8 History Movies that Hollywood Secretly Tampered With
8 History Movies that Hollywood Secretly Tampered With

8 History Movies that Hollywood Secretly Tampered With

Larry Holzwarth - November 14, 2017

People who rely on Hollywood portrayals of historical figures often find themselves possessed of inaccurate opinions of the person in question, formed from dramatization rather than reality. There are many reasons for this. Sometimes movies compress or combine events. Other times the words or actions of one individual are incorrectly placed in the mouth or demonstrated by the portrayal of another. Film directors often take politics into consideration when presenting historic figures in film, they are often sensitive to their potential audience and the current political climate and take liberties with the facts in order not to offend.

Many times film directors or actors tamper with history in order to improve the story they are presenting, providing greater drama or modern comparisons for the audience. Combining several historical characters into one on film is a frequently used tool, as was done to create Benjamin Martin, played by Mel Gibson in The Patriot. Martin was based on several patriot guerrilla fighters including Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter, while his nemesis Colonel Tavington was loosely based on British cavalry leader Banastre Tarleton. Neither character was presented with historical accuracy, which was made unnecessary by fictionalizing both.

When portraying real historical figures, often liberties are taken with facts which create in the viewer an inaccurate and sometimes biased view of true history. Here are eight historical personages inaccurately depicted in film over the years.

8 History Movies that Hollywood Secretly Tampered With
The Trapp Family Singers warming up for a performance in Boston in 1941. Maria is in the dark skirt and vest, Georg stands in the back. Metropolitan Music Bureau

The Trapp Family Singers. The Sound of Music, 1965

Although based on the book The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria Von Trapp the portrayal of Maria, her husband Georg Von Trapp, and their family escaping from the clutches of the Nazis just prior to World War II is largely fiction. Maria Kutschera was an orphaned teacher of schoolchildren at Nonnberg Abbey when she was asked to tutor one of widowed naval officer Georg’s seven children. This led to her eventually supervising all of the children, and when Captain Von Trapp asked her to marry him, largely because of her obvious affection for the children, she assented after consulting with the Mother Abbess.

Maria wrote in her autobiography that she was not in love with the Captain at the time of their marriage but rather learned to love him through the marriage, which produced three more children. “…I loved the children, so in a way I really married the children,” she wrote.

The Depression wiped out the Captain’s formerly large fortune and the Von Trapps moved into the top floor of their home, renting out the remainder of the large house to obtain needed cash. They did perform at a festival in 1935 and built upon their ensuing popularity to tour Austria and Germany. Hitler saw them perform in Munich in 1938. In September of that year, they traveled by train to Italy, after Captain Von Trapp learned of his impending conscription into the German Navy.

During the First World War, he had served with distinction as a U-Boat commander in the Austro-Hungarian Navy, sinking several Allied vessels. The Nazi’s wanted him in their growing U-Boat fleet. The family then toured the United States, England, and Scandinavia in the final months preceding World War II, carefully remaining outside the reach of the German authorities.

In 1940 the family settled in the United States, with Georg purchasing a farm from their earnings as performers in Stowe, Vermont in 1942, creating the Trapp Family Lodge. Rather than escaping through the Alps as shown in the film, the Von Trapp’s left Europe by rail and ship. The family was neither chased by outraged Gestapo officers nor hidden by Nuns from pursuit. And rather than being reluctant for his children to perform public, Georg Von Trapp welcomed and encouraged their efforts as being necessary to the restoration of the family’s fortunes.

8 History Movies that Hollywood Secretly Tampered With
Rear Admiral William Bligh in 1814. His long career included being praised for leadership by Lord Nelson at the Battle of Copenhagen. National Library of Australia

William Bligh. Mutiny on the Bounty, 1935 and 1962

The Bounty, 1984

William Bligh has been portrayed in film (by Charles Laughton, Trevor Howard, and Anthony Hopkins) as a tyrannical and sadistic brute, relishing savage punishments of officers and crew while on a voyage to the South Seas. In film his methods and madness led otherwise loyal British seamen to remove him as Captain, thus ensuring their own fate as hunted outlaws and pirates, but driven by the love of freedom to do no less.

While this makes a dramatic story more dramatic still, it is an inaccurate depiction of a capable naval officer and superb navigator. Bligh demonstrated his leadership skills by crossing over 4,000 miles in a poorly supplied, badly overladen open boat with the loss of only one man, who was killed by the natives of Tofua.

William Bligh was the only commissioned officer aboard HMS Bounty when it was dispatched to Tahiti to obtain breadfruit plants, the other officers all holding warrants instead. Another character in the film which was falsely portrayed was Fletcher Christian. He was not a Lieutenant as presented in film, he was a Master’s Mate, whom Bligh elevated to Acting Lieutenant. Bligh and Christian had sailed together earlier, and they were well acquainted with each other.

Bligh had previously visited Tahiti in the company of Captain James Cook and was aware of the lassitude which could affect sailors on a long voyage. He took great steps to ensure that his crew was well fed, had lime and lemon juice to prevent scurvy, was liberal with spirits, and openly rewarded exemplary conduct (such as promoting Christian). According to testimony at his court-martial by loyal crew members, the use of corporal punishment aboard Bounty was less frequent than that ordered by most Captains of the day, and when it was applied it was usually far more lenient than was the norm.

According to witnesses, no sailor aboard Bounty was keelhauled (abolished in the British navy in 1720) and the only death during the voyage of the Bounty up to the time of the mutiny was that of the surgeon, who many believe acted in drunkenness while in Tahiti. The relative health of the crew is testimony of Bligh’s concern for their welfare. The real cause of the mutiny is open to speculation but the mutineer’s immediate return to Tahiti to obtain women is an indication. Bligh returned to England to a hero’s welcome and after exoneration by the British Admiralty, he was sent on a second voyage to Tahiti to obtain breadfruit with a larger ship and crew, an indication of the Admiralty’s faith in his abilities. His reputation as a tyrant began when the family of Fletcher Christian and of Bounty midshipman Peter Heywood conducted a smear campaign against him, intent upon improving public opinion of their own relatives.

8 History Movies that Hollywood Secretly Tampered With
Portrait of Mozart painted in 1808, many years after the composer died in Vienna. Wikimedia

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Amadeus, 1984

Amadeus presents Mozart as a libertine, coarse and prone to drunkenness, with a single child at the time of his death, implying that he was either poisoned or worked to death by his rival Antonio Salieri. Mozart is depicted as a giggling, immature, and egotistical buffoon, unable despite his prodigious talent and widespread renown to make enough money to make ends meet.

While it is true that Mozart lacked money management skills throughout his short life, none of the rest of this portrayal is accurate. The film also presents a disguised Salieri commissioning Mozart to write his Requiem and demanding a fast return, another altogether fictional device.

Mozart and his wife Constanze had six children, of whom two survived infancy and early childhood. His two surviving sons lived into the mid-19th century. He was well paid for both his commissioned compositions and for his public performances of his work. While patrons demanded payment for their support – a situation similar to investor “angels” in theatrical productions today – he did not live on the verge of bankruptcy, pawning snuffboxes to pay the rent and dodging creditors on a daily basis.

By 1788 he reduced the frequency of his performing appearances and suffered a corresponding decrease in income. This can be partially attributed to Austria then being at war with Turkey, as privation settled in on much of the Austrian Empire. The loss of income meant Mozart did need to borrow from friends and often did, usually from fellow Freemasons. His financial situation improved in 1790 with the pledge of annual stipends from several wealthy supporters, in return for occasional minor pieces, such as wedding marches or birthday salutations.

Mozart’s final illness, which began in September 1791, has been attributed to a wide variety of potential causes. Streptococcal infection, mercury poisoning, kidney infection, and rheumatic fever have all been named as possible causes of his death by scholars studying his reported symptoms. In recent years trichinosis has gained support as the most likely illness, contracted from eating poorly cooked pork or sausage. He was buried in a private grave, not a mass grave as depicted, in the custom of Vienna at the time. Commoners, or non-nobility, who were buried in a private grave – like Mozart – were left to rest for ten years. After this resting period, they were exhumed and reburied in a mass grave in order to save dwindling space in increasingly crowded Vienna.

8 History Movies that Hollywood Secretly Tampered With
Eliot Ness frustrated Al Capone financially, but it wasn’t his squad of Untouchables which brought Capone down. Wikimedia

Eliot Ness. The Untouchables, 1987

The Kevin Costner portrayal of federal agent Eliot Ness is that of a morally irreproachable law enforcement officer who leads a small team (three men in the film) of incorruptible agents to develop the evidence which took down Al Capone. In the process, Ness personally dispatches Capone enforcer, Frank Nitti, by throwing him off of a roof and personally convinces a judge to dismiss Capone’s jury when evidence suggests that at least some of its members have been bribed.

In reality, Ness was a dedicated agent, despite enjoying a touch now and again, who severely damaged Capone financially. However, he had little or nothing to do with developing the tax evasion charges which finally ended Capone’s empire. Ness did build a hand-picked squad of federal agents to take on Capone in Chicago. Initially this group was of fifty men, later dwindling to only eleven members. They obtained most of the information on the whereabouts of Capone’s operations from wiretaps.

Capone responded to the raids on his stills and shipments by attempting to bribe Ness and some of his operatives. But Ness immediately made these proposals known to the public through friendly newspaper writers. Ness used these same friendly writers to create the impression that it was the efforts of his squad – which the press dubbed The Untouchables – that developed the IRS case against Capone. In fact, Ness had nothing to do with it, the case was built by the US Attorney’s office and the IRS independently of Ness and his raids.

Frank Nitti was sent to prison the same year as Capone – 1931. Nitti was released in 1932 and took over Capone’s operations in Chicago, a far cry from being thrown from a roof into a parked car below. He eventually committed suicide in 1943. Ness left Chicago and spent time as a revenue agent in Appalachia and later Cleveland. He also ran for mayor of Cleveland albeit unsuccessfully and held several jobs for short periods. He developed a reputation as a heavy drinker and by 1951 was often found in bars where he entertained fellow patrons with tales of his glory days in Chicago, which later became the basis of the book The Untouchables, published after his death in 1957 at the age of 54.

8 History Movies that Hollywood Secretly Tampered With
Henry VIII with his children, Edward (in black beret) Mary, and Elizabeth. BBC

Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth, 1998

Queen Elizabeth I has been portrayed in film many times, with varying degrees of historical accuracy. Perhaps the most famous portrayal was by Bette Davis, who played the Queen twice; in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex in 1939 and in The Virgin Queen in 1955. Both presented heavily fictionalized stories of Elizabeth, a tradition which continued in 1998s Elizabeth.

The film alters historical events and presents others out of context to further its story, which tells of the Queen’s overcoming many plots and intrigues designed to control England’s destiny by an advantageous marriage to a powerful ally. Elizabeth, in the end, overcomes all of them and expresses herself as married to England, determined to remain its Virgin Queen, beholden to no one.

The film wrongly attributes the false pregnancy of Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary to a cancerous tumor. In reality, Mary had a second false pregnancy in late 1557; the cause of neither is unknown beyond speculation, but there was no tumor reported, cancerous or otherwise. Mary of Guise is shown as having been assassinated by Francis Walsingham, she, in fact, died in 1560 of dropsy, although some scholars suggest she may have ingested a poison which led to a swelling of limbs known as edema.

The Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley, did not plot against Elizabeth and he remained a close friend and confidant of the Queen until his death in 1588. The Queen’s use of white facial paint only began after recovering from smallpox, which left her with a pitted face and a receding hairline in 1563.

Finally, Elizabeth I never announced her determination to remain unmarried as England’s Virgin Queen. The political ramifications of a marriage with one continental power or another were too valuable to be so publicly discarded. Negotiations and intrigues pitting one royal house against another continued until Elizabeth was well beyond the age of marrying and bearing children. Potential suitors which English diplomats – and the Queen – played against each other included the Kings of Spain and Sweden, Philip II and Eric XIV, the Archduke of Austria, and the Duke of Holstein. The heir to the throne of France and eventual King of France and Poland, Henry III, remained on Elizabeth’s string for many years as well.

8 History Movies that Hollywood Secretly Tampered With
Relief of Commodus displaying attributes of the god Apollo. Hermitage Museum St. Petersburg

Commodus. Gladiator, 2000

In the film Gladiator, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius announces his intention that upon his death the Imperial powers will be vested in Maximus Meridus until the formation of a new Roman Republic is complete. This inspires his son and presumptive heir Commodus to murder his father and assume the throne of the Empire.

In reality, Marcus Aurelius died in the city which became Vienna, Austria on March 17, 180. His son Commodus had ruled jointly with his father for more than three years prior to the latter’s death. The film inaccurately depicts the ensuing reign of Commodus as much shorter than the twelve years he remained in power.

His sister Lucilla organized a plot to have Commodus murdered two years into his reign, which failed when the two hired assassins were disarmed by Commodus’s bodyguard. After they were executed Lucilla was exiled to the island of Capri, where she was killed shortly after arrival. The incestuous relationship forced upon her by Commodus in the film is imaginary.

Commodus did consider himself to be a source of power equivalent to the gods and had himself represented in statuary throughout the empire as a figure akin to Hercules. He participated in show appearances in the arena, staged events in which he shot captive animals with arrows or killed chained beasts with a lance.

He also fought planned battles against gladiators, winning them without fail. But he did not die in the arena. A conspiracy against the Emperor led to his being poisoned on December 31, 192; when he vomited the poison before it had time to take effect the wrestler Narcissus was sent to strangle the Emperor as he soaked in a bath. The Senate took note of his death by declaring him to be a public enemy.

8 History Movies that Hollywood Secretly Tampered With
Publicity materials for the fake film Argo, with articles about the production in Variety. Central Intelligence Agency

Tony Mendez. Argo, 2012

Tony Mendez was a CIA operative who managed what became known as the Canadian Caper, exfiltrating six Americans from Tehran in 1980. Portrayed in the film by Ben Affleck, who also served as a co-producer the film character, and other persons depicted in the movie, are involved in scenarios which were created for the film, rather than happened in the real event. Other parts of the film ignore or gloss over the real contributions of some, or present them as having taken place as a result of characters created for the film.

The film presents the American CIA as the saviors of the hidden Americans, detracting from the role of the Canadians in sheltering them in place. It shows the Americans first seeking refuge in the embassies of both the UK and New Zealand, only to be turned away by these allies. In truth, both embassies assisted the Americans, the British provided the first shelter and transferred them to the Canadians when it appeared as if the UK embassy was likely to be attacked.

The film contains a scene where a housekeeper at the Canadian ambassador’s home refuses to allow entrance by Iranian Revolutionary Guards. In reality, a similar event occurred at the home of British diplomat Martin Williams who was sheltering the Americans at the time. It was that event which prompted the move to the Canadians.

There was no lengthy delay awaiting the decision of the President, no cancellation of the mission causing Mendez to decide to move forward on his own, and no confrontation with security at the airport, nearly blowing the entire mission. In reality, the American contingent, disguised as a film crew, arrived at the airport at 5.30 in the morning to find relatively few guards and security personnel in place.

According to one of the Americans, Mark Lijek, “The truth is the immigration officers barely looked at us and we were processed out in the regular way.” Following their departure from the gate, there was no pursuit of the speeding airliner as it attempted takeoff, soon to be en route to Switzerland.

8 History Movies that Hollywood Secretly Tampered With
An engraving of William Wallace for the late 17th century. Wikimedia

William Wallace. Braveheart, 1995

Directed by Mel Gibson, who also played the starring role, Braveheart purports to tell the story of William Wallace, a leader in the first Scottish War of Independence from England in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. In the film, Wallace’s acts of vengeance against the conquering English make him a living legend as a warrior and leader. Although he dies before the Scottish expel the English from their land, his memory is invoked to inspire the troops of Robert the Bruce to crush the British army at Bannockburn in 1314, achieving Scottish independence.

Beginning with Wallace and his troops wearing plaid kilts nearly three centuries before their time, the film is fraught with historical inaccuracies. The wearing of war paint prepared from woad is on the other hand ten centuries after its time, and the implication made in the film that Scotland had been occupied by the British since the time Wallace was a child is a fabrication. The English invasion took place the year prior to Wallace’s campaign, following the death of Scottish King Alexander III in 1286.

The real Wallace won an important victory over the British at the Battle of Stirling in 1297, he later was forced to flee to France where he spent several years in exile. When he returned to Scotland in 1304 he spent several months evading capture before being taken prisoner in Glasgow in 1305.

The film also shows Wallace seducing Isabella of France, and her becoming pregnant with his child. At the time referenced in the film, Isabella of France was three years of age, living in France. The child she later carried and who became Edward III was born seven years after Wallace was executed, making the implication of his being William’s son impossible.

The historical Wallace also made it a practice to hang Scottish men who refused to serve in his army, ignored by the film as out of context with his presented character. Historian Elizabeth Ewan, writing of Braveheart in American Historical Review in October 1995, said of the film that it “…almost totally sacrifices historical accuracy…”