“True story” films have always been very popular. Argo won Best Picture at last year’s Oscars and Captain Phillips will be released soon and no doubt will receive many awards. I’m always pretty wary of the “true story” mantra. Hollywood has never been interested in the truth. It’s about money. They want to get as many people as possible to see a movie and people often go to movies to escape. They don’t really want “the truth,” because the truth is complicated. Here’s a rundown of some of the more warped versions of truth that have come out of Hollywood:
When the unsinkable ship is about to sink, there is an officer who is more panicky than the others. When a passenger is jostled in the crowd and steps forward, the officer shoots him, thinking the passenger is charging for a lifeboat. Distraught, the officer then shoots himself in the head. It’s dramatic, it’s tragic. And totally false. This officer is Charles Lightoller, the 1st Officer of the Titanic. He was cool and collected and did not murder anyone. He was on one of the last lifeboats to leave the ship and kept trying to go back to save people who were freezing to death in the water. He later went on to serve in both WWI and WWII. When his descendants saw how director James Cameron had portrayed Charles, they sued, and received an out-of-court settlement. There have been several revisions to the film, but none which address the reality of Charles Lightoller. Apparently getting the right pattern of stars in the sky is more important.
In Ron Howard’s film about an underdog boxer during the Great Depression, our hero must face Max Baer, the match’s favorite who brags about having killed a man in the ring and upon seeing our hero’s wife, makes sexual comments to her. After an epic fight, our hero emerges victorious. Everyone claps, wipes away some tears, says something about karma…yeah, Max Baer was totally not the villain of the story. He did fatally beat a man in the ring, but wept at the man’s hospital bed and financially cared for the deceased boxer’s wife and children. Upon retiring, he became an actor, and his son, Max Baer Jr., went on to play Jethro in The Beverly Hillbillies. When he saw how his father was made out to the bad guy, Max threatened Ron Howard, but nothing has come from that.
“FREEEEEDOM!” Acclaimed by the critics, beloved by moviegoers everywhere, this film tells the story of William Wallace, a Scot who sacrificed his life for his country and countrymen in an attempt to free them from the tyrannical rule of the British. The king in the movie is Edward I and is roughly portrayed as the worst guy ever. Seriously, he is oozing evil, he’s practically Satan in a crown and armor. Too bad he wasn’t actually that bad. During his actual rule, he totally reformed English law, including setting up a system that would allow British subjects to report abuses of authority. In regards to the Scots, they were a tricky bunch, and generally, he was actually pretty decent to them. He never set up that gross law about rulers of a region getting first dibs on all the new brides. The reason Scotland hated him was because the Scot nobles got put in a weird position when their ruler died so they passed the buck to Edward and asked him to pick the successor. When he chose John Baliol, Robert the Bruce’s guys got mad. William Wallace was among them and thus war was waged. Also, in the movie, Robert is made out to kinda look like a douche, but in reality, he’s pretty much beloved over in Scotland. He’s called the Hero Scottish King. Also, he’s called brave heart. Hmm….there’s a ton of other stuff that’s wrong, like the princess Wallace impregnates? She was about two when the events of the movie happened. This movie is kinda notorious for being TOTALLY WRONG.
Hollywood likes its movies to be black and white. Good versus evil. There has to be a villain. There has to be a hero. Too bad reality isn’t that simple. Actual, complicated human beings are subject to distortion by the movie industry and the majority of the world – who will not pick up a book on the movie’s subject or do a Google search – trusts the silver screen and just accepts what they see as fact because of the white words on a dark background that say, “Based on a True Story.” It’s troubling to me to think that a person in history who was just living their life the best they could, made some mistakes, who maybe had some really noble moments, is going to be remembered as a cartoony villain in a blockbuster film.
As a lover of movies, it makes me sad that money – not truth – drives most of the machine. It’s why I love documentaries. You want a true story? Put down that copy of Gladiator and watch some PBS specials on Rome.
Or better yet, read a book.