9 Popular Movies About Historical Figures That Are Wildly Inaccurate


The lives of historical figures have provided Hollywood with film fodder for decades. Biographical movies aren’t necessarily as accurate as they claim to be, though. From Bohemian Rhapsody to Braveheart, inaccurate biopics prove that great films don’t always make for great history lessons.

Inaccurate films about historical figures tell mistruths that range from the mild to the outrageous. Some biography movies merely compress events, re-order chronologies, or create composite characters to streamline storytelling; others twist facts and misrepresent historical figures in offensive ways. What bio movies don’t say about historical figures is sometimes as important as what they do say: biopics that lie by omission tend to glorify historical subjects by ignoring inconvenient truths that are nonetheless important windows into their lives.

But no matter how they may twist or ignore the facts, all the films on this list sacrifice accuracy in some way to sugarcoat, whitewash, misrepresent, over-dramatize, or over-simplify the past.

1. Pocahontas


Boasting a hummable score, the Disney musical Pocahontas imagines a romance between the titular Native American princess and English explorer John Smith during the founding of Jamestown in 1607. Pocahontas and Smith’s love transcends boundaries in an era brimming with cultural tensions; the English are overrunning Powhatan land, and both communities see one another as “savages.” Though Pocahontas saves Smith’s life just before her father slays him, their romance must end – he returns to England, and she remains with her community.

Both Pocahontas and John Smith were real historical figures – that much is beyond dispute – and the relationship between native groups and English colonists in the Tidewater region of Virginia was both volatile and cooperative. The young woman known as Pocahontas – which was probably her nickname – eventually traveled with her husband, John Rolfe, to England, where she met King James I and passed at the age of 20.

Smith did eventually return to England, where he passed in 1631. But a romance between Pocahontas and Smith almost certainly did not happen: Pocahontas was around 11 – not a teenager – when Smith arrived in Virginia, and there is no evidence they engaged in an affair. Though John Smith claimed Pocahontas saved him from losing her life, scholars continue to cast doubt on his account. 

  • Actors: Irene Bedard, Judy Kuhn, Mel Gibson, Linda Hunt, John Kassir
  • Released: 1995
  • Directed by: Mike Gabriel, Eric Goldberg

2. Braveheart


Braveheart may have commanded the box office and the Academy Awards when it was first released, but its portrayal of the life of 13th-century Scottish folk hero William Wallace is hardly accurate. The film depicts Wallace as a kilt-clad, salt-of-the-earth warrior who develops a vendetta against the English after they violate and slay his wife. Bent on revenge, he leads his Scottish countrymen in an uprising against the forces of King Edward I of England. In the process, he woos a princess, gets sold out by future King of Scotland Robert the Bruce, and is captured and slain by the English.

Though this plot makes for riveting entertainment, it’s terrible history. While Wallace was indeed an important leader in Scotland’s resistance from England, the film plays fast and loose with the facts of his life and world. Wallace was more elite than the film presents – he was born into a life of privilege as a son of the Scottish gentry. Historians agree he didn’t fight against the English to avenge a slain bride – he, like many Scottish elites, didn’t think the English had a right to intervene in Scottish affairs.

The princess with whom Wallace has an affair in the film was never even in England until after Wallace’s time. Moreover, Robert the Bruce was a fierce defender of Scotland before becoming king in 1306 – and he, not Wallace, was referred to as a “brave heart.” The film even misrepresents Wallace’s garb: medieval Scots didn’t wear kilts.

  • Actors: Mel Gibson, Sophie Marceau, Patrick McGoohan, Catherine McCormack, Brendan Gleeson
  • Released: 1995
  • Directed by: Mel Gibson

3. Birdman Of Alcatraz

Birdman Of Alcatraz

Birdman of Alcatraz may have earned Burt Lancaster an Academy Award nomination for his performance as real-life inmate Robert Stroud, but the film is more fiction than fact. The biopic follows Stroud’s life in captivity; after being imprisoned for ending someone’s life, the film depicts Stroud as a rebel hero challenging the authority and confines of the American prison system. He finds solace by breeding, studying, and treating birds in his cell. 

In real life, Stroud was not the misunderstood hero the film portrays. He routinely fought his fellow inmates and guards – including, as shown in the movie, one guard whom he slew with a knife in 1916 – to the point that he was placed in solitary confinement. Stroud transformed his cell into a laboratory; an unsanitary space, cluttered with bird excrement and dissections. After studying birds in his cell for decades, Stroud published a book about canaries.

The film tends to glorify and exonerate Stroud, although he was diagnosed as a psychopath.

  • Actors: Burt Lancaster, Karl Malden, Thelma Ritter, Betty Field, Neville Brand
  • Released: 1962
  • Directed by: John Frankenheimer

4. The Greatest Showman

The Greatest Showman

The feel-good musical The Greatest Showman imagines P.T. Barnum as a man who celebrated difference as he built an entertainment empire. Though best known for establishing the circus that bears his name, Barnum was indeed a showman through and through, frequently investing in other forms of entertainment. According to the film, he was in danger of suffering from his ambition, as he almost lost himself in an affair with Swedish singer Jenny Lind. 

But Barnum was not the big-hearted advocate for inclusion the film imagines. Not only does The Greatest Showman whitewash his exploitative practices, it conveniently ignores the fact that a 25-year-old Barnum first made his fortune by displaying the body of Joice Heth, an elderly enslaved woman whom he claimed had nursed George Washington. When Heth passed in 1836, Barnum sold tickets to her autopsy.

The film also purposefully manipulates details of Barnum’s private life to formulate a rags-to-riches story about a charismatic, ambitious man who followed his dreams. The real-life Barnum wasn’t an orphan, and moreover, Lind didn’t quit her tour because she fell in love with Barnum; she stopped when she tired of the touring lifestyle.

  • Actors: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya
  • Released: 2017
  • Directed by: Michael Gracey

5. Amadeus


Amadeus centers on two composers in 18th-century Vienna: Antonio Salieri is competent, but lacks brilliance; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a musical genius whose childishness and arrogance deeply offend Salieri. A rivalry is born between the two, and it ends with Salieri claiming responsibility for Mozart’s premature passing.

Though the film has been heralded as a brilliant study of genius and mediocrity, its central story has no basis in fact: Salieri was not behind Mozart’s passing. While Salieri was a composer who matched Mozart’s acclaim, and rumors persisted of a rivalry between the two men, the historical record suggests that they may have been collaborators. The film’s depiction of Salieri does the historical figure no favors – he is cold, calculating, and aloof where Mozart is jovial, excitable, and extroverted.

Salieri’s focus on his work and dismissiveness towards human relationships is further highlighted by the fact that he is presented as a lonely bachelor who lusts after his music students – in reality, Salieri was happily married with children. The manipulation of facts to transform Salieri into a villain in Mozart’s life story was purposeful, and screenwriter Peter Shaffer defended the film by saying it “was never intended to be a documentary biography.”

  • Actors: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Jeffrey Jones, Elizabeth Berridge, Simon Callow
  • Released: 1984
  • Directed by: Milos Forman

6. The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game

The Oscar-winning biopic The Imitation Game follows lonely, eccentric mathematical genius Alan Turing’s attempts to create a machine to help a team of British codebreakers crack SS messages during WWII. Though a leader in decoding German military secrets, Turing is harboring his own secret: he’s gay in an era when it is a crime. Turing discovers that John Cairncross, a member of Turing’s team, is spying for the Soviets, but Cairncross has discovered Turing’s secret and uses it as leverage to protect his position. Turing plays along for a time but ultimately reveals Cairncross to be a spy. After the war, Turing is arrested for homosexuality.

Alan Turing indeed played a significant role at Bletchley Park, the estate that was the actual base for Britain’s secret codebreaking efforts during WWII. He was, however, less self-absorbed than the film’s depiction. Despite what the movie portrays, Turing’s successes came thanks to the earlier work of Polish codebreakers, who are granted virtually no recognition in the film. Cairncross was a spy at Bletchley, but he had no contact with Turing. What’s more, Cairncross’s blackmailing of Turing in the film is entirely fictional – it amounts to what historian Alex von Tunzelmann calls an egregious act of “slandering a great man’s reputation.”

  • Actors: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Allen Leech
  • Released: 2014
  • Directed by: Morten Tyldum

7. The Theory Of Everything

The Theory Of Everything

The Theory of Everything is a loving portrait of Stephen Hawking’s marriage to Jane Wilde and how she helped him persevere through ALS to become an internationally celebrated physicist. In the film, Hawking and Wilde meet while they are both students at Cambridge University. They marry and start a family soon after Hawking’s ALS diagnosis, but Wilde becomes increasingly alienated from his life. 

Though the film is based on Wilde’s memoir, it nonetheless fails to represent the complexities of their marriage accurately. In her memoir, Wilde was explicit about the fact that marrying Hawking and providing care for him meant she would more or less give up her professional career. The film largely sidelines her ambitions, though, and she is transformed into a character who solely exists for Hawking.

Wilde has also expressed disappointment that the film didn’t go far enough in depicting the responsibilities she accepted. The Theory of Everything also downplays the significant role Hawking’s relationship with Elaine Mason – whom he later married – played in the breakdown of the marriage. His marriage to Mason caused an estrangement between Hawking, Wilde, and their children. The film also fails to touch on rumors that Mason neglected and abused Hawking.

  • Actors: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Charlie Cox
  • Released: 2014
  • Directed by: James Marsh

8. The Conqueror

The Conqueror

In a blatant act of yellowface, John Wayne plays Temujin – the Mongol leader who would come to be known as Genghis Khan – in the 1956 biopic The Conqueror. The film centers on his relationship with his first wife, Bortai, and his attempts to consolidate power. He first encounters Bortai, a beautiful Tartar woman, when Temujin’s enemy takes her as his bride. But Temujin has already fallen in love with her and vows to take her and marry her himself. She resists, but Temujin eventually wins her over.

The life of Genghis Khan – the creator and leader of the Mongol Empire in the late 12th and early 13th centuries – certainly warrants a biopic. But this attempt was riddled with historical inaccuracies and offensive tropes. Khan’s early years as Temujin were spent proving himself and consolidating his authority. Moreover, his marriage to Bortai – who is usually referred to as “Borte” – did provide a crucial test of his strength and leadership.

But the film completely shuffles history: Temujin was betrothed to Borte from a young age, and a rival spirited her away after their marriage. Temujin thus embarked on a rescue mission. Rather than portraying Temujin as a man going to great lengths to rescue his wife, it depicts him as a cruel leader who takes what he wants.

  • Actors: John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, Pedro Armendáriz, John Hoyt
  • Released: 1956
  • Directed by: Dick Powell

9. Jobs


Ashton Kutcher stars in Jobs, the first biopic about Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. The film traces the titular character’s early career path from Reed College dropout to the CEO of one of the most profitable companies in the world.

To be fair, Jobs doesn’t sidestep all of Steve Jobs’s unsavory history: he denied that his first daughter was really his, for example. The film tends to glorify Jobs’s genius, however, and overstates his role in developing Apple. In the process, it minimizes co-founder Steve Wozniak’s contributions. Wozniak has called the film inaccurate and specifically called into question how he and Jobs are portrayed.

  • Actors: Ashton Kutcher, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Gad, Lukas Haas, J.K. Simmons
  • Released: 2013
  • Directed by: Joshua Michael Stern