Movies are for entertainment, not education, but unfortunately, too many audience members believe that the historical movies they’re watching are actually factually correct. Big, big mistake.
Call it artistic license, playing fast and loose with the facts, or whatever, but the bottom line is that a filmmaker would much rather make an exciting box office hit that is a historical mess than a boring but accurate portrayal of facts. And, honestly, if you asked most audience members, they’d probably say they feel the same way. Who wants to pay their good hard earned money to get bored to death — isn’t that what free television documentaries are for?
The following are either myths that have emerged from factually incorrect movies or ‘historical” films that have had their facts tweaked in the name of art.
The Pyramids Were Built By Slaves
You’ve seen this scene in numerous movies: half-dead slaves toiling under the vicious whips of Egyptian overseers as they struggle to build the enormous pyramids. As common as this scene is in movies and in television shows about this time period, historians no longer believe that the pyramids were built by slaves. Evidence uncovered near the pyramids, instead, show that the gi-normous structures were actually built by paid Egyptian laborers.
A number of Biblical movies also depict these slaves as being Jews or Israelites, but most historians today agree that this is highly unlikely as the pyramids were completed centuries before the Israelites were enslaved and brought to Egypt.
Myths Arising Out Of Braveheart
The Oscar-winning film “Braveheart” immortalized William Wallace, but while doing so, it managed to bungle a number of facts about the 13th Century Scottish hero. For one thing, most historians believe that Wallace did not grow up impoverished, as depicted in the film, but that he was actually the son of a land-owning aristocrat.
This 1995 film would also have you believe that the Scots were wearing kilts at the time of this movie. Yes, it’s visually more exciting than regular old duds, but it’s also wrong. Kilts didn’t actually become part of the Scottish male wardrobe until the 17th century.
And, strangely, this film has Wallace seducing and impregnating Edward the Second’s wife Isabella, which would have made him a child molester in real life, as she was just nine years old when this relationship supposedly occurred.
Native Americans were unprovoked killing machines.
The good old westerns that the studios used to pump out on a regular basis were infamous for depicting Native Americans as being bloodthirsty savages who attacked innocent settlers for no apparent reason. The truth, however, is much more complicated.
Although it is true that some Native American tribes did engage in the killing of innocent pioneers and homesteaders, the settlers and American soldiers were also guilty of massacring large numbers of Native Americans, as well. Sometimes, entire villages, including men, women and children would be slaughtered. Even the Indian ponies were not spared. In one account, after wiping out a village, the soldiers then shot the Native American’s 800 ponies.
The Native Americans were also fighting to stay on their own lands. Most had been ordered to live on reservations and were resisting the efforts to be rounded up and taken from the homelands they had lived on for generations. It’s hard to blame them for getting a little ornery about the whole thing.
In recent years, Hollywood has been trying to fix the damage done by all of those “bad Injun” westerns by creating such Native American-friendly films as “Dances with the Wolves.” Of course, it’s probably going to take years of these types of movies to wipe out the image of the bloodthirsty savage created by all those old westerns.
Films about this famous battle, such as John Wayne’s “The Alamo,” have taught us that Davy Crockett went down fighting and that everybody in the old mission was killed during the 13-day-long siege by the Mexicans. These films also depicted the men as sacrificial lambs who believed that their deaths were inevitable and unavoidable.
In addition, some of these movies have also inferred that the long siege played a key role in the liberation of Texas because it allowed Sam Houston to raise an army that would eventually defeat the Mexicans.
Unfortunately, most of these “facts” are more myth than reality. For instance, the men defending the Alamo were not nobly suicidal. Though obviously valiant in their stand, they were actually fighting with the belief that reinforcements were on the way to help them defend the old mission.
It also is false that there were no survivals. Although most of the Texans defending the Alamo on March 6, 1836 were killed, approximately 20 people did survive the siege, including women, children and a slave belonging to William B. Travis. In addition, historians believe that because six of the men, including Davy Crockett, were found dead outside of the fort that they probably survived the siege and were executed afterwards by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.
As for Sam Houston, he wasn’t rounding up troops, because he was actually serving as a delegate at a constitutional convention at the time the Alamo fell.
In addition, there is one more fact that most of these films have managed to gloss over – the Alamo was not strictly a white Texan versus Mexican fight. A third group, the Tejanos, who were Mexicans that lived in Texas, was also fighting alongside Davy Crockett and the others on that March day. So “Remember the Alamo,” but try to remember the facts about it correctly next time.
U-571 And The Enigma Cypher Machine
Hollywood typically creates movies with its American audiences primarily in mind, which is understandable, but can lead to some gross historical inaccuracies. For instance, the 2000 movie “U-571,” is about a group of disguised American Navy crew members who, in 1942, board a German U-boat in order to capture its Enigma cipher machine. These machines were important because they were used by the Nazis to encrypt their secret messages.
The biggest problem with this film – and there are a number of issues — is that the allies had already captured an Enigma machine in 1940 and that they, in fact, had several by the time this movie was supposed to have occurred. Not only that, but the German Enigmas had actually been deciphered seven months before the United States even entered into World War II. Kinda makes the entire film sort of pointless, doesn’t it?
Cleopatra Killed Herself With An Asp
As her world crumbled around her, Cleopatra, the last pharaoh of Egypt, chose to end her life by allowing a poisonous asp to bite her. This scene has been depicted countless times, not only in the movies – such as Elizabeth Taylor’s $44-million-dollar big-budget mess — but also in paintings, novels and plays. However, most historians today agree that it is highly unlikely that a snake was responsible for Cleopatra’s death.
For one thing, Octavian, who would later become known as Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus, had suspected Cleopatra would commit suicide and had ordered that she be watched closely after he had captured her. Legend has it that the asp killed not only Cleopatra, but also her two handmaidens, as well. Snake experts have said it would be extremely difficult for one snake to kill three people in the short amount of time that Cleopatra had been left unattended.
The deadly asp was also allegedly smuggled to Cleopatra in a fig basket, but it is hard to imagine that the guards could have missed spotting a snake large enough to kill three people.
So how did Cleopatra kill herself then? Historians today believe that Cleopatra probably ingested some type of poison, especially since she reportedly died painlessly and quietly. A snake bite would have been extremely painful and would have also left a disfiguring wound.
Mayans predicted the world would end in 2012.
Okay, so according to several films, the Mayans predicted the world would end in 2012. However, if you happen to be reading this and it is 2013 or after, then we guess all bets are off.
But, folks, just to set the record straight, most historians don’t believe that the Mayans actually predicted the world would end in 2012. Although there is still some disagreement as to exactly what the Mayans meant in their glyphs, most researchers believe that the 400-year-long Mayan calendar just ended at this point, and that the calendar cycle was supposed to then reset back to the beginning. Picture a car odometer. Once it hits 100,000, it just starts at the beginning again.
Spartacus was a gladiator and the leader of a large slave rebellion against the Romans back in 73 BC. Although, he has been depicted in a number of television shows and movies, the most famous version has to be 1960’s “Spartacus,” which starred Kirk Douglas and his famous chin dimple. Not surprisingly, this classic took a few liberties with the actual facts.
For instance, the real Spartacus, who was a Thracian, was not born into slavery as depicted in the movie. Instead, he was a former soldier who had served with the Roman army, but then had deserted. Upon his capture, he was made a slave and was sent to gladiatorial school in Capua.
In 73 BC, both in the movie and in real life, Spartacus escapes and is able to raise an army of runaway slaves. The slave revolt is successful at first , causing much alarm among the Romans, but eventually, Spartacus and his men would be crushed in a battle by general Marcus Licinius Crassus and his forces.
Although the film shows Spartacus being captured by the Romans after this battle and having to kill his friend in a gladiator fight, before being crucified to death, the real Spartacus is believed to have died in that final engagement. It is true, however, that many of his followers who were captured in the final battle were crucified.
Of course, the tale of Indian princess Pocahontas made for a great Disney film, but if you believe that John Smith and Pocahontas had an actual romance, then we’ve got a great flying carpet to sell you – oh, wait wrong Disney movie. In reality, Pocahontas was a very young girl of possibly 10 or 11 when she supposedly stopped her father from executing Smith. In addition, there are some historians who don’t believe that this incident ever occurred or that if it did, Smith greatly exaggerated the danger he was in. This doubt stems from the fact that Smith didn’t mention the incident to anyone until years after it supposedly occurred.
Pocahontas did eventually marry an Englishman named John, but his last name was Rolfe. The two ended up moving to England, where Pocahontas would die at approximately 21 years of age.
Krakatoa East of Java
This 1969 movie was blessed with a catchy title that stuck in people’s minds. Too bad it was factually incorrect. The destructive volcano Krakatoa that the movie was named after was actually located west of Java. You pretty much can’t screw things up worse than making a huge mistake in your movie’s title.
To make matters worse, the B52s decided to use the title of this movie as a line in one of their songs, “Hot Lava.” So now we’ve got more than one generation of folks who believe that Krakatoa – which should actually be spelled Krakatau – is located on the wrong side of Java. Of course, this does make for a good Jeopardy or other contest question because, of course, most people would get it wrong.
By the way, in later reissues of this movie, it was called simply “Volcano.” That solved that problem.