There is no shortage of Hollywood films about historical events, but what do the movies actually get right, and why do they get so much wrong?
Hollywood loves a story: good guys versus bad guys, heroes winning the day, and the guy gets the girl. But we all know real life isn’t exactly like that, and this is even more true when we look at history. Rarely do the just prevail and the three-act story cannot exist over continents and decades of human interaction. So, when Hollywood decides to exploit history for profit, we end up with a wide array of films. Some are comedies like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, others are little more than action films playing dress up like Gladiator, and many are Oscar contenders burdened with an enormous sense of self-importance. But very few are historically accurate.
From Cleopatra to Da 5 Bloods, the reality is no matter what Hollywood’s intentions are, almost all historical films are an exaggeration or distortion of what really happened. Sometimes the alterations are for the sake of brevity, as watching a movie in real time about the Hundred Years War would literally kill you. Other additions may be out of necessity, since nobody thought to write down the everyday conversations between King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, for The Other Boleyn Girl. And some projects twist the facts to suit a more sinister purpose.
In Hollywood and History, Jem Duducu takes readers through thousands of years of global history as immortalized and ultimately fictionalized by Hollywood, exploring many facets of the representation of history in movies from the medieval times to the wild west and both World Wars. Along the way, readers will also better understand Hollywood’s own history, as it evolved from black and white silent shorts to the multiplex CGI epics of today. As studios and audiences have matured through the years, so too have their representations of history. Armies will clash, leaders will be slain, empires will fall, and a few historical inaccuracies will be pointed out along the way. A must-read for film and history fans alike.
Jem Duducu is a populist historian and historical fiction writer based in London. He spends his time writing, public speaking, and generally messing around with his wife and children.
It’s All Greek to Me
The Ten Commandments (1923); Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925); Ben Hur (1959); Spartacus (1960); Cleopatra (1963); Gladiator (2000); Troy (2004); Alexander (2004); 300 (2006); Mulan (1998; 2020)
Ye Olde Middle Ages
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975); King Arthur (2004); The Green Knight (2021); The Vikings (1958); The 13th Warrior (1999); The Northman (2022) Thor Ragnarök (2017) The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938); Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (1991) Robin Hood (2010) Kingdom of Heaven (2005) El Cid (1961) The LastDuel (2021) Highlander (1986) Braveheart (1995); Rapa Nui (1994)
The Bloody Tudors
A Man for All Seasons (1966); The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933); The Other Boleyn Girl (2008); The Twisted Tale of Bloody Mary (2008); Tudor Rose (1936); Lady Jane (1986); Mary Queen of Scots (2018); Elizabeth (1998); Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)
To Bard or not to Bard
William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (1953); Cesare Deve Morire (2012); Henry V (1944,1989); Richard III (1955,1995); The Merchant of Venice 2004; Romeo + Juliet 1996; West Side Story (1961,2021); Ran (1985); Macbeth (2015); Macbeth (1971)
Raja Harischandra (1913); Mother India (1957); The Thugs of Hindostan (2018); Lagaan (2001); Hero (2002); Fearless (2006); The Great Hero Yi Sun-sin (1962); Tae Guk Gi (2004); My Way (2011); Nichien to moko daishurai (1958), Seven Samurai (1954); Rashomon (1950); Yojimbo (1961); Sanjuro (1962); Kagemusha (1980); Ruroni Kenshin (2012); The Last Samurai (2003)
Little Wuthering Prejudice
Barry Lyndon (1975); Pride and Prejudice (2005); Sense and Sensibility (1995); Emma (1996) Emma. (2020) Wuthering Heights (1992,2011); Jane Eyre (1943,1996); Little Women (1949,1994,2019); Oliver Twist (1948,2005); Oliver! (1968); A Tale of Two Cities (1958); A Christmas Carol (1938)
The not so Civil War
The Birth of a Nation (1915); Gone with the Wind (1939); 12 Years a Slave (2013); How the West Was Won (1962); Glory (1989); Gettysburg (1993); Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927); Lincoln (2012)
How the West Wasn’t Won
The Great Train Robbery (1903); Stagecoach (1939); The Searchers (1956); Dances with Wolves (1990); The Last of the Mohicans (1992); Pocahontas (1995); Prey (2022); A Fist Full of Dollars (1964); The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966); The Magnificent Seven (1960); Unforgiven (1992); Django Unchained (2012); High Noon (1952); Shane (1953); Blazing Saddles (1974); Calamity Jane (1954); True Grit (1969); The Conqueror (1956); Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Oh! What a Lovely War
U-571 (2000); Lawrence of Arabia (1962); Doctor Zhivago (1965); Journey’s End (2017); Oh! What a Lovely War (1969); The African Queen (1951); Zeppelin (1970); The King’s Man (2021); Wonder Woman (2017); 1917 (2019); All Quiet on the Western Front (1930, 2022); The Guns of Navarone (1961); Where Eagles Dare (1968); The Great Escape (1963); The Great Dictator (1940); The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949); Letters form Iwo Jima (2006); Wind Talkers (2002); Memoirs of a Geisha (2005); Hacksaw Ridge (2016); Battle of Lake Changjin (2021); The English Patient (1996); The Dam Busters (1955); The Longest Day (1962); Saving Private Ryan (1998); Dunkirk (2017); Darkest Hour (2017); Schindler’s List (1993); Life is Beautiful (1997); The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)The Pianist (2002)
Badfellas: Pirates, Gangsters, and Spies
Treasure Island (1950); Cutthroat Island (1995); Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl; Captain Philips (2013); Angles With Dirty Faces (1938); Bonnie and Clyde (1967); The Highwaymen (2019); Scarface (1932, 1983); Al Capone (1959); The Untouchables (1987); The Godfather (1972); The Godfather: Part II (1974); The Godfather: Part III (1990); Goodfellas (1990); American Gangster (2007); Dr. No (1962); Goldfinger (1964); You Only Live Twice (1967); The Bourne Identity (2002); Zero Dark Thirty (2012); Bridge of Spies (2015); Red Sparrow (2018)
I Have a Dream?
Mississippi Burning (1988); Green Book (2018); To Kill a Mocking Bird (1962); A Time to Kill (1996); Malcolm X (1992); BlacKkKlansman (2018); Judas and the Black Messiah (2021); Detroit (2017); One Night in Miami (2020); Hidden Figures (2016); 42 (2013); Selma (2014); The Woman King (2022)
The Green Berets (1967); Catch 22 (1970); MASH (1970); Good Morning Vietnam (1987); Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985); Predator (1987); The Deer Hunter (1978); Jacob’s Ladder (1990); Taxi Driver (1976); Platoon (1986); Born on the Fourth of July (1989); Heaven & Earth (1993); Tropic Thunder (2008); Da 5 Bloods (2020); Full Metal Jacket (1987); Apocalypse Now (1979)
If you are the sort of person who, after watching a movie, turns immediately to the goofs section of that film’s IMDB page to see what the director got wrong, then Hollywood and History is the book for you. Duducu is the perfect Cicero for this side-by-side comparison of history’s greatest films with history’s greatest history. His bon mots are spot-on (regarding Baz Luhrman’s Romeo+ Juliet: “It’s like watching a performance of the play while somebody throws glitter in your eyes.”), but more than that, Duducu constantly reminds us that directors aren’t historians. Their priority is not accuracy but entertainment (or, in the case of the 2002 Chinese film Hero, propaganda). Readers will enjoy this book’s gotcha moments—the real Elizabeth I never wore armor; the Crusades were over by the time of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves; a bust of Woodrow Wilson can be seen in the film Lincoln—but they shouldn’t ignore Duducu’s deeper message: historical films are a mere starting point and never the last word on what really happened.
Jem Duducu’s book is a lively and entertaining romp through history via the movies or the movies via history. There’s something new and fascinating to learn on every page.
A very jolly, spirited, and entertaining read. I had a lot of fun reading this.
This book was highlighted in the Forthcoming Titles in Performing Arts & Mass Media, 2023 list.