story since it first happened.


    Great question! I thot about that for a second and the answer is NO! No movie will ever be 100% historically accurate. The further you get away from an event the harder it gets to track down the truth. The whole 48 hour rule in crime solving is evidence of that.

  17. Braveheart never claims to be “historically accurate,” at the very beginning the narrator stats that this story has been told before from an english viewpoint but never from a scottish viewpoint. And like any good historical movie it has parts that represent the “truth” rather then depict it absolutely. You can fit everything in!

    For instance the Battle of Stirling is really called the Battle for Striling bridge, since…there is a bridge involved! But things get left out because of budget and what not, however the point is still made.

    P.S. is there such thing as a historically accurate movie?

  18. LoL, I really hope Teri was being funny because is the most ridiculous statement I’ve read in a long time. As someone who suffers from migraines I am offended by his comment! I also have to disagree…there have been many movies that have given me headache by just thinking about their awfulness.

    I tend to be forgiving of a “historical” movie because I know its fiction. Even when a book is adapted for screen liberties are taken sometimes for the better sometimes for the worse. I will admit that it’s hugely annoying when these movies based on historical events actually change the timeline and facts in an attempt to create an entertaining story.

  19. Yea if they are going to include 2001: A Space Odyssey they should have definitely included Escape from New York. But like someone said they shouldn’t include movies that tell the future because those are SciFi films that aren’t looking back in hindsight..

  20. @Teri…so when a sportswriter says “so and so is a cancer in the clubhouse” are you railing for cancer paitients as well? C’mon, it’s a turn of phrase…relax. People can’t say anything anymore without getting someone all riled up.

  21. A guy I work with said to me ater he saw 300 “I didnt realize that the Persians were so mutated and into altering their bodies.” I had to explain that they took some liberties…

  22. Um, hey commenters, obviously 2001 was a joke. I thought it was hilarious. That’s like accusing Transformers of being historically inaccurate.

    Anyway, I think you guys missed the mark with 300. The whole point of that movie was to express how the world and mindset of the Spartans perceived themselves and perceived their enemies. Hence, the heroics are exaggerated and the enemies are vilified. The point is that this is the storyteller’s (Dillios) spin on the account of the events, in order to turn a Spartan defeat into a Spartan victory, as a result of King Leonidas’ request to do so. At the very end of the movie, it should be apparent that the entirety of the movie is the story that Dillios tells to the remaining Greek forces in order to bolster their courage and push back the invaders.

    All of the sequences with the senate did not exist in the book version, so I look at that as typical bad-adaptation-changes more so than historical inaccuracies. The book also didn’t have the troll/giant nor the rhinoceros- the “monsters” that the Spartans encountered were limited to the Persian war elephants. Again, the point here being how things were perceived by the primitive Spartan mind. The stylized look, etc, was all in service of this.

  23. Great list, although I agree about the 2001 Space Odyssey comment. It was never intended to predict the future. And, 300 is also inaccurate in that Spartan women were also soldiers at the time. They fought in battle as well, and non-Spartan slaves did all the domestic work for the community. Women didn’t stay home and raise the children.

  24. How about something more accurate and creative than, “This one movie has given entire Anthropology departments migraines” Migraine is a potentially debilitating genetic neurological disease affecting nearly 36 million Americans.

    Statements such as yours only serve to perpetuate myths and misconceptions that make the lives of people with Migraine disease more difficult. An inaccurate movie would not give anyone a Migraine. Your statement itself is inaccurate, not clever.

    Thank you,
    Teri Robertt
    writer & patient advocate

  25. Not that I liked this movie, but in Apocalypto the Conquistadors weren’t suppose to be seen at saviors. Isn’t there a part where one of the Mayans says something to the point that the main character will lead them all to their death? By following him back to his home near the coast, where they come into contact with the conquistadors.

  26. Hey Ian,

    You said:

    “But then I have a feeling this whole page is an attempt to get huge traffic from Digg ”

    Just so you know, we do not submit non-original posts to Digg. Since this is a post that came from Yahoo, we won’t be putting it on Digg.

  27. Sorry, meant that the Americans did not capture the Enigma FIRST, that was the British who did that. There were several enigma captures during the war. One notable American capture was the U-505. The Americans weren’t the first to capture an Enigma, but they did capture some.

  28. Wow, Melvin Gibson made three out of the ten of these, I guess he gets the stupidest-at-history prize. Plus there’s always The Passion, which he’d probably claim to be the most accurate of his career.

    ross – I think that last one was the grain of salt in the list

  29. I’m with Ross Miller on this one, you really can’t lump a film made in 1968 about events 33 years later in with films that look back at history.

    2001 doesn’t purport to be a history movie, even if you are watching it in the year 2008. It’s just a damn good sci-fi movie that was ahead of it’s time.

    To give you an idea, the probe designed to survey Jupiter wasn’t even launched 1972 and it didn’t send back a photograph of Jupiter until 1973. So to claim this film is inaccurate is a massive disservice.

    But then I have a feeling this whole page is an attempt to get huge traffic from Digg anyway rather than being a decent rundown of movies that screwed the pooch of historical accuracy.

  30. 2001: A Space Odyssey – I don’ think it’s fair to lump this in with the “historically innacurate” crowd as it was made BEFORE that year, obviously. I think that list should be for films which portray a period of time that was before they were made. Although the year in the film’s title has passed and (sadly) everything isn’t like that but still think it’s unfair.

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