Every year, Hollywood pumps out "historical" epics so distorted, propagandistic and self-serving, you have to wonder just how stupid they think we are. But, try "fixing" some of those historical inaccuracies and you'll quickly realize what Hollywood screenwriters have known for years: History is lame. Here are 11 movies that make us glad no one gives a damn about trivial things like "what actually happened."
The Flick: Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott present the epic tale of Maximus, a Roman general who became a slave, a slave who became a gladiator, a gladiator who defied an emperor and an actor/director team who threw all the audience goodwill they'd earned on this away by releasing A Good Year six years later.
The Inaccuracies: Commodus, the hare-lipped Roman Emperor who lusted after his sister in the film, was in real life held in high esteem by the senate and ruled for a successful 13 years (rather than the ineffectual few months depicted in the film). Also, though the Emperor did, in fact, have an enthusiasm for gladiatorial combat (he did so incognito), he didn't get his ticket punched in the arena. He was killed in the bath by a wrestler named Narcissus to prevent him taking office as consul.
Why It Would Have Sucked Otherwise: No one wants to watch Russell Crowe take 13 years to murder an emperor, who is basically a decent guy, only to get beaten to the kill by a wrestler. We like our villains like we like our Books of Genesis: with implied incestuous relationships. Also, since any Roman unit that broke ranks when in combat against barbarians would have been mercilessly slaughtered, the movie would have ended within about 15 minutes.
The Flick: Mel Gibson's earliest example of "loose" historical reenactment, Braveheart marks a promising start to a career later spent boiling complex political issues down to "Mel Gibson kills Englishmen with an axe" (The Patriot) and curiously drawn-out torture scenes involving his heroes (The Passion of the Christ).
The Inaccuracies: Far from a scrappy commoner who clawed his way up from the mud to defend his homeland, William Wallace was actually a knight from a noble family, and his father Malcolm wasn't killed by the English, but fought on the English side in exchange for political favor. Also, instead of kilts, the Wallace and his army wore saffron shirts.
Why It Would Have Sucked Otherwise: We have to imagine that if Mel Gibson were forced to play a role any more layered than that of the just and righteous warrior-king-redeemer, his face would melt off from the challenge, revealing the circuitry within. And as entertaining as that would be, it's not as entertaining as the actual movie, or the years of mileage we've gotten out of screaming "They may take our things-but they'll never take our FREEEEEEDOM!" when we have our nail clippers taken away from us at airport security.
The Flick: An American whose home gets attacked by foreigners goes ape shit and kills everybody of the same race as those who attacked him, even people who weren't actually involved. Yay, prescience!
The Inaccuracies: Benjamin Martin, the vaguely-named Mel Gibson character in the film, is actually based on a real guy in the Revolutionary War, Francis "Swamp Fox" Marion. Aside from having a more memorable name, there were some notable differences between Mel and Marion. Marion, for example, never single-handedly killed an entire British infantry unit. He did, however, slaughter dozens of unarmed Cherokee Indians and repeatedly raped his female slaves. So, there's that.
Why It Would Have Sucked Otherwise: True, it would have given us an earlier tip-off that something is dreadfully wrong with Mel Gibson, but we're not sure anyone wants to watch a movie where the bad guys burn churches full of innocent prisoners and the good guy sexually assaults slaves and hunts Indians for sport. You kind of don't know who to root for anymore, other than maybe the French-and who wants that?
The Flick: Jude Law, as Confederate soldier W.P. Inman, must find his way back to his love, Ada, while overcoming a deadly wilderness, the ravages of war and having to look at Renee Zellweger for an extended period of time.
The Inaccuracies: While Jude only deserts his unit after a disastrous battle, the real W.P. Inman was arrested twice for "cowardly desertion of his post." Also, as Inman starts his journey from a hospital in Raleigh, NC, which is about 250 miles east of Cold Mountain, it's somewhat puzzling that he manages to reach the Atlantic Ocean, roughly 400 miles out of his way, before getting home.
Why It Would Have Sucked Otherwise: Despite everything mentioned above, by far the most movie-saving historical inaccuracy in Cold Mountain has to be the fact that women of the 1800s rarely, if ever, shaved their legs. Take every romantic scene between Ada and Inman and add the rustling sound of a six-month crop of leg hair, and you'll understand what we're talking about here.
The Flick: Kirsten Dunst takes a break from being whiny and self-centered in modern-day Manhattan to be whiny and self-centered in 18th century France.
The Inaccuracies: One of the conflicts in the film centers around Marie and Louis' (Jason Schwartzman) difficulty in producing an heir. In the movie, Louis is afraid of sex. In reality, Louis had phimosis, a condition in which the foreskin of the penis cannot be fully retracted. This was later fixed with an operation, and the couple did in fact conceive.
Why It Would Have Sucked Otherwise: The only thing we want to see less than Jason Schwartzman and Kirsten Dunst argue about his extra penis skin is footage of the operation in which this skin is removed with all the benefits of 18th century medical technology.
The Flick: Mozart, the leather-pants rock star of the Classical era, farts and bangs noblewomen while composing magnificent music at the drop of a hat, all to the chagrin of rival Salieri, who spends so much of his time deviously plotting Mozart's demise it's hard not to imagine Snidely Whiplash in the role.
The Inaccuracies: Sure, Mozart was a man who enjoyed the occasional diarrhea joke, but by all accounts he was far from the filthy-minded, giggling simpleton depicted in the movie. Also, most historians agree that his relationship with Salieri was one of "friendly rivalry, marked by mutual respect and admiration." And though the movie hints that Salieri may have killed Mozart by poisoning him, the truth is Mozart probably drank himself to death on good old-fashioned booze.
Why It Would Have Sucked Otherwise: A movie about Mozart having a friendly rivalry with someone he respects and admires, then slowly drinking himself to death, would have been about as entertaining as home movies of me interacting with my father.
The Flick: Frank Miller's graphic novel (accent on the "graphic") explodes onto the silver screen in the form of hilariously toned abs, gyrating nude oracles and trolls with lobster claw hands who we'd imagine must have had a lot of difficulty using the facilities.
The Inaccuracies: Setting aside the use of magic missiles, lack of body armor and the appearance of both a hunchback and a villain that resembles a 7-foot lisping version of Dhalsim from Street Fighter II, 300 seems to glorify some aspects of Spartan life-prowess in battle, fighting for democracy, loyalty to the homeland, constant spear throwing-while slyly downplaying others, such as the fact that Sparta was a fascistic church-run warrior caste of slave owners who regularly enjoyed pederasty (having sex with little boys), and holy Christ they had sex with little boys.
Why It Would Have Sucked Otherwise: Just ask Oliver Stone and anyone who lost money on Alexander.
The Flick: Mel Gibson wisely places himself behind the camera instead of in front, but not-so-wisely decides that it would be good for his image as a borderline-crazy racist to try and do justice to an entire ancient civilization in two hours.
The Inaccuracies: Although Mayans did occasionally engage in ritual human sacrifice, they were a far more civilized and complex culture than shown in the film. In fact, the Mayan sun god Kukulkan, to whom the sacrifice is made in the movie, never asked for and was never given such a sacrifice, so whatever priest was offering Kukulkan a human heart was probably just creeping him the fuck out.
Why It Would Have Sucked Otherwise: Hey, if surrogate Mel Gibson is going to be on the run for half the movie and kicking ass for the other half, it better be because his heart's going to get carved out with a spoon, and not because the elders are going to hold a tribunal, mitigating his sentence to house arrest and temporary probation.
The Flick: The Bard of Avon meets his muse and imitates his own plays in what is essentially a RomCom for theater-folk. "Hilarious" references to the Shakespearean cannon are as plentiful as they are obscure.
The Inaccuracies: Basically everything, since Shakespeare is one of the most mysterious figures in English history. Historians still argue as to whether he was gay, a front for the Earl of Oxford and/or Sir Francis Bacon, or a cyborg from the future sent back in time to found western civilization, thereby hastening the creation of the McRib sandwich.
Why It Would Have Sucked Otherwise: There isn't much that is less cinematic than someone who may or may not be gay possibly writing a group of plays that may or may not be those attributed to him after his unremarkable death -- we think.
The Flick: A High-Classical epic of the Qing Dynasty, detailing the lives of those who are touched by the legendary blade known as "The Green Destiny" and their ability to speak in a fantastical space-language.
The Inaccuracies: You will be happy to learn that the Chinese cannot fly, despite what you have seen in every single martial arts movie made in the last 15 years. Their Chi, though powerful, has not yet granted them the magical abilities they so desperately desire, which is thankful-for that barrier is all that stands between us and the "United States of Beijing."
Why It Would Have Sucked Otherwise: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has enough exposition, slow dialogue, meditative reflection on the transience of life and forced reading as it is. If we didn't get a flying side-kick now and then, we probably wouldn't have made it 15 minutes in.
The Flick: An evil computer based on the IBM Corp. tries to stop mankind from reaching our goal of a manned flight to Jupiter, but ends up singing like a little schoolgirl instead. Score one for the giant space baby!
The Inaccuracies: In case you hadn't noticed, Arthur C. Clarke's vision of a millennial dawn in which we are masters of our solar system was a bit optimistic. And though we may fear death at the hands of a computerized master, odds are more on Google or a creepy Japanese baby robot than anything IBM could cook up.
Why It Would Have Sucked Otherwise: Because a movie true to the events of 2001 would have been about Super Bowl XXXV (a 34-7 snooze-fest), the release of the Planet of the Apes remake and the Spice Girls breaking up. Oh, and Mir, the world's most advanced piece of space technology, falling to Earth in a fiery blaze and crashing into the sea.
Michael writes the incredibly important humor blog, The Specious.