The new book by Alan Royle, ‘Movies Based on True Stories’, due for release in May 2015, examines how Hollywood manipulates history in order to create entertaining films.
‘Movies Based on True Stories’ looks at over 300 feature films ranging from the birth of the industry to the present day; some good, some bad, and compares what really happened historically with Hollywood’s dramatizations that, more often than not, strayed considerably from the facts as we know them. This book also occasionally focuses on fictional movies that contain historical inaccuracies, or points of interest regarding the pictures themselves or the players appearing in them. As you will find in these pages, truth can indeed be far stranger than fiction.
The art of making movies based on true stories, on actual events involving real people, nearly always requires liberties to be taken with the truth, primarily because of time restraints, but also because dramatic license is essential if the picture is to achieve any semblance of box-office success. Events that may have happened over several decades must be somehow crammed into an intelligent, comprehensible narrative, (complete with real-life, believable characters), usually of 120-150 minutes duration. The most dramatic, soul-stirring moments really need to come at the end of the story, too, even if they may have actually taken place at or near the beginning. The art of building drama and tension that culminates in a stirring, inspirational conclusion is virtually formulaic for a Hollywood movie, so if that means ‘adjusting’ history, then adjusted it must be. Even the best historical movies, the best movies based on true stories, suffer from this.
Comparing Hollywood and history can be a most exasperating exercise for historians, but if we all expect entertainment from the cinema, then we must reluctantly accept that this ‘molding’ of historical fact is the price we have to pay for it. In Movies Based on True Stories I look at a great many films that have some basis in actual events; movies premised with such phrases as: ‘Based on a true story’, ‘Based on actual events’, ‘What you see here actually happened’, and so forth.
The degree of license varies enormously from picture to picture and the ‘cross-over’ from truth to half-truth, to utter fabrication, can often appear quite seamless if the director and writer know their stuff. This, of course, can lead to rather biased historical representations, some even intended by producers working to an agenda. Our understanding of great events or great people, therefore, can be seriously compromised in the process. One example is Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), a movie that cleverly melds actual footage with created dramatization that can easily dupe the average cinema goer into thinking that everything he or she is watching is historically accurate when, in fact, it is not. Chariots of Fire (1981) is another example of distorting history, of dramatic license versus historical accuracy. This book Movies Based on True Stories comments on these pictures and hundreds more.
Some of Movies Based on True Stories content concerns fictional films that contain an element of historical trivia that is worth mentioning; for example, the 2000 Bruce Willis vehicle, The Whole Nine Yards. The story, of course, is made up, but the title has an interesting ‘based on fact’ origin. In effect then, I offer an assessment of the factual accuracy (or otherwise) of many of the best historical movies as well as some of the worst, plus little snippets of intriguing movie trivia that I found unusual or informative or both. Primarily, however, the focus is on telling you what actually happened compared to what Hollywood would have you believe. Hollywood versus history, so to speak.
You will notice I have, on occasion, voiced my personal opinion on matters or events that I feel strongly about. It is my belief that a historian has an obligation to not only analyze and assess, but to then express his or her views on such issues, providing the facts remain unaltered or distorted. After all, one of the great joys in life is being able to exchange points of view with others, or to read and assess the feelings of others on topics that affect us all. I have little interest in merely reciting facts. Anyone can do that. Expressing opinions on those facts is what makes us human beings instead of robots (or news readers for that matter).
During the course of my research, I have regularly come across unusual or obscure data about the actors in some of these movies. My first book, Hollywood Warts ‘n’ All addressed the private lives of actors and actresses, and is full of movie trivia, scandal, feuds, loves, war records, sexual preferences, addictions, even studio cover-ups in more circumstances than you might imagine. In this second book I have occasionally included tidbits of Hollywood trivia along those lines, but have opted to save most of any extra, newly discovered data for book three which is currently undergoing a final edit prior to publication. I have, however, taken the liberty to insert into the conclusion of Movies Based on True Stories the following lists of my own preferences.
My Favourite Performances by Actors
My Favourite Performances by Actresses
My Favourite 100 Movies of All Time
Academy Award Winning Movies by Year
My Choices for Each Year’s Best Picture Oscar
Of course, your taste is bound to differ from mine, but therein lies the fun of comparing our
views with the views of others. After all, we are all experts when it comes to our own
New book `Movies Based on True Stories`
by Alan Royle, January 2015