If you place the phrase “based on a true story” at the start of a film people expect the film to be…. a true story or at the very least inspired by true events. Yes, writers can make a few changes in the form of creative licence (You can read that old website post here) but the key facts have to be correct. The writers of these films were more than flexible with the truth. Here are five films based on real events that are mostly lies.
1) The Perfect Storm
The Perfect Storm is about a group of fishermen on-board a vessel called the Andrea Gail who have to race back to shore before a storm cuts them off at sea. Unfortunately the crew underestimate the storm, which is so powerful it is dubbed as The 1991 Perfect Storm, and during their voyage back to land they face a variety of disasters. The ship’s radio is destroyed, a rescue helicopter sent to save them crashes due to the bad weather and the Andrea Gail is forced to ride up the crest of a ‘ wave. The film was marketed as man’s ambition and desperation against the forces of nature and stared George Clooney in the leading role. The Perfect Storm received mixed reviews at the box office and although it was nominated for two academy awards it didn’t win either.
Shortly after the film’s release the studio was faced with several lawsuits from the families of the crew. The screenwriters had used the real names of the Andrea Gail crew but had invented most aspects of the story. It was agreed that the ship left port on a fishing trip however everything after that is pure speculation. In the noThe Perfect Storm, on which the film was based, the author collects a variety of incidents and antidotes from sailors across the globe and attribute them to the crew of the Andrea Gail. The families of the deceased were furious at how their relatives had been portrayed. They believe that instead of a drawn out voyage as depicted in the film the crew’s deaths were mercifully quick. The families didn’t win their lawsuit but they can claim the victory that the film has been largely forgotten by the general public.
2) Captain Phillips
Sticking with the nautical theme lets talk about one of my favourite films Captain Phillips. Captain Richard Phillips and his crew on board the freighter ship MV Maersk Alabama were attacked in the Indian Ocean by Somali pirates. After successfully repelling the first attack the crew were unable to defend against the second and the pirates, all in their late teens, boarded the ship. When the pirates abandoned the vessel after failing to find any riches Phillips was kept as a hostage on a hijacked lifeboat. This resulted in an international incident and the US Navy launching a rescue.
The film goes to great lengths to show Captain Phillips, portrayed by Tom Hanks, as a guardian to his crew doing everything within his power to ward of the pirates. At the start of the film we see the captain going through the security protocols and during the first attack faking a radio call to a US navy ship to scare off the pirates. When the pirates return Phillips tries to capsize their boat in the wake created by MV Maersk Alabama, steers the ship port and starboard to deflect their scaling ladders, uses hoses to swamp the pirate’s skiffs and shoots flares at the attackers. When the pirates do board the ship Phillips allows them to hold him hostage on the bridge while his crew wait below decks and offers himself as a hostage on the lifeboat.
Yet according to the crew of the MV Maersk Alabama Phillips was part of the reason their ship was attacked. Fully aware of the recent spike in pirate attacks Captain Phillips chose to ignore instructions and sail three hundred miles off the Somalia coastline rather than the suggested six hundred miles. Captain Phillips was practising a fire drill when the pirates were spotted, not a security drill as shown in the films and wanted to continue the drill believing the pirates posed no threat. Although Phillips did use some of the measures I’ve listed above he didn’t lock himself on the bridge. Phillips also didn’t offer himself as a hostage, he boarded the lifeboat to help the pirates start the machine and was trapped on-board. Hollywood decided that the story would be more dramatic if Phillips was a hero and the shipping company who owned the MV Maersk Alabama have been sued by the crew members for Phillip’s behaviour.
Interestingly there are rumours that the MV Maersk Alabama is cursed. The ship has been attacked on four separate occasions by pirates with one group getting within thirty metres of the ship’s hull before fleeing. In 2004 the ship was held in Kuwait as part of a fraud scheme until the owners bailed her out for $1.86 million. In 2014 two members of a security team died on board in suspicious circumstances. Their bodies were discovered next to used syringes leading authorities to believe that they died of a drug overdose. The friends and relatives of the deceased insist both men were killed and their murders framed as suicide. Since these incidents The MV Maersk Alabama has been renamed the MV Tygra and is still in use today.
The film 300 tells us the story of King Leonidas, the ruler of Sparta, and his role in the battle of Battle of Thermopylae. King Leonidas defended a narrow pass with three hundred Spartan warriors against the Persian King Xerxes and his three hundred thousand strong army. Although the Spartans lost the battle they are remembered for delaying the Persian army long enough for the city of Sparta and the other Greek cities to muster an effective defence and repel the invaders. The film has become a cult favourite for its portrayal of over the top violence. Over thirty minutes of the film is played in slow motion so the viewers can revel in the blood and sweat of battle.
The director of 300, Zack Snyder, claims the film is ninety percent accurate. The plot of the film matches the plot of the graphic novel it is based off which in turn parallels the events of the Battle of Thermopylae. In some cases the film almost mirrors the frames of the comic book, as seen below. The locations and geography of Ancient Greece are correct and Snyder even hired a professor at Cambridge university to help the cast correctly pronounce the Greek names.
However Snyder also commented that the film is an opera, not an historical film. The real Spartan’s would have fought their battles in armour, not half naked as depicted in the film and the style of fighting they use is different to how the real Spartan’s would have fought. These changes are understandable but there are two important points that place 300 on this list. The first is that King Leonidas’ army did not consist of three hundred Spartans. His force is thought to have been between three thousand and four thousand strong. Although this is still a small army compared to the Persians it does lesson the impact of the film. The second point was that Sparta did not defeat King Xerxes, Athens did. Although the battle of Thermopylae was an important role in the war if the Athenian fleet hadn’t destroyed the Persian’s their invasion of Greece would have been successful.
4) Paranormal Activity
Paranormal activity was released in 2007 and became an instant hit spawning a franchise. The format of the films are similar, humans sets up a series of video recorders around their home to see if they are being attacked by a paranormal force, spoiler alert, they always are. The first film follows the story of a Micah and Katie who believe their home is haunted by a demon. Micah sets up cameras around the house which captures doors opening and closing by themselves, lights turning on and off and unexplained noises coming from empty rooms. As the film continues, the events escalate with the demon throwing Katie, out of bed and dragging her down a corridor.
The main selling point of the series was that the audience were expected to believe the footage was real. The format of the film and the fact the actors weren’t given a script and improvised their lines heightened the sense of realism. The characters use an Ouija board correctly and the prayers and tactics used by the demonologist (which is a real job apparently) are accurate. The events the cameras record such as unexplained noises are all common paranormal phenomenon. During the pre-screening audience members left the cinema, not because the film was bombing but because they were too scared to watch it. When the film premiered reviewers had to ask the director if they had watched a haunting or a really good movie.
When I watched it for the first time I was undecided if what I was watching was real or a staged film. Then a sequel came out. And then another one. It became clear it was just a series of films, good films, granted, but only films. Honestly I should have worked it out when I noticed that the Paranormal Activity DVD had multiple endings you could choose from.
5) Disney’s Pocahontas
The Disney Pocahontas film was released in 1995 during the Disney Renaissance era. The films retells the story of a Native American girl, Pocahontas, falling in love with an English settler, John Smith. John’s crew are fearful of the native Indians who they believe are hoarding gold and Pocahontas’ tribe are scared that the settlers will destroy their land. When John is captured both sides prepare to go to war and it is only Pocahontas demonstrating an act of true love (despite only knowing John for a couple of days) that averts the battle. At the end of the film John is forced to return to England for medical aid and Pocahontas watches him leave, heartbroken but glad her family and home are safe. It’s rare of a Disney film to have a bittersweet ending but in Pocahontas 2: Journey to a New World, Pocahontas ventures to London and finds her happily ever after .
There is an element of Romeo and Juliet in Pocahontas’ story but unfortunately the real Pocahontas’ life wasn’t as magical. When John Smith founded Jamestown in 1607, Pocahontas was eleven years old. John Smith was twenty eight and he wasn’t the dashing hero Disney makes him out to be. The real John Smith was short, fat and dark of hair. Her name wasn’t even Pocahontas! Pocahontas roughy translates to naughty child or spoiled brat. In the Native American tribes a member is given several names and the name of the girl we call Pocahontas would have been Matoaka or Amonute. While there are historical reports of Pocahontas flinging her body over John Smith’s to stop his execution after he’d been captured by the Powhatan tribe, these records come from John Smith himself and have been deemed unreliable by historians.
Although Pocahontas did venture to England, as she does in her sequel, the circumstances were very different. In real life Pocahontas was captured and held prisoner for a year where she was forced to marry John Rolfe, another settler, and take the Christian name Rebecca. Rolfe shipped Pocahontas back to England to use as a propaganda tool for his exploits in Jamestown and although she did encounter John Smith again it wasn’t as romantic as Disney portrayed. She was furious John Smith had lied about her about life in England and was lying to the English about her family in Virginia but the exact details of what exactly took place between them are unclear. Pocahontas contracted Smallpox and died aged twenty one, on her return to America. She’s buried at Gravesend, about ten minutes away from where I live.
Disney’s Pocahontas is clearly much more kid-friendly than her real life counterpart which is why she is an official Disney Princess. Notice that I said official as the Disney Princess’ title isn’t something given away easily. Did you know that it isn’t enough just to be a female character in a Disney film, you must pass certain criteria in order to be a Disney Princess. A character must:
1) Have a primary role in a Disney/Pixar animated feature film.
2) Be human or mostly human-like.
3) Be deemed marketable.
4) Perform well at the box office.
5) Be of a reasonable age.
6) Not be introduced in a sequel.
7) And must be born royal, marry royal or commit an act of bravery.
There is a lot of debate and controversy over which characters should and shouldn’t be official Disney Princess. Currently the Princess line up is Snow White (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), Cinderella (Cinderella), Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), Ariel (The Little Mermaid), Belle (Beauty and the Beast), Jasmine (Aladdin), Pocahontas (Pocahontas), Mulan (Mulan), Tiana (The Princess and the Frog), Rapunzel (Tangled) and Merida (Brave). Originally Tinker-bell from Peter Pan was a Disney Princess but then had her status revoked (Tinker-bell was also the Disney mascot before Mickey Mouse took the role) . Likewise it was thought that the two lead female characters from Frozen Anna and Elsa would be Disney Princesses but Elsa was crowned a Queen in her film and Frozen was so successful it was thought they would overshadow the other Princesses.
There is also an official Disney Prince line-up but they are far less well known. Out of the ten princes only one is the lead in his own film (Aladdin) and two don’t have their names mentioned on screen! John Smith is an official Disney Prince as the only criteria the Princes have to forfill is to be a love interest of a Princess.
Out of all the Princesses I think that Pocahontas is among the least well known. Although she is one of the original eight (Tiana, Rapunzel and Merida being added later) I think she is the most obscure as her film isn’t as iconic as Snow White or Sleeping Beauty and Disney haven’t done as great a job marketing her. This is really a shame as like Mulan and the more modern princesses she is an excellent role model for young girls.
I hope you enjoyed this list, do you know of any other films that are based on real events that are filled with lies? Let me know on my social media and I’ll see you soon. Take care.