Every year sees a fresh crop of Hollywood films tentatively based on true stories, most of them vying for the attention of the Academy Awards, but few of us realize how many liberties some of these films take. In order to tell a more compelling story, screenwriters and directors embellish and outright fabricate major events while under the guise of the questionable “based on a true story” label. We’ve listed six of the most egregious offenders below.
1. Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Like Forrest Gump, Lee Daniels’ The Butler takes inventory of historical events through the eyes of a single man — the real-life Cecil Gaines, portrayed by Forrest Whitaker, who served as a White House butler for 34 years beneath eight presidents. The weepy Oscar-baiting film is packed wall to wall with big-names and melodrama, but how much of the melodrama is grounded in reality? Not much.
The real life Gaines never complained about any hardship during his youth in Virginia as a plantation houseboy, while the film shows his mother becoming catatonic after being raped by her employer and Georgia plantation owner, shortly before his father is murdered, leaving the fictional Gaines orphaned. Later, Cecil’s wife (Oprah Winfrey in the film) is shown struggling with alcoholism and guilt over an affair. None of that happened. One of his two sons leaves to join the Civil Rights movement while the other is killed in Vietnam. Gaines only had one son, who did serve in Vietnam but returned home alive and well. Like much of the film, his other son was nothing but an invention.
2. The Pursuit of Happyness
Will Smith’s uplifting starring vehicle The Pursuit of Happyness depicts the noble struggles of Chris Gardner, who manages to land a stockbroker job by being really good with a Rubik’s cube (a Hollywood invention if there ever was one) and put his nose to the grindstone long enough to pull himself and his beloved son, played by Smith’s real-life son Jaden, out of poverty. Smith’s wholesome image lent itself well to the depiction of such a devoted working father, but the actual Gardner neglected his son for a straight four months while he began his training program at Dean Witter, during which time he lived with his mother Jackie — who was impregnated with their son while Chris was married to another woman.
The film removed these moral complications to sanitize Gardner for the big screen — even omitting the fact that Gardner once sold drugs and did cocaine for a time. He was even arrested on suspicion of domestic violence, which the film turned into him being arrested for unpaid parking tickets. Marketed as an uplifting true story, The Pursuit of Happyness might be uplifting, but it isn’t exactly true.
Americans, as a rule, love movies about American heroism. Take, for example, the already-forgotten Best Picture winner Argo, which centers around a real life CIA triumph wherein agent Tony Mendez snuck out six Americans holed up with a Canadian diplomat in the hostile territory of Iran. Mendez, who was played in the film by director Ben Affleck, told NPR that the climax of the film was mostly fabricated — there was no car full of military men chasing their plane down the runway during takeoff, as depicted in the film, which also completely omitted his partner (who was with him in Iran) in the whole enterprise.
More egregious still is the way the film minimizes the Canadian role in the hostages’ rescue. Not only did a Canadian diplomat give the hostages a place to hide for 80 days before their rescue, Canadian officials took the lead on the rescue, though two CIA officials were the ones who actually made the rescue in Tehran. Jimmy Carter, the president at the time of the Argo rescue mission — previously best known as the Canadian Caper — said he admired the film, but that “90 percent of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan was Canadian.” Unfortunately, Americans don’t love movies about Canadian heroism so much.
Director and starring actor Mel Gibson has freely admitted that his movie Braveheart is best taken as a work of historical fantasy, rather than as an accurate portrayal of the life of the Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace he plays in the film. Those who took the film as gospel might be shocked to find out how many liberties Gibson’s retelling takes, including showing Wallace struggling as a child of poverty during his mostly unknown early life, when most historians believe him to have been a child of aristocracy.
Even beyond some of the most glaring stylistic choices — such as the decision to depict Scots wearing kilts in a time before they were customary — Braveheart rearranges the roles of actual historical figures, turning Robert the Bruce (who was the one actually nicknamed Braveheart) into a traitor when he actually continued to support Wallace after disowning him at the beginning of his military campaign. Similarly, Isabelle of France, Prince Edward’s fiance, is shown giving Wallace information about the English army’s location, when the real Isabelle would have been four-years-old at the time of Wallace’s campaign. Elsewhere in the film, real battles are altered in setting and action, removing the bridge from the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Read more about the inaccuracies here.
5. Good Morning, Vietnam
In the midst of an unjust war in hostile territory, irreverent military radio DJ Robin Williams does what Robin Williams does best — tell fast-paced jokes and piss off authority figures. Good Morning, Vietnam finds Williams playing a version of the military DJ Adrian Cronauer that fearlessly criticizes the military brass, leading to his eventual discharge at the hands of furious military officers. In reality, that version was almost entirely fabricated to fit with Williams’ comic stylings, while the real life Cronauer didn’t do much more than play music the troops wanted to hear. He also didn’t become friends with a local boy, only to later find out he’s a member of the Viet Cong. Cronauer has said that most of the irreverent comedic takedowns in the film would have landed him before a military tribunal and likely kicked out of the military, as he is in the film, instead of simply returning home after his tour of duty was up, as he did in real life.
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