Historical Movies That Took Huge Creative Liberties

By Jake SchroederLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:34:18 PM ET
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When you watch a movie based on a historical event, you might think you’ve got an awesome front row seat to watch some of the greatest stories in history unfold. Unfortunately, some movies that are "based on true events" are barely more than creative fiction with threads of the truth.

True stories trigger a lot of emotions in viewers, so it can be disappointing to learn the truth isn’t as touching as the movie. Let’s take a look at some historical movies that veer so far from reality, the classification of "true story" is nothing more than a farce.

We Were Soldiers

The entertaining war movie starring Mel Gibson was based on Lieutenant General Hal Moore's memoirs from the First Indochina War. The film was well received by war movie buffs, but although it has a lot of entertainment value, the battle scene at the end of the movie really takes a hard left into fiction.

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In the movie, Moore led his troops into a desperate charge against the Vietnamese at the Battle of la Drang. There were gunships there to help with the fight on the ground. The problem lies in the fact that those gunships weren't even invented yet.


The 2002 movie is probably one of the best/worst examples of the American tendency to structure war films as if they were the sole hero. The film is about the capture of a German military submarine, the Enigma, used to send codes across different channels during WWII.

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The sub was actually captured by a British warship, not an American one. At the time the British gained control of the Enigma, the U.S. military wasn't even part of the war yet. In fact, the film was so far removed from reality that British Prime Minister Tony Blair called it "an affront."


Jarhead won several awards for its portrayal of the mental anguish that soldiers often go through. However, that depiction was the only part of the film that came close to how the military actually operates and how soldiers behave.

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Several scenes in the movie, including the accidental death of a soldier during a live-fire exercise and abuse of the soldiers, were debunked by former military officers who said the scenes were way too over the top and unlikely to happen at all. Another scene, with Marines dancing and firing their weapons with reckless abandonment, just fueled all the accusations of inaccuracy.

Battle of the Bulge

Named after a famed battle that took place in WWII, The Battle of the Bulge is a 1965 movie that took huge creative liberties. The battle took place in the Ardennes Forest, which is uneven terrain that is frequently plagued with snow and sleet storms.

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The movie, however, shows mostly clear skies, no snow and flat terrain. They also used props such as tanks and other wartime equipment that was most definitely not used during the time. To make matters worse, the Jeeps they used in the film weren't even made until after the war was over.

Red Tails

Red Tails was made to showcase the first African American squadron to fight in the U.S. military and their contributions to the war. The movie ended up being less of a homage to the Tuskegee Airmen and more of a patronizing, inaccurate portrayal of their sacrifices.

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It depicts no losses in their squadron when more than 25 of their bombers were actually shot down, and the main character was falsely portrayed as one of the best combat fighters to ever fly. That proved to be completely untrue, as the squad never actually produced an ace, despite all its impressive accomplishments.


After Flyboys' release, the military consultant on set was found to be embellishing his entire war record and proven to be nothing but a fraud. The film depicts American volunteers fighting for the French military at the start of WWI, becoming the first American fighter pilot squadron known as the Lafayette Escadrille.

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The red Fokker Dr.1 planes used in the movie weren't in widespread use even later in the war and didn't even exist at the time the Flyboys flew the Nieuport 17s. The producer said it made for better distinction in the fight scenes, but historians just saw it as lazy.


One thing Windtalkers got right is the use of Navajo Native Americans as code messengers during WWII, but that's where the accuracy stops. No official reports support the depiction in the film of American soldiers killing the Navajo "Windtalkers" to prevent them from becoming prisoners of war.

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There are also many other inaccuracies concerning actual combat. In the movie, the soldiers rarely took cover and seemed to fight at close range on the battlefields. In reality, concealment while advancing enemy lines was necessary for survival, and military teams worked more as a unit.

Pearl Harbor

The plot of Pearl Harbor isn't rooted in any true version of events — other than the attack on Pearl Harbor itself. The initial battle in which the main character, Rafe, got shot down in a British fighter jet didn’t actually happen.

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The forewarning of the attack on Pearl Harbor was also falsified, along with Cuba Gooding Jr.'s character's biggest scene, in which he shot a Japanese war jet out of the sky from a sinking battleship. Furthermore, he was treated for injuries later by a white nurse — unchaperoned — which likely wouldn’t have happened at the time.

The Green Berets

John Wayne's portrayal of events in the Vietnam War is perhaps one of the worst of the many movies made about the famous war. For one thing, the set was all wrong. It was full of pine trees and red clay, neither of which are found in Vietnam.

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Wayne himself was too old and overweight to play the role of a field-posted Colonel. In some scenes, he's also shown holding his rifle upside down. The film has been regarded as nothing more than war propaganda designed to push the idea that "war is good" at a time when the anti-war movement was growing steadily.

The Hurt Locker

The well-received drama The Hurt Locker took the story of a group of elite bomb disarming experts in Iraq and tried to turn it into a more humanized depiction of their sacrifices. Specific complaints tend to focus on the character of Sergeant James.

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His success record was implausible based on the number of bombs he allegedly worked on. Additionally, the character acted like a hot-headed, adrenaline-seeking, irrational soldier, which is an insult to the real-life military men and women who work as bomb disarmers. The three-person crew also worked without backup and engaged in battles that most likely didn’t occur in reality.

The Patriot

One of the most fabricated character portrayals ever to hit movie screens is The Patriot's depiction of Francis Marion, who is named Benjamin Martin in the film. In the movie, Martin was a kind, patriotic, dedicated family man.

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In real life, Francis Marion was actually a slave owner who sometimes raped female slaves and terrorized Cherokee Indians in brutal ways — sometimes hunting them down and killing them for fun. The movie depicts the British as atrocious warriors capable of herding people into a church to burn them alive, an act actually perpetrated by the Nazis in WWII.

A Beautiful Mind

The story of John Nash was heavily adapted to paint the genius in a different light, but its historical inaccuracies are the elements that continue to stand out. In the film, Nash is a brilliant man who battles with his own mind with the help of his doting wife, Alicia.

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In reality, Nash abandoned his first-born son because he felt he was socially superior to his mother. Technically, she fared better than the woman he actually married, whom he beat up until she eventually left him. He also had affairs throughout his marriage. He was ultimately diagnosed with schizophrenia, which wasn't depicted properly in the film, according to critics.


Braveheart tells the story of a rebellion against British King Edward I by Scottish warrior William Wallace. Perhaps the biggest flaw in the historical accuracy of the film is the timeline. Wallace's secondary love interest in the film, Isabella of France, would have been a toddler at the time the movie was set.

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The kilts worn in battle weren't invented until about 300 years later, and the battle scenes are nowhere near as tactical as they would have been during that time period. The big Battle of Stirling Bridge also didn't happen on an actual bridge in real life.


Best Picture Oscar winner Gladiator was more for entertainment value than historical documentation. The story follows a general who was forced into slavery and ultimately battled it out to the death in the gladiator coliseum.

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The filmmakers included some actual historical figures to add some real-life touches to the film, but it just ended up being a mess. The most notable inaccuracy was that of Joaquin Phoenix's evil portrayal of Commodus. In real life, the ruler was well liked and revered during his reign. He was also killed by his wrestling partner, Narcissus, not in show combat.


300 was based on a comic book series, so historical inaccuracy should have been expected by viewers. The battle it portrayed actually happened, and the Battle of Thermopylae was definitely a one-sided battle, but the overzealous depiction of it was way off base.

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Aside from the embellished version of events, the costumes were off, as the Spartans would have worn actual armor instead of the skimpy clothing you see in the film. The Persian Empire was also depicted in the film as slave owners when slavery was actually prohibited due to their Zoroastrian beliefs.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Cate Blanchett's portrayal of the first Queen Elizabeth was well received, even though the film itself was riddled with problems. Ivan the Terrible was shown in the film trying to court Elizabeth. In reality, he couldn't have been a love interest because he was dead at the time the film was set.

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The film also depicted the Spanish Attack as a surprise — it wasn't — and the Queen’s inspiring speech came after the battle, not before. The speech was also completely inaccurate, although that pales in comparison to the military inaccuracies included in the film.

10,000 BC

10,000 BC shouldn't even be considered a historical movie at all. According to the film, mammoths were responsible for building the pyramids. Every historian knows that can't be true, considering they were built around 2400 BC. (How they were built is still an unsolved mystery.)

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The film also jumped through time, going from the Ice Age to the Egyptian Age, with no mention of the millions of years that separated those two time periods. It also featured things that weren't invented for thousands of years, such as ships, steel and horseback riding.

J. Edgar

Playing more like a Hoover propaganda film than a true depiction of American history, J. Edgar, was very loosely based on J. Edgar Hoover’s infamous life. Played by Leonardo DiCaprio, the film missed the mark when it came to utilizing actual history in its storyline.

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In terms of the takedown of the communist invasion, the film depicted Hoover as the man responsible for it all. In reality, it took a whole team to take down the Red Menace. The film also failed to mention his use of federal resources to document personal details on hundreds of thousands of people who were not at all involved in communism.


Pocahontas may be loosely based on real events, but the film was Disney-fied to give it a happy ending children would enjoy. One of the main problems with the film is that when the English arrived in Virginia, Pocahontas was only 10 years old, which would have made a romantic relationship with John Smith highly inappropriate.

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The film shows the Native Americans and British working together, but the British ultimately attacked and attempted to wipe out the native populations. They even kidnapped Pocahontas, who decided to stay with her people when they were being attacked, and forced her to marry an Englishman — not a Disney princess story at all.


The 1991 film pushed conspiracy theories to the brink, with little evidence to back them up. The opening combined real footage, which gave it a more credible feel, but the storytelling failed to include much historical accuracy.

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The film also pushed the Magic Bullet Theory that suggests there had to be more than one shooter at the scene. This is a highly publicized theory supported by many people who believe it’s true, even though experts at the time examined the bullet's trajectory and confirmed Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole culprit in JFK's death.

Marie Antoinette

Although the film was engaging, Marie Antoinette's historical inaccuracies were just too prevalent to ignore. The complete lack of politics in the film is one of its main problems. In reality, it was a driving force in her story — and in her death.

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There were also huge inaccuracies in costume design, with clothing in colors that weren't invented at the time. There's even a scene in which a character is spotted wearing Converse sneakers. (What?) Her courtship with Louis-Auguste is rushed from the seven years it actually took to a few, short months, and the writers threw in a falsified love affair with Count Axel Fersen.

Shakespeare in Love

This film's numerous inaccuracies for the time period drew attention away from the storyline. The film followed a young man with writer's block who found his muse and wrote the play of a lifetime, loosely based on Romeo and Juliet.

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In the film, the characters drank out of modern beer glasses, and the Queen at the time was seen watching a play in public, which would never have happened in real life. The film was set during the time of the bubonic plague, yet nothing was depicted as it should have been during a crisis of that magnitude.


The award-winning Argo was entertaining, but it missed the mark when it came to telling the story as it actually happened. The movie followed a CIA agent on a mission to rescue six Americans during the U.S. Hostage Crisis.

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The portrayal of Iranians, coupled with the film's complete lack of Canadian influence, are two of the biggest problems. They also added events that never happened for dramatic effect, including the last chase scene at the airport and the lynching they narrowly escaped by a group of Iranians in a bazaar.

Born on the Fourth of July

Tom Cruise played the role of Sergeant Ron Kovic, a soldier who ended up paralyzed after getting shot during his second tour in the Vietnam War. The film was based on a book about Kovic's life, and even the book has come under scrutiny for being inaccurate.

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The biggest flaw in the film was the speech when Kovic returned to the United States after being sent home because of his injuries. The speech he gave on July 4 in the movie never actually happened in real life. The entire thing was made up to make the movie seem a little more dramatic.

The Last Samurai

Straight out of the Hollywood whitewashing handbook is The Last Samurai, a movie that portrayed an American military veteran hired to train Japanese troops in hopes of winning a battle against the country's samurais. Many critics claim the biggest problem with the film was its casting, with Tom Cruise in the lead role.

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The movie also made it seem like the Japanese have the United States to thank for some of their long-lasting traditions related to warfare. Most think that’s insulting, considering the two countries created some dark history during WWII.


In the dramatic story of an 1839 slave ship rebellion, Amistad took historical accuracy out of the picture to create heroes in line with American rhetoric. John Quincy Adams was played by the talented Anthony Hopkins, who in the film fought for freedom for African refugees.

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In real life, Adams was somewhat of an advocate for anti-slavery, but he wasn't as headstrong as he was depicted to be in the film. The movie also decided to leave out some less than desirable parts of the story, such as the part where thousands of people paid to watch Africans sit in jail.

The Sound of Music

Julie Andrews stars in the musical classic The Sound of Music, but the accuracy of the film wasn't anywhere near as impressive as her singing. In the film, Captain Von Trapp was played as a bad-tempered, militaristic man. In real life, that wasn’t the case at all.

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The character was actually a kind, loving father to his children. The escape in the film was also depicted incorrectly. They wouldn't have hiked through the Alps because that would have led them to Nazi Germany. Their escape route would have taken them to Italy.

Good Morning, Vietnam

Good Morning, Vietnam is the story of radio DJ Adrian Cronauer. Played by Robin Williams, the film was nominated for Best Picture. The real-life Cronauer raved about the movie but admitted that creative liberties were taken all over the place.

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Cronauer confirmed the inaccuracy of many of Williams’ actions in the film, the most notable being his friendship with a Vietnamese boy. In the film, the boy turned out to be a Viet Cong insurgent, and Williams got kicked out of Vietnam. Although his discharge from the military would have been inevitable if that had happened, it never did.


Scholars across the world are livid at the Oxfordian theory pushed in the film Anonymous. The movie told the story of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, and explored the theory that he was the one who actually wrote all of Shakespeare's plays and poems so he could gain political control.

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Historians argue that the film is a complete farce that in no way depicts reality. The theory started in the 1920s, but no proof has ever been found, and even Oxford has disputed the theory as being nothing more than a falsified version of events.

Saving Private Ryan

Although Saving Private Ryan is arguably one of the best war movies ever made, it’s not based on a true story as many people believe. The film followed a company of Rangers as they searched for the last surviving son of an American mother.

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The liberties taken with the film helped provide a good storyline, but the invasion of Normandy on D-Day was heavily changed. In the movie, it only took a few minutes for the Rangers to break beachside. In reality, that battle lasted hours and took two more waves of soldiers than shown.