10 Hilariously Inaccurate Historical Epics

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For reasons unbeknownst to most logical human beings, moviegoers will soon be “treated” to Pompeii, a historical epic from Paul W.S. Anderson, the man who delivered such modern masterpieces as Resident Evil and The Three Musketeers. For fans of Kit Harington’s chiseled abs, the film may prove to be well-worth shelling out a extra few dollars for 3D, but for the rest of us, Pompeii will likely hold little more than a few eye-catching explosions and a heaping of laughable moments instantly questionable by any of us who can point Italy out on a map. Even die-hard Anderson fans may be turned off once they realize that Milla Jovovich is nowhere to be found and, even if she was, it would be really, really hard for her to punch, kick and shoot her way through millions of tons of volcanic ash.

And so, there’s no better time to remind ourselves that Anderson is just the latest director serving up a cinematic tribute to historical inaccuracy. Hollywood has a bad habit of pillaging history textbooks in search of exciting, blockbuster-ready tales, but whenever the truth is dry enough to conjure up soporific high school memories, moviemakers are also more than happy to adjust/tweak/flagrantly disregard the events they’re ostensibly meant to be transcribing in celluloid.

Every one of the movies on this list took some serious liberties with their source material, some more successfully than others, but this is not the place to critique quality. I’m completely aware that historical accuracy was not the intended target of most of these movies, but their inability to get seemingly simple historical facts right is also damnably frustrating. For this list, we’ll be adhering to the Joe Friday school of thought: namely, “All we want are the facts, ma’am.” Or, as is the case with many of our picks, the lack thereof.

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1. Braveheart

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The sheer amount of staggering inaccuracies in this Mel Gibson-starring blockbuster mean that it fits more into the category of fantasy than historical drama. As endlessly quotable as Braveheart, it’s also pathetically inaccurate.

Where do we start? How about with Gibson’s William Wallace, who was not as much of a rags-to-riches story as the film would have you think. Born of the Scottish aristocracy, Wallace was actually a knight of honor, not a born-in-blood warrior.

For another point, that epic Battle of Stirling in Braveheart? Actually, that’s the Battle of Stirling Bridge, according to historians. Don’t remember a bridge in the movie? That’s because, for cinematic purposes, screenwriter Randall Wallace left it out. Hang in there, it gets worse.

The face paint? Wrong. The kilts? Wrong. The primae noctis law that allowed lords to rape the maiden daughters of their serf subjects? Totally wrong. There’s extremely little evidence to suggest that primae noctis was ever exercised at the time.

Isabella of France was around the age of four at the time of Wallace’s uprising, so her part in the film, and her torrid love affair with the man, is entirely fictitious. And as for the fate of Philip, the gay lover of King Edward I, Braveheart took liberties with that too. No one ever threw the guy out a window, so far as we know.

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2. Gladiator

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Ridley Scott’s historical epic is a vastly entertaining blockbuster, but it also made a lot of mistakes in relating the truth about the political atmosphere in ancient Rome. Aside from Maximus Deximus Meridius never actually existing, perhaps the most serious error is Gladiator‘s treatment of Commodus.

For one thing, Commodus ruled for much longer than he did in the film (12 years versus what couldn’t have been more than two or three). Commodus was younger and in better shape than suggested by the film, and he certainly didn’t murder his father, Marcus Aurelius, or want to get with his sister (ew). Actually, Aurelius died of the plague. Commodus didn’t die in the arena, either. He eventually wound up getting strangled in his bath by a wrestler named Narcissus, long after Gladiator took place.

Many other inaccuracies plague Gladiator. German Shepherds are seen in a few scenes (which you can clearly see in the video below), but that dog breed definitely did not exist at the time of ancient Rome. Catapults would not have been used in battle, as they were cumbersome and difficult to maneuver from place to place. And in the film archers are commanded to “fire” by their commanders, which makes absolutely no sense considering that firearms did not exist at the time, and so no one would have considered shooting an arrow into the air to be “firing” anything. The only thing that should have been fired as far as Gladiator is concerned was its team of history consultants.


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3. 10,000 B.C.

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I should know better than to look for holes in Roland Emmerich blockbusters, but even by his standards, this one’s a doozy.

Woolly mammoths living happily (well, as happy as abused beasts of burden can be) in the hot desert, building pyramids that wouldn’t have existed until 8,000 years after the film’s setting? I’ll let that sink in for a moment. Putting aside the fact that woolly mammoths would have overheated very quickly in the desert sun, the creatures were certainly on the verge of extinction, not flourishing, around the time that the Egyptians would have begun construction of the pyramids (which they did in around 2,500 B.C.). 10,000 B.C. is filled with other, equally ridiculous anachronisms and inaccuracies.

Saber-toothed tigers hunt protagonist D’Leh (Stephen Strait), defying logic which dictates that they died out shortly after the last Ice Age. The same goes for those freaky bird creatures D’Leh encounters in the jungle. Called terror birds, they died out long before 10,000 B.C rolled around. In Emmerich’s movie, there’s more wrong than right in the film’s setting. From oversized creatures to the out-of-place quasi-Egyptian civilization to languages so ridiculous that any linguist could lose their lunch over them, 10,000 B.C. would be more accurately called 10,000 B.S.

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4. Pocahontas

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I love “Colors of the Wind” just as much as the next guy, but there’s no denying the beating that actual history took so that Pocahontas could succeed as a heart-warming Disney flick for the little ‘uns. Sadly, history doesn’t paint nearly as jolly a picture for the titular Native American beauty (who was actually named Matoaka, by the way – Pocahontas is a nickname meaning “the naughty one”) and her tribe, the Powhatans.

For one, Disney completely fabricated the romantic aspect of Pocahontas’s relationship with handsome colonist John Smith. She was actually 10 or 11 when the settlers arrived, and, if she had any taste, Smith probably wasn’t her type anyhow. According to records from his shipmates, Smith was an abrasive, self-centered brute of a guy. Even the film’s classic moment, when Pocahontas protects Smith from death at her father’s hands, is dubious, according to historians. Many claim Smith made it all up to gain sympathy and repute amongst his buddies.

At age 17, the real Pocahontas was kidnapped by settlers and held captive at Jamestown for over a year. She was then married to Englishman John Rolfe, converted to Christianity and taken across the Atlantic, only to fall ill and die at 22. Meanwhile, her people were decimated by disease and brutal ethnic cleansing at the hands of white settlers. Turns out, they shouldn’t have been so excited about what was just around the riverbend.

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5. Pearl Harbor

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It’s extremely disappointing to me that director Michael Bay (one of the most vilified directors in the business, and not just because of the upcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles redo) felt the need to Hollywood-ize one of the most devastating homeland attacks in American history. Due to Randall Wallace’s lazy script and Bay’s similar inattention to accuracy, Pearl Harbor remains one of the questionable “historical” epics of all time.

The inaccuracies in Pearl Harbor begin long before the central attack. Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) would most certainly have not joined an RAF Eagle Squadron, as a law at the time prohibited active US military servicemen from joining the forces of foreign nations. At one point, McCawley and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett) are threatened with being thrown into the brig, a term which the Army would never have used. Navy Nurses did not determine whether Army Air Corps officers were fit to fly; in fact, there was very little interaction between the two groups. Various plane models and military inventions designed much later into the 20th Century are shown in the film, for no apparent reason other than shoddy research.

When Pearl Harbor arrives at the titular attack, Bay’s film abandons all pretense of historical accuracy. Admiral Kimmel (Colm Feore) was not on a golf course on the morning of December 7th, 1941. The Japanese planes were not dark green as they are in Pearl Harbor; we know for certain that the planes were painted light grey. McCawley and Walker did not take to the skies and shoot down seven Japanese planes during the attack, nor were they involved in a silly love triangle with a Navy Nurse. Ships like the USS Oklahoma randomly change position throughout the battle, leading to many inner continuity errors as well as historical ones. Additionally, the Japanese did not actively target military hospitals, at least as far as we know. You’d think that Pearl Harbor would have exhausted itself with that many inaccuracies, but the errors just keep coming.

There’s no evidence that the discussion between FDR,  Admiral Nimitz and General Marshall took place as depicted in the film, as there was no question in the minds of the three men that a retaliatory attack was necessary. Even more absurdly, that part where the polio-afflicted FDR (Jon Voight) rises from his wheelchair to make a dramatic point? Total fiction. Shockingly, polio doesn’t go away whenever you feel like being a badass.

Finally, no one was involved in both the Doolittle Raid and the Pearl Harbor attack. In fact, the Doolittle Raid was less of a ‘revenge’ attack and more a symbolic show of strength for the United States, one that had very little effect on the outcome of World War II. If any of you are planning on coasting through APUSH on historical epics, be sure to leave Pearl Harbor off your list of study materials.

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6. JFK

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Sure, it’s not technically an epic, but no list of historically inaccurate Hollywood movies would be complete without this conspiratorial lark. Oliver Stone’s film about the Kennedy assassination might as well be called J WTF K for all the liberties it takes. Most prominently, Stone implies that Lyndon B. Johnson was involved in a shady coup d’etat to whack Kennedy, a pretty radical departure from what kids learn about in eighth grade history class.

For another, he makes up things like David Ferrie, a suspect of protagonist David Garrison, confessing to having a role in the conspiracy. Actually, Ferrie vehemently denied the existence of any such conspiracy and even suggested taking a lie-detector test to prove he was telling the truth. There are a lot of similar issues with JFK. Garrison’s testimony, which historical records tell us was influenced by heavy drug use, is taken as gospel by Stone. Many of Garrison’s theories about the assassination are just plain ridiculous, as well as easily dismissible if you glance at official records surrounding the JFK assassination.

People have written essays about and devoted book chapters to the startling amount of inaccuracies and straight-up lies in JFK. Stone’s film plays fast and loose with the facts to craft a satisfying thriller, but the result is one of cinema’s most hilariously inaccurate misrepresentations of American history. Stone defends his film by saying that it shouldn’t be taken as a biopic, but when he gave the film the name JFK, he must have known that audiences would go in expecting a film about JFK. That Stone attempts to tie everyone in government to the assassination except Harvey Lee Oswald is simply laughable, but what’s a lot less funny is how boldly he dresses his historical fantasy up as historical fact.

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7. Apocalypto

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Mel Gibson’s directing career has followed a pretty strange trajectory, from the low-key The Man Without a Face to Braveheart (elsewhere on this list) to the super-controversial The Passion of the Christ to, finally, the enjoyably ridiculous ApocalyptoI say ridiculous because it must have been tricky for Gibson to get as much wrong about his central subject, the Maya empire, as he did.

The film’s hero, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), lives in a hunting village at an undetermined time towards the decline of the Maya civilization. That set-up alone was enough to irk a few historians, who impress the fact that the Mayan people were big into agriculture, not hunting. However, Gibson’s film took much larger leaps than just that.    

Apocalypto painted the Mayas as savages, who brutally tortured captives and made huge human sacrifices. No evidence exists to support the idea that Maya warriors captured people from uncharted territory and sacrificed them. Plus, there’s little evidence to support the idea that the Mayas made sacrifices on the huge scale that Apocalypto suggests, or on ceremonial stones. Such serious bloodletting is much more frequently paired with the Aztecs than the Mayas. The same goes for the massive amount of slaves Apocalypto claims that the savage Mayas maintained. And actually, the Mayas had a highly sophisticated society and made many hugely important contributions to science and the arts. Just not on Gibson’s watch.

However, nothing compares to the film’s ending, which totally wrecks all pretense of historical accuracy by introducing conquistador ships that simply have no business existing during the time of the Maya empire. The Spaniards arrived in Guatemala almost 400 years after the collapse of the Maya empire, historians agree. Apocalypto is far from a terrible movie, but its historical inaccuracy is off the charts. 

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8. Robin Hood

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To be fair, director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland had less historical records to work with than most of the other director-writer pairs on this list, considering that the very existence of Robin Hood has been called into question by every historian worth his or her salt. Still, there are some real groaners in this historical epic.

King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston), who didn’t actually speak English, was not on his home from the Holy Land when the film opens in 1199 – by that time, he was already abroad in France on a different mission, not fighting his way back from the Holy Land, which he did years earlier.

All the soldiers battling in Robin Hood are decked out in chain-mail, which was much heavier than the film would have you believe. Chain-mail was also absurdly expensive at the time; only nobles would have been able to afford it. The same goes for glass goblets, which almost all the film’s characters throw back wine in like they’re red solo cups.

Other inaccuracies include the singing of songs that hadn’t been written at the time (“Frere Jacques”), people measuring time in minutes and friars running around, despite not existing in 1199. Hmmm. And that giant battle at the film’s finale? Never happened. French King Philip Augustus is depicted as invading the British coast, but in actuality, he was more concerned with defending his own land. After Richard’s death, King John sent English soldiers into France, not vice versa.

The biggest error, however, is the film’s treatment of the Magna Carta. In the film, Hood’s father helped to write it, and it plays an instrumental part in the film. There’s only one small problem: the document wasn’t written until 1215, a solid 16 years after Robin Hood supposedly takes place. Oops.

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9. The Patriot

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I can’t really be surprised that The Patriot contains some stretching of the truth, given the “dream team” that worked on it. Namely, Roland Emmerich directed and Mel Gibson starred in this Revolutionary War epic, which sees fit to base its hero, Benjamin Martin, on a horrifically cruel militia leader by the name of Francis Marion.

Marion was not as skillful a soldier as The Patriot‘s Martin, who’s seen taking out dozens of villainous Redcoats by himself. Instead, Marion was known as a slave-holding sicko who raped his female slaves repeatedly and hunted Cherokee Indians for fun. You know, your classic Revolutionary War hero. Unfortunately, The Patriot makes no mention of Martin owning slaves, let alone brutalizing them.

And the Battle of Guildford Court House may have made a rousing finale for The Patriot, but history tells a different story. The Americans actually lost that battle, according to historical records.

One of the other huge problems with The Patriot is its portrayal of the Redcoats as utter sadists. Sure, it’s an American blockbuster about how American war heroes are awesome, but the depths to which it stoops in order to dehumanize the British are terrible. For one, there’s a scene where the Redcoats herd the citizens of one town into a church, barricade them inside and burn it to the ground, killing everyone inside. Funnily enough, there’s no truth to that war crime whatsoever. That is, unless you look forward in time, to 1944, when Nazi soldiers conducted a similar massacre of the French people during World War II. Comparing the British to the Nazis in order to get viewers on the side of an American soldier? For shame.

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10. Marie Antoinette

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Sofia Coppola’s historical comedy-drama may be a stylish, visually appealing film, but its historical accuracy is unfortunately lacking. As played by Kristen Dunst, the titular French aristocrat has about zero character development throughout the entire movie. Many historians tak  issue with the fact that she’s portrayed eating pastries and reveling in her rich lifestyle from age 15 to 33, when Antoinette actually changed significantly throughout her time at Versailles, according to multiple historians. By 33, she had matured from a naive girl into an intelligent woman who was by most accounts sweet-hearted, compassionate and eloquent.

Of course, the infantilization of Antoinette can be traced all the way back to rumor-mongers dragging her reputation through the mud in the years leading up to the French Revolution. But Coppola’s film takes other liberties as well. The biggest one is its treatment of her husband, Louis XIV (Jason Schwartzmann). In Marie Antoinette, it’s shown that his pathological fear of sex contributed to Antoinette’s difficulties conceiving. In reality, he suffered from a real medical condition called phimosis, which made sex both tricky and painful for the poor guy.

Other odd anachronisms in Marie Antoinette include light bulbs, a plane contrail in the sky, visible contact lenses and Antoinette trying on left and right shoes (not existent at the time). The film also gets both the number and ages of her children wrong. As a visual piece, it’s decadent and enjoyable. However, as a historical epic, recording the decades in which she rose to power and fell victim to the fury of French peasants, it’s an unfortunately shoddy and one-sided affair.

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  • The New Media Ladies & Gents

    So without seeing POMPEII you attack it as “inaccurate”? I mean, it might be, but you lose all credibility by admitting you’re a loser troll right off the start. It’s one thing to see a film, judge it and then talk, but to assume, only makes YOU look bad.

    • Wow

      This is Anderson we’re talking about here haha, don’t think we should be holding our breath… Haha lay off

    • ryan

      Amen to that!

  • adrs

    Also in 10,000 one of the rich dudes is using a telescope that wasn’t invented until the 16th century-ish

  • Heller

    Oliver Stone’s JFK boldly dresses up historical fantasy as historical fact just as much as the Warren Commission does. The truth lies somewhere between these two extremes.

  • Mason Carroll

    Mammoths died out in 2,000 BC, actually. They were not numerous at that time, but the assertion that they were long extinct is totally and utterly false.

    Also false, Romans DID use catapults in battle, just not catapults as you or I would assume. (i.e. the catapults used in the Middle Ages.)

    And the command to “fire” is an extremely nit-picky one. Likely, yes. They would not have said “fire” in a direct translation of the Latin word to “loose” arrows. But a rough translation to English would certainly mean something akin to “fire” if not exactly.