There are plenty of instances where anachronisms creep into historical films, or screenplays play a bit fast and loose with the facts for the sake of a good story. The massacre of Colonel Munro's column by Indians in the woods beyond Fort William Henry made for stirring drama in the most recent version of The Last of the Mohicans, even if it didn't happen quite that way in 1757.
We are not concerned about the occasional wristwatch on a Viking or a misplaced chronology here or there. Even films that scrupulously strive for historical accuracy can slip up from time to time. No, what this post intends to expose to much deserved scorn are other sorts of movie altogether - the counter-factual "docudrama" with pretensions to truth, and the faux historical epic with hardly a minute of actual fact in an otherwise sloppy sea of melodrama.
The difference between the two may be a matter of sins of commission and sins of omission. Ollie Stone's JFK and D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation are both slickly produced revisionist fantasies masquerading as history, as sumptuous and seductive as propaganda as they are devoid of historic merit. Much can be learned from both, but not what the directors intended. These films tell us a great deal about the political sensibilities of their creators and their times, but far less about the actual events they purport to depict.
The wall of shame would need to be long, indeed, to account for the many travesties passed off on film as history, though in fairness it must be said that Hollywood gets much of it right far more often than not. I am loathe to suggest a "top ten" list for the very worst, but the following films should be avoided by any seeking to learn something of the history they make such hash of for our entertainment:
- Pearl Harbor: I am told that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and indeed this happens in the movie. The rest is absolute rubbish as far as history goes. One gets the impression that the producers figured if James Cameron could get audiences to believe in Leonardo and Kate's characters, Ben Afleck ought to be able to get them swooning past a movie so cavalier with history that it, too, will live in infamy.
- The Patriot: Amazingly, the loyal farm workers on the plantation were all freemen! Nosiree, no slaves in the revolutionary South (they were all off fighting for their freedom with the British, presumably). Apparently you can't have a redcoat in green, even if Tarleton's (oh, right, Tavington's) Legion were green coated loyalists, but you can have Abraham Lincoln's face on a greenback that Gibson's character passes off on a shopkeeper. About the only things that are accurate in this movie are the flintlock pistols fired at the gallop - and they shouldn't be!
- Braveheart: The noble Lowland Scot recast as a dyed-in-the-woad Highlander who raises an army of mullet headed savages, this movie is among the least deserving ever to win the best picture Oscar. Biggest howler: William Wallace impregnates the future queen of England, even though the real Isabella of France was 2 years old at the time. About right for a Mel Gibson movie, however. The man makes Tom Cruise look completely rational.
- Gods and Generals: A Lost Cause fantasy with an army of overfed, middle aged actors and reenactors that is utterly unwatchable and grinds on for an interminable three hours and thirty-nine minutes, or so I am told because I switched it off long before the end. Ted Turner blows $60 million financing this fiasco of clean limbed, mawkish sentimentality.
- Revolution: I am certain Al Pacino wishes this film would vanish from his filmography. I swear, it would have been better history if they had included legions of zombies, and certainly more entertaining. The final confrontation amid the towering cliffs of Yorktown bears no resemblance whatsoever to tidewater, Virginia, but by they you are passed caring. Donald Sutherland was in this film and in Kelly's Heroes, which is the more historically accurate movie. But then, so is Hogan's Heroes.
- Every film ever made about Robin Hood, but especially the most recent BBC series, with Guy of Gisborne wearing what looks like a Drizabone Aussie raincoat, Maid Marion moonlighting as The Green Arrow, and a female Saracen garbed as one of the lads among Robin's handful of Merry Men. Modern dialog and moralizing about how muslims and christians need to understand each other better must have Mallory turning in his grave. They killed off Marion in Season II, but Robin has a new wench in Season III, and Holy Shogun, Batman, she fights with a Katana! Look for Richard the Lion Heart to come riding back on a mastodon.
I am sure you can suggest some other candidates for the pillory.