The Best Historical Movies That are Also (Mostly) Accurate

By Paul Bradshaw, Den of Geek

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Braveheart, Titanic, Gladiator, Argo, and Pocahontas are all great films, but they’re also all completely useless as history lessons – playing fast and loose with the facts in a way that looks like it might only be beaten by the new Robin Hood: Origins.

Hollywood often gets a bad rap from historians, but there are plenty of great movies that manage to stick to the real version of events without coming off like a dry documentary.

Here’s our roundup of the best movies that you can also use to cheat in a history exam…

Das Boot (1981)

Wolfgang Peterson’s epic German war movie is still the king of submarine films – mostly because it’s the only one that actually feels like being stuck on a submarine. In reality, the film was shot on a meticulously recreated interior of a U-96 sub, and the film was shot in sequence over the course of an entire year so the actor’s beards, skin tone, and (presumably) tempers would keep up with the characters they were playing.

But don’t watch…

U-571 (2000). Nope, the Americans didn’t capture the Enigma machine, those weren’t the kind of submarines used in WWII, and Jon Bon Jovi is not a good actor.

A Night To Remember (1958)

When RMS Titanic launched in Belfast in 1911, a young boy named William MacQuitty was there to see it. 47 years later, he was hired as the producer of A Night To Remember, and he made sure he did everything he could to get the facts right. That included building the sets using the original blueprints of the ship, and hiring one of the surviving Officers, Joseph Boxhall, to work as the technical advisor. There are still a few inaccuracies (the filmmakers didn’t know at the time, for example, that the ship broke in two when it sank), but it’s still horrifyingly close to the truth.

But don’t watch…

Titanic (1997). Jack and Rose would never have gotten together in real life since the classes were kept strictly separated and they both would have frozen to death in 15 minutes once the water hit anyway.

All The President’s Men (1974)

No one knew more about the Watergate scandal than the two Washington Post journalists who originally broke the story, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. Sadly, they weren’t too happy to work together on the film script about their own lives.

William Goldman wrote the first draft with help from Woodward, and then Bernstein wrote his own version (with help from his girlfriend, Nora Ephron). In the end, director Alan J Pakula and star Robert Redford wrote their own version, corroborating all the facts from all the earlier drafts with the editor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee, to make sure every detail was spot on. At least they got there in the end.

But don’t watch…

Forrest Gump (1994). The ping-pong champion who taught Elvis how to dance and invented the smiley face definitely wasn’t the person who called in the report from another hotel.

Master And Commander: The Far Side of The World (2003)

 

The characters in Master And Commander are all made up, and it’s incredibly unlikely that the British Navy would have spent months targeting a single enemy ship during the Napoleonic War, but the details in Peter Weir’s film are all spot on. Entire ships were rebuilt from scratch using historical plans, and the costumes, lighting, music and sound were all lifted from contemporary diaries and military transcripts. If you want to know what it was like to be on a late 18th Century corvette, watch Master And Commander.

But don’t watch…

Battleship (2012). Rhianna is clearly seen wearing diamond earrings in one closing scene after she’s killed the aliens with beams of sunlight, when everyone knows enlisted sailors are only allowed to wear quarter-inch round silver studs.

Stalingrad (1993)

There are two movies about Stalingrad called Stalingrad, but it’s Joseph Vilsmaier’s 1993 German version that wins the historical accuracy medal. Close enough to the truth that the film’s making-of featurette became its own history documentary series, Vilsmaier hung on every horrific fact to tell the story of one band of German soldiers suffering through one of the worst battles in history. Crucially, the film treats the soldiers on both sides as human beings.

But don’t watch…

Enemy At The Gates (2001). Days before its release, director Jean-Jacques Annaud pulled the tagline that read “based on a true story.” It turns out the famous snipers Vasily Zaytsev and Erwin König didn’t have a duel at all.

Gettysburg (1993)

You know Gettysburg is accurate because it’s so bloody long. Clocking in at a battle-hardened four hours and thirty-one minutes, the film takes all the time it needs to get the facts right about the defining chapter of the Civil War.

Originally pitched as a miniseries (and probably still best viewed as one), Ronald F Maxwell’s Gettysburg is slavish to every detail of the military tactics used – as well as to presenting both sides as fairly and accurately as possible.

But don’t watch…

The General (1926). The Great Locomotive Chase was a real thing that actually happened during the Civil War when the Union army stole a train and rode it North to wreck the railroad – but Buster Keaton definitely didn’t ride on the front.

Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)

On paper, Tora! Tora! Tora! sounds like a bit of a mess. Directed by three different people, made in two different countries, and lumbered with really silly title, it’s still the best film ever made about the attack on Pearl Harbour. With different sections staged in the air, on the ground, and back in the Japanese command, the reason for the three different directors is to allow for three differenet points of view – offering viewers a rare, un-biased, accurate take on a key chapter of WWII, warts and all.

But don’t watch…

Pearl Harbor (2001). Michael Bay’s take on history is, typically, very Michael Bay. The actual attack scenes are brilliant – and probably look more realistic than the real thing – but everything else in the film is kind of nonsense.

84C MoPic (1989)

Mel Gibson did a pretty good job of making a Vietnam war movie with We Were Soldiers (2002), but you can’t beat Patrick Sheane Duncan’s early found footage indie, 84C MoPic. Filmed on a shoestring in California, the POV film follows a recon mission into enemy territory, and it’s the one film that combat veterans have universally supported, with some apparently not even convinced that it wasn’t a real documentary.

But don’t watch…

The Green Berets (1968). Made by a gung-ho John Wayne as a recruit drive for the marines – even to the point of hiring recruiters to wait outside screenings – The Green Berets was a particularly shameful way to try and get young men to kill themselves. Also, it’s very inaccurate.

Come And See (1985)

Possibly the most gruelling war film ever made, and one of the most painfully realistic, Elem Klimov’s Soviet drama is a coming of age story set against the backdrop of the Nazi occupation of Belarus. Relentlessly brutal, and unflinching with every detail, Klimov used all nonprofessional actors, used actual Nazi uniforms instead of costumes, and (insanely) actually insisted on using live rounds instead of blanks, wherever possible. The film’s 14-year-old star, Aleksei Kravchenko, reportedly returned to school with grey-hair after a year of intense filming.

But don’t watch…

The Battle Of The Bulge (1965). No one who made The Battle Of The Bulge cared that much about accuracy – the weather is wrong, the tactics are wrong and the “German” tanks are actually just American tanks painted a bit differently.

Zodiac (2007)

No one does accuracy like David Fincher. Famous for driving everyone he works with crazy until they get it right – even if it means 200 takes – he also spends an inordinate amount of time researching the details. In the case of Zodiac, Fincher personally spent months interviewing witness, family members, detectives and suspects, building his own archive of case material and basically becoming the obsessive Jake Gyllenhaal character. If a single date, time or period stitched costume was wrong, Fincher would know. And care.

But don’t watch…

Dirty Harry (1971). The Zodiac killer has been the covered by a lot of other movies, including the Clint Eastwood classic that was made whilst the madman was still at large. In real life, Harry Callahan didn’t take him down with a cool one-liner.

Black Hawk Down (2001)

The 1993 US Special Forces raid in Mogadishu is a complex, muddy chapter of history that is partly covered up by American assurances that they did the right thing. Ridley Scott’s film skips the controversy by leaving out pretty much everything but the explosions, but what we’re left with is a deadly accurate recreation of the of event – using the hardware, helicopters and even the pilots who took part.

But don’t watch…

San Andreas (2015). Dwyane Johnson doesn’t really obey the laws of physics, but helicopters do – so when he dives on to try and restart the blades in San Andreas, he makes a lot of pilot message boards very, very angry.