It’s important to remember that film-makers are not historians. They are trying to tell an entertaining story first and foremost, and if that involves fudging some facts to better fit a compelling narrative then they won’t hesitate to do so. This also extends to characterization. Mozart may not have been the spoilt brat he was portrayed as in the 1984 film Amadeus, but it made for a more memorable role than the well-mannered, polite young man his contemporaries wrote about.
Sometimes facts are changed in order to meet the expectations of an audience. Behavior that was acceptable in a different historical period but that is not now (such as racism and sexism) may be toned down or ignored. Audiences also expect to have a clear idea of who are the heroes and who the villains, and so often the heroes have to be seen to be more heroic than they actually were, and the villains more villainous.
This especially applies to films portraying American actions during wartime. In the 2000 film U-571 American soldiers capture the Enigma machine from the Nazis rather than the British, and in The Last Samurai (2003) US soldiers are shown training the 19th Century Japanese Imperial Army rather than the French soldiers who actually did the job.
The 2014 film about the British efforts to crack the Enigma code, The Imitation Game, also came in for its fair share of criticism over supposed historical inaccuracies. The film focused on the work of British scientist Alan Turing but arguably downplayed his homosexuality while giving him Asperger’s-like traits that he didn’t actually suffer from, but which fitted the stereotype of the lonely and introverted genius. Kiera Knightley’s portrayal of Turing’s real-life colleague Joan Clarke was said to come too close to a conventional ‘love interest’ role which had no basis in reality, and a fictional subplot involving blackmail was another fictitious element introduced in order to make a more conventional, well-rounded story.
2015’s The Big Short explored the collapse of the global economy in 2007-2009 and the US subprime mortgage crisis through the actions of real-life key player Michael Burry, an eccentric but successful stock market investor played by Christian Bale. Burry co-operated with the filmmakers and spent twelve hours talking to Bale in an effort to ensure the actor’s portrayal of him was as accurate as possible. This article in Bae Daily explores the true story of Burry, who was portrayed in The Big Short and looks into the real Michael Burry net worth. Some have questioned the wider veracity of the movie in terms of explaining the financial crisis, but as a story of individual players, it is considered essentially accurate. Interestingly, when the film does knowingly diverge from the truth, characters speak directly to screen to confess that the scene in question isn’t exactly how it happened.
If directors are prepared to admit their films diverge from reality then why do they do it? Film-makers will often insist that “the truth” and “the facts” are very different things, and that the former can sometimes be best served by altering the latter. They would say that a film strives to capture an emotional reality rather than a factual one.
Nevertheless, historical errors can be extremely misleading. Mel Gibson’s historical drama Braveheart has come in for significant criticism. Events, dates, characters, names, and costumes portrayed in the film have all been described as wildly inaccurate. Essentially, Braveheart should be viewed as an epic adventure romp rather than a history film; indeed, it is based more on a 15th Century poem that already romanticized the story of William Wallace (portrayed by Gibson) rather than the actual historical facts. Gibson’s 2000 movie, The Patriot, set in the American Revolutionary War, has also been accused of playing somewhat fast and loose with the facts.
Hollywood films that claim to be based on true stories will often diverge from that truth for any number of reasons. Mostly those reasons will involve the need to tell a good story that audiences will pay money to see. Real life has a tendency to be complicated and ambiguous and doesn’t always build to a compelling resolution. We all remember things that happened to us in different ways, arranging some facts and omitting others in order to tell a story in which we are at the center of things. In some ways this is just what Hollywood is doing; it is remembering things for us in its own distinctive way.