Ever since the invention of motion pictures, film fans have delighted in the cinema's ability to bring long-gone historical periods to life. For many people, mentioning a historical period brings to mind film portrayals of it, from John Wayne's Wild West films to Russell Crowe portraying a Roman gladiator or Kiera Knightley as a Regency lady. Unfortunately, Hollywood's version of history and the facts can often be a little different. Here are some of the most common historical myths spread by movies.
Vikings in horned helmets
Raiders, merchants and explorers who sailed around the coasts of Europe and across the Atlantic to America, the Vikings make great heroes and villains for adventure films. Sadly, the horned helmets depicted in many films -- including both Hollywood classics and recent blockbusters -- are an invention. The only Viking helmet known to archaeologists, the Gjermundbu helmet, has a simple round crown, while Viking art depicts other helmets with a conical shape.
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Medieval towns were filled with combustible material such as wood and straw. As a result, fire was a great danger, and many medieval armies used flaming arrows or other projectiles to try to burn enemy towns. Films, however, seem to suggest that flaming arrows were common weapons in battles as well as sieges. This may be because the lit arrows look more impressive on screen. In reality, however, the sharp iron points of arrows were deadly enough without archers wasting the time to set them on fire.
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The trigger-happy Wild West
The genre of the Western thrives on tales of violence. A Western viewer could be forgiven for thinking that 19th-century Texas and Arizona were places where disputes were settled with blazing pistols on a regular basis. However, even the roughest frontier towns had comparatively few shootings. Incidents like the gunfight at the OK Corral, in which three men were killed, are famous precisely because they were rare. In fairness to Hollywood, this is a genuine 19th-century myth. Contemporary writers exaggerated the body counts of gunmen like Billy the Kid and Doc Holliday in order to make their books more exciting.
Napoleon was short
Napoleon's short stature is legendary: the expression "Napoleon complex" has entered everyday speech to describe a little man with a big ego. In films, Napoleon is usually played by a short actor, even, in some cases, a dwarf. However, there is no real evidence to suggest that Napoleon was unusually short. Contemporary sources put his height at five feet, seven inches, making him perfectly average for the early nineteenth century.
The Titanic was unsinkable
The story of the Titanic has been the basis for many films, including one of the most popular movies of all time, James Cameron's 1997 hit Titanic. Most of these films play up the irony of the "unsinkable" ship being sunk on its maiden voyage. There's only one problem: the White Star Line didn't claim that their ship was unsinkable. As with many historical myths, this one results from screenwriters needing to create a narrative out of the chaotic and unsatisfying story of a historical event.
300 Spartans fought at Thermopylae
Films such as 300 and The 300 Spartans tell the tale of 300 Spartan hoplites who, even though overwhelmingly outnumbered, fought a critical delaying action against the Persian army at the battle of Thermopylae. It's a fine, rousing story with one small problem: the figure of 300 is off by a little bit. At least 5,000 troops from a coalition of Greek city-states occupied the pass initially. Even after some of the army retreated, the number of defenders was probably closer to 3,000 than 300. As with the Wild West, this is a contemporary myth: Greek writers used the story of the heroic last stand to boost morale and turn a Persian victory into a symbolic defeat.
William Wallace, Freedom Fighter
Mel Gibson's 1995 film Braveheart is a thrilling action movie, but as a biography of Scottish leader William Wallace, it leaves a good deal to be desired. Little is known about Wallace's life, but most sources he agree he was a wealthy landowner rather than a commoner. He certainly wouldn't have worn a kilt, a much later invention. The film depicts Wallace as a passionate believer in Scots independence, but neglects the complicated background of internal Scottish rivalries that led to war with England. The suggestion that Wallace was Edward III's real father is particularly surprising considering that Edward III was born several years after Wallace's execution.
Americans get everywhere
One of the most common pieces of movies meddling with history is the insertion of an American viewpoint character. This is usually said to be because Hollywood studios believe American audiences will not enjoy films about non-American protagonists. The most egregious example of this is U-571, a film in which an American crew is shown to be responsible for the capture of a German Enigma code machine. The irony of this kind of depiction is that real contributions made by Americans are often dismissed as Hollywood fantasy as a result.
Heroes believe in democracy
Just as studios may worry about audiences not empathising with foreigners, some screenwriters seem to believe that filmgoers won't like characters who don't share their modern values. As a result, ahistorical beliefs are often attached to historical characters. Consider Mel Gibson's The Patriot, in which the hero, a landowner from the American South, does not own slaves, or Gladiator, in which the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius is portrayed as being in favour of democracy. In reality, many leaders in the American War of Independence owned slaves and Marcus Aurelius was firmly in favour of autocracy.
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Everything happens for a reason
If the historical myths peddled by the film industry have one thing in common, it's that they are all part of a concerted effort to force history into the shape of a movie screenplay. Bad decisions come back to haunt heroes, individual choices are more important than societal trends, and battles are always about freedom versus tyranny rather than, say, France versus England. It's easy to see why filmmakers decide to tell stories in this way. The only danger comes when we begin to think about real history like this.
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