10 Oscar-Winning ‘True Story’ Movies Based on Lies
The recent controversy over the real-life story that inspired 2009 drama The Blind Side – which won Sandra Bullock an Academy Award – has raised serious question marks over the propriety of adapting true stories for the big screen. But as we all know, in Hollywood, not even the truth can get in the way of a good yarn. Here are 10 Oscar-winning films that, despite appearances, were based on lies.
U-571 won the Academy Award for Best Sound Editing, but British audiences were the first to find fault with this so-so World War II drama when it premiered back in 2000. The film, which stars Bill Paxton and a young Matthew McConaughey, tells the tale of an American submarine crew that, in the process of capturing a priceless Enigma machine – the device the Germans used to encode top-secret military orders before transmission – have their own submarine sunk, and resort to commandeering a German one to get home.
None of it happened. The first naval Enigma machine to be recovered intact by the Allies was captured not by the U.S. Navy, but by the sailors of a British destroyer, HMS Bulldog, over six months prior to Pearl Harbor. At the time of U-571’s release, the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, even referred disparagingly to the film in Parliament, feeling that the movie airbrushed the British sailors whose lives were lost in the real-life quest to recover an intact Enigma machine out of history. Audiences didn’t seem to mind either way, however, after it proved to be a minor box-office hit.
9. The Imitation Game
Over a decade later, The Imitation Game approached the question of cracking German codes from the opposite direction to U-571, concentrating on the extraordinary effort led by legendary British mathematician Alan Turing to construct the first digital computer. The film, which won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, departed from reality in more or less every detail. At the movie’s heart is the loner Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch as painfully awkward in social situations – but Turing is remembered as a friendly character who actively collaborated with his colleagues.
Additionally, it makes no mention of the enormous contribution made to the project by Polish cryptographers, who worked on German codes for years prior to World War II. Finally, the pivotal scene in which the cryptographers take the fateful decision not to use the top-secret information yielded by their code-cracking efforts never happened – command decisions about how and when to pass on information about German ship and troop movements were taken far higher up the chain than the codebreakers based at Bletchley Park.
8. Bohemian Rhapsody
This 2018 smash hit took over $900 million worldwide and bagged four Academy Awards, including a win for Rami Malek’s portrayal of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. The film related the legendary British rock group’s rise to fame in the 1970s, including the famously intricate recording process for the classic song “Bohemian Rhapsody”, and the quartet’s bacchanalian tours. The climax is, of course, the band’s famous appearance at a heaving Wembley Stadium in London during the 1985 Live Aid concerts.
The final scenes crank up the tension, with the band’s members, hopelessly out of practice, wondering if they can get it together for a last-minute appearance at the biggest concert of their lives – not to mention Mercury himself, who has just been diagnosed with AIDS. If the makers had followed what actually happened, it wouldn’t have had much of a climax; in the summer of 1985 Queen were tight, having just completed a sell-out tour; the band had been part of the Live Aid line-up for weeks, and Mercury would not be diagnosed with AIDS until 1987.
7. Pearl Harbor
Michael Bay’s 2001 epic war drama received four Academy Award nominations, winning for Best Sound Editing, but historians were aghast to see the tragedy depicted so inaccurately. Japanese admiral Isoruku Yamamoto is portrayed as authorizing the raid purely on his own initiative, Japanese warplanes are shown attacking a hospital, and President Roosevelt – who was a wheelchair user due to polio – is shown raising himself out of the chair as an example of perseverance to his pessimistic advisors. Except, none of these events occurred. Even the famous Doolittle Raid – in which B-25 bombers modified to take off from American aircraft carriers attacked Japan in early 1942 – was misrepresented as a single attack on Tokyo, when in real life several cities were targeted.
The daring escape of six American diplomats from Tehran during the 1981 Iran hostage crisis captivated cinema audiences on its release in 2012, and earned three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. But Argo depicts a very largely fictional version of events, one in which the CIA engineered the escape of the hostages, rather than the staff of the Canadian embassy, whose heroism was widely acknowledged after the hostages’ return to the USA in real life. The movie also shows staff at the British embassy turning away the Americans. In actuality, the British embassy sheltered the American diplomats until it was realized that the Iranians suspected their presence, before the Americans moved to the Canadian embassy the following day. Director Ben Affleck later admitted that he manufactured the scene where the Americans are refused help by the Brits in order to heighten the sense of hopelessness.
This 1989 masterpiece hits as hard now as it did then, with Denzel Washington giving an Academy Award-winning performance as a Black soldier serving the Union Army during the American Civil War, and Matthew Broderick playing against type as Colonel Shaw, the commander of – as the film has it – the first all-Black regiment in United States history. However, and although it doesn’t detract from the substantial rhetorical power, Glory‘s makers did take some liberties with history.
In truth, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment was not the first all-Black unit, though it was certainly the first to play a significant role in the war. It was also composed largely of free men from the North, even if some former slaves were counted in its ranks. In its eviscerating depiction of the bloody, failed attack by the 54th on Fort Wagner in 1863, however, the film was largely accurate, even if it did miss a trick by not depicting a Black Medal of Honor recipient, William Harvey Carney, who battled severe wounds to keep the regiment’s colors flying during the assault.
Jamie Foxx won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his work as jazz trumpeter Ray Charles in this 2004 biopic, but it comprehensively mangles the details of Charles’ life in pursuit of a tight story. The movie depicted Charles as attempting to pressure a mistress into having an abortion, something that Charles, who fathered a dozen children, never did. The tragic incident during his childhood when he witnessed the death of his younger brother is also distorted, and Charles’ refusal to play a gig at the behest of civil rights activists is also dramatized in a way that never happened in real life.
3. The Iron Lady
Meryl Streep carried off her third Academy Award for her work in this 2011 drama about the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher, who served from 1979 to 1990. However, The Iron Lady painted a reverent picture of its subject’s tenure that concentrated on her record as a war leader – Thatcher led the UK during the successful military campaign to recapture the Falkland Islands following an Argentinian invasion in 1982 – and her rise to the top in a political scene dominated by men, while whitewashing the more questionable aspects of her time in power. While the quasi-feminist credentials struck a chord with many in the United States (her warm friendship with her opposite number in the White House, Ronald Reagan, was fondly remembered), it omitted or underplayed countless controversies, not the least of which was her infamous role in suppressing the miners’ strike of 1984-85. It’s no surprise that many former miners boycotted it upon release.
2. Cool Runnings
The ultimate sporting feelgood movie, Cool Runnings gives as good value today as it did on its premiere in 1993. Starring Leon Robinson, Doug E. Doug, and John Candy, the film tells the true story of the Jamaican bobsled team, who made an unlikely appearance at the 1988 Winter Olympics. In the film, the team – which are coached by a disgraced American former bobsledder who cheated during the Olympics decades before – get the cold shoulder from other teams, and have a disastrous first run before making a vast improvement in their second run. In the final act, they are on the point of challenging for a podium placing before crashing out due to a faulty sled. However, more or less every aspect of the story was fabricated. In real life, the team’s coach was highly respected, other national teams greeted the Jamaicans warmly, the team’s performance actually worsened with each run, leaving them well out of the running for a top three placing, and the final crash was caused by human error.
Mel Gibson’s 1995 historical drama, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, has become notorious for playing fast and loose with Scottish history. “Braveheart” – otherwise known as minor nobleman William Wallace – did exist in real life, and, as Guardian of Scotland, led his forces to victory against the army of Edward I at the battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. But the film neatly removes Scotland’s other leader, Andrew Moray, from the narrative, despite the pivotal contribution of his army to the victory. Nor did Wallace’s romance with the King of England’s daughter-in-law, Isabella of France, occur in real life – the pair almost certainly never even met. Lastly, Edward I’s son, Edward II, is depicted in the film as a simpering, weakling homosexual unfit to be a king – a portrayal that led to accusations of homophobia. However, although Edward II was almost certainly a homosexual, and his reign was nowhere near as successful as his father’s, he ruled England for two decades after Edward I’s death, suppressing rebellions in Wales in 1314 and 1316, as well as a serious revolt of his own barons in 1321-22.
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