History on Film: The Historical Accuracy of 8 Classic Movies

History on Film: The Historical Accuracy of 8 Classic Movies

Alexander Meddings - August 17, 2017

It might have been Mark Twain who wrote: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story”, but it was Hollywood that took it literally. Time and again, in sagas and biopics across all centuries, directors take all sorts of historical liberties: with their characters’ lives, with the events their characters shape or with the situations they find themselves in. But there is one thing that unites every historical movie ever made: how many liberties its director took was rarely the defining factor in its success (or, indeed, failure).

This is because people ultimately go to the cinema to be entertained, not to conduct research for upcoming history papers. And, particularly when it comes to the murky world of ancient history, it doesn’t always pay to be persnickety. The further back we go, the greater the void between what we think we know and what we actually know. Having said that, historical accuracy is endlessly fascinating, and this article points out some of the main areas where some of the biggest historical movies in recent decades have been faithful and where they’ve differed from historical reality.

Troy (2004)

Admittedly we’re not dealing so much here with ancient history here as with ancient mythology. But it’s still a movie littered with problems. It’s not director Wolfgang Petersen’s decision to leave out the gods (apart from that weird scene with Achilles, his divine mother and that seashell necklace). It’s not even why, after years of Achilles killing masses with exactly the same jump-up-high-and-stab-them-in-the-upper-back move, the Trojans don’t start wearing armor to protect themselves there. It’s the dozens of other serious, mythological/historical errors.

History on Film: The Historical Accuracy of 8 Classic Movies
Achilles with his “cousin” Patroclus. Prevent the adache guide

Making Brad Pitt’s Achilles constantly refer to Patroclus as his “cousin” is frankly insulting to ancient attitudes towards homosexuality; patronizingly watering their relationship down to make it more palatable to modern audiences. Although the “Iliad” is never explicit about the two warriors being lovers, later Greek philosophers, playwrights and orators weren’t so sure. Plato, Aeschylus and Aeschines portrayed their relationship as being sexual, and Alexander the Great seems to have done so too when he and his lover Hephaestion publically honored their joint tomb in front of the entire army while traveling through Troy in around 334 BC.

But at least Wolfgang Petersen is loyal to the “Iliad” in killing off Patroclus. Where he goes completely off script is in killing off two leaders of the Greek army: Helen’s rather irate husband, Menelaus, and his warmongering brother Agamemnon. In the movie, Hector bumps Menelaus off after Hector’s brother Paris disgraces himself by losing one of Hollywood’s most one-sided battles. With Paris sniveling at his feet, Hector shoves a sword through the unsuspecting Menelaus: successfully bringing this cringe-worthy scene to an end. In Greek mythology, Menelaus returned home after the war with Helen, and together they went on to live a long and thoroughly unhappy life.

But the absolute nail in the coffin—or arrow in the heel, if we’re going to go there—was the decision to kill off Agamemnon. According to Greek mythology and, perhaps, history, after the Trojan War Agamemnon returned to Mycenae carrying his spoils of war. Among his spoils was the Trojan princess Cassandra (cursed never to be believed), and the fact that he brought back a royal Trojan mistress—combined with the small issue that he sacrificed his only daughter Iphigenia to Artemis, the goddess of wind—was enough to drive his wife Clytemnestra to extreme measures: throwing-a-net-over-him-in-the-bath-and-stabbing-him-to-death-type extreme.

History on Film: The Historical Accuracy of 8 Classic Movies
DreamWorks Pictures

Gladiator (2000)

Ridley Scott’s Roman epic is rightfully regarded as the movie that rekindled Hollywood’s love for the classics. It has all the ingredients for the perfect historical drama: a stellar cast, groundbreaking special effects and a Hans Zimmer soundtrack—not to mention a husband to a murdered wife and a father to a murdered son. It also perfectly captures the powerful essence of the High Roman Empire under the Antonines, if not in the exact details then at least in the overall feel.

The movie’s inaccuracies are few are far between; Scott’s commitment to his project perfectly apparent by the fact he hired scores of advisory historians. Where he does depart from history, he does so entirely by choice. So when he has Commodus murder his father Marcus Aurelius in a double-barreled act of patricide and regicide (there’s actually no evidence whatsoever there was any foul play in Marcus Aurelius’s death), he does so to create an effective plotline of imperial succession and (il)legitimacy, with Russell Crowe’s Maximus named the rightful heir.

There are plenty of other examples of Scott bending history. The emperor Commodus did in fact fight in amphitheaters. But he preferred shooting lions with arrows or javelins or beheading defenseless ostriches to fighting vengeful legionary generals in single combat. Suffice to say he didn’t die in the arena imploring his Praetorians to throw him a sword. Instead, he was poisoned by his mistress before being strangled in the bath by his wrestling partner. But the biggest inaccuracy in “Gladiator” is the city of Rome itself.

For a start, Scott whitewashes Rome’s buildings, while we know that they were ornately colored. He also creates a city so blotted in shadows that it almost comes to resemble one of his future dystopias, like Blade Runner’s LA. Most significantly of all, Scott’s Rome is a city of vast open public spaces. Nowhere is this more visible than towards the beginning of the movie during Commodus’s triumphal entry into the city.

This is completely anachronistic. Nowhere in the second century AD, Rome was there these kinds of spaces. What Scott’s done is he’s retrospectively projected imagery from the rallies of Nazi Germany—the Nazis drawing heavily from Roman art and architecture for their neoclassical style—onto antiquity. It serves Scott’s purpose well though: in introducing Nazi totalitarian imagery, he gives his audience that powerful, frightening sense of the might of Rome.

History on Film: The Historical Accuracy of 8 Classic Movies
Malcolm McDowell giving an unbalanced, violent and perhaps pretty accurate portrayal of the emperor Caligula. Spokeo

Caligula (1979)

“Caligula” was never meant to be historically accurate, unless its creators genuinely believed that the entire reign of Rome’s third emperor was one, long orgy. But it has certainly been influential, and it wouldn’t be farfetched to suggest that “Caligula” is mainly responsible for shaping our views of the Roman elite as a debauched and orgiastic bunch (due in no small part to the fact that the producer Bob Guccione insisted that the final cut contain a six-minute, full-on hardcore porn scene, leading it to be banned in several countries).

Historically speaking, the problem with “Caligula” is that, if we blindly believe everything the ancients wrote about the emperor, this $22 million movie could be mistaken for a documentary. Admittedly it takes an extreme view. Where there are any doubts in the ancient literature, “Caligula” always opts for the most violent or depraved version. There are parts that are patently ridiculous: the moving wall of death with spinning blades at the bottom that decapitate sand-trapped victims being a personal favorite. But there are other scenes that, as crazy as they may seem, are actually rooted in historical fact.

Take the part where Caligula declares war on the sea. Unbelievable as it seems, the ancient sources unanimously agree that this actually happened. Suetonius describes how Caligula drew up his battle lines on the shore of Northern France before giving the order for his army to fill their helmets and tunics with seashells. He then declared victory for Rome, paid his men a bounty, and returned to Rome to celebrate a triumph. In reality what probably happened is that terrified of crossing into Britain, the troops mutinied (as they would do later under Claudius in 43 AD) and the furious emperor mocked them by making them collect seashells. But, as with everywhere else, “Caligula” ignores this possibility, using it to illustrate Caligula’s madness.

This is the movie’s defining feature. It takes every attested murder, sexual depravity or act of madness and exaggerates it tenfold. But it’s still a movie of real historical merit—not because of its subject, but from the cult status of the movie itself. “Sickening, shameless trash”, one critic called it, few were any kinder. But whatever your view, you have to admire how Bob Guccione managed to entice some of the biggest names in the show business into unwittingly starring in what is essentially a big-budget porno.

History on Film: The Historical Accuracy of 8 Classic Movies
Kit Harrington and Emily Browning’s characters were inspired by two entwined bodies found at the site. The Creative Issue

Pompeii (2014)

In this movie (the premise of which needs no introduction) Kit Harrington—best known for playing Jon Snow in HBO’s Game of Thrones—plays the lead: a Celtic slave-turned-gladiator with a crush on a Roman noblewoman (Emily Browning) and a vendetta against a sadistic Roman senator (Kiefer Sutherland). He is brought to Pompeii to fight in the amphitheater; his biggest rival (in every sense) being a huge African gladiator called Atticus. Despite omens, portents and earthquakes, Kit Harrington knows nothing of the disaster brewing above as he continues to fight his way to freedom. Then again, Kit Harrington knows nothing.

Director Paul Anderson did a remarkably good job of recreating the ancient feel of the city. He stayed loyal to the Roman sources in showing the minor tremors leading up to the disaster and even used the eyewitness account of Pliny the Younger (who witnessed the disaster from across the Bay of Naples in Misenum) in portraying the beginning of the volcanic eruption. He has also been praised for his design of the ancient town. In drawing up his blueprint he used Pompeii’s real topography, based on the streets and buildings preserved in the ash, and he even replicated some Roman graffiti which would have been everywhere.

Even more commendable, the movie’s characters are based on actual bodies found at the site. Our protagonist and his lady-love are based on the “two maidens”: two bodies found embracing. In reality, however, CT scans and DNA tests revealed earlier this year that the “two maidens” were both men. Likewise, Anderson took inspiration for Atticus’s character in the molded remains of a large man, who archaeologists believe to be of African descent, found in Pompeii’s temporary gladiatorial barracks.

Where the movie goes a little off-piste is in its representations of the latter stages of the eruption. Anderson goes a little wild with the pyrotechnics, having enormous fireballs or lava bombs rain down on our heroes. As volcanologist Rosaly Lopes has commented, if Pompeii had been bombarded with lava in this way, we would undoubtedly know about it. Anderson also takes a little too much information from the Roland Emmerich apocalyptic disaster formula in having a giant tsunami sweep the town. While there may have been a swell during the disaster in 79 (though Pliny doesn’t mention one) it certainly wouldn’t have been strong enough to inundate Pompeii with ships from the harbor.

History on Film: The Historical Accuracy of 8 Classic Movies
At least its fight scenes are more real than its monsters… Faculty.sgsc.edu

300 (2006)

The movie is based loosely on the account of the 5th century BC Greek historian Herodotus, “the father of history” and recounts the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC) fought between the Persian King Xerxes and an alliance of Greek states. Coming from a classicist, the movie is a lot more watchable than Herodotus’s account is readable. Herodotus has that tedious tendency to provide lengthy, logorrheic lists of which city-states participated in the battle and how many men they provided. But while Herodotus was careful in presenting the numbers, “300”‘s Zack Snyder shows a blatant disregard for them: leaving out completely the 7,000 other Greeks who dutifully guarded the pass along with Leonidas’s Spartans.

The movie does well in capturing certain aspects of Spartan life. One of its most famous lines: “come back with your shield or on it” is for all intents and purposes accurate. The Greek historian Plutarch wrote that it would often be a mother’s parting words to her son, so the dynamic changes in the movie when it’s said from wife to husband. But it certainly captures the deeply ingrained militarism of Spartan culture. The battles themselves are also really well done. The movie effectively captures hoplite tactics and is loyal to Herodotus’s account in showing the waves of Persians being sent crashing against the Greek wall with no success.

Quite why Zack Snyder had to make Xerxes look like a piercing artist on his way to Studio 54, or Ephialtes look like Gollum’s ugly brother, is beyond me. With Ephitlates, Synder doesn’t even get his ethnicity right: he wasn’t Spartan but came from Malis, a tribe near the river Sperchios some 250 miles northeast of Sparta. He did betray the Greeks by telling Xerxes about the mountain path that circumvented the army. But according to the ancients he was murdered by another man, Athenades, for another reason (not that the Spartans were any less grateful).

The final issue is with the character Aristodemus, the man with the eye patch who survives the ordeal. Instead of coming back to Sparta and giving a rousing motivational speech to the Spartan council about how bravely Leonidas and his men died, Herodotus tells us that he was received as a coward. No Spartan would talk to him or give him fire (presumably for his hearth). He was only able to rehabilitate his reputation after fighting so bravely at the following Battle of Plataea.

History on Film: The Historical Accuracy of 8 Classic Movies
Elisabeth Taylor capturing Cleopatra’s essence both on and off screen. Alchetron

Cleopatra (1963)

While “Cleopatra” may not always have been entirely loyal to history, Elisabeth Taylor was at least loyal to her character. Just as Cleopatra took two A-List lovers (Julius Caesar and Mark Antony) so too did Taylor—Eddie Fisher and Richard Burton. Fittingly, both Cleopatra and Elisabeth Taylor would ultimately prove the ruin of both men’s family lives. But perhaps the most striking parallel is how successfully Elisabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were able to emulate the superstar couple that Cleopatra had cultivated, firstly with Julius Caesar and later with Mark Antony.

One of the movie’s most famous scenes—that in which Cleopatra is carried into Alexandria’s palace to meet Caesar hidden in a rug—is historically attested, though one imagines that in reality she was carried with rather less grace and ease than in the film. The reason for her concealment is that their meeting was illicit. In late 47 BC, the young Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII (Cleopatra’s brother) had just been brought back to the court of Alexandria, where Caesar had set up residence. Still, in exile, Cleopatra knew that a meeting between the two wouldn’t be allowed so had to smuggle herself into the palace by subterfuge.

Needless to say, her ploy worked. Ptolemy withdrew from the court, gathered his forces and besieged the royal palace, trapping Caesar and Cleopatra inside for six months. The two grew very close during this time, so much so that Cleopatra became pregnant with their child, Caesarion, who was born in June the next year. Caesar and Cleopatra then went on to have an extravagant, and very public, love affair, traveling through Egypt and feasting together until daybreak. Cleopatra then accompanied Caesar to Rome, where she was treated with general hostility. Then the Ides of March 44 BC came around and she and her son were forced to flee.

Her subsequent 10-year relationship with Mark Antony is also pretty accurate. They had three children together and she even convinced him to divorce his Roman wife Octavia, causing huge political rifts owing to the fact that Octavia was the sister of Octavian (who would later go on to become the first emperor, Augustus). Octavian eventually defeated both of them at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. Antony committed suicide, stabbing himself with his gladius, and Cleopatra poisoned herself with a snake, bringing an end to the Ptolemaic dynasty and providing inspiration for a later tragic Shakespearean plotline.

History on Film: The Historical Accuracy of 8 Classic Movies
The violence may be gratuitous, but the Ancient Latin, Aramaic and Hebrew are on point. IndieWire

The Passion of the Christ (2004)

One of the most incredible things about this movie is its attention to linguistics. Mel Gibson hired the Jesuit scholar and Professor of Ancient Mediterranean Studies Rev. William Fulco to translate his script into Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic. He chose to leave out the other language which was widely spoken across the Roman Empire: Greek. He also inserted some incredible subtleties. At one point a group of Roman soldiers speaking Aramaic shout at a Jewish crowd who reply in Latin. The language of each is purposefully littered with grammatical errors and mispronunciations.

What Mel Gibson does is he telescopes the chronology of the Old and New Testament to a confusing degree. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the first scene where Jesus stamps a snake to death that’s been handed to him by an Obi-Wan Kenobi-like figure who’s supposed to represent Satan. He also goes a little far with Jesus’s woodworking prowess. There’s strong scriptural evidence that Jesus was an apprentice under his father, but Mel Gibson slightly overstates the passion of the carpenter when he credits Jesus with having invented the dining room table during a rather bizarre exchange with his mother.

One of the big problems with the movie, and here we’ll say nothing about Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitism, is the extent to which it blames the Jews for Jesus’s death. Even the ancient, romanized sources—Philo and Josephus—portrayed Pontius Pilate as corrupt, provocative and arbitrarily cruel. But in “The Passion of the Christ“, when Jesus appears before him in the Jewish Court (the Sanhedrin), Pilate comes across as a reasonable man.

Then there’s by far the biggest departure from history: the grotesquely gratuitous violence that dominates the final two hours of the movie. This is pure artistic license (assuming you can call it artistic) on Gibson’s part. The Gospels make no mention of Jesus being tortured to any such degree—Mark, Matthew and John writing that he was flogged but nothing more—while the Roman writer Tacitus reports his execution and nothing else.

History on Film: The Historical Accuracy of 8 Classic Movies
The one greater travesty than Alexander’s Irish accent; his blonde wig. Alt Film Guide

Alexander (2004)

To his credit, Oliver Stone tried to be loyal to the story of Alexander. But owing to the enormity of what his subject managed to accomplish before passing away from typhoid, malaria or alcohol poisoning in Babylon at the tender age of 33, he was always fighting an uphill battle. He does well in portraying young Alexander’s intimate relationship with his mother and frictional relationship with his father, though he fails to explain where Colin Farrell’s Alexander gets his Irish accent. He also does well in showing how close Alexander was to his horse Bucephalus in whose honor he founded—and after whom he named—several eastern cities.

The battle scenes are done brilliantly; Stone doing an excellent job in bringing to the big screen the tactics Alexander used during his conquest of Persia. However, in order to save time, Oliver stone merged historical accounts of two of Alexander’s battles against Darius—Issos in 333 BC and Gaugamela in 331 BC—into one. Choosing to give the Persian army uniforms was also anachronistic. The idea of uniforms didn’t exist at the time, with soldiers wearing to battle only what they could afford.

Another thing Stone does well is portraying the complex (and constantly alcohol-fuelled) relationships Alexander had with his companions. In particular, he gives a lot of airtime to show the strength of Alexander’s bond with Cleitus. It was a bond of blood if not of kinship; Cleitus had in fact saved Alexander’s life—though not at Gaugamela as the movie shows, but at the River Granicus three years earlier. And, tragically, Alexander did ultimately end up killing Cleitus during a drunken fight in modern-day Uzbekistan, hurling a javelin through his heart.

Stone glances over Alexander’s long and arduous return from India to Babylon, choosing to completely ignore the thousands of men who perished from hunger, thirst, disease or warfare on the long march back, and instead focusing entirely on Alexander’s ostentatiously ceremonial reentry into Babylon. But his decision to do this—as well as running-time constraints—was that he wanted to focus more on Alexander’s character than his achievements (and more on his successes than his failures).

But of all the historical inaccuracies that crop up in this movie, historians would unanimously agree that none is more serious than Colin Farrell’s wig, which wouldn’t become fashionable until Duran Duran broke onto the British music scene in the 1980s.


Sources For Further Reading:

Laist – An Oral History of Blade Runner’s 2019 Los Angeles, Because the Future Has Arrived

Alta Online – ‘Blade Runner’ and Los Angeles, Then and Now

Unreal Facts – Emperor Caligula Didn’t Go to War with Poseidon

Medium – The 15 Most Historically Inaccurate Movies, Ranked

Time Magazine – The 10 Best Movies Based on a True Story

Discover Magazine – We Can Thank Herodotus, the ‘Father of History,’ for Our Knowledge of the Ancient World

History Extra – Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony: How the Last Pharaoh’s Love Affairs Shaped Ancient Egypt’s Fate

Biography – Antony and Cleopatra’s Legendary Love Story