Few people would be surprised to hear that Hollywood frequently tinkers too much with historical accuracy. However, faithfully capturing historical conflicts presents a unique challenge that not enough filmmakers have successfully taken on. These ten films have distorted our understanding of well-known military engagements. Spoilers are everywhere.
10 The Battle Of The Bulge Battle Of The Bulge (1965)
The Battle of the Bulge, a pivotal World War II engagement with more American casualties than any other, would naturally warrant a film aiming for respectful accuracy. Regrettably, MGM’s movie adaptation of the same name opted for a different approach, concocting an entirely fictional battle.
To enhance the cinematic experience, the filmmakers chose to present the movie in widescreen Cinerama, abandoning the rugged, dense forests of the Ardennes for sweeping shots of flat, treeless plains. The result resembled popular cowboy movies of the era more than the actual historical battle. MGM further deviated by discarding the thick fog that played a significant role in the real battle’s opening days. The cinematic shots of German tanks advancing across sunny plains, while aesthetically pleasing, did not align with the reality that such exposed tank formations would have been promptly destroyed from the air.
The screenplay itself came under scrutiny for its inaccuracies, prompting a scathing critique from former President Dwight Eisenhower, who served as the supreme commander of the Allied Forces during the battle. Eisenhower noted errors right from the beginning, including incorrect names and units, such as relocating the entire British Eighth Army from Italy to the Ardennes. Many plotlines, including a fictional race for a nonexistent fuel depot, were deemed inaccurate. The movie also portrayed Nazi infiltrators as a real threat to the Allies, a distortion of reality where they were merely a nuisance.
MGM faced criticism for using Korean War-era American tanks as stand-ins for German panzers, with all tanks, planes, and jeeps in the movie being post-war models. While acknowledging the challenge of obtaining accurate military hardware before the era of CGI, Eisenhower emphasized that MGM could have, at the very least, concealed the Spanish Army camouflage on their jeeps.
9 Marathon And Salamis 300: Rise Of An Empire (2014)
In 2007, Warner Bros. achieved significant success with “300,” a visually striking portrayal of the Battle of Thermopylae. The film faced criticism for historical inaccuracies, notably depicting the Spartan slave-state as a symbol of liberty. The narrative was defended as the perspective of a Spartan soldier, justifying any exaggerations. However, such justification falls short when examining “300: Rise Of An Empire,” a film where no empires rise, and the narration concludes before the story does.
The movie commences with the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, where Athenians confront a Persian invasion force. General Themistocles leads his men in a full sprint to surprise the Persians as they disembark from their ships. Historically, the Greeks and Persians faced each other at Marathon for five days before combat. While it’s true the Greeks charged straight at the Persian army, it aimed to negate their advantage in archers, not to surprise them.
In the film, Themistocles’s arrow kills the Persian king Darius I, with Xerxes witnessing the act. In reality, a Greek hoplite like Themistocles wouldn’t have been skilled with a bow, and Darius was not present at Marathon, dying years later of old age.
Enraged by his father’s death, Xerxes transforms into a glowing giant and plans to invade Greece. He appoints Eva Green’s Artemisia to lead his fleet. In reality, Artemisia, the widowed queen of Halicarnassus, contributed a few ships to Xerxes’ 600-boat navy. While she personally commanded her ships and earned respect from Xerxes, she didn’t lead the entire fleet.
The climax centers on the naval Battle of Salamis, which, according to historians, did not involve giant metal ships or Persian suicide bombers, both depicted in the movie. Queen Gorgo of Sparta, portrayed as the narrator, arrives with a massive fleet to destroy the Persians. Historically, Sparta added only 16 boats to Themistocles’ 400 ships, playing no significant role in the victory. Gorgo wasn’t present, and the prevailing misogynistic attitudes of the Greeks would have prevented a woman from leading them.
8 The Battle Of Inchon Inchon! (1981)
“Inchon!” is widely regarded as possibly the worst war movie ever created, with critics labeling it “stupefyingly incompetent” and “a turkey the size of Godzilla.” The movie’s financial backing and production by Reverend Sun Myung Moon and his controversial Unification Church further contributed to its negative reception.
Despite Moon’s efforts to conduct research, which included hiring tabloid psychic Jeane Dixon to contact the deceased General Douglas MacArthur through the astral plane, the movie failed to impress. Fortunately, the ghost of the general endorsed the film and personally selected the director. Moon even included a quote from the spirit in the movie’s press release, expressing happiness about the film portraying his sentiments during the Korean War and pledging over 100 percent effort to support it.
With support from the spirit world, Moon invested an astounding $46 million into the production. Consequently, he believed he had the right to include a scene featuring his favorite ballet troupe and attempted to insert subliminal images of Jesus through the director. Additionally, he spent $3 million reshooting a crowd scene due to its perceived inadequacy. However, the final film included grainy stock footage and model fighter planes visibly suspended by strings.
The movie’s lack of clarity makes it challenging to assess its accuracy, as it is difficult to discern what is intended to be happening. A significant portion consists of context-free shots depicting North Korean soldiers machine-gunning civilians. The Battle of Inchon, which the movie ostensibly centers around, is condensed into a mere 15 minutes, most of which is fictionalized. Despite its substantial budget, the battle scenes appear cheap, with extras reacting to explosions before they occur.
Ultimately, “Inchon!” earned only $5 million at the box office and is considered one of the most significant flops in movie history.
7 The Siege Of Jerusalem Kingdom Of Heaven (2005)
Addressing the controversial historical events of the Crusades, Ridley Scott undertook the ambitious task of depicting them in the epic film “Kingdom of Heaven.” Scott chose to set the first half of the movie during a truce maintained by King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem and the renowned Muslim ruler Saladin, portraying it as a time when people could freely come and go, worshiping as they pleased. However, historical accuracy takes a back seat to the film’s moral message.
In reality, Baldwin IV was not the moderate figure depicted in the movie. Non-Christians were officially banned from Jerusalem during his reign, and he once expressed anger when Guy de Lusignan, portrayed as a warmonger in the film, failed to attack Saladin. Saladin himself is portrayed as a peaceful ruler reluctantly forced into war, but historical records show that he actively sought to capture Jerusalem throughout his reign. The truce between Baldwin and Saladin was more a result of exhaustion and other problems than a genuine desire for lasting peace.
The movie’s protagonist, Balian of Ibelin (played by Orlando Bloom), undergoes significant alterations to fit Scott’s message. In the film, Balian is portrayed as a French blacksmith who experiences a crisis of faith after his wife’s suicide and is denied burial on holy ground. However, the real Balian was a Palestinian nobleman, not a blacksmith, and his wife did not commit suicide. Additionally, the movie falsely depicts Balian’s conflict with the Christian patriarch of Jerusalem, distorting the historical relationship between the two.
In the climax, Balian leads the defense of Jerusalem against Saladin’s forces, facing opposition from the cowardly Christian patriarch. While the real Balian cooperated with the patriarch in defending Jerusalem, the film intentionally undermines positive portrayals of the clergy.
A particularly ridiculous scene in the movie involves Balian threatening to destroy holy places in Jerusalem to negotiate safe passage for its Christian inhabitants. This threat, along with Saladin’s uncharacteristically noble response, deviates significantly from historical reality. In truth, Balian had threatened specifically Muslim holy sites and even threatened to murder Muslim slaves held in the city. The movie distorts these historical facts to convey a more palatable narrative.
6 Operation Red Wings Lone Survivor (2014)
“Lone Survivor” recounts the harrowing tale of four SEAL Team 10 members sent to surveil a Taliban figure, Ahmad Shah, in the Afghan mountains. Accidentally discovered by goatherds, the team faces a relentless attack by approximately 50 Taliban fighters, resulting in the deaths of three members and the survival of Marcus Luttrell. A subsequent attempt to rescue the team leads to the tragic loss of 16 American servicemen when their helicopter is shot down.
While the filmmakers aimed for a respectful portrayal, certain elements were fictionalized for cinematic effect. The opening scene, depicting Marcus Luttrell’s heart stopping during his rescue, is a dramatic departure from reality, as Luttrell was not near death when rescued.
In an interview, Luttrell details the extensive injuries he sustained, including hand and back reconstruction, multiple back surgeries, blown-out knees, a cracked pelvis, maxillofacial damage, and various gunshot and shrapnel wounds.
The movie’s conclusion, set in a Pashtun village, embellishes the events. While Luttrell was cared for by Gulab in a Pashtun village and faced the Taliban’s discovery, the movie’s climactic firefight deviates from reality. In truth, the Taliban did not attack the village, Gulab was not shot, and American forces peacefully extracted Luttrell after a straightforward rescue prompted by locals. Ahmad Shah’s death also occurred three years later, contrary to the Hollywood ending’s dramatic portrayal. Luttrell’s authentic story, while remarkable, lacked the Hollywood-style climax.
5 Stalingrad Enemy At The Gates (2001)
“Enemy At The Gates,” the Stalingrad epic depicting the Eastern Front of World War II, disappoints in its historical accuracy. The film begins with a glaring map error, depicting Switzerland and Turkey as German conquests.
The portrayal of the Soviet Union’s war effort becomes a point of contention, as individual Soviet soldiers are depicted as heroes while the film attempts to cast the overall Soviet war strategy as cruel and incompetent, contrary to historical events.
Jude Law’s character, Vasily Zaytsev, based on the real sniper, faces inaccuracies from the start. Locked into a train with fellow soldiers, the film ignores the fact that Soviet military train doors were left unlocked for soldiers to take cover during air raids. The depiction of troops crossing the Volga in daylight, exposing them to German planes, contradicts the historical reality of Soviet units crossing the river under cover of darkness.
In Stalingrad, Zaytsev’s unit is ordered into a mass charge without sufficient rifles, with soldiers instructed to pick up the weapons of the fallen. This portrayal, based on isolated incidents during the surprise German invasion in 1941, was not a deliberate strategy, and there is no evidence that Soviet soldiers entered Stalingrad without guns or engaged in mass frontal charges against machine guns.
The central plot of the film, revolving around a sniper duel between Zaytsev and a fictional German sniper named Major Erwin Konig, adds to the historical inaccuracies. No records have been found of such a German sniper, leading historians to believe that the character was likely fabricated to enhance Zaytsev’s propaganda value.
4 The Taking Of Aqaba Lawrence Of Arabia (1962)
While “Lawrence of Arabia” is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, it takes some liberties with historical accuracy. Auda abu Tayi, portrayed as a greedy brute, deviates from the real-life cultured and intelligent individual he was. Lawrence’s sibling even struggled to recognize him.
The film’s focal point is the critical raid on the Red Sea port of Aqaba. Lawrence’s plan to navigate a small party through the Nefudh Desert for an inland attack is accurately depicted. However, the movie falters in other details.
The Nefudh Desert is portrayed as a sea of undulating golden sand dunes, while in reality, the areas traversed by Lawrence were gravel plains. The film shows Lawrence rescuing an Arab in the desert, celebrated as a hero by the Arabs who symbolically accept him with a beautiful Bedouin robe. Lawrence’s own account, however, reveals that he had been wearing Bedouin garb for six months, and the Arabs considered his risky rescue efforts moronic.
One of the film’s iconic scenes features Lawrence leading a mounted charge straight into the city. The reality is that the pivotal cavalry charge occurred 65 kilometers (40 mi) from Aqaba at a small outpost called Aba el Lissan. Despite Lawrence’s force outnumbering the Ottomans, it was the Arabs, not Lawrence, who led the charge to take the outpost. Attempting to participate, Lawrence accidentally shot his own camel and was thrown ingloriously to the ground. Aqaba fell without incident the next day.
3 The Battle Of Gettysburg Gettysburg (1993)
When New Line Cinema released the film adaptation of Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, they claimed the movie was “rigorously authenticated down to the boots.” However, this did not prevent historians from finding a few minor inaccuracies.
In the battle scenes, most extras were Civil War re-enactors, providing their own uniforms. While a cost-saving measure, it led to uniforms that were too pristine, failing to accurately represent the ragged forces at Gettysburg. Some re-enactors appeared too well-fed to portray Confederate soldiers who had just completed long marches. General Lee shakes hands with a soldier displaying a tan line from a wristwatch.
For dramatic effect, the timing of events during the battle was shifted. The movie opens with scout Harrison reporting to Longstreet on the morning of June 30, while the real Harrison would have informed Longstreet of the Union’s movements by June 29. Lee’s confrontation with General Heth occurred late on July 1, not during the battle earlier that day. The scene of Father Corby delivering absolution to the Irish Brigade did not occur in the morning of July 2 but in the afternoon just before they went into battle.
During Pickett’s Charge, the tension is somewhat diminished by noticeable rubber bayonets wobbling around. Confederate cannons are depicted exploding, but in reality, the Southerners did not lose a single cannon in the battle. General Kemper is shown dying from a mortal wound, 32 years before his actual death in 1895.
The most noticeable deviation is how bloodlessly the film portrays Pickett’s Charge. One eyewitness described the real charge as a “hurricane of violence in which human debris literally filled the air.” To maintain a PG rating, the filmmakers likely toned down the violence, resulting in a whitewashed scene that some critics described as a “remarkably non-violent, clean, and heroic little parade.”
2 The Fall Of The Alamo The Alamo (1961)
The creators of the 1960 film The Alamo attempted to present it as an accurate portrayal of the historical battle. John Wayne, the director, producer, and star, claimed that the movie’s sets were based on “original blueprints” of the Alamo. However, no such blueprints exist, and the inaccurate sets were largely products of art director Al Ybarra’s imagination.
Wayne also asserted that the screenwriter, James Grant, had thoroughly researched the battle. If Grant did conduct research, it did not find its way into the script. The screenplay was entirely fictional, leading two historians hired as consultants to leave the set in frustration. Both historians later requested the removal of their names from the credits.
The movie has been criticized by historians who say it contains “not a word, character, costume, or event that corresponds to historical reality in any way.” It even fails in basic geography, erroneously placing the Alamo on the Rio Grande. The film’s depiction of the battle centers on a massive bombardment by Mexican cannons, with Wayne’s Davy Crockett leading a party to destroy the largest Mexican artillery piece. In reality, the Mexicans only used small field pieces during the battle, and the adobe Alamo would have been completely destroyed by heavy artillery.
In the film’s final battle scene, Crockett sacrifices himself to blow up the powder magazine. In truth, a defender named Robert Evans attempted to ignite the gunpowder with a torch but was shot before entering the magazine. Crockett’s fictional sacrifice might have had more significance if the movie had provided context for why he went to the Alamo and what the men were fighting for. Wayne aimed to use the movie as a Cold War metaphor, portraying patriotic Americans fighting an evil dictatorship, which was more effective if the actual circumstances of the Texas Revolution were left unclear.
1 Cowpens And Guilford Courthouse The Patriot (2000)
The tale of The Patriot highlights Hollywood’s struggle with the complexities of real history. Originally intended as a biopic of Francis Marion, a guerrilla fighter during the Revolutionary War, the movie faced challenges in fitting Marion’s life into the standard Hollywood action-movie template. Marion’s ownership of slaves, participation in a brutal campaign against the Cherokee, and the absence of children conflicted with the desired narrative. Consequently, the character was transformed into Benjamin Martin, a composite of multiple historical figures.
The fictional Benjamin Martin is crafted to be more acceptable to modern movie audiences. Unlike Marion, Martin frees all his slaves at the movie’s outset, although they curiously continue working on his estate. While omitting Martin’s plantation would have been simpler, the scenic backdrop is undeniably captivating.
Martin confesses to a massacre during the French and Indian War in the movie, justifying it as a response to enemy soldiers who had massacred women and children. In reality, Marion didn’t conduct such a massacre, although he participated in destroying buildings and food supplies in a campaign against the Cherokee, with the intent of causing them to starve during winter. While not Marion’s idea and something he found horrifying, it is less conducive to enthusiastic support than Martin’s portrayal.
To alleviate concerns about Martin’s moral ambiguity, the filmmakers painted his British adversaries as monstrous villains committing war crimes gleefully. In one scene, redcoats lock an entire town in a church and set it ablaze, reminiscent of a famous World War II German atrocity. While this didn’t occur during the Revolutionary War, the scene parallels historical events.
The British reaction was to depict Marion as a rapist who “hunted Indians for fun.” Ironically, the real Francis Marion seemed to harbor little animosity toward the British, later campaigning against punishing Americans who had fought for them.
The movie’s final battle is unnamed and mostly fictional, incorporating elements of the battles of Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse. The film portrays General Nathaniel Greene and General Charles Cornwallis at this battle, although they were not both present at Cowpens. The battlefield in the movie strikingly resembles that of Guilford Courthouse.