Some of the finest films are based on historical landmarks, frequently delving deep to convey untold portions of the true narrative. Historical drama films are difficult to create because filmmakers must find a balance between captivating drama and historical authenticity. They are also vulnerable to audience criticism if they do not get the tale “right.” Sacrificing what actually happened in order to make the plot work tends to rile up the online know-it-alls who are eager to point out a film’s historical flaws.
When it comes to producing a film about a real-life incident, filmmakers are (generally) not interested in crafting a documentary; some wiggle room is required if the objective is to produce a successful film. However, certain films, more than others, go to great lengths to ensure that even the most obscure historical detail is represented while still retaining a compelling storyline. Then filmmakers struck the sweet spot: a gratifying blend of reality and watchability.
Almost all we know about Spartacus — the historical character who led a slave uprising in the first century BC — comes from Roman historians’ stories. Stanley Kubrick’s blockbuster, starring Kirk Douglas in the titular character, takes liberties with history at times, trading authenticity for spectacle. Spartacus, for example, was not born a slave, unlike Douglas’ figure; he was a Roman soldier who presumably fell out of favor with the Romans and was sold into slavery. Contrary to the film’s conclusion, the real Spartacus perished in combat.
However, the film more than makes up for this in other parts that accurately describe what transpired. The war sequences are authentic, as is the representation of Spartacus’ stay at gladiator school, rallying and leading the slave insurrection against Batiatus, and escaping to Mount Vesuvius with the other gladiators. While Spartacus is not entirely historically accurate, it is more historically correct than many Hollywood blockbusters.
‘All the President’s Men’ (1976)
All the President’s Men is based on the 1974 non-fiction novel of the same title and is often regarded as the most historically accurate film ever created. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman star as Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward as they investigate the Watergate scandal that drove President Richard Nixon down.
The film, while not a “Hollywoodized” depiction of what transpired, does leave out key real-life details, such as Washington Post editor Barry Sussman’s pivotal involvement. However, its meticulous research (which may lead to information overload at times) and attention to detail make it an accurate picture of the events that permanently impacted US politics and Americans’ belief in their government, as well as underlined the necessity of press freedom.
‘Apollo 13’ (1995)
When producing Apollo 13, filmmaker Ron Howard sought to stay as true to real-life events as possible, and he mainly succeeded. NASA planetary scientist Rick Elphic commended the film in a 2019 interview with Time magazine, stating it “may be one of the most realistic, especially when it comes to the science of space flight.” The events of the real area catastrophe are shown exactly within the film, which follows the timetable established in Jim Lovell’s book, who was the captain of the Apollo 13 project.
Tom Hanks’ delivery of the now-famous statement “Houston, we have a problem” (Lovell really stated, “Houston, we’ve had a problem” or a version of that phrase several times throughout a 16-second span) deviates from fact and Howard’s creation of arguments between the crew to capture the astronauts’ emotion. Aside from minor flaws, Apollo 13 is as close to a genuine rendition of the real tale as spectators can hope for.
‘Black Hawk Down’ (2001)
Ridley Scott’s war film, based on journalist Mark Bowden’s 1999 nonfiction book of the same name, is flawlessly accurate in its depiction of what became known as The Battle of Mogadishu, realistically capturing the bleakness of “Third World” countries and the situations that American soldiers find themselves in.
Unfortunately, the film, like many Hollywood blockbusters, stays only superficially loyal to Bowden’s book and fails to investigate America’s moral duties or the sentiments of the troops involved in the fight in depth. Despite this, Black Hawk Down is a very realistic, historically accurate depiction of modern combat.
‘Der Untergang (Downfall)’ (2004)
This German historical war drama is a shrewd, well-researched look of Hitler’s final days. Based on Hitler’s private secretary Traudl Junge’s 2002 memoir and a book by historian Joachim Fest, the film is supposed to correctly portray Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz) and the events that occurred at the conclusion of World War II.
Other situations are accurate representations of real life. Rochus Misch, an eyewitness to the events in Hitler’s bunker, acknowledged the horrifying sequence in which Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) smashes cyanide in her children’s mouths is very realistic. The inclusion of a documentary video of Traudl Junge at the end of the film contributes to the film’s credibility. While some faulted the film for humanizing Hitler, there’s no doubting that its depiction of the Führer’s last days is factually accurate according to eyewitness evidence.
The movie of civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr.’s (David Oyelowo) freedom marches, directed by Ava DuVernay, is regarded as one of the most historically accurate films. In reality, it is 100 percent correct, according to the data-driven website Information is Beautiful.
The filmmaker used archive media photos, interviews, reports, and newspaper clippings to produce a film that is founded in reality and accurately depicts events such as Bloody Sunday and King’s relationship with his wife (Carmen Ejogo). As a consequence, the picture hits the appropriate balance between historical authenticity and an audience’s demand for escapism while also retaining the truth.
‘Hidden Figures’ (2016)
The historical freedoms taken in Hidden Figures are, for the most aspect, justifiable and generate an intriguing take on three women’s outstanding contributions to the US space program during a time of racial and sexual discrimination — Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe).
The film’s basic plot arc is largely true, however, it only loosely follows the original material, a 2016 non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly. The women’s interactions with each other were liberated; they were not the BFFs shown in the film. Furthermore, the timing of events was twisted, and the finale was dramatically dramatized for effect. To advance the plot, the fictitious characters Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) and Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) were introduced. This is one of those films where the disclaimer “based on actual events” is correct. “For better or worse,” Shetterly says, “there is history, there is the book, and then there is the movie.”
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk ranks high in terms of historical authenticity. The Dunkirk tale is well-known, and Nolan seems keen to depict it as faithfully as possible. Finally, the filmmaker developed an accurate depiction of the 1940 operation, which saw over 300,000 people evacuated over the English Channel in nine days. That is not to claim that the film was immaculate in terms of historical accuracy.
Yes, the dogfights between Royal Air Force planes and German Luftwaffe planes, as well as the sea clashes involving destroyers and fighter planes, are authentic. However, Nolan also made decisions that contradicted actual occurrences. To begin with, all of the characters are made up, with the exception of Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), who is a composite character based on numerous actual persons. Historians have criticized the film’s representation of the power of the English naval fleet, which was far larger than the film implies, as well as the film’s lack of diversity among the troops, which included Belgian, Canadian, and African soldiers in real life. Overall, Dunkirk veterans have commended the film for its authenticity.
‘The Courier’ (2020)
Greville Maynard Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) was a middle-class British technician whose repeated trips to Eastern Europe drew the notice of MI-6’s Dickie Franks (Angus Wright), who hired Wynne as an amateur spy. He didn’t, did he?
No. While Dickie Franks was a genuine person, he had nothing to do with Wynne’s hiring. However, Wynne was crucial for averting the Cuban Missile Crisis; the Soviet military intelligence he got from Colonel Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) notified the UK of Russia’s installation of missiles in Cuba, resulting in a de-escalation of tensions between the US and the Soviet Union. Ironically, Wynne authored two novels on his travels, The Man from Moscow: The Story of Wynne and Penkovsky (1967) and The Man from Odessa (1981), both of which are full of lies.
‘Against the Ice’ (2022)
Much of the survival film Against the Ice is based on the actual story of Danish explorer Ejnar Mikkelsen (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his mechanic Iver Iversen (Joe Cole) traveling deep into the Arctic in 1909 in search of proof to challenge the United States’ claim to northern Greenland.
Many of the incidents recounted in Mikkelsen’s 1912 novel, Two Against the Ice, are included in the film. Yes, the couple was abandoned by their team, and all of their sled dogs died. The film downplays a particularly frightening moment in which a polar bear attempts to break into Mikkelsen and Iversen’s cabin. In the film, the couple scares it away, but in actuality, the bear enters the lodge and is shot and killed by Iversen. Furthermore, the squad that saves the soldiers comprises the expedition’s original crew, despite the fact that the rescue was really carried out by a Norwegian whaling ship. However, these little modifications do not detract from what is generally a fairly accurate picture of what genuinely exists.