If a movie touts itself as being “based on a true story,” watch out. It’s rare for any movie to actually tell a true story, as opposed to stories swirling about in a screenwriter’s head. Chances are, a “true story” movie only tells part of the real story, and could be as minuscule as “somebody with this name existed.” Then Hollywood builds total fiction based around that name, somehow touting it as fact.
Here are some famous films for whom “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” was a mere option, and a rather silly one at that.
20. Rudy (1993)
Rudy, the inspiring tale of a low-level, but beloved Notre Dame football player whose teammates threaten a walkout if their coach doesn’t let him suit up. Then, motivated by the crowd chanting for Rudy, they purposely defy their coach’s plans so the scrappy underdog can play. Once he does, the team carries him off the field like he just won the Super Bowl.
Thing is, virtually none of that happened. The jersey scene, in particular, was completely made up for dramatic purposes. Nobody had to threaten the coach to let Rudy play because the coach had decided he would himself. As for the crowd chanting Rudy’s name, they did that AFTER the game, because they liked Rudy and liked what they saw when he played. He did legitimately get carried off the field though, and thankfully not via stretcher, like how most football players get carried off.
19. Pocahontas (1995)
While Disney never purported to be telling the true story of the 17th century Native American icon with Pocahontas, the House of Mouse still could have done a better job of including some semblance of historical accuracy in its 1995 animated movie. For starters, Pocahontas’ real name was actually Matoaka (“Pocahontas” was a nick name meaning “playful one” or “little brat”) and she would have only been 10 or 11 years old at the time of John Smith’s arrival with the Virginia Company in 1607.
Not that the age discrepancy between the two matters all that much, considering there is no historical evidence supporting the film’s depiction of a romantic relationship between Pocahontas and Smith. Although the film’s depiction of Pocahontas the character has been held up many as one of Disney’s strongest heroines, it also presented through a white-washed, Western lens that only looks more antiquated with each passing year.
18. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
One of the most influential horror movies ever made, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s wide cultural impact can be at least partly attributed to the fact that it was marketed as being based on a true story. While the character of Leatherface and several minor plot details were indeed inspired by the crimes of real-life serial killer Ed Gein, aka “The Butcher of Plainfield”, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is almost entirely a fictitious work.
According to director Tobe Hooper, the film was marketed as a true story in order to entice moviegoers and as a deliberate political act in response to being “lied to by the government about things that were going on all over the world,” such as Watergate and the Vietnam War. Given the horrific events that transpire in the film, we’d wager that most people were more relieved than upset when they found out The Texas Chainsaw Massacre wasn’t real.
17. Cool Runnings (1993)
Released in 1993, Cool Runnings is one of the most popular Olympics movies thanks to its lighthearted tone, inspiring underdog story and of course, John Candy. However, Disney’s dramatization of the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team’s Cinderella tale (though perhaps that term is inaccurate given that they placed dead last in competition) runs aground in historical inaccuracies. For one thing, most of the characters we meet are entirely fictional. There was never a coach named Irving “Irv” Blitzer and the team itself wasn’t comprised of four Jamaican sprinters, but rather army recruits chosen by two Americans, George Finch and William Maloney, who were trying to put together a Jamaican bobsled team.
A number of smaller changes were made to increase dramatic tension as well, such as the notion that the Jamaicans were outcasts ridiculed by other teams. In reality, they were popular and even borrowed equipment from other teams. In short, Cool Runnings is a total fabrication but it’s also so charming and inspiring that it’s kind of hard to care unless you’re a dedicated bobsledding historian.
16. Captain Phillips (2013)
Tom Hanks has a habit of playing average men thrust into heroic situations — see Sully later on in this list — but his characters are frequently written in such a way as to make them much more aspirational than their real-life counterparts. Take Captain Phillips for instance, a dramatization of the real life story of Captain Richard Phillips and his crew aboard the MV Maersk Alabama, which was hijacked by Somali pirates off the coast of the Horn of Africa in 2009. Hanks portrays Phillips as a hero who allows himself to be taken hostage in order to protect his crew, but according to crew members who actually served on the MV Maersk Alabama, their captain was not the selfless leader the movie made him out to be.
In fact, a lawsuit was filed against Maersk Line and the Waterman Steamship Corp. claiming that Phillips’ irresponsible behavior and failure to comply with safety protocols contributed to the attack in the first place. However, Phillips’ first mate Shane Murphy contests this accounting of events and claimed in an October, 2013 interview with Vulture that he was satisfied with how he and Phillips were portrayed in the film.
15. The Greatest Showman (2017)
Based on the life of P.T. Barnum and his famous Barnum & Bailey Circus, The Greatest Showman stands as one of the most successful musicals ever made but the real story bears little resemblance to the feel-good tale audiences were presented with. In reality, Barnum was less a charismatic champion of the downtrodden who looks like Hugh Jackman than he was an exploiter of marginalized groups. For instance, the film completely omits the story of Joice Heith, who was an essential part of Barnum’s early success. Heith was an elderly , enslaved black woman whom Barnum marketed as George Washington’s 161-year-old nursemaid and brought on tour despite her being in ill-health. Heith died just a few months into her tenure, prompting Barnum to try and profit off her death by hosting a live autopsy of her corpse.
It should also come as little surprise that the romance between Zack Effron and Zendaya’s characters is a work of fiction; in fact, neither character ever existed and the film uses their relationship to play up Barnum as a racially tolerant person, when in fact he made his fortune largely off exploiting racist stereotypes. Truth be told, it’s hard to see how a family-friendly musical could have gotten away with incorporating such material, but anyone who thinks The Greatest Showman gives an accurate depiction of P.T. Barnum’s life and career would be sadly mistaken.
14. 300 (2006)
It should go without saying that a film in which topless muscular warrior do battle with a Persian army counting supernatural beings among its ranks — and based on a comic book no less — is not purporting to be historically accurate. That being said, Zack Snyder’s 300 still gets a number of small historical details wrong that could have easily been included in the film and not hurt its hyper-stylized action tone. While it’s true that the romanticizing of Spartan culture had already begun not long after the battle of Thermopylae, the events that transpired played significantly different from what’s shown on-screen. Yes, 300 Spartan soldiers repelled a force of 300,000 Persians for three days but they also had help from around 7,000 other Greeks who were allied with Sparta and participated in the battle.
There’s also a moment where King Leonidas (Gerard Butlers) snidely refers to Athenians as “boy-lovers”, which is an odd remark to make for the leader of a culture that prided itself on homosexual contact between male warriors and young boys as part of social and military training. Also, we’re pretty sure the real Xerxes wasn’t a hairless giant who looks more at home in a sex dungeon than commanding the world’s largest army but then again, Snyder bragged about “world-class historians” praising the film’s accuracy, so maybe watching 300 really is like looking directly into the past.
13. The Revenant (2015)
Leonardo DiCaprio suffered mightily to finally win a Best Actor Oscar for The Revenant, in which he plays 19th century explorer Hugh Glass, who against all odds survives a vicious bear attack and being left for dead by members of his fur trading team. Although Glass was a real explorer who was abandoned by his companions, his bear attack story has been heavily disputed (in fact, Glass never actually wrote or spoke about such an event occurring). Even more significantly, there’s no evidence supporting that Glass had a Pawnee wife or half-Pawnee son, which is kind of a problem when the driving narrative force of the film is Glass seeking revenge on his companion Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) for his son’s murder.
Speaking of Fitzgerald, Glass did go looking for him and his companion John Bridger after they abandoned him, but he didn’t kill either of them. On the contrary, he eventually forgave them and was later employed as a hunter for the U.S. Army garrison at Fort Union in North Dakota before his eventual death in 1833 at the hands of attacking Arikara. At the very least, The Revenant screenwriter Mark I. Smith can be forgiven for embellishing the tale of Hugh Glass somewhat, considering he’s essentially become a mythological American figure at this point.
12. Argo (2012)
Ben Affleck’s movie about a CIA team filming a fake movie in Iran to rescue hostages completely ignored Canada’s significant contributions to the rescue mission. Interestingly, for a long time the United States gave Canada all the credit for the rescue, because they didn’t want the CIA’s involvement to become public knowledge. The movie, however, swings completely in the opposite direction by not only giving the US their due, but taking away that of their northern neighbors.
Also, virtually any scene where the plan hit complicated snags (like when the Americans got stopped in the airport because their bosses had cancelled their tickets) was made up, as the actual plan went super-smoothly. In addition, the scene where the CIA poured through tons of scripts, trying to find the perfect fake movie, was fake news. They knew, almost from the start, what movie they would fake-make, and it wasn’t called Argo.
11. The Pursuit of Happiness (2006)
The story of Chris Gardner’s rise from homeless salesman to millionaire stockbroker didn’t need much gussying up, but Hollywood did it anyway. While the real Chris Gardner was indeed a medical equipment salesman, he didn’t independently spend all his savings on portable bone density scanners like in the movie. He worked for an actual company, albeit one that didn’t pay him very much.
In addition, Gardner didn’t get an interview with Dean Witter Reynolds by solving a Rubik’s Cube, nor did he get arrested for parking tickets. In fact, he was actually arrested for domestic abuse, and the cops tacked on the unpaid-ticket charge after the fact. What’s more, the movie omits the period where Gardner’s girlfriend took their son away from him due to the possible illegitimacy of his finances. To hear the movie tell it, father and son were slumming it in bathrooms and railway stations from start to finish.
10. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
If accuracy is your thing, there’s nothing beautiful about A Beautiful Mind. For one thing, while John Nash did suffer from schizophrenia and paranoia, he didn’t hallucinate entire people like in the film. Rather, he suffered from weird beliefs, like how anyone who wore a red tie was a Soviet spy. Moreover, Nash didn’t take any medication for his illness after 1970, whereas in the movie he mentions that he takes “new” medicine. Apparently, the movie stuck that in there to dissuade actual schizophrenics from discarding their medicine.
In addition, real-life Nash was a lot less pure than his movie form. In the film, he’s a faithful husband to his first love, Alicia. In reality, Nash almost certainly had covert affairs with men, definitely had an illegitimate son, and was abusive and domineering toward Alicia, whom he (or more accurately, his mental illness) regarded as his slave at the time.
9. Sully (2016)
The real-life story of Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s safely landing his damaged plane in the Hudson River was intense and dramatic, but also fairly basic. Banal stories about everyday heroism don’t fly in Hollywood, so literally everything about the Sully movie, aside from the plane landing, is 100% fiction.
Director Clint Eastwood needed a villain to make the movie work, so the filmmakers invented an evil traffic board who desperately wants to nail Sully for negligence. They claim Sully might’ve been drunk, that one of his engines actually had power, and that flight simulations showed he should’ve easily made it to the airport. Sully fights tirelessly to convince them he did all he could do and eventually, the board concludes the pilot did, in fact, do the right thing.
In real life, none of that happened. The traffic board almost immediately sided with Sully, as did everyone in the country who honored him.
8. The Blind Side (2009)
The Blind Side tells the story of Michael Oher, who went from homelessness to the NFL, thanks to his foster family teaching him about football and life. That, however, is Hollywood hogwash. In truth, he’d known how to play football since childhood, as he always had the size and speed to succeed in the game. His family’s love and support gave him the confidence and foundation needed to become an NFL pro (and Super Bowl champion), but they didn’t get him there by pointing out that football players defend each other just like families do.
The movie gets other facts wrong too. Oher didn’t immediately get accepted into Briarcrest like in the movie. Rather, he had to do some homeschooling beforehand to get his then-abysmal grades up to snuff. Plus, he actually stayed with several families after meeting the Tuohys, before they finally agreed to take him in.
7. Cinderella Man (2005)
Cinderella Man, the story of Depression-era boxer James Braddock’s rise from broke-and-broken ex-boxer to World Heavyweight Champion, is actually faithful to the real-life story, which is great. They majorly messed up one thing, however, which is not so great.
In the film, legendary boxer Max Baer isn’t just a champion: he’s a pure evil antagonist. He’s a rude, crude womanizer who killed two men during boxing matches, bragged about it, and implied he might kill Braddock too. This is 100% false, and was only inserted because Hollywood movies need bad guys. Apparently the Great Depression just wasn’t evil enough …
The real Max Baer was a good man and a true professional. While he did kill one man during a match, it was an accident, and he was completely repentant and devastated by it. He gave money to his victim’s family, and reportedly suffered from nightmares about the incident for the rest of his life.
6. Pain & Gain (2013)
Pain and Gain took the real story of bodybuilders getting into organized crime and spun it every which way, because apparently bodybuilders doing Mafia stuff just wasn’t interesting enough for Hollywood.
Many characters had little in common with their real-life counterparts, aside from their names. Mark Wahlberg’s character, Daniel Lugo, was portrayed as a simple, brutish thug, while the real Lugo was actually a cunning criminal who spearheaded a successful Medicare scam. The movie briefly mentions the scam in the beginning, but ignores it from there on in favor of making Lugo dumb for the sake of comedy.
Then there’s The Rock’s character, Paul Doyle, who never actually existed. Doyle is actually a composite of three people, all of whom were way scrawnier than Dwayne Johnson. It seems the film cast the People’s Champion not because he fit the role, but because he’s The Rock and his jacked physique markets itself.
5. Jimi: All Is By My Side (2013)
This story of Jimi Hendrix’s rise to stardom is mostly accurate, despite not being authorized by the Hendrix estate (which explains why a Hendrix biopic features no actual Hendrix songs). On the other hand, it bafflingly portrays Jimi as a domestic abuser who beat his girlfriend, Kathy Etchingham, after seeing her talking with another man.
According to Etchingham, that 100% never happened, and Jimi was a sweet and funny guy who never laid a hand on her. So, did the filmmakers just invent a horrific abuse scene for the sake of misguided drama? Not exactly. The story seems to originate in a couple unauthorized biographies: Room Full of Mirrors and Jimi: An Intimate Biography, neither of which Etchingham was interviewed for. What’s more, the filmmakers behind All Is By My Side didn’t consult her either, because why talk to the real person when you can just pretend they’re a fictional character?
4. Hidalgo (2004)
Hidalgo, the story of Frank Hopkins’s cross-country race through the desert with his eponymous horse, is actually faithful to its source material. Problem is, the source material is a pack of dirty lies.
The film is based on Hopkins’ own stories of his life. He claimed to be a teenage US Cavalry rider who spent 30 years in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, before winning the grueling 3000-mile Ocean of Fire horse race that forms the centerpiece of the movie. However, a couple long-distance horse riders, Basha and CuChullaine O’Reilly, researched Hopkins’ life and discovered literally none of that was true. He was never in the Cavalry, never in the Wild West Show, and didn’t win the Ocean of Fire because that race never existed. He legitimately worked as a horse handler for the Ringling Brothers circus, so he did do SOMETHING in the equestrian field at least. Racing, however, was not it.
3. Braveheart (1994)
Hollywood’s take on William Wallace’s rebellion against the British is almost entirely fiction. The real “Brave Heart” is actually Robert the Bruce, King of Scots – not Wallace. The Scots wore kilts in the film, when in reality they didn’t during that period. Primae noctis (feudal lords’ right to sleep with any woman they wished) was a major plot point, but there’s no evidence it ever existed. The movie suggests England had controlled Scotland for years, when in fact it only ruled for a year before Wallace rebelled. We could go on, but we’d be here forever.
Braveheart screenwriter Randall Wallace admits the poem he based the film on, Blind Harry, likely isn’t true but rationalized the whole thing by claiming, “I know that it spoke to my heart and that’s what matters to me.” What’s more, director and star Mel Gibson also admits the movie is probably fiction, but feels it was more interesting than what really happened, so he doesn’t much care.
2. The Imitation Game (2013)
Hollywood got Alan Turing’s quest to crack the Germans’ Enigma Code during World War II almost completely wrong. For one, the Polish scientists assisted Turing mightily, by cracking early Enigma codes and assisting Turing in perfecting his code-breaking machine. The movie barely mentions this, however, preferring to give Turing all the credit.
The movie also invents a story where Turing learns one of the men on his team is a Soviet spy, but ends up covering for the spy, who threatens to reveal Turing’s homosexuality to the world. This is completely made-up, and damaging to Turing’s reputation since covering for a foreign spy is treason. The movie also tells us that Turing was arrested for homosexuality (a crime at the time) after being investigated for espionage. Not true: he reported a robbery, but was having an affair with the robber. Police uncovered the awkward truth, he confessed to homosexuality, and then was arrested.
1. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Lawrence of Arabia is a classic, but don’t let that fool you into thinking the film’s fact-checking was 100% on the up-and-up.
In the film the Arab soldiers — and Arabs in general — are portrayed as undisciplined and tribal. That made for a fine culture clash when paired with Brits like T.E. Lawrence, but in real life the soldiers were largely disciplined and well-trained, and the culture in general was educated and classy.
Lawrence himself seems far more important in the movie than he might’ve been in real life. By many accounts, he was actually just one of many intelligence officers working in Arabia. Thing is, the man was apparently very good at promoting himself, largely by way of his braggadocios memoir The Seven Pillars Of Wisdom, which Lawrence of Arabia was based on. As a result, he gets to look better in historical discussions than he probably has any right to.