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February 2012
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Rewriting History
The most historically inaccurate films of all time.

Let’s be honest for a second – real life isn’t always as interesting as it is portrayed to be in movies. Characters in films never spend a solid 40 minutes trying to figure out online banking or sitting in traffic. It’s no surprise then that many a historically based film had to jazz up a thing or two to get people into the theater. Because let’s face it, who is going to pay to see Bill Brings his Daughter to Soccer then Does Some Light Yard Work Before Catching the Last Half of RoboCop on TBS? 
Gladiator was, without a doubt, one of the biggest films of the 2000s, but it is also one of the most inaccurate films ever made. Maximus Decimus, the lead character played by Russell Crowe, didn’t even exist. However, Emperor Commodus and Marcus Aurelius very much did. Although portrayed in the film as a strange, incompetent and slightly incestuous ruler whose reign lasted but a few months, Commodus was actually quite a capable ruler who lasted over a decade on the throne. He also did not kill his father, Marcus Aurelius. That rather dubious honor was actually earned by a case of chicken pox. As for his own death, it was not the ceremonious sendoff he received in the gladiatorial arena; Commodus was actually murdered in his bathtub. Director Ridley Scott did get one thing about Commodus right, however – he was a heck of an alcoholic with a terrible temper.
Perhaps when Mel Gibson was portraying William Wallace in Braveheart, he should have said, “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our word for it.” Many aspects of the Braveheart screenplay are as fabricated as the kilts the actors wore. Actually, those kilts are one of the greatest historical inaccuracies in the film, as kilts were not worn in Scotland until some 300 years after the events in the film took place. The main love story between Wallace and Isabella of France also has some timing problems. According to the film, Isabella was so taken with Wallace during the Battle of Falkirk that the two engaged in a torrid affair that resulted in the birth of Edward III. A few problems with that storyline: First, Isabella was three years old during the Battle of Falkirk, and second, Edward III wasn’t born until seven years after William Wallace died.
Here are two numbers for you – 300 and 10,000. Three hundred refers to the name of the 2007 film based on the very real Battle of Thermopylae. The film taught us that King Xerxes was some eight feet tall (he wasn’t), and that the Spartan Council of Elders was a bunch of 30-somethings (they weren’t). In reality, Xerxes was likely around six feet tall while the council admitted no one younger than 60. The second number, 10,000, refers to Roland Emmerich’s historical retelling 10,000 BC. The tens of you who saw it may have noticed that woolly mammoths were not used to build the pyramids, and they did not exist in the desert. Why would they be woolly if they lived in the desert? Moreover, the pyramids didn’t even exist until 2,500 BC. While audiences are willing to forgo a bit of timeline inaccuracy for a good plot, give or take 7,500 years is a bit of a stretch.
Disney is known for adapting macabre fairytales (like the original The Little Mermaid in which Ariel is rejected by the prince and turned into sea foam) into family friendly fare that ends happily ever after, so it comes as no surprise that Disney would take this same approach to rewriting history. In 1995, Disney released Pocahontas, a delightful love story about a whimsical Native American girl and a handsome British settler. The problem is there was no love story between these two in real life. The film did get a few things right: The two were friendly, and Pocahontas did save Smith’s life…when she was 10. Not exactly the romantic gesture the film made it out to be. That’s not to say Pocahontas didn’t live happily ever after with a handsome British settler named John. She did, in fact, end up marrying such a man, but his name was John Rolfe, not John Smith. 
Now, it may not seem like a big deal to fluff up historical events with sappy love stories and the occasional untruth; however, a study from the journal Psychological Science states otherwise. The study shows that when individuals are shown films of a historical nature, they are more apt to remember the history as portrayed in the film rather than what they learned from their schooling. Andrew Butler, a doctoral student in psychology explains, "When information in the film directly contradicted the text, people often falsely recalled the misinformation portrayed in the film, sometimes as much as 50 percent of the time.” So, the next time you catch any of these films, enjoy it for what it is, just immediately check your history books to keep your noggin in the know.


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