Historic Battles Hollywood Got Embarrassingly Wrong

Historic Battles Hollywood Got Embarrassingly Wrong

Aimee Heidelberg - January 18, 2024

Most movies are expected to take some liberties with history for dramatic effect. Nobody expects the Indiana Jones films to be realistic, although the hero constantly battles Nazis. It is meant as a fantastical adventure, with realism thrown out the window. But plot lines of Indiana Jones aren’t trying to be realistic. Recreating history is challenging – filmmakers may not have the time or budget to research every single prop in the scene. They may not know whether, for instance, a candy bar existed in 1942 vs. 1945. Such inaccuracies may not always be noticeable to general audiences, but to war aficionados and historians, these errors are like having Civil War era President Abraham Lincoln tracking troop movements by using the Internet. Take a look at some of the popular war films from the past thirty-five years which have diverged from reality.

Historic Battles Hollywood Got Embarrassingly Wrong
Winter conditions during the Battle of the Bulge, 1944. U.S. Army, Public domain.

War Films Have Always Had Inaccuracies

Historic war films have always taken liberties with battle details. The Battle of the Bulge (1965) received public criticism by General (then President) Dwight D. Eisenhower for its inaccuracies, such as leaving out the British contributions and the impact of the air forces in helping the Allies repel German forces. The Green Berets (1968) has been criticized for details like showing a Private First Class (E-3) wearing a green beret despite being too low of a rank. Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) shows Japanese forces attacking the fleet in Pearl Harbor before hitting Wheeler Field. In reality, Japanese forces hit the airfield while attacking the harbor, to ensure the Americans wouldn’t be able to get planes in the air while they conducted the harbor mission. Factual errors about historic battles continue to emerge in the war films produced in the last thirty-five years, despite the expanded availability of research resources.

Historic Battles Hollywood Got Embarrassingly Wrong
Pearl Harbor survivors honor their comrades at 2012 ceremony. U.S. Navy, public domain.

The Public Notices the Minute Details

Military aficionados and historians can readily point out errors in war movies. They know troop movements, equipment and vehicles, enemy movements, and the details of the battle. But just as, perhaps more, valuable is the input from the veterans who were there. They can spot problems in the smallest detail, down to food available at the time, the music, the vehicles, and the weapons. They know if the film conveys the stressful, unbearable feeling of being in the trenches, not knowing if you will see another day. And despite this, have the bravery to do your mission anyway. War films, even those highly acclaimed for accuracy will have factual errors, whether large details like where a mission happened or which armies were involved, or small details like how soldiers would speak to each other on the radio. With so many details in the film making process, mistakes are inevitable.

Historic Battles Hollywood Got Embarrassingly Wrong
Artist depiction of the Battle of Thermopylae, Vorzeit und Gegenwart, Augsbourg, 1832. Public domain.

300: Spartans v Persians at Thermopylae

300 is a highly stylized film about the ancient Greek Battle of Thermopylae. Despite the warnings of the Spartan Ephores, a council of magistrates, the Oracle, who declares the timing to be bad, King Leonidas engages in war with the Persians. The Ephores denied King Leonidas the use of the Spartan army, so he puts together a troop of 300 soldiers to meet the Persians in battle at Thermopylae. They are accompanied by armies from other city-states. The Spartans hold the ground at a narrow pass, a defensive stronghold that keeps Persian forces from coming through. Other city-states retreat as the tide of the battle shifts, but the Spartans hold firm at the pass. As the Persians close in, King Leonidas and his men are defeated. They didn’t know Greek troops had mobilized and were headed to help them battle the Persians.

Historic Battles Hollywood Got Embarrassingly Wrong
Artistic rendering of Spartans v Persians at Thermopylae. Ellis, Edward Sylvester, Charles Home (1900). No known restrictions.

300 Turns a Real Battle Into a Work of Art

The costumes were wrong. Actual Spartan soldiers would have had armor rather than fighting bare-chested, but filmmakers wanted more visual appeal. All Spartans had plumes on their helmets, but filmmakers only gave King Leonidas a plume to differentiate him from the ‘regular’ soldiers. And Xerxes was not a nine feet tall cartoon monster. The Persians would not have used elephants and rhinoceros to attack the Spartans. But the film is mainly criticized for implying that the Spartans fought alone. The Spartans had support from the Athenian city-state. The Athenian fleet engaged – and defeated – the Persian fleet in the straits outside of Thermopylae. The Athenians had actually engaged King Leonidas and the Spartans to help fight against the Persians, as Sparta was a militaristic city-state that trained for war from childhood. The Spartan efforts in the war served as a significant step in the unification of the Greek city-states.

Historic Battles Hollywood Got Embarrassingly Wrong
Scots Wha Hae Wi Wallace Bled. 1838. J.M.Wright, public domain.

Braveheart (1995)

Audiences of the 1995 film Braveheart, starring Mel Gibson as the warrior leader, would be shocked to learn that the film isn’t based exclusively on the real William Wallace. Wallace, a Scottish knight, led troops during the First War of Scottish Independence in the late 1200s/ early 1300s. Some historians, however, argue the Braveheart film contains elements of King Robert the Bruce than William Wallace. Their stories appear to be meshed for the film. Despite Robert the Bruce’s influence on the film, Wallace is still the main hero. His real-life counterpart killed the Sheriff of Lanark after he killed Wallace’s betrothed. Wallace assumed the Scottish standard against the English, defeating them at Stirling Bridge in 1297, a bloody battle included in the film (sort of). Wallace and his forces were defeated at Falkirk in 1298. The English captured Wallace and trying and executing him for treason.

Historic Battles Hollywood Got Embarrassingly Wrong
Victorian-era artistic rendering of the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Public domain.

Battle of Stirling Bridge

Braveheart had several inaccurate details. The tartans, the weapons, and the face paint are suspect. The greatest offender is a pinnacle scene in the film. The Battle of Stirling scene left out important detail: The Battle of Stirling was actually the Battle of Stirling Bridge. The bridge was vital to Scots success. The Scots used the bridge – and a lot of patience – as a battle tactic. The narrow bridge only allowed a limited amount of English across at a time. Wallace and his troops waited for the right number of English to cross – not enough to effectively fight back, but enough to inflict damage. As the English waited for more of their troops to come along so they could re-form the ranks, the Scots attacked. The English still trying to cross couldn’t see the slaughter taking place on the other side of the bridge.

Historic Battles Hollywood Got Embarrassingly Wrong
Statue of Robert the Bruce – Ancient Pages

Outlaw King (2018)

Braveheart himself, William Wallace, reappears in this list, but he is less a fearsome warrior and more a piece of drawn and quartered corpse. The Outlaw King is the tale of Braveheart’s other character inspiration, Robert the Bruce, depicted by Chris Pine. Robert the Bruce becomes the face of the Scottish resistance to English rule. The film captures the turbulent period between 1304 and 1307, as Robert the Bruce becomes King of Scots and takes up arms against the English. The film includes the Battle of Loudon Hill with Scots fighting the forces led by Edward II, who takes up the mantle after the death of his father, King Edward I. Robert the Bruce is outnumbered, but still prevails. After a swordfight similar to one earlier in the film, Robert the Bruce takes King Edward II captive. While Robert the Bruce had the new King in his grip, he released him.

Historic Battles Hollywood Got Embarrassingly Wrong
King Edward I conferring his son as Prince of Wales (later King Edward II). Public domain.

Edward II Couldn’t Teleport

The release of Edward II shows the film version of Robert the Bruce’s humanity and mercy, making him a more sympathetic character. Winning the battle through the use of traps and strategy gave them enough honor. The problem with this scenario is that the Prince of Wales/ Edward II was not even close to the Loudoun Hills battle; he safely stayed far south of the site. He went north shortly after the battle had concluded. He would later face the Scots at Bannockburn in 1314, when English forces invaded Scotland, which time with Edward II at the battle. Scot James “The Black” Douglas chased the defeated Edward II, but the new king managed to escape. But Edward would meet his fate in 1327 at the hands of his own noblemen.

Historic Battles Hollywood Got Embarrassingly Wrong
Napolean and his General Staff in Egypt. Jean-Léon Gérôme, c. 1867. Public domain.

Napoleon (2023) and the Egyptian Campaign

Napoleon director Ridley Scott acknowledges that being completely accurate in the film Napoleon was a formidable task, as every resources has slight variations of the title character’s history. But the film’s depiction of Napoleon’s battles, his campaign in Egypt, received a specific critique. In reality, Napoleon wanted to interrupt British trade routes with India. He would use this weakened British trade to establish French dominance in eastern trade. In 1798, he brought 35,000 soldiers to Egypt, quickly taking Alexandria. As he moved toward Cairo, he met resistance. Near the infamous ancient pyramids, Napoleon met an army of Mamelukes, an elite Turkish force. Egypt was part of the Turkish Empire at the time, and ready to defend its territory. Napoleon’s troops defeated the Mamelukes and marched on to Cairo but were later thwarted by British admiral Horatio Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Historic Battles Hollywood Got Embarrassingly Wrong
Artist interpretation of Napolean’s research. James Harvey Robinson (1919). No known restrictions.

The Pyramids Weren’t in as Much Danger as Napoleon Implies

In a scene that strikes horror in the hearts of historians, Scott shows the French forces firing a cannon at the top of the Great Pyramids, hitting one of them. Fortunately, according to historian Dan Snow, this didn’t, and couldn’t have happened. Given the firepower at the time, top of the 455-foot-tall structure with a cannonball would not have been possible from where the troops were standing. In fact, the Battle of the Pyramids didn’t even happen at the Pyramids – it happened about nine miles away in Embabeh. The Pyramids were visible but not close enough for danger. Nor did Napoleon’s forces break the nose off the Sphinx a common myth. The Sphinx damage had already been well documented before Napoleon’s arrival. Napoleon wanted to study ancient Egyptian art and artifacts, not willfully destroy them.

Historic Battles Hollywood Got Embarrassingly Wrong
Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Joshua Chamberlain. Public domain.

Gods and Generals (2003)

Gods and Generals portrays the Civil War’s Battle of Fredericksburg, from the perspective of the southern leadership. The film is a study of Southern Civil War leaders, centering around Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who leave their comfortable existence to lead Confederate units against Union forces. Gods and Generals is praised for its depiction of the Battle of Fredericksburg. The Battle of Fredericksburg gives Chamberlain experience on the battlefield, but just as important for the film, it sets up its companion film, Gettysburg (1993). Gods and Generals sets Gettysburg up as payback for the defeat at Fredericksburg. But one detail is left out of the film altogether – the Battle of Antietam, which led to Lincoln issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. But this isn’t the most glaring omission from the film.

Historic Battles Hollywood Got Embarrassingly Wrong
Slave quarters at the Zephaniah Kingsley plantation on Fort George Island, Florida, c. 1865. Public domain.

Glossing Over the Major Sore Spot

Aside from mistakes like depicting the 20th Maine regiment proceeding without supporting forces and the flags used by the Irish troops, there is a much more serious omission from Gods and Generals. The film has been criticized for its Southern perspective, and more damning, its treatment of the slavery issue. First, the issue of slavery, so central to the Civil War itself, is glossed over. Slaves are shown as well treated, friends if not almost family, overlooking the nature of slavery itself. The film doesn’t dwell on the role of slavery in the secession of the Confederate states, nor the complexities of sentiment about slavery by the very soldiers in both armies. While a single film could not cover all the complications of the issue, some time spent on spirituality might have been spent reflecting on these issues.

Historic Battles Hollywood Got Embarrassingly Wrong
Robert Gould Shaw, May 1863. Public domain.

Glory (1989)

Edward Zwick’s film Glory (1989), starring Matthew Broderick, Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher, and Denzel Washington, brings the story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry to life. The 54th, the first all African American regiment, paved the way for the estimated 179,000 African American soldiers to serve in the Union army. Broderick’s character Robert Gould Shaw is based on their actual commander, although he seemed less enthusiastic and more ambivalent about leading the 54th than his fictional counterpart. While Shaw is based in fact, the men that make up the 54th are not. Some historians believe that Braugher’s character Thomas Searles, an educated gentleman close to Shaw, is based on sons of Frederick Douglass who fought in the 54th, the only such parallel drawn to an actual soldier. The fictional soldiers fought for the right to fight in battle instead of being used merely as manual labor.

Historic Battles Hollywood Got Embarrassingly Wrong
The 54th lead the charge on Fort Wagner, Kurz and Allison (1890). Library of Congress, public domain.

The 54th Leads the Second Assault of Fort Wagner, July 18, 1863

The 54th earned their chance to fight. Their mission assigned them the lead position on the second attack on Fort Wagner. The fort had already been fired upon, but that first attack didn’t substantially damage the fort. The 54th finally had their chance to prove itself in greater battle, having only experienced their first combat two days before. Glory is widely praised for accurately depicting the battle, one the 54th knew would result in heavy losses given the exposed terrain and the fort’s defenses. From the weapons to the timing to the terrain the regiment had to traverse, the Fort Wagner attack left heavy losses in both the fictional and the factual 54th Massachusetts Regiment. While Glory is hailed as one of the most accurate war films in its depiction of battle (aside from the overuse of explosions) there is just one small error Civil War historians may spot.

Historic Battles Hollywood Got Embarrassingly Wrong
Map of the Fort Wagner terrain, 1863. Public domain.

Glory’s Wrong Direction

In the film, the 54th advances south toward their target. In reality, they would not have come from that direction. Battle maps show Fort Wagner sitting on Cummings Point, which extends northwards from the mainland. The 54th and the regiments behind it would have advanced from the south, moving northward to reach Fort Wagner. The terrain left only a small strip of land to cross, situated between the ocean and swampland, leaving little room for the units to access the Fort. As shown in the film, this meant the 54th, as the first regiment to reach the fort, would have taken the full force of Fort Wagner’s defenses, since their whole regiment approached from one narrow path. Their losses, as shown in the film, were substantial. Of the 650 men of the 54th, 270 died (including Shaw), went missing, or were wounded. They are buried in an unmarked mass grave near the Fort.

Historic Battles Hollywood Got Embarrassingly Wrong
The men of the 54th honored in a memorial in front of the Massachusetts State House. Public domain.

The 54th Made a Greater Impact

While the Wagner conflict is shown as the 54th‘s climactic moment, the 54th actually had a lasting legacy only touched on in the film. In the movie, the 54th are given their pay, and notice it is less than white soldiers of equal rank. They respond by tearing up their paychecks and refusing the pay, with Shaw joining them in this peaceful protest (in reality, he suggested the protest). African American solders were, in fact, paid $3 less per month than their white counterparts. The policy of paying these men less didn’t end with the single protest, though. The 54th led a larger protest movement by African American regiments across the Union. Massachusetts governor John Andrew, who created the 54th shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation, even offered to pay the difference from state funds, though the regiments declined this offer. The ‘lesser pay’ policy would continue until 1864.

Historic Battles Hollywood Got Embarrassingly Wrong
Aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Japan Times

Pearl Harbor (2001)

Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001) pulled out all the stops to be a definitive war epic, the Titanic (1997) of World War II. It was the most expensive film ever produced but didn’t yield the critical acclaim of Titanic. The film follows two friends, both pilots. By December 1941, one is believed killed in action against the Luftwaffe in Europe (but SPOILER: in a surprise twist, he’s not dead), the other is stationed in Hawaii. As tensions increase overseas, the two pursue career ambitions and romance, both ending up at the Pearl Harbor military base. But when the Japanese air forces begin their assault on Pearl Harbor, the two jump into planes at the nearby airfield, shooting down Japanese pilots before assisting at the wreckage of the fatally damaged USS Oklahoma and Arizona. The film follows the devastation of the attack, and the Doolittle mission to attack Tokyo in response.

Historic Battles Hollywood Got Embarrassingly Wrong
Naval air station burning after attack, December 7, 1941. Library of Congress, No known restrictions

Pearl Harbor (the Film) is Attacked

Despite the big name stars and special effects, Pearl Harbor received a lot of criticism for the plethora of things it got wrong. While it earned the sixth highest box office earner of 2001, it received poor critical reception. But worse, veterans and historians panned the film. Some errors were laughable, like having Japanese torpedo bombers attacking the nearby airfield. As historian Harry Gailey puts it, “What are they going to torpedo on an airfield?” Other errors are even more baffling. While the two heroes head to an airport to find fighter planes to try to repel the attack, they manage to take off from an airfield under active attack. In real life, pilots George Welch and Kenneth Taylor were able to get planes in the air to fight the onslaught, they did so from a smaller airport father away, one not under active assault.

Historic Battles Hollywood Got Embarrassingly Wrong
Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, USN, Commander in Cheif of the US and Pacific Fleets (center), in Pearl Harbor, 1941. Public domain.

Pearl Harbor Keeps Going with the Errors

Peal Harbor’s errors pile up faster than the attacks they depict. In the film, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel received notification about the attack while it happened. In reality, Admiral Kimmel learned about the attack after the bombs had landed. The film shows Japanese bombers hitting hospital targets, but the attack didn’t specifically target medical facilities. The attack hit the hospital, but only one hospital staff member died, hit while he tried to cross the navy yard. The cigarettes many characters smoked weren’t actually available in the 1940s. The Jeeps in the film were Korean War era Jeeps. The weapons were inaccurate; instead of P-40Bs or P-40Cs, they were later models of the P-40. While Pearl Harbor offers some dazzling special effects, these factual errors are enough to take historians and veterans out of the story.

Historic Battles Hollywood Got Embarrassingly Wrong
The Sullivan brothers, all lost on the USS Juneau. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, public domain.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Saving Private Ryan (1998), which has been hailed as the most accurate depiction of the D-Day landing in cinematic history, centers around Company C’s landing in France to extract paratrooper Private James Ryan after his three brothers were killed in action. The plot seems[i] far-fetched, but it is based in actual military policy. The policy stemmed from the torpedoing of USS Juneau by a Japanese submarine in 1942. Among the Juneau’s casualties were five brothers serving on the ship, the Sullivans, all lost in the attack. The Army wanted to prevent further catastrophic losses within families. To reduce chances of reoccurrence, they enacted Directive 1314.15, the ‘sole survivor’ policy. Saving Private Ryan is loosely based on the four Niland Brothers. Two brothers were killed in service, a third believed killed (but later rescued from a Japanese POW camp), with the fourth extracted from France under 1314.15 and sent home.

Historic Battles Hollywood Got Embarrassingly Wrong
British forces land on D-Day. No 5 Army Film; Photographic Unit, Midgley (Sgt), Public domain.

While so Much is Right, Saving Private Ryan Wasn’t Perfect

Saving Private Ryan has been highly praised for its historical accuracy and attention to detail. The sounds of the bullets, soldiers getting seasick waiting for the landing, even the codenames used for the beach sectors were so accurate that veterans of the battle found it difficult to watch. But there are details that didn’t line up with the historic battle details. The film, of course, had to condense the battle for time, compressing hours into twenty minutes. The landing craft in the film were driven by American troops, but British troops were at the helm. The German obstacles were pointing out to sea instead of toward land (the obstacles were rigged with mines intended to blast landing crafts as they slid up the obstacle pole). Since the tale is based on the Niland extraction, Spielberg took some liberties, but World War II aficionados would notice these details.

Historic Battles Hollywood Got Embarrassingly Wrong
The Boeing B-17 “The Memphis Belle” is pictured on her way back to the United States after completing 25 missions from an airbase in England. 9 June 1943.

Memphis Belle (1990)

The Memphis Belle movie (1990) is a composite, with crew and storylines that are combined from other B-17 anecdotes instead of faithfully following the actual crew of the Memphis Belle. As actual Memphis Belle radio operator Robert Hanson said, “No, it didn’t all happen to the Memphis Belle, but everything in the movie happened to some B-17.” The real Memphis Belle, one of the first World War II B-17 bombing crews to complete its 25 mission tour in Europe, flew its 25th and final mission over Wilhelmshaven, Germany, site of a naval shipyard. Although heavily damaged, the shipyard stayed operational. The movie changes the target city to Bremen, and its Flugzeugbau assembly factory, producing about 80 Focke-Wulf fighters every month. B-17 crews flew especially dangerous missions; the planes were large, slow, and easy targets for enemy planes and flak. Because of these dangers, B-17 tours were shorter than other posts.

Historic Battles Hollywood Got Embarrassingly Wrong
Smoke clouds from bombing of Cologne, Germany, during daylight raid, c. 1942-45. Public domain.

Memphis Belle’s Obscured Target

The events of the movie may have happened to some B-17, with one glaring exception. During their last mission, the bombardier declares the target impossible to spot through cloud cover. The plan passes the target and circles back to achieve its mission. Circling back would have been unnecessarily dangerous for B-17 crews. Not only would this keep the B-17 formation in the line of fire longer, but ground forces would see this and deploy their flak defenses. The Memphis Belle crew would have been given their mission with a primary, secondary, and tertiary target to ensure mission success even if one target is obscured. Even if all the targets were obscured, the force commander (rather than the lead plane pilot) would determine if there were other strategic targets available. If none, crews abandoned the mission. It would count toward their tour completion because they flew into dangerous enemy territory.

Historic Battles Hollywood Got Embarrassingly Wrong
Enigma machine. Ryse93 (2023, CC 4.0).

U-571 (2000)

Filmmakers may find a great tale from military history, but they don’t want to be bound by complete accuracy. They can change enough of the story to distance the film from the event while still using the general story themes. U-571(2000) is one of those films. The film, starring Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, and Harvey Keitel, depicts an American submarine crew that tricks a Nazi U-boat team into abandoning their sub so they could capture the Enigma machine on board. The deception of a German crew and capture of their Enigma machine and code books actually happened. This type of mission happened roughly fifteen times in World War II. Additionally, a U-571 existed in World War II. U-571, a deadly German U-boat, wasn’t captured by American forces; it sunk during a surface battle with an Australian Sunderland aircraft from the RAAF 461 squadron, with no survivors.

Historic Battles Hollywood Got Embarrassingly Wrong
U-110 and one of its captors, HMR Bulldog, captured May 9, 2041. UK Government, public domain.

U-571 Missed the Mark

The film takes more liberties than just combining the captures of Enigma machines and using the name of a real submarine for the fictional mission. One of the main deviations from reality is which naval forces carried out the mission. The British Royal Navy captured a German submarine, the U-110, not the U.S. Navy. The mission, ‘Operation Primrose,’ captured a German Enigma machine first. Operation Primrose occurred in May 1941, months before the United States entered the war. The Royal Canadian Navy captured another German sub, the U-744, in March 1944. The United States Navy captured its first U-boat, U-505, in June of 1944. The implication that American forces were the first to capture an Enigma machine off a German submarine upset British leadership. Labour MP Brian Jenkins called it an “affront to the memories of the British sailors who lost their lives on this action.”

Historic Battles Hollywood Got Embarrassingly Wrong
Real monuments men retrieve art in Merker’s salt mines during WWII. BM(2017 via Flickr, CC 4.0).

The Monuments Men (2014)

The 2014 film The Monuments Men follows a seven-man platoon assigned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to recover precious artworks stolen by Nazi forces. The men of the platoon were academics, architects, museum curators, art historians and other experts in the arts, specialized skills for a unique mission. The film, starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchette, and John Goodman, shows the men move from their fine arts careers into the challenging world of military life. They race against time after Hitler issues his Nero Decree, mandating the destruction of history’s greatest art should he die or be defeated. They went on dangerous missions, losing members of their team in the process. This is based on a real Monuments Men unit during World War II racing against time to save history’s greatest cultural treasures against Nazi destruction. In this case, real life had the dramatic impact of its fictional counterpart.

Historic Battles Hollywood Got Embarrassingly Wrong
Monuments men with artwork retrieved from Neuschwanstein Castle. BM (2017, via Flickr, CC 4.0).

The Artwork Actually was in Danger

During the war, Third Reich leadership had a Fuhrermuseum planned to display artworks captured from Allied territory. They even placed certain artworks like the Mona Lisa on a priority list. But in 1945, Hitler issued the Nero Decree, or the Demolitions on Reich Territory decree. If he died or Germany lost the war, all the captured art in Nazi possession would be destroyed (along with other Reich assets such as factories and anything else the Allies could benefit from). Despite both conditions of the decree actually coming true, Project Nero never happened. By chance, Hitler’s Minister of Armaments Albert Speer received orders to carry out the decree, but he refused to do so. He no longer aligned with Hitler and convinced Nazi units not to carry out the destruction, believing it would be easier for Germany to rebuild after the war if infrastructure remained in place.

Historic Battles Hollywood Got Embarrassingly Wrong
Congressional gold medal, Monuments Men. US Mint, public domain.

Sacrificing their Lives for History’s Greatest Art

The film depicts the Monuments Men as a unit, working together to save the great works of art and cultural resources, and battling Hitler’s Nero Decree. But the Monuments never worked as a group. Nor did one of the most dramatic moments in the film actually happen. In the film two of the Monuments Men die in their mission. Jean Claude Clermont, a fictional French member of the team, is shot, and, Donald Jeffries, played by Hugh Bonneville, gives his life to save Michaelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges. In real life, two of the Monuments Men died in the war as well, but under different circumstances. British Monument Man Ronald Balfour died while trying to move an altarpiece to safety and was hit by an exploding shell. The other was an American, Walter Huchtlhausen, shot near Aachen in Germany.

Historic Battles Hollywood Got Embarrassingly Wrong
Details like Titanic’s starfields can be noticeably wrong. Charles Dixon (April 17, 1912). Public domain.

Everyone, Even the Best Researchers, Make Mistakes

A good war film will put the viewer in the trenches with the characters, being observers of the tension, fear, and adrenaline soldiers face in battle. But when errors are glaringly obvious, it breaks that cinematic connection. Filmmakers will go to great lengths to ensure historic accuracy, but even the best laid plans can go askew, especially when dealing with such complex subject matters as military action. Most directors don’t have the luxury of ‘fixing’ errors post-production, like James Cameron did after Neil DeGrasse Tyson found inaccuracies in the night sky in Titanic, which is also praised for its attention to detail. For some, the errors will be a mere detail, noticeable but not distracting in the midst of a good narrative. For others, it will completely take them out of the narrative. Filmmakers hope for the former and go to great pains to avoid the latter.

Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

Did ‘Memphis Belle’ really show the B-17 Bomber’s final mission? Kyle Mizokami, Popular Mechanics, 14 August 2020.

Military mistakes by Hollywood that would make veterans cringe. Georgina Coupe, Forces.net, 2 August 2022.

Sorry, William Wallace, in real life, Robert the Bruce was the true violent hero called Braveheart. Genevieve Carlton, Ranker, 18 October 2020.

‘Titanic’ night sky adjusted after Neil DeGrasse Tyson criticized James Cameron. Maura Judkis, The Washington Post, 3 April 2012.

The harrowing return from the bombing of Bremen. Lowell L. Getz, Warfare History Network, January 2005.

The Memphis Belle flies its 25th bombing mission. History.com editors, History.com, (n.d).

U-571, World War II German Submarine. The Navy Department Library, (n.d.).

The true story of the Monuments Men. Jim Morrison, Smithsonian Magazine, 7 February 2014.

What the film Glory got right about the American Civil War and what it did not. Andrew Knighton, War History Online, 13 May 2017.

Why ‘Glory’ still resonates more than three decades later. Kevin M. Levin, Smithsonian Magazine, 14 September 2020.

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