Most Historically Inaccurate War Films

Dear Hollywood:

War movies aren't just another entertainment.  They matter because they're almost always a sort of history lesson about our own country:  The things we fought for, the reasons we went to war, and the people who fought and died.  You can't use the same rules in war movies that you do in other films.  In other words, "Based on a True Story" needs to actually mean something.

Sure, I understand that you've only got two hours to tell a story that involved a cast of hundreds and took years to happen.  I get it, the second World War is a big subject, and you have to take some liberties to be able to manage anything in the time that you have us.  I don't expect you to cover every detail and I know that timelines are going to be condensed and characters combined to make things simple.  

And I also know that this is a film, and you need to make your money back and sometimes you need to make things a bit more dramatic than they actually were so that people enjoy your film and go see it and you make your money back.

I understand all that.

The problem is when you've committed the truth in spirit, if not in fact.  Exhibit number one is Braveheart.  This film has almost nothing in it that's based on real-life except the name of William Wallace.  The film version of Wallace is a complete fiction fighting for fictional motivations over a fictional love interest that never really died.

You see, none of this would be a problem if it was marketed as a work of fiction, but it's marketed as the story of William Wallace so the problem is that now people walk around thinking they know something about history when what they know is wrong.  I'd prefer it if people knew nothing about history than the wrong history.

Oh, Hollywood - what are we going to do with you?  I gave you a list of war film rules to read.  Did you not read them?

In any case, I've provided you a list with just a few of the many mistakes that I've found (historically speaking). Please fix right away and release the new adjusted format into a DVD.



John Rico

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Rescue Dawn

Rescue Dawn.

In Rescue Dawn, Jeremy Davies plays Gene DeBruin, a fellow prisoner of war kept with Christian Bale's character Deiter Dengler.  In the film, when Dengler arrives and immediately starts making plans to escape, DeBruin is shown as being against the idea of escape, preferring not to risk angering their captors.  As Dengler's plans come closer to being carried out, DeBruin is shown as being increasingly fearful.  And when the plan is executed, DeBruin simply runs into the jungle rather than help subdue the prison guards.  

A coward, right?  

Maybe not so.  

DeBruin's family has taken offense at the film.  Apparently, according to some reports, DeBruin was actually quite heroic, even refusing to leave behind some other prisoners who were too sick to escape.  When asked if that would have substantially changed the film had he known about DeBruin's real life actions, the director Werner Herzog admitted that it probably would have.


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Not a war film you say?  Well, the Disney version certainly isn't, but that's what makes it such an egregious offender.  In real life, the story of Pocahontas was - like many of the Native American stories of our history - a tale of misery, genocide, and murder.  Disney was quick to rid the tale of its more murderous aspects and add in talking animals, songs, and a love story.  (Click here for a list of animated war films - yes they do exist!)

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Braveheart. Paramount Pictures

As explained in the opening, Mel Gibson's Braveheart purports to be the story of William Wallace, the defender of Scotland.  Except that almost nothing in the film actually occurred.  The story of Wallace is entirely fictionalized.  Even the kilts that are shown in the film are from a different time period.  Braveheart is a fine film, it's gripping, and explosive, and visually exciting.  But that it pretends to be a historical story and actually has fabricated almost every aspect of the story is a bit problematic.

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This is a film about the American capture of the Enigma code breaking machine by American sailors who board a German vessel and then fend off other attacking Naval ships before escaping with the goods.  It's a proud moment of American history and one that deserves to be enshrined in cinematic history...except that it was actually British sailors that captured the Enigma, some seven months before the USA even entered the war.

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Red Tails

Red Tails.

The Tuskegee Airman, the black aviator unit, definitely deserve their own film.  They suffered institutional racism back home and in the military but still fought to serve their country in World War II.  Unfortunately, some of the film's claims aren't quite accurate.  For instance, in the film, the Tuskegee Airman are said to never have lost a fighter to the enemy, when records indicate that they lost at least 25 fighters.  Furthermore, the film purports that the group produced a number of "Fighter Aces," whereas records don't show the unit having produced any.  (Maybe thought that was simply part of the institutional racism they had to fight against and their deeds weren't acknowledged?)

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In John Woo's Windtalkers, the bodyguard assigned to the Navajo speaker (who helped the Marines send messages in code) is explained to have orders to kill the Navajo speaker to keep them from falling into enemy hands.  In real life, this wasn't the case.  The body guards were simply to keep the Navajo speakers from getting assaulted by fellow U.S. forces who might mistake the Navajo for Japanese soldiers.

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The Green Berets

The Green Berets.

In this 1968 John Wayne propaganda effort, John Wayne is about sixty years old and over weight, not really the sort of condition one would expect of a front lines Special Forces Green Beret.  Additionally, the film was filmed somewhere that was very much not Vietnam, as pine trees can be seen in the back of many shots.  Plus, the politics of the film have been demonstrably proven to be propaganda in the years since.

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Men of Honor

Men of Honor.

Men of Honor tells the story of the first African-American Navy Diver, Carl Brashear.  Brashear's real-life story is absolutely amazing; the sheer determination of what this man went through to graduate, between a difficult training course and the isolation of his fellow sailors because he was black, is enough to make any grown men shudder.  I certainly couldn't have done what Brashear did.  Strangely, though, the filmmakers didn't seem to think that this was enough, so in the film, they add in a fictional Soviet submarine that tries to "run" Brashear over while he's on the bottom of the Atlantic searching for a missing nuclear bomb.  The missing nuclear bomb was real - the Soviet sub was not.

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Pearl Harbor


This historical travesty from auteur Michael Bay has FDR getting out of his wheelchair, fighter pilots flying bombers, and all sorts of aerial combat that never actually occurred.  (In the film, Ben Affleck takes out quite a number of enemy fighters during the infamous attack on Hawaii; in real life, U.S. forces took out almost no enemy fighters.  Perhaps Michael Bay thought that the real life Pearl Harbor was too boring?