Feature: Stonewall and 10 other times cinema rewrote history


Originally published on The National Student on 11/08/15. 

Following the release of its first trailer last week, Roland Emmerich’s civil rights drama Stonewall came under significant scrutiny from LGBT groups for its supposed “whitewashing” of history.

A petition boasting over 20,000 signatures has already been circulated since the trailer first landed on 4th August, claiming that the film very obviously focuses too heavily on white characters, ignoring the role African-Americans played in the movement.

Both Emmerich himself and the film’s star Jeremy Irvine took to the internet to try to convince those offended that the real life activists who took part in the actual Stonewall riots of 1969 would very much be honoured within the film. Yet the petition still remains, with many accusing Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012, The Day After Tomorrow) of ‘Hollywoodizing’ a significant moment in LGBT history.

After all, this isn’t the first time cinema has played around with the facts. Here are ten of the most significant offending films:

1. Gladiator

Despite Ridley Scott’s Roman action-epic hitting it big with both critics and fans alike, historians were less taken with it, particularly due to its portrayal of the apparently evil Emperor Commodus. As played by Joaquin Phoenix, Scott’s version of Commodus is a whiny, father-killing coward and an inept leader, all things which are supposedly far from true. The real Commodus may well have been a violent drunk but his leadership lasted far longer than the mere few months Scott gives him in the film.

2. Braveheart

Mel Gibson has never been great with sticking to history. His huge box-office hit The Passion of the Christ offended Christians the world over with its depiction of the final days of Jesus Christ, but it was actually his earlier war epic based on the life of William Wallace that raised the most eyebrows. The film’s portrayal of Robert the Bruce as a traitor to Wallace played with history somewhat, but even more so did Gibson’s use of Princess Isabelle of France. At the time of the Battle of Falkirk, Isabelle was just three years old – far too young to be engaging in an affair with Wallace himself. Even more disturbingly, Wallace’s supposed son in the film – the boy who becomes Edward III – was not born until seven years after Wallace’s death. He may be a hero and a Scottish legend, but nobody’s that fertile.

3. 10,000 B.C.

Another film from the certain Mr Emmerich in question, 10,000 B.C. attempted to envision life in the prehistoric era – you guessed it – 10,000 years before the birth of Christ. Despite the film itself being pretty dire in its general plotting and use of CGI, it was its clear historical inaccuracies that acted as the final nail in the critical coffin. Not only does it feature characters who supposedly hail from the mythical lands of Atlantis, but Emmerich’s film also throws both woolly mammoths and the Egyptian pyramids into the mix. The frankly ridiculous timeframe should have been the only indicator we needed that this one wasn’t going to be by the book.

4. Pearl Harbor

The words Michael Bay and World War II drama simply don’t fit together, and yet still Pearl Harbour somehow exists. Having helmed the ludicrously over-egged Bad Boys and the similarly explosive Armageddon, the former advertising extraordinaire figured his next project should be a dramatic re-telling of the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor – one of the most significant and painful conflicts in US military history. Bay got all of the facts either incredibly muddled or flat-out wrong, including such silly trivialities as the colour of the Japanese aircraft, eventually losing sight of even why Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in the first place. Both historians and critics tore it apart but also, most painfully of all, so too did the veterans of the attacks, calling it an insult. Ouch indeed.

5. A Beautiful Mind

Ron Howard’s critically-adored biopic of Noble-prize winning mathematician John Nash may have swept every awards ceremony under the sun in 2002, being named Best Picture on multiple occasions, but its handle on history is slightly less praiseworthy. Huge chunks of the film’s plot were deliberately fabricated, including Nash’s involvement with the Pentagon, whilst a great deal of his relationship troubles are simply ignored altogether – including Nash’s initial divorce from his wife Alicia. The audience ultimately never noticed and Howard went on to win an Oscar.

6. The Impossible

Although it did a lot of things right and managed to master a lot of the horror of the 2004 tsunami, J.A. Bayona’s The Impossible did receive a pretty heavy dose of criticism for the one major change it made to the true life events it’s based on. Despite the plot following the real story of the Alvarez family who are Spanish, Bayona cast Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts as the film’s leads, changing their race for the sake of box-office figures. The film still did well, but that doesn’t make it right.

7. The Patriot

Mel Gibson is at it again, and although he didn’t direct this effort (that accolade falls once again on our old friend Roland Emmerich) he’s still very much the face of the film. Set during the American Revolutionary War, The Patriot attributes a great deal of harsh atrocities to the British forces, often comparing them (rather unfairly) to Nazis and lessening the malevolence of certain members of the American military in the process. The phrase one-sided comes to mind.

8. JFK

Oliver Stone’s 3-hour political epic has been heavily criticised in the years since its initial release due to its uncommon marriage of historical fact and general conspiracy. Charting the investigation launched by the American government into the assassination of their president John F. Kennedy, Stone’s film runs with the idea that Lee Harvey Oswald was part of a larger web of criminal activity – a theory, but not one necessarily based in fact. The film also glosses over a lot of true life occurrences, having certain characters confess to things that in reality, they actually claimed they were innocent of.

9. U-571

Despite receiving a largely positive reception from audiences, Jonathan Mostow’s WW2 drama of an American submarine crew capturing a German U-boat still managed to royally piss off a lot of British war veterans. Charting the crew’s efforts to deliver the German ship – complete with its enigma coding machine – to Allied shores, the film seemed to completely ignore the fact that almost every single mission of this kind in reality was in fact carried out by British forces, not American. The historical debate for this one even got so far as reaching British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President Bill Clinton. Screenwriter David Ayer went on to publicly state that he regretted the decision to distort history in the way that he did.

10. The Social Network

David Fincher’s Academy Award-winning Facebook biopic is argued by a great deal of critics to be one of the best films of the past decade, but as groundbreaking as its quick-witted screenplay and on-point acting is, there’s still a worrying amount of inaccuracies to sift through. Namely the fact that the lives of nerdy Mark Zuckerberg and his fellow Facebook creators are somewhat over-dramatised, diverting rather wildly from their intense work schedules. Most importantly of all however, Jesse Eisenberg’s iteration of Zuckerberg seems far more concerned with notoriety and being like Napster founder Sean Parker than his real-life self ever did. Ultimately the reality of the situation is that Facebook was built by a team of very devoted hardcore coders who spent their nights inside eating pizza instead of partying like the film suggests. The whole affair was apparently a lot more boring than what we saw on screen.

Whether or not Stonewall will join the ranks of these inaccurate gems still remains to be seen until the film’s full release in September.


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