History on Film: The Historical Accuracy of 8 Classic Movies
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

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