All The President's Men
1976
Dir: Alan J. Pakula
Starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, 'All the President's Men' is one of the finest examples of a film based on real events.

It tells the story of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the two journalists who uncovered the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post.

Based on the book by the two journalists, Pakula tried to maintain accuracy - not only in the script but in the detail. Both actors spent many days in the Washington Post offices observing the reality of the profession. The desks used on the set of the office were purchased from the same company who supplied the actual desks.

That level of attention to accuracy and detail is rare in Hollywood.

There are lies
Damn lies
and Hollywood films based on true stories.

Of course a film can't ever be an accurate account of true events.
Firstly, films are usually around 90 to 100 minutes long, and very few important events take place inside a couple of hours.
Secondly, it is rare that one has accurate records of actual dialogue. Often the entire dialogue of a 'true story' is made up by a writer.
Third, a film - even a big film - has limited resources. When 'Patton' was made in 1970, the Allied forces and the Axis forces are both seen fighting in the same model of tank - a model that was manufactured after the war - but that was available for use by the production.

Such details may irritate the experts, but they don't actually affect our understanding of real events.
We all can picture Mel Gibson in his kilt in 'Braveheart', even though as a lowlander, not a highlander, he would not have worn a kilt.

Again, who cares?

But sometimes history is actually changed in films, not because of budgets, or because we want to see Mel Gibson's knees, but because the truth is not the best story.

In real life, Julie Andrews did not marry Christopher Plummer and promptly run away from the Nazis over the mountains as in 'The Sound of Music'. They married eleven years before the invasion of Austria.

'Chariots of Fire' shows Harold Abrahams losing his first race, before going on to reclaim his honour by winning gold in the 100 metres. In real life it was the other way round. He won his first race, but lost the second.

Descendants of Private Henry Hook were perhaps understandably upset when he was portrayed as an insubordinate, drunken malingerer in the film 'Zulu', when in real life the man was a teetotaller who had shortly before the battle been commended for good conduct.

In order, presumably, to add to the tension of the scene, Spielberg shows in 'Lincoln' that two representatives of Connecticut voted against the abolition of slavery. In actual fact all four members voted for the abolition. This was revealed in an open letter to Spielberg by a Connecticut congressman who had once been supported in his bid for election by Ben Affleck, who it so happens had a film called 'Argo' up against 'Lincoln' for an Oscar.

Not that Ben Affleck was entirely innocent of the crime of altering history. The entire climactic sequence of his film where the Americans barely escape on a plane as armed men chase them - all made up.

Given that people watch far more films than they read history books, there is a justifiable concern that films can actually alter history, at least in the minds of the public.

In 1940, the townsfolk of the small Yorkshire seaside town of Horsforth raised the funds to build a warship, the HMS Aubretia. Its name would go down in history when in 1942 Sub-Lt David Balme climbed aboard a sinking German submarine and grabbed and Enigma code machine - enabling the Allies to crack the German communications codes.
You might not remember events that way if you watched the film 'U571' which showed that the entire operation was carried out by US forces.

And after a while this can affect our understanding of history.
Napoleon was 5'7" - not tall, but certainly not the midget he is often portrayed in films.
The forces of the Spartans probably numbered at least 4000, not the famous 300.
It was colonialists who put a bounty on Indian scalps.

Over the last year, 'Captain Phillips', 'American Hustle', and 'Saving Mr. Banks' have all sparked coverage for their historical inaccuracy.

But it is unlikely that indignant complaints, the moans of historians, or even lawsuits by offended relatives will change anything.

At the beginning of 'Fargo', we are told 'This is a true story...'.
It wasn't. It wasn't even based on a true story. Nor did any of us really believe that it was a true story.
Joel Coen later said, "If an audience believes that something's based on a real event, it gives you permission to do things they might otherwise not accept."

But in December 2001, newspapers carried the story of a 28-year old Japanese lady named Takako Konishi, who was found dead, frozen in the North Dakota woods. She had apparently believed that the film was a true story, and was looking for the $1m buried by the characters in the film.

There can be no more powerful example of how making up shit in films and portraying it as truth can have real and disastrous consequences.

(A suicide letter was later found, and it turned out that Takako's death was entirely unrelated to 'Fargo' but instead was prompted by her failed love affair with a married American)

from 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance':
'This is the West, sir. When the legend become fact, print the legend.'

Paul Spurrier