We don't really have to start campaigning for truth-of-narrative warning labels on historical movies, do we? After all, the recent The Young Victoria and the upcoming The Last Station — the latter about the turmoil at the end of Leo Tolstoy's life — may take a few dramatic liberties with the facts, but all in all, they remain faithful to the lives of their subjects. And anyway, most people are smart enough to know that these things aren't meant to be documentaries; one should enjoy the show, without taking it all at face value.
Nevertheless, there's taking liberties, and then there's throwing the encyclopedia madly out the window. Not all movies are scrupulous in their portrayal of the lives of historical figures, and the warning signs tend to be fairly obvious — the protagonist's ability to fly or transmute matter are good tip-offs. But for those who remain too easily beguiled by the visceral impact of seeing something on the big screen (no judgment here — one of us flunked out of "European History in the Mid-Twentieth Century" because of his paper, The Role of Demons and Fauns in the Spanish Resistance), we've decided as a public service to compile a list of movies where the portrayal of historical figures has strayed significantly far from actual history. Read now, or embarrass yourself at parties later.
And thus we learn the royal lineage of the BBC sound effects library.
Graham Chapman really does cut a striking form as King Arthur. He's got the regal bearing, he's got the charismatic personality, and he's got the knack for addressing everyone as if he were regarding them from high atop his noble steed. Except he doesn't have a noble steed. He has coconuts. They kinda make a sound like a noble steed, but they are, in fact, just coconuts. Blows the image, totally.
Father of our country, freed the slaves, they all begin to blur after a while, you know?
Grouse all you want about Albert Einstein figurines that can quote KC and the Sunshine Band; or a tongue-tied General Custer; or an Amelia Earhart who, as interpreted by Amy Adams, seems less a native of Kansas than an emigrant of Connecticut by way of Kate Hepburn. The real slip-up comes when the animated statue of Abe Lincoln (voiced by Hank Azaria) not only delivers the universal "yadda-yadda" sign to the movie's protagonists, but follows it up by declaring, "I never lie!" George Washington's lawyers are on the phone, and they're threatening trademark infringement.
I guess we just skipped those chapters.
The producers freely admit they took considerable liberties when adapting the biography of tortured mathematician John Nash Jr. It all amounts to little things, insignificant things, things like the fact that the real Nash underwent only audible hallucinations, not visual, or that he divorced his wife in 1963, or that he fathered an illegitimate child in 1953. The Nobel Prize? Yeah, he actually did win that. Have to be some boundaries, after all.
And if you stand far enough away, everyone looks small!
Okay, so King Agamemnon looks and sounds like Sean Connery, but given the option, who wouldn't want to be led by him? Napoleon, however, is another story. If we are to go by Terry Gilliam's telling, what was forefront on the mind of France's foremost military genius — as portrayed here by Ian Holm — wasn't world conquest or even Josephine's bath schedule (Google it.) No, what occupied the would-be emperor was an irresistible obsession with height — specifically, an insatiable need to be reassured that five-foot-six wasn't at all short. Amazing he found time to get all that invasion stuff done.
Today Germany, tomorrow Martha Graham!
Charlie Chaplin gave his title character the name Adenoid Hynkel, but make no mistake about it: that's Hitler. Look at that mustache, listen to those bile-spewing speeches, check that overweening lust for power. There's just one little glitch in the portrayal: When Hynkel wishes to express his ambitions for world domination, he does it in dance, specifically the famous sequence where the dictator indulges in a pas de deux with a balloon-like globe. Adolf Hitler only wished he was that graceful.
Give us a hug, you murdering, lecherous bastard, you.
A lot of the legend surrounding the notorious Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard, is questionable — the tales of his many, many (mmmany) wives, say, or the idea that he weaved burning matches into his beard when raiding ships. However, there's no argument that he was amongst the most fearsome of all pirates. So why, when casting this Disney fantasy about the bandit's ghostly return, did director Robert Stevenson enlist the roly-poly Peter Ustinov and have him deliver a boozy, bumbling performance that wouldn't traumatize a teddy bear? Men have been keelhauled for less.
That's funny, you don't look Inquisitorish
Mel Brooks as Louis XVI? Yeah, doubtful — but considering the debauched nature of French royalty at that time, is a short, dumpy, horndog regal running around muttering, "It's good to be da king" all that improbable? Tomás de Torquemada, though — Spain's Inquisitor General, the man dedicated to the seeking out and purging of Jews from society through torture and burning — that's something else. How believable can a portrayal of the dean of all anti-Semites be when the prime elements include singing, dancing, and (since it's once again Mel in the role) the fact that the guy is really, really Jewish? Nope, not accurate at all (but we do appreciate the irony).
The means of production belong to the fairies and elv... s'cuse me, the people.
Multiple choice question: "Mad Monk" Grigori Rasputin has been cited for the fall of the Romanov family and the eventual establishment of communist Russia because: a) he'd become infamous for his drunkenness, corruption, and debauchery; b) the people were outraged by the power he wielded over the Tsarina Alexandra; or c) he summoned demons from Hell who seeded the irrational desire for revolt amongst the populace. It may surprise you — particularly if you're living in the real world — but according to the rather, ahem, revisionist history of this animated movie, the answer is actually "c". What, drunkenness, corruption, and debauchery weren't entertaining enough?
Thirty pieces a' silver? Fuhgeddaboudit!
It's an understatement to say that Judas Iscariot's reputation precedes him, so much so that his act of betrayal commonly overshadows all other details of his life. For instance, did you know that he was actually born and raised in Brooklyn? It took Martin Scorsese to recognize that often-overlooked fact and then to cast Brooklyn-born Harvey Keitel in the role, lending an extra layer of believability to an early confrontation in which Judas treats Jesus like the Savior of All Mankind owed him money. Next week, we'll explore how Joseph's descendents wound up in Albuquerque.
Sometimes dreams do come true.
Not only did Trey Parker and Matt Stone posit Saddam Hussein's death as occurring seven years early, but they also suggested that the dictator wound up in Hell as Satan's abusive lover. Okay, yeah, we want to believe that's what happened, but you know it probably didn't.