I enjoy watching movies and like many people especially enjoy movies that are “Based on a True Story” or “Based on actual events”. These statements imply that these movies are more “true” or at least less fictional than the average movie. However, my research has shown that most movies that claim to be based on a true story are often extremely inaccurate with respect to key plot points and characters. Shockingly, many of the most memorable scenes in these in movies never actually happened.
Accusations that supposedly true movies are inaccurate have been leveled at a number of films. The movie “Selma” is just the most recent movie to experience this controversy. Some have suggested that Selma was not nominated for many awards because of its historical inaccuracies. If this is true then the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) is selectively applying these criteria. AMPAS has in fact already given out a “Best Picture” Oscar award to a movie that had major historical inaccuracies. More on that in a minute.
I first became interested in this issue because of the controversy surrounding Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in the 1999 film, “The Hurricane”. There was a great deal of criticism that the film had historical inaccuracies. Denzel Washington was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar and some have suggested that he did not win because of this criticism.
Some of the criticism was probably correct specifically, that Carter’s loss to the Middleweight champion and was in fact not due to racist judging. Yet this criticism is beside the point. If Denzel’s performance was the best of the year he deserved to win an Oscar, in spite of any historical errors.
How can I make this statement? That’s easy, I simply point to the 1957 movie, “The Bridge Over the River Kwai”. This movie won seven academy awards including “Best Picture”, “Best Actor” and “Best Director”. According to the AFI (American Film Institute) it is considered one of the greatest movies of all time. However it has huge inaccuracies in some of its most important plot points. The errors are so bad that British Prisoners of War who survived the building of this bridge have written books to set the record straight. The BBC and History channel have done programs discussing the real story of the building of the bridge.
The first error is that British engineering and ingenuity was required to build this bridge. This is completely ridiculous. The Japanese had excellent surveyors and engineers and did not need or get any assistance from the British to build the bridge. In fact, the captured British troops were simply slave labor along with Dutch and American prisoners of war and hundreds of thousands of civilians brought in from Burma, Malaysia, etc.
Additionally the climatic ending (which I won’t spoil) did NOT happen as shown in the film. This ending was designed to show that the triumph of the heroic “commando fighters” but the ending shown in the film never happened! The truth is that “Bridge over River Kwai” is an excellent movie with beautiful cinematography and great performances from a number of notable actors. I can see why it won numerous awards, in spite of its historical inaccuracies.
A movie’s success is based on its ability to tell a story and engage the audience. Movie makers often add or even invent pivotal scenes to add drama and heighten suspense. We should not be surprised that most movies contain “inaccuracies” no matter what they claim.
Let the awards continue to be based on movie making versus historical accuracy. Let’s also encourage people to use any movie “based on a true story” as a starting point for historical research. Hopefully watching the movie “Selma” will encourage people to learn more about Martin Luther King, President Lyndon Baines Johnson and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The real stories of the people and events are actually more amazing than the movies!
Kevin Martin is an Executive Recruiter and former technology entrepreneur. He can be reached at By1989@pacificnet.net