When a movie says it's "based on a true story," we understand that not every detail can be exactly like it was in reality. Sometimes they have to merge characters or alter events to make the story move faster, otherwise those things would get pretty boring. Nobody wants to see an Elvis biopic that's 30 percent pooping scenes and 30 percent sleeping on piles of money. (Or maybe we do, but just a little.)
So, sometimes they change things for good reason -- and other times they just flat-out lie and make real people look like evil, cowardly, petty douchebags for the heck of it. For instance ...
#5. The Crazy Crewman in Titanic Was a Hero in Real Life
What You Saw in the Movie:
In James Cameron's Titanic, First Officer William Murdoch is the weasel-faced crew member who accepts a bribe from the film's villain, kills two people and shoots himself in the head. Seriously, you can tell he's going to do all that from the beginning just by looking at this guy's face:
And afterward, he's going to steal Christmas.
After the ship hits the iceberg and starts sinking, we see Murdoch taking money from Kate Winslet's rich, evil boyfriend (Billy Zane) in exchange for a spot in a lifeboat. Murdoch later throws the money in Zane's face, but still, a good guy wouldn't have taken it in the first place. Later, the crew is trying to keep the desperate passengers from rushing to the lifeboats when someone tries to get past them ... and Murdoch kills him.
"You'll all get your turn! Well, not you, obviously."
At the same time, another passenger is accidentally pushed forward. In the confusion, Murdoch kills him, too. Ashamed of what he has done, Murdoch turns the gun to his head and blows his brains out right there (when he could have just waited, like, five more minutes and let the ocean do the job for him).
But in Real Life ...
For all the insane amount of work James Cameron put into getting the Titanic to look just right, he didn't seem to give much of a crap about how he portrayed the real people in it. William Murdoch was really the name of the first officer of the Titanic, but other than that, they are completely different people: Not only was he not a coward and a murderer, but he actually saved people's lives. There's even a plaque to his memory in his hometown in Scotland, where he's remembered as a hero.
Notice how nowhere in there does it say "shooting poor people."
According to historians, Murdoch did everything possible to save people, guiding them to lifeboats and throwing deck chairs overboard for those in the water to cling to. He didn't commit suicide -- he drowned doing his job.
If he did shoot a pistol (and we don't know for sure that he did), it was into the air and only to "stop a potential riot." As for the bribe: That isn't even an exaggeration of anything, it's just completely made up.
The movie version wasn't worthy of that mustache.
After the movie's depiction of Murdoch caused an outrage in his hometown, Titanic producers apologized by donating $8,000 to the Murdoch Memorial Fund (a hefty sum, considering the movie only made $2.1 billion worldwide). The vice president of 20th Century Fox visited Scotland to apologize to Murdoch's family personally, but even then insisted they were all just reading the movie wrong, claiming that "I believe he was portrayed as a hero in the film."
"Wait, you mean he's not the blond guy? Oh shit."
And then, finally, James Cameron did make a change for the 3-D version of Titanic released in 2012 that made the movie more accurate: He changed the stars in the sky.
#4. Al Pacino's Portrayal of a Criminal Almost Got the Real Guy Killed
What You Saw in the Movie:
In Dog Day Afternoon, Al Pacino plays a bank robber who sells out his partner (John Cazale) to the FBI, getting him shot in the head in the back of a limo.
Fredo broke his heart so bad, he had to kill him in two movies. Oh, um, spoilers.
Pacino and Cazale play Sonny Wortzik and Sal Naturile, two guys who try to rob a bank but end up holing themselves up in there and taking the employees hostage. After over 10 hours of tense negotiation and Pacino yelling "Attica! Attica!" so much that he has since forgotten how to speak normally, the FBI agrees to drive Sonny, Sal and the hostages to the airport so they can board a jet. However, at one point an agent takes Sonny aside and suggests betraying Sal. Sonny acts outraged, but when Sal asks what they were talking about, he lies.
Later, as they sit in a limo in the airport waiting for the jet, Sonny acts nervous because he knows that the agents are planning to take out Sal, but doesn't warn him ... and then Sal is violently killed, with Sonny immediately surrendering and being arrested.
"Bullets to the face or eternal soap vigilance -- how is a man supposed to choose?"
But in Real Life ...
Not only did the real Sonny not betray his partner, but he only found out that the movie painted him as a traitor when it was played in front of 1,300 other inmates at the federal penitentiary where he lived. It was not pleasant.
Sonny is based on real-life bank robber John Wojtowicz, who says the movie "brought him some problems" with the other prisoners -- "problems" meaning he was beat up so badly that he had to spend more than a year in isolation (and couldn't sit the whole time, presumably). The saddest part is that Wojtowicz was actually eager to get "his" movie shown in front of the other men, since he had no idea that they'd taken some liberties with his life story: He was the one who asked Warner Bros. to send a copy to the prison, and they didn't even think to warn him.
The Longue Duree
He also didn't appreciate the part where Pacino says "Prison gangs are for pussies" and "I don't mind getting shanked."
Dog Day Afternoon was inspired by a Life magazine article on Wojtowicz's story, but nowhere in that article do they mention him cutting a deal with the FBI. In fact, screenwriter Frank Pierson admits he just made up that whole part and later regretted it when he found out what happened to Wojtowicz (but probably not as much as Wojtowicz). And the real Sal Naturile actually died while struggling for his rifle with an agent and was 18 at the time, but was played in the movie by a 40-year-old actor.
At least that explains that hair, and why he keeps saying "Groovy, dude."
#3. The Murderous Evil Boxer in Cinderella Man Wasn't Either of Those Things
What You Saw in the Movie:
In Cinderella Man (directed by Ron Howard), Russell Crowe plays real-life boxer James Braddock, nicknamed "The Cinderella Man" because he rises from poverty in the middle of the Great Depression and becomes the heavyweight champion of the world (and not because of his controversial glass slipper fetish).
We're on to you, Crowe.
However, in order to claim the title, Braddock must face this movie's Ivan Drago, the ruthless Max Baer, who likes to brag about having killed two boxers. One died in the ring, and the other a few weeks after their fight (apparently Baer's punch was so fast that it broke the time barrier and hit him in the future). In one scene, Baer arrogantly warns Braddock that he could be next, then tells his wife, "You are far too pretty to be a widow" and "Maybe I could comfort you after he's gone."
"And by comfort you, I mean kill you, too, of course."
Even the fight's promoter takes Braddock aside and warns him about Baer's murderous fists, since he doesn't want a death on his conscience, but the hero decides to go ahead with the match anyway, and not only survives, but wins.
But in Real Life ...
The real Max Baer did kill one boxer in the ring, Frankie Campbell, but it was entirely accidental, and it haunted him his whole life. He sat by Campbell's bedside while he was in the hospital and broke down and cried when they pronounced him dead. Baer even raised money for Campbell's family and helped pay for his children's education. So either he was really, really humble and just didn't feel like mentioning any of that in the movie, or Ron Howard is full of shit.
In his last moments, the boxer wrote a message in blood over the canvas. It said, "Yep, he's full of shit."
Baer was a popular celebrity who was known and loved for his cheerful personality (and for wearing a star of David on his trunks while punching Hitler's favorite boxer). If anything, the accident made him less arrogant: After Campbell died, Baer started having nightmares and even lost a few fights because he was too afraid of hurting the other guys.
Also, his son played Jethro in The Beverly Hillbillies. So he must have been a good guy.
Oh, and as for the other boxer, who died some weeks after facing Baer, that was technically true. Ernie Schaaf was the guy, and oh, by the way, he happened to have both meningitis and the flu at the time, and even his family admitted that Baer couldn't possibly have had anything to do with that unless he had figured out a way to cover his gloves in diseases.
Obviously, Baer would have never threatened another boxer or bragged about having killed a guy as shown in the movie. Those scenes and the one with the promoter are completely made up, presumably because the filmmakers wanted to add some tension to the story. Otherwise it would just be a boring-ass movie about some boxer who rose from poverty, and who the hell would watch that?