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9 Historical Lies We All Believe – Thanks to the Movies

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Since the birth of motion pictures film fans have flocked in their thousands to watch movies based on real events from a certain point in history. We have seen John Wayne play a cowboy in wild west movies and Russell Crowe play a roman gladiator; we’ve even seen actors run around nearly naked pretending to be cavemen.

The only problem with Hollywood making movies based on real life events is that they have a tendency to rewrite the facts and we all stupidly believe them. Here we take a look at the most common myths that we all believe thanks to the movies.

1 – The Trigger Happy Wild West

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Whenever we think of the wild west we automatically think of a time and place that was riddled with gunfights and violence. Anyone who as ever watched a movie set in the wild west could quite easily be forgiven for thinking that Arizona and Texas during the 19th century were terrible place where people settled arguments with gunfights on a daily basis.

The truth here is that even the toughest of towns in the days of the wild west had somewhat few shootings and acts of violence. Famous historical shootouts such as the OK Corral only became famous because such incidents were so rare. Hollywood can be forgiven for exaggerating the violence of the wild west because it does make stories and movies more exciting. It is not just Hollywood who have exaggerated these facts. Many contemporary writers also hyped up the body counts of gunmen like Billy the Kid and Doc Holliday in order to make their books more exciting.

2 – Vikings Wearing Horned Helmets

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Vikings are commonly represented in movies as raiders, merchants and explorers who sailed around the coasts of Europe and across the Atlantic to America. The Vikings are truly the stuff legendary movie villains are made of but the Vikings with the horned helmets that we all know and love are nothing more than a myth.

You will be looking a long time to try and find a movie, new or old, that shows Vikings without their famous horned helmets but in reality Vikings never wore such helmets. The only known Viking helmet is the Gjermundbu helmet which was a simple round crown while Viking art usually depicts other helmets with a conical shape.

3 – Flaming Arrows

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Your average medieval town was usually filled with combustible materials such as straw and wood so any form of fire posed a great risk to everyone’s safety. It is hardly surprising that when a medieval village found itself under attack flaming arrows and other flaming projectiles would be used in an attempt to burn everything to the ground.

The use of flaming projectiles would clearly be visually stunning so it is hardly any surprise that Hollywood movies are happy to show off their use on the big screen. The only problem with this is that Hollywood seems to suggest that flaming arrows were common weapons used in battle and in sieges. In reality flaming arrows were seldom used to attack towns since an arrow with a sharp iron point was deadly enough without archers having to waste time and energy setting them on fire.

4 – Napoleon Was Short

Painting : Napoleon at Fontainbleau

Napoleon is a well-known historical figure who has been represented in many movies over the years. It is widely assumed that Napoleon was a short man and when he appears in movies he is often played by an actor who is also a little on the short side.

What you are probably not aware of is that there is no real evidence our there to suggest Napoleon was as short as we all believe. Most contemporary sources state that Napoleon was somewhere around five feet, seven inches which would make him a perfectly average height for a man living in the early part of the nineteenth century.

5 – The Titanic Was Unsinkable

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The Titanic is undoubtedly one of the most famous ships to have ever set sail. It has been the basis behind many movies including one of the most successful and popular movies of all time. What most people believe about the Titanic is that it was claimed to be unsinkable but the truth here is that the White Star Line never actually made that claim.

This is a typical case of a historical myth that came about because screenwriters always feel the need to create an engaging narrative out of the chaotic and unsatisfying story of a historical event.

6 – 300 Spartans Had Their Last Stand at Thermopylae

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The movie 300 tells the true story of 300 Spartan warriors who, even though greatly outnumbered, fought against the Persian army at the battle of Thermopylae. The story of the 300 is certainly an inspirational one which makes you realise the true strength of the human spirit even when the odds are impossibly stacked against you. The one small problem with this is that the figure of 300 is off by a tiny little bit.

According to the official history books there were at least 5,000 troops from Greece who occupied the pass at the start of the battle. Even after some of the army retreated it is believed that around 3,000 troops still remained to fight.

As with many myths the myth of the 300 has fallen victim to Greek writers who used the story of the heroic last stand to boost morale and turn a Persian victory into a symbolic and humiliating defeat.

7 – William Wallace Was A Freedom Fighter

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The 1995 Mel Gibson movie Braveheart was hugely successful and filled with action and emotion. Unfortunately as an accurate biography of the Scottish leader William Wallace it is way off the mark. There is actually very little known about the real life of William Wallace but nearly every source of information we have agrees that he was a wealthy landowner rather than a commoner. One thing for certain is that he would not have ever worn a kilt which was an invention that came long after Wallace’s demise.

In the movie we see William Wallace depicted as a passionate believer in Scotland’s independence but does not even hint at the complicated background of internal Scottish rivalries that a war with England. It is also worth pointing out that the suggestion that William Wallace was the real father of Edward III is complete nonsense since Edward III was born several years after William Wallace was executed.

8 – Heroes Always Believe in Democracy

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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.

9 – Everything Happens For A Reason

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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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