Three Oscar-Winning Movies That Rewrote History

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Oscar-nominated movies should place more importance on historical accuracy than storytelling — at least that’s the conclusion you might draw from the criticisms lodged at American Sniper, The Imitation Game, and Selma. An angry cabal of tut-tutting, self-appointed guardians of public taste have attacked the directors of these movies for having the temerity to (gasp) take liberties with the real-life events that inspired the films (with Zaid Jilani of Salon characterizing American Sniper as a hideous pack of lies corrupting the minds of an unsuspecting moviegoing public). But American Sniper, The Imitation Game, and Selma are not the only Oscar-caliber films that have interpreted history to tell compelling stories. Here are three more from the annals of Hollywood history — all of them critically acclaimed, and all of them Oscar winners:

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  • Amadeus. This movie proved to be the high-water mark of the careers of Tom Hulce, who famously portrayed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a spoiled prodigy with a fondness for scatological humor, and F. Murray Abraham, who depicted Antonio Salieri, the erstwhile bitter rival of Mozart. Amadeus earned the scorn of historians who took major issue with the movie for grossly overstating the rivalry between the two men, especially the suggestion that Salieri had a hand in Mozart’s death. As Alex von Tunzelmann of The Guardian wrote (indulging in some bitter reflection years later), “Some fine research into Mozart’s annoying personality doesn’t really make up for the fact that the entire premise of this film – that Salieri loathed Mozart and plotted his demise – is probably not true.” But the critics were nothing more than voices screaming into the void, well after the movie had secured its place in film history by winning a slew of awards, including an Academy Award for Best Picture and designation on AFI’s “100 Years . . . 100 Movies” list.

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  • Braveheart. Mel Gibson’s 1995 lionization of 13th Century Scottish warrior William Wallace won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Braveheart also launched a cottage industry of naysayers who scoffed at the movie’s many inaccuracies, such as taking liberties with the way the famous battles were fought, and depicting Scottish badasses running roughshod in kilts and cool face paint. In fact, kilts were not popular in Scotland until the 17th Century, and that whole face paint thing had gone out of style by Wallace’s time. But Gibson wasn’t going to allow facts to interfere with a good story, and audiences responded. The film grossed $210 million globally.

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  • JFK. In 1966, New Orleans District Attorney Garrison began an investigation into the assassination of President Kennedy. As a result, he prosecuted a guy named Clay Shaw, alleging that Shaw and some right-wing cronies colluded with the CIA to kill Kennedy. Garrison’s case was so flimsy that it took a jury less than an hour to acquit Shaw. The curious case remained on history’s dust heap until Oliver Stone decided to make an epic three-hour movie out of Garrison’s questionable work. The resulting movie, JFK, drew a firestorm of criticism for distorting one of the most tragic events in American history. (Jon Margolis wrote in the Chicago Tribune that JFK was “an insult to the intelligence.”) JFK grossed more than $200 million worldwide, won two Oscars (for editing and cinematography) and landed Oliver Stone a Golden Globes Best Director win.

Dig a little deeper, and you will discover many more examples, such as Gladiator and The Passion of the Christ. (Apparently, the further back you go in history, the easier it is to play by your own rules. And Mel Gibson is a repeat offender.) What do these distortions tell us?

  • Moviemakers make stories, not history lessons.
  • Moviegoers listen to each other and sometimes to critics. But they could care less what historians think.
  • If you hate a movie, the louder you scream about it, the more publicity you’re giving the film.

Finally, if you go to movies to learn about history, you get the history you deserve. What are some notable inaccurate movies on your list?

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