It’s well known that Hollywood take artistic license when it comes to retelling history. As for war movies, the day-to-day lives of soldiers, the humdrum truths and the hard facts don’t always translate well onto the silver screen. Modern audiences are hungry for fast-paced action and entertainment, and this is reflected in what they’re served up. Moreover, in some cases, incorrect reporting and political agendas can twist reality even further.
Nevertheless, watching so called “realistic” military films that are “based on a true story” can leave us with a distorted view on history. When you look at a real historical event from which a film is derived, you sometimes discover that the moviemakers have mixed up the facts, dramatizing certain aspects for effect, or breezing over parts of the story that don’t suit the particular narrative. Of course, this is even more apparent if you’ve actually served in the field.
Read on for 10 of the most inaccurate military movies ever made.
10. Enemy at the Gates (2001)
The Eastern Front during WWII has been criminally underrepresented in Western cinema; unfortunately, Enemy at the Gates reverses this trend but misrepresents the theater of war instead.
The film is based on Soviet propaganda about the exploits of Vasily Zaytsev, a sniper involved in the Battle of Stalingrad.
And its depiction of combat soon slips into typical misconceptions about the Red Army’s activities in WWII. Although some units in the city suffered from rifle shortages, there is no basis for the scene in which soldiers are sent to attack the Germans with only one weapon for every two men. There is no record of men being sent into combat unarmed.
Furthermore, the movie grossly exaggerates the role that Zaytsev played by implying that killing him would have changed the course of the entire battle. In reality, there were more than a million men engaged on both sides in Stalingrad.
Finally, the central sniper duel between Zaytsev and his German rival may or may not have happened. In his memoirs, Zaytsev claimed that it occurred, but there is no record of a Major Erwin König in either the German or Russian archives.
9. U-571 (2000)
War movie U-571 is possibly the worst example of America downplaying the role its allies played in WWII. Why? Because it completely transfers the achievements of the British Royal Navy over to the U.S. Navy.
The film depicts the first capture of an Enigma machine, which the German military used to send coded messages during WWII. In the movie, it is shown as an American operation in which disguised US submariners board a Nazi vessel. They then fend off attacking German Navy ships in order to escape.
In reality, of course, a British warship captured the first Enigma machine in 1941 – seven months before America even entered the war. The only actual Enigma capture by the U.S. Navy took place in 1944.
This film’s distortion was so infamous that the British Prime Minister at the time of its release, Tony Blair, called it “an affront” to British sailors who had fought in WWII.
8. Jarhead (2005)
Jarhead won awards for its gripping psychological portrayal of US troops in the first Gulf War. Unfortunately, when it comes to military fine detail, the movie falls completely flat.
According to veterans, many scenes in Jarhead are over the top and implausible. Ex-Marine Nathaniel Fick cites a scene in which Marines dance around a bonfire firing their weapons into the sky in celebration as particularly unlikely, as well as another in which a minor character is accidentally killed during a live-fire exercise.
Fick also claims that the physical and mental abuse the soldiers endure in the movie – which includes their being held down and branded with the USMC logo – is both rare and taken out of context. He says being abandoned on the battlefield would not have happened in his Marine Corps.
According to the Marine Corps Public Affairs, the movie “is an inaccurate portrayal of Marines in general and does not provide a reasonable interpretation of military life.”
7. The Battle of the Bulge (1965)
Made in 1965, The Battle of the Bulge is a Warner Bros. interpretation of the famous 1945 WWII battle it’s named after. Aside from obvious inaccuracies about tanks and equipment used on both sides (the distinctive American M47 Patton was used to represent the German King Tiger tanks), the movie’s depiction of combat is also highly inaccurate.
A crucial element of the initial success of the Ardennes attack was the stormy and sleety weather, which negatively affected the Allied forces’ air superiority and allowed the Germans to operate. Yet many of the battles depicted in The Battle of the Bulge are entirely clear of snow. What’s more, they take place in flat and level terrain – quite unlike the Ardennes forest where combat actually occurred.
The film also gives the impression that tanks were sacrificed by the Americans in order to run the heavier Tiger tanks out of fuel. In fact, the German tanks would have been exhausted even without the efforts of the US. Finally, all of the American jeeps in the film were, in fact, models designed after the war.
6. Red Tails (2012)
Red Tails was intended as an uplifting movie about overcoming discrimination, but it’s so inaccurate that it ends up being patronizing instead. The movie details the lives of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American fighter squadron to serve with the US military.
A number of claims made in the film turn out to be false – such as the Tuskegee Airmen not suffering any bomber losses to enemy fire. In fact, they had more than 25 bombers shot down during WWII.
Also, the film suggests that its protagonists had one of the best fighter combat records of the war. Official records, on the other hand, do not show The Tuskegee Airmen as having produced a single official fighter ace – although one of their members may have scored enough unregistered kills to qualify.
5. Flyboys (2006)
The 2006 WWI drama Flyboys is littered with inaccuracies. The most obvious is red Fokker Dr 1s being depicted as the standard aircraft of the German pilots. Not only was this plane not in widespread use, but the American pilots are also seen operating the Nieuport 17, which was out of service by the time the Fokker was adopted by the German military.
Producer Dean Devlin claimed that the aesthetic change was intended to help audiences tell the sides apart during action sequences. It was also probably intended to suggest a connection with the feared Red Baron, who flew a Fokker Dr 1 until being shot down in 1918.
The inaccuracies in Flyboys aren’t surprising when you consider the fact that the one military adviser on the movie was a fraudster who was later convicted for fabricating his entire war record.
4. Windtalkers (2002)
Windtalkers is a 2002 John Woo film loosely based around the use of Navajo as a code in WWII. Although the movie is correct in that Navajo Native Americans were used to transmit messages for the US Marine Corps, many other details depicted are inaccurate.
While it is true that Native American marines were often given bodyguards, the bodyguards’ main job was to protect their charges and stop US soldiers mistaking them for Japanese. There is no truth to the idea that the bodyguards were ordered to kill code talkers, if necessary, in order to prevent them falling into enemy hands.
Additionally, director John Woo’s background in Hong Kong cinema has affected the battle scenes. In this movie, no one behaves in the way real soldiers do on the battlefield; there is no covering fire or use of concealment when advancing, and all of the gunfights seem to take place at a range of about 10 feet.
3. Pearl Harbor (2001)
On top of numerous other flaws, Pearl Harbor is riddled with historical inaccuracies. The plot is kick-started when Rafe McCauley, played by Ben Affleck, is supposedly shot down while serving in a fighter squadron in the UK.
In reality, this would have been impossible, because serving US airmen were prohibited from flying with the RAF. This distortion is a transparent attempt to give McCauley an actual battle to be involved with at a time when the US had not yet entered the war.
During the actual attack on Pearl Harbor, a number of mistakes are also made. Admiral Kimmel, the commander of the Pearl Harbor naval base, was not playing golf on the morning of the raid, and he was not forewarned of Japanese intentions or of the fact that their embassy had left Washington.
Possibly the biggest mistake, though, occurs when Cuba Golding Jr.’s character sprays heavy machine gun fire at a Japanese fighter flying between his battleship and another vessel – which means he would have been firing directly into his own ship. Also, in some shots there are two ammo canisters, while in others there’s only one.
2. The Green Berets (1968)
There are many flawed Vietnam War movies, but none are quite as out of touch as John Wayne’s The Green Berets. Essentially, the film was a propaganda movie meant to counter the burgeoning anti-war movement. It was grossly misleading, both in military details and in terms of capturing the mood of the time.
The supposedly highly trained Green Beret Colonel was played by Wayne – who actually holds his rifle upside down in some scenes. The actor was 60 years old and overweight when The Green Berets was filmed. He wouldn’t have been allowed a field posting outside of the movies.
There were also various technical mistakes in the movie’s depiction of how the war was fought. The jungle around the American camp includes pine trees and red clay, nothing like the terrain of Vietnam.
In one scene, an M-16 rifle is smashed and it’s revealed that it doesn’t have an ammunition clip – probably because, as the rumor goes, it’s actually a toy version made by Mattel. This seems appropriate for a film that contemporary critics called a “cowboys and Indians” movie that glorified a messy war and reduced it to a series of clichés.
1. The Hurt Locker (2008)
The Hurt Locker follows an elite team of bomb disposal experts in Iraq. While the movie is an excellent human drama, many scenes are implausibly melodramatic in their depiction of combat.
Veterans who watched the movie aimed particular criticism at the character of Sergeant James. His defusing of 870 bombs during his career was seen as unbelievable, since in a typical tour of duty, it would require him to deal with around three improvised explosive devices (IEDs) a day.
The character was also criticized for putting the lives of his men at risk by failing to follow proper procedure. The three-man squad is shown routinely operating without support in hostile environments – and engaging in sniper battles and combat – while individuals are shown being insubordinate to superior officers.
Former British bomb disposal officer Guy Marot said, “James makes us look like hot-headed, irrational adrenaline junkies with no self-discipline. It’s immensely disrespectful to the many officers who have lost their lives.”
Bonus: The Patriot (2000)
Sometimes, ignoring a historical figure’s flaws just doesn’t work. Such is the case in Mel Gibson’s 2000 epic The Patriot, whose central character was renowned for raping his female slaves and hunting Native Americans for fun in real life.
Francis Marion, renamed Benjamin Martin for the film, is depicted in the movie as a civilized family man whose soldiers include both black and white volunteers.
In reality, Marion was a slave owner who was involved with brutally suppressing the Cherokee Indians. He was described by a historian as committing atrocities “as bad, if not worse, than those perpetrated by the British.”
In addition, the movie attributes atrocities to the Redcoats that have no basis in fact. The scene in which the population of a village is herded into a barn to be burned alive was based on a similar Nazi action in WWII.