Historical epics have been popular in Hollywood ever since the early days of film. Why, one of very the first experimental films was a 30-second mini-scene of Thomas Edison dancing around dressed up as Cleopatra, although it’s possible this was intended strictly for his personal use.
But just as old as the historical film is the historical inaccuracy. Almost every movie based on factual events has gotten something wrong, whether it’s a minor detail or a major plot point. Here’s a list of some of the more egregious flaws that drive historians crazy when they go to the movies.
1) Concerning the movies “Elizabeth” and “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” there never actually was a queen of England named Elizabeth. This makes the fact that the current monarch is called Elizabeth II even more mysterious.
2) If you watch closely in the famous chariot-race scene in “Ben-Hur,” you can clearly see that one of the “chariots” is actually a Volkswagen Beetle.
3) One of the more glaring anachronisms is in “Titanic.” The ship sank in 1912, yet the film stars Leonardo DiCaprio, who wasn’t born until 1974.
4) The Robin Williams political comedy “Man of the Year” is set in the present, yet all of his jokes are from 1987.
5) Listen carefully to the dialogue in “Gladiator,” set in ancient Rome. You’ll notice that everyone is speaking English — a language that wasn’t even discovered until the 1600s!
6) Much of “Back to the Future” is set in October 1955. Yet the E-string on the guitar Marty plays in the famous “Johnny B. Goode” scene is a type of nylon string that would not go on sale until early 1956.
7) Martin Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence” depicts the vibrant and exciting social scene of New York in the 1870s, yet the movie is really boring.
8) The 1989 film “Glory” is centered on an 1860s conflict known as the “Civil War.” History bears no record of any such war.
9) It makes no sense for Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent) to sing “Like a Virgin,” written in 1984, in “Moulin Rouge,” set in 1899. The real Harold Zidler was tone deaf and never sang publicly.
10) “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” set in the 1880s, is in glorious Technicolor. However, even a cursory examination of photographs from that era will show that everything was actually in black and white.
Bonus: “Mary Poppins” is set in 1910. The scene in which Mary and Bert smoke crystal meth is anachronistic, then, as meth did not become a popular street drug in London until the 1950s.