Even the most ardent historian accepts the fact that a historical move must make some sacrifice to actual events for the sake of story-telling. But when those fudged facts besmirch a person’s good name, historians, and more often than note ancestors, will have a bone to pick, usually in court.
As portrayed by Jonny Phillips in Titanic (1997).
The Movie: Charles Lightoller was 1st Officer aboard the Titanic on its maiden voyage and is shown in the film to be panicky when the iceberg hits. Even worse, during the sinking, he shoots an innocent Irish immigrant (Jason Barry) to death because he mistakenly thinks he is rushing the lifeboats. Overcome by remorse, he turns the gun on himself and commits suicide.
The Reality: By all accounts, Lightoller acted incredibly calmly and bravely during the sinking. He did indeed have a gun and fired several shots in to the air to keep panicked male passengers away so women and children could board lifeboats. He was on one of the last boats to leave Titanic and made several attempts to return and pick up survivors in the water. Not only did he not kill himself, just to prove his bravery was no fluke he served in the Royal Navy in World War I and during the disastrous 1940 Allied evacuation from Dunkirk during World War II he sailed his private boat across the English Channel to rescue troops on the beach, at the age of 63! Lighttoller’s ancestors were so incensed by his portrayal they sued director James Cameron and the studio for libel. They received a sizeable settlement out of court.
As portrayed by Patrick McGoohan in Braveheart (1995).
The Movie: Emanating almost cartoon like villainy, Edward I works overtime to make Scottish citizens lives miserable. From dictating that English lords on Scottish lands get first crack at newly married brides (prima nocta) to having Scotland’s savior, William Wallace (Mel Gibson) captured and brutally executed. A real bastard.
The Reality: Other than his grandson, Edward III, Edward I is considered one of England’s greatest kings of the Middle Ages. He revamped the English legal system for starters and took a rather lenient attitude towards the Scots (he never instituted prima nocta). The only reason he and Scotland went to war was over a decision the Scots had asked him to make. When King Alexander I died, the throne of Scotland was up for grabs between John Baliol and Robert the Bruce. To prevent a civil war, Scottish nobles asked Edward to pick the successor, putting him the in position of pissing off half of the country. When he chose Baliol, Bruce’s supports rebelled led by Wallace. Roughly the equalivant of punching your friend in the face when you ask him to choose a shirt and he picks the one you don’t like.
As portrayed by Charles Martin Smith (as the character Agent Oscar Wallace) in The Untouchables (1987).
The Movie: Eliot Ness and his “Untouchables” clean up the corrupt city of Chicago in the roaring 20’s. They raid Al Capone’s booze warehouses and with the help of Agent Oscar Wallace, who discover Capone’s hiding of his vast illegal fortune and then bravely sacrifices his life protecting a witness, bring down the Capone Criminal empire.
The Reality: Eliot Ness and the Untouchables were never more than a nuisance to Capone, barely putting a dent in his bootlegging operation. Ness however was a tireless self-promoter who made sure the press got the scoop on any of his raids. While back in Washington, IRS Criminal Investigative Agent Frank Wilson, who never worked with Ness directly, did the hard work of pouring over Capone’s finances and made the case that, got Capone, sent to prison in 1932. Oh, and he didn’t die in the line of duty, retiring from the IRS and dying in 1970 at the ripe old age of 83.
As portrayed by Jason Isaacs (character name William Tavington) in The Patriot (2000).
The Movie: Breaking about every accepted law of war Col. Tavington, commander of a group of Loyalist Cavalry in the South during the American Revolution, orders the killing of wounded prisoners, murders two sons of innocent farmer Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), and burns a church full of innocent people. He is finally brought to justice at the end of Benjamin Martin’s bayonet.
The Reality: Banastre Tarleton did command a large group of Loyalist cavalry during the Southern campaign of the American and was extremely aggressive, something a good cavalry commander should be. He earned a fearsome reputation because of an incident after the Battle of Waxhaws in South Carolina 1780. After a rather quick British victory, many of Tarleton’s troops started killing surrendering Americans, usually by the bayonet, something he neither ordered, and tried to stop. Most of the Southern campaign was fought not by regular British troops and Continentals but by Loyalists and local militia, who used the war as an excuse to settle old scores. Oh and by the way, Tarleton survived the war, dying in England at age 78.
As portrayed by Craig Bierko in Cinderella Man (2005).
Heavyweight Champion of the World Max Baer is an 8-1 favorite over unknown boxer Jim Braddock (Russell Crowe). To make matters worse, he’s a rude jerk that takes pride in the fact he once killed a man in the ring and makes lewd comments to Braddock’s wife Mae (Renee Zellweger). After an exciting fight Braddock wins on points and is crowned the new heavyweight champion. Serves that jerk right.
The Reality: Max Baer was popular champion who seemed to get more out of entertaining crowds in his fights than boxing (he would become and actor after retiring from boxing). He did indeed kill a man in the ring, Frankie Campbell in 1930, but was inconsolable on hearing of his death and did his best to financially look after his widow and mother. After seeing this portrayal of his father, Max Baer Jr. (famous for his role as Jethro on the TV series The Beverly Hillbillies) became so incensed he threatened a beat down of the film’s director, Ron Howard. The two have since made amends.
As portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator (2000).
The Movie: After killing his father, Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) when he learns he has chosen his General Maximus (Russell Crowe) to succeed him as ruler, Commodus orders Maximus murdered and kills his wife and young son. To make Rome forget what a tool he is he orders gladiatorial games to keep the public occupied. When now gladiator Maximus returns to challenge him, Commodus does everything he can to kill him again even challenging him to a one-on-one duel after Maximus is pre-wounded. Maximus lives long enough to dispatch Commodus and gain his revenge.
The Reality: First, he did not kill his father, who died of a heart attack while on campaign in Germany. Second, he was a fairly popular ruler early in his reign, which lasted 13 years because he spent most of Rome’s money entertaining the people. He actually did participate in the games and never lost, because his opponents were often stabbed before the matches. He did start to lose his mind towards the end of his reign, renaming Rome after himself for one and was killed, not by a gladiator, by his wrestling partner who strangled him.
As portrayed by Rodrigo Santoro in 300 (2006).
The Movie: The brutal Persian King Xerxes is determined to conquer Greece and add to his massive empire. The only thing standing in his way are 300 brave and tan Spartan warriors. For three days they resist Xerxes hordes until King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) is betrayed by a Greek traitor and the brave 300 die to a man leaving behind the inspiration for the Greeks to fight on.
The Reality: For one thing Xerxes didn’t dress like a Cirque du Soleil refugee. Long hair and long well-kept beards were order of the day for Persian nobility. He was also a fairly lenient ruler to those he conquered, provided they paid their tribute and supplied him troops. Also, there were 7,000 other Greeks who fell with Leonidas at Thermopylae, and their sacrifice did little to change things as Xerxes still marched on and burned Athens. Only a crushing naval defeat at the Strait of Salamis a month after Leonidas’ defeat sent Xerxes packing.