Saturday, June 2, 2012

Hollywood Got it Wrong

Nearly all war films based on true events contain errors, either because the director, hoping to increase the excitement factor to appeal to a wider audience, exercised too much artistic license; or because he conducted inadequate research or lacked funding to achieve historical accuracy. Examples of the latter circumstance abound and are largely unintended. Mostly harmless, such faults don’t diminish the film viewing experience. After all, not many viewers will recognize or care if an officer’s uniform bears the wrong colored insignia, that American tanks are disguised as German ones, that sound effects don’t match a specific weapon’s discharge, or that a battle’s geography or weather is slightly off kilter. Just so long as any discrepancy isn’t too obvious and distracting. Most film-goers focus on the action and the performance of the players. So long as they grasp the central gist of what the film is trying to portray as history, no foul.

More disturbing is when a director intentionally makes changes for dramatic purposes that veer too far from real events. Here, he misinforms the viewing audience, and over time, can alter the public’s perception of history. You can call this the “Liberty Valance Syndrome,” where the director morphs legend into fact.

Here are some of the most egregious instances in the genre of directors tinkering to improve ticket sales.

The Great Escape – 1963 by John Sturges

This is the film that solidified Steve McQueen as an international star and made him the King of Cool. In the film he joins James Garner, another American pilot shot down in the war, and other Allied airmen imprisoned at German Stalag Luft III as they plan and execute the biggest mass escape made during World War II. Sturges generally stuck to the facts, though deviated in three key elements.

No Americans participated in the actual tunnel escape—the German Luftaffe had transferred them to an adjacent facility a few months earlier. A story centered on British fliers, however, would hardly excite American audiences, so Sturges gave his two headliners prominent roles. No great sin itself, but in emphasizing McQueen and Garner—indeed giving their characters the most dramatic and fabricated escape episodes—Sturges downplayed the sacrifice made by British, Australian, and other European Allied officers
And, contrary to the film, the March 1944 breakout of the 76 POWs took place while the countryside was still blanketed in snow, making it an even greater risk than depicted. Finally, the subsequent murder by the Gestapo of fifty of the escapees actually happened, but much more sporadically and in several locations than the mass murder scene depicted.

The Alamo – 1960 by John Wayne

The Duke’s ode to America badly confuses the role of key participants in one of our quintessential battles. He attributes the decision to defend the Alamo to Sam Houston and William Barrett Travis instead of to Jim Bowie, and has Houston ordering Travis to San Antonio to delay the march of Santa Anna and his 6,000-man Mexican army. Houston’s motive is purportedly to buy time to build his own army.

However, the real Houston was more strategically minded. He sent Jim Bowie, not Travis (Travis was sent by the provisional government, not Houston), expecting Bowie to destroy the mission fortifications and bring its troops to Goliad, some eighty miles southeast, where he hoped to consolidate forces to better contest Santa Anna. But upon his arrival, Bowie decided to defend the Alamo, essentially disobeying Houston’s wishes. The film exacerbates the mistake to Bowie’s detriment by incorrectly depicting him as initially wanting to abandon the Alamo. Several scenes show Travis and him butting heads over the issue.

Wayne also embraced the American myth surrounding the battle hook, line, and sinker, and portrayed Davy Crockett and company as heroic defenders of liberty and democracy. This only tells half the story. Heroic they were; but at the same time, they were revolutionaries. Texas legally belonged to Mexico at the time. Its inhabitants, including the Alamo officers, Bowie and Travis, and most of its defenders, were Mexican citizens. Santa Anna was no foreign invader, but a president—albeit a brutal dictator—looking to fend off a rebellion. Wayne downplays this aspect.

There are other mistakes as Wayne mixes up his timing in two critical episodes. He has Bowie receive news of the death of his wife while stationed at the Alamo, ostensibly to help explain why Bowie changed his mind and chose to remain and fight, rather than retreat. Presumably, he had nothing to live for. In fact, Bowie’s wife died three years earlier. Bowie’s primary reason for fighting was to protect his substantial land holdings in the area.

And the film is wrong about James Fannin, an off-screen character and another Texas leader in the revolution. Travis sent messengers to Fannin calling for reinforcements. The film attributes Fannin’s failure to send any to his being ambushed in route. The news casts a brief pall over the desperate defenders, who now face certain annihilation. In reality, Fannin did not reinforce the mission because he chose not to abandon his position at Goliad. He and his troops indeed met an awful death—executed by Santa Anna after surrendering at the Battle of Coleto—but that event happened two weeks after the Alamo fell.

Glory – 1989 by Edward Zwick

Perhaps the best Civil War film, Glory depicts the career of Robert Gould Shaw, an aristocratic white Bostonian and son of an influential abolitionist. Shaw led the nearly all-black regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, in its failed assault of Fort Wagner near Charleston Harbor in 1863.

The film shows the black unit as mainly comprised of run-away slaves. Most have little education and are dirt poor. Not true. In reality, the 600-man unit was primarily composed of middle-class free blacks from across the North. Massachusetts Governor John Albion Andrew had called for recruits—some came from as far away as Ohio, Michigan and Illinois.

Director Zwick lionizes Shaw in the film and over-dramatizes his actual role in several scenes. Such embellishment is unnecessary. For example, Shaw initially declined the offer to lead the regiment, going so far as to ask his father to hand-deliver a letter saying as much to Governor Andrew. Shaw later changed his mind. The film depicts him accepting the commission immediately to emphasize his personal courage.

Captain Luis Emilio, a 54th veteran, published the definitive history of the regiment in the 1890’s. His account debunks Shaw’s role in other scenes, including the unit’s refusal to accept less pay than being given white soldiers. The government did initially intend to deduct $3 as a uniform allowance for the 54th, and the soldiers did refuse pay, but much of that crisis occurred after the Fort Wagner fight. Shaw wrote one letter to argue for equal pay, but it was Governor Andrew who forced the issue, which did not get resolved until eighteen months later, well after Shaw’s death. Emilio’s detailed history makes no mention of Shaw or any white officer joining the protest. And, nowhere does the former captain describe Shaw having threatened a quartermaster to obtain boots.
Finally, the most dramatic scene in the film has Shaw ordering the whipping of a troublesome black recruit. This is not credible given the officer’s character. Besides, the Union Army outlawed flogging in 1861, two years before the film’s events took place. While some unscrupulous officers may have occasionally resorted to the whip for disciplinary reasons, they did so at their peril. A famous real life incident occurred in 1863 at Fort Jackson, Louisiana. Lieutenant Colonel Augustus Benedict’s flogging of two black drummer boys resulted in a near uprising of his troops. A court martial later drummed Benedict out of the service for “inflicting cruel and unusual punishment, to the prejudice of good order and military discipline.”
The film ends with a postscript that says Fort Wagner never fell to Union forces, presumably to demonstrate that the 54th was up against insurmountable odds, making their sacrifice that much greater and noble. This is incorrect as federal troops successfully lay siege to the post following the failed assault by Shaw. Confederate forces abandoned the site two months later.

They Died with Their Boots On – 1941 by Raoul Walsh

Walsh played fast and loose with the facts, leaving his portrait of the life of George Armstrong Custer far from the truth. History has not been kind to the cavalry officer. Since the 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn his popular image has deteriorated badly. Once a lionized authentic American hero, Custer is now more commonly considered a reviled murderous scoundrel, killer of Native American women and children, and an inept commander whose tactical blunders caused the Last Stand debacle. While the truth is somewhere in the middle, director Walsh stood firmly in the camp of the idolaters. He paints Custer (in the guise of handsome Errol Flynn) as a noble figure, bent on defending Indians against encroaching Whites and unscrupulous businessmen. It is a giant farce with several preposterous scenes, large and small.

By most accounts, Custer subscribed to General Phil Sheridan’s belief that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” In truth, Custer may have identified, or at least admired the Plainsmen’s simple way of life; but he showed little mercy on the battlefield, particularly in the 1868 confrontation on the Washita River. Historical records suggest that other films, such as 1970’s Little Big Man, disingenuously exaggerate the nature of that fight to denigrate Custer, but certainly the Seventh Cavalry slaughtered some defenseless non-combatants that bloody morning. Walsh skips over the atrocity.

Walsh also ignores Custer’s own attempt to exploit the Native Americans by leading a foray into the Dakota Territory to find gold in 1874. And Walsh romanticizes Custer’s actual court martial in 1867 for abandoning his post to visit his wife to the East. Walsh barely refers to the incident; when he does, he has charges brought forth by an unscrupulous Indian agent. In fact, were it not for Sheridan’s intervention with President Grant, who despised the ambitious officer, Custer would have run out of the army. Walsh resolves the crisis with a fictional confrontation between Custer and Grant in the Oval Office. Had such a meeting took place, it likely would have ended with the President’s boot firmly affixed to Custer’s rear end.

Most jarring is how the director deals with Chief Crazy Horse. In reality the two leaders never met one another face to face. Walsh manages to bring them together in three separate scenes, each a figment of the director’s imagination. In the first, Custer captures the warrior in route to Fort Lincoln—he later escapes. In the second scene, Custer personally promises Crazy Horse that the Seventh Cavalry will defend their rights against White settlers; and in the third, Crazy Horse fires the bullet that kills the last man standing at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Custer of course. Finally, Walsh credits Custer with knowingly sacrificing his small forces to prevent the warring Indians from swooping down upon General Terry’s unsuspecting regiment.

Despite over sixty-five years of trying, as American history, They Died with Their Boots On reached a level of historical inaccuracy in film not yet equaled.

The Bridge on the River Kwai – 1957 by David Lean

Lean’s masterpiece tells the story of the construction by British prisoners of a bridge over the Kwai River to support the Japanese occupation of Burma during World War II. An escaped prisoner joins a squad of commandos sent to blow up the structure. It’s got great acting, a great script, and a dramatic, explosive ending, which all worked to secure the film seven Academy Awards, including ones for Best Film and Best Director.

The bridge was indeed destroyed, but not as depicted in the film. The commando raid through the stifling jungle—an all but impossible mission—never happened. Instead, Allied planes took out the bridge and in much less dramatic fashion than Lean foisted on the public. No train tumbled head-first into the river.

If one can excuse Lean for creating the film’s two main protagonists out of whole cloth—Japanese Colonel Saito and British Colonel Nicholson—to symbolize the courage and determination of the real men involved, the climax was hardly necessary to convey the message uttered by another character in the film: war is “madness.”


  1. Excellent article. My husband went to high school (Toronto) with a boy whose father was one of those involved in the real "great escape".

    Much as I dismiss "They Died With Their Boots On" as history, I admire the fictional Custer and Flynn's portrayal very much. Perhaps it is easier for me as a Canadian to accept the fiction for what it is. It's just such a darn entertaining movie.

  2. Thanks, Caftan Woman. Your husband perhaps heard some stories of the escape? Brave men. As for Flynn's protrayal, he looked darn handsome in uniform, didn't he? He and Olivia made a grand couple. It's certainly a terrific action film from the period.

  3. Very interesting post! And I love your term “Liberty Valance Syndrome.”

  4. Thanks for reading, Rick. Appreciate the comment.

  5. This is a great post with tons of great info that I never knew! A lot of work went into this post and it's a terrific read. Thanks!

  6. This is a great post. Mistakes are always one of the things that bother me in historical movies and it's nice to see the story getting set straight. Thanks for the post!

  7. Thanks, silverscreenings. Glad you liked the post. It's always interesting to see how film-makers change history.