History at the Movies

Hollywood Takes Liberties with Historical Themes and Events

The world premiere of the 1960 film The Alamo occurred in San Antonio exactly two weeks before the November presidential election. Produced and directed by John Wayne, the quintessential American hero of the screen, the movie retold the story of the 1836 battle that became a rallying cry for Texas independence. John Wayne also starred in the film as Davy Crockett. 1960 was a period of uncertainty in America. Cold War fears encouraged the building of bomb shelters and numerous world crises reminded the public that the global power competition was between atheistic Communism and democratic freedoms. The Alamo gave expression to that conflict.

Hollywood Reacts to Current Trends Rather than History

Taking liberties with historical truth in order to convey a particular message or agenda is as old as the industry. The Birth of a Nation, the first epic film, set the stage for historical inaccuracies that frequently included deliberate attempts to distort the past. The 1939 epic Gone with the Wind continued this trend, eventually grossing over one billion dollars (adjusted for inflation by today’s valuation, according to Parade, March 7, 2010).

Although The Alamo contains several outright inaccuracies, it is the message of the film that conformed to the fears of 1960. Communism was perceived to be an evil force and both major political parties wanted to appear tough in combating it. John F. Kennedy won that election by a slim margin and proceeded to vastly increase the nuclear arsenal. Additionally, the Soviets had conquered space before the United States. In The Alamo, John Wayne talks reverently about the word “republic” and why it is worth fighting for.

Titanic and Non-Historical “History” Movies

The 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic has been the theme of numerous movies, each one portraying events differently and conveying images and concepts pertinent to the time period during which they were produced. The 1953 version, starring Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck, portrayed an orderly sinking where every man did his duty.

Richard Sturges’ young teenage son gives up his lifeboat seat to an older woman to be with the men; Richard Basehart – a defrocked priest struggling with alcoholism, returns below deck to minister to dying men; Mr. Sturges reconciles with his wife Julia. The film highlighted honor and duty. Even Isidor Strauss and his wife Ida, join those left behind to robustly sing “Nearer My God to Thee,” although Strauss was Jewish.

James Cameron’s 1997 Titanic was also full of messages – as well as fictional characters. A recurring theme is the vast gulf between the super rich and the poor in steerage. Apprised that only half of the passengers would fit into the lifeboats, Cal, the villain, replies “only the better half.” The film was anti-establishment with the final message that only in death will Rose find fulfillment with Jack.

Inglorious Bastards, based loosely on The Dirty Dozen, is anything but historical. The same can be said for U-571. While entertaining, such films undermine the notion that real history is meaningful and important. Real history, however, often lacks the torrid relationships viewers have come to expect. This is what ruined Michael Bay’s 2001 retelling of Pearl Harbor. The 1970 film Tora Tora Toraportrayed the event with much greater accuracy.

Portraying History Accurately at the Movies

Well made and historically accurate films can win awards and make money at the box office. Chariots of Fire won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1981. Gandhi won the following year. Although it can be argued that every historical film may contain some element of factual inaccuracy, most movies cross the border between fiction and truth in a detrimental way. Filming history does not have to include agendas.


  • Bruce Chadwick, The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001)
  • Internet Movie Database (IMDb)
  • David Lubin, Titanic (British Film Institute, 1999)
  • Larry May, The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000)

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