Faking it: ten historically misleading films
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
Writing for UnHerd, Allan Mallinson questions to what extent ‘fake history’ in films and dramas contributes to our era of fake news. Here, Geoff Heath-Taylor looks at 10 titles that are rich in historical inaccuracies:
The Birth of a Nation remains one of the most controversial films ever made. Although it was ground-breaking in its cinematic quality (the first 12-reel film in US history), its infamy lies in its shameless racism. Focusing on the intermingled lives of an abolitionist family from the North and a confederate family from the South, it tells a highly romanticised version of the forming of the Ku Klux Klan. The film follows the families, while trumpeting the progress of the Klan, through the Civil War and then the Reconstruction year. It is littered with inaccuracy – as well as bigotry. As historian Stephen Mintz said: “Reconstruction was a disaster, blacks could never be integrated into white society as equals, and the violent actions of the Ku Klux Klan were justified to reestablish honest government.” But worse still, the revival of the KKK – dead by 1915 – has been credited to the film. Upon the movie’s release, the Klan was refounded.
It is easy to disregard the historical inaccuracies in Pocahontas because it is an animated children’s film. But upon its release, in 1995, the film caused outrage among historians and native Americans alike. While it is true that an English settler named John Smith was captured by the Powhatan Tribe and was saved by Pocahontas, the rest of the film is nothing but Disney nonsense. The conclusion, in particular, bears little comparison with reality: in it the settlers and the native Americans stop fighting and live in peace. In truth, 90% of native Americans were wiped out and their land seized by opportunistic settlers. They still suffer the effects of their treatment today.
Storming of the Winter Palace (1920)
This mass spectacle, organised on Lenin’s orders, re-enacts the siege of the Winter Palace by the October revolutionaries. A great battle was staged – involving hundreds of actors, dancers, tanks and armoured vehicles – which took vast liberties with the truth. The real story is less dramatic: the revolutionaries, in fact, faced little resistance as they took the palace. Glamourising the revolution, as it does, this reconstruction implies that the storming was a courageous and noble endeavour by brave men fighting for their freedom and for the greater good. Having little basis in fact, a better example of propaganda is hard to find.
The Cairo Declaration (2015)
This film formed part of a massive Chinese government cultural push to commemorate the 70th anniversary of their victory in the Second Sino-Japanese War. The declaration itself came at a key moment in the Second World War, as Churchill and Roosevelt met Chiang Kai-Shek, Generalissimo of the Republic of China, to form an allegiance against Japan. Their intention was to “restrain and punish” the aggressor and to map a post-war path for Asia. But the film had a socking great lie at its heart: it depicts Mao, not Chian Kai-Shek, as the Chinese representative at the meeting in Egypt. Mao wasn’t even at the conference. Such shameless aggrandisement of the heroic founder of modern Communist China, made the film a laughing stock beyond its target audience.
Pépé le Moko (1937)
This depiction of a gangster on the run who ends up living in hiding in the Casbah quarter of Algiers is based on a French book, but rooted in reality. It follows a police inspector as he seeks to lure Pépé from his refuge. The film’s purportedly true-to-life portrayal of French colonial policies and values has attracted angry criticism. One historian, David Henry Slavin, drew attention to the film’s denial of colonial realities, describing it as a reworking of history that “hinders France’s ability to confront the legacy of its colonial past”.
Based almost entirely on conspiracy, Oliver Stone’s movie suggests that the FBI and CIA were involved in the assassination of JFK. In one entirely fabricated scene, a character called David Ferrie confesses to the JFK assassination plot. The key witness in the film is invented, and the film’s conclusion – that there was a second gunman – is not backed up by facts. The movie was a gift to conspiracy theorists and, according to former President Gerald Ford, was “a desecration to the memory of President Kennedy and a fraudulent misrepresentation of the truth to the American public”.
Director Oliver Stone’s relationship with history comes under scrutiny again with Nixon. The protagonist is shown as being totally unfit for the role of President: an unstable, alcoholic man. While there is an element of truth in the interpretation, it is the only aspect of Nixon’s character shown by the director. And the distorted portrait perfectly suits Stone’s left-wing political viewpoint. The film goes on to show how Nixon hated the Kennedys and their policies, and also slyly accuses him of somehow being implicated in JFK’s death. It also suggests that Nixon prolonged a war in Vietnam for his own selfish political reasons, something for which there is no evidence. The Nixon Family were horrified, calling the film “reprehensible”.
The Patriot (2000)
The protagonist of the title, and reluctant member of the anti-British colonial militia during the American War of Independence, was supposedly drawn from four real characters. However, the film’s portrayal of British figures and atrocities was pure invention. In one scene, the British force villagers, including women and children, in to a church and burn it down. All inside were murdered. This event was based on a real-life atrocity – but one committed by the Nazis during the Second World War. Cinema-goers and historians alike were horrified. A headline in the Telegraph summed it up perfectly: “Truth is first casualty in Hollywood’s war”.
A US submarine crew successfully captures and boards a German U-Boat and seizes the enigma machine that was to be a turning point in the Second World War. Except it’s not true. In fact, the entire operation was planned and executed by British seamen, and took place in May 1941, seven months before the Americans even entered the war. The film was met with considerable outrage on the British side of the Atlantic. Tony Blair condemned Hollywood for rewriting history, saying “I hope that people realise these are people that, in many cases, sacrificed their lives in order that this country remained free.” Culture Secretary Chris Smith agreed: “I think one of the things we need to make clear to Hollywood is, yes you’re in the entertainment business but the people who see your movies are going to come away thinking that’s information, not just entertainment.”
Upon its release, Ben Affleck’s film, based on the memoirs of a CIA man and depicting the Iran hostage crisis, was greeted with rave reviews and Oscar nominations. Yet critics and historians were quick to point out that the film totally underplays the role of the Canadian government in the evacuation of the six US hostages. As US President Jimmy Carter, who was President at the time of the crisis, pointed out “90 percent of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan was Canadian. And the movie gives almost full credit to the American CIA.” Yet more Hollywood nationalism at its most insidious.