What do the movies Dunkirk, A Beautiful Mind, Chariots of Fire, Dallas Buyers Club, The Help, I Love You Philip Morris, Boys Don’t Cry, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Boogie Nights, and Battleship Potemkin, among countless others, all have in common?
All of them – comedy, drama, history or thriller – are based on a real historical character, or a true sequence of events. Of course, many movies have changed their storylines somewhat to work well on the silver screen, just like casino games have been adapted for play online. These adaptations simply serve to enhance the story, or to fill in the gaps where the storyline may be a little thin, and in some cases they may give the original a whole new, Hollywood-style twist.
Some characters inspire multiple borrowings from movie fiction: gruesome serial killer Ed Gein has been the model for villains in several made-up horror stories, including Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But here’s a look at three landmark films where characters and history were retold – with varying degrees of historical accuracy.
The Oldest – Major Wilson’s Last Stand
Made in 1899, this bit of imperialist British propaganda takes a loss by armed colonial troops against spear-wielding Africans and turns it into a Dunkirk-style victory. As Major Wilson and his small force are overwhelmed and slaughtered by the Matabele in one of Britain’s 19th-century wars to subjugate the people of what is now Zimbabwe.
It’s a silent film, and the earliest ‘based on a true story’ movie known. Although how true it is, is a matter of opinion – the facts are related completely from a British perspective. The subtitles make no bones about the fact that the ‘savages’ have only won a temporary victory; the ‘manifest destiny’ of the British Empire will eventually subdue them.
The Biggest – Titanic
Still one of the highest-grossing films of all time in America, Titanic (1997) has only recently been overtaken at the box office by Black Panther – which despite the protestations of fans, is not based on a true story or a real place. Titanic, on the other hand, is a true story. Well, more or less.
Sure, director James Cameron made up the Rose and Jack romance out of whole cloth, but the ship itself is faithfully recreated by magnificent CGI and brilliant art direction. Even the set dressing, down to the crests on the chinaware at meals.
Most of the supporting characters fictionalised in the story really existed – the Unsinkable Molly Brown, played by Kathy Bates, for instance, really did survive the tragedy. Several of the real Titanic crew are also shown in their historical roles in Cameron’s film, although he rewrote their actions – which in fact led to some relatives complaining about the way their ancestors were portrayed responding to the crisis.
The Funniest – Hysteria
Made in 2011, Hysteria looks at events more than 100 years earlier – London in the 1880s. It shows a surprising, and very funny side of stuffy, upper-class England at the time. Rich women suffering from sexual frustration would be diagnosed with ‘hysteria’ by their doctors, and sent to a specialist in ‘manual stimulation’.
Under a discreet sheet, this doctor would then massage the titled lady’s pelvic area until she reached a ‘paroxysm’, which relieved her ‘hysteria’. The film takes a romantic comedy look at a young doctor who joins such a practice, then finds himself succumbing to hand cramps while trying to give paying customers orgasms. So turning to the bold new science of electricity, he invents… the vibrator!
These movies prove that truth really is stranger than fiction, and when given the Hollywood treatment it makes for awesome viewing.