From John Wayne as Genghis Khan to 1776’s catchy showtunes about dysentery … here’s my favourite examples of movies which have played fast and loose with historical truth
Alex von Tunzelmann has been giving Guardian Film readers a historian’s take on historical movies since 2008. To celebrate the publication of her book, Reel History: The World According to the Movies, she picks 10 weird and wonderful cinematic takes on the past.
Michael Anderson’s 1955 dramatisation of the 1943 RAF mission to bomb German dams is fairly true to life and bounces along entertainingly
The Dam Busters (1955) Director: Michael Anderson Entertainment grade: A– History grade: B+
On the night of 16-17 May 1943, 617 Squadron of the Royal Air Force – later nicknamed the Dam Busters – carried out Operation Chastise to attack German dams in the Ruhr valley. The last surviving pilot, New Zealander Les Munro – who is name-checked twice in the film – ...
Al Pacino hits his mark as a whistleblower patrolman who confronts dirty New York City cops in Sidney Lumet’s historically accurate 1973 drama
Serpico (1973) Director: Sidney Lumet Entertainment grade: B- History grade: B
Formed in 1970, the Knapp commission discovered widespread and deep-rooted corruption in the New York police department. This followed a story given to the New York Times by two whistleblowers, sergeant David Durk and officer Frank Serpico.
Colin Firth stars in this adaptation of the memoirs of a POW tortured by the Japanese military during the second world war. No movie could recreate such horrors, but it’s easy to forgive this redemptive tale its mild flights of fancy
The Railway Man (2013) Director: Jonathan Teplitzky Entertainment grade: B+ History grade: B+
Rufus Norris’s adaptation of the National Theatre musical, about the murders of five prostitutes in Ipswich in 2006, offers a unique, disturbing take on tragedy
London Road (2015) Director: Rufus Norris Entertainment grade: B+ History grade: A
In late 2006, five women were found murdered near Ipswich. The women were aged between 19 and 29, had all worked as prostitutes and had histories of drug abuse. Forklift truck driver Steven Wright, then 48, was found guilty of their murders. He is now...
The tale of Princess Elizabeth and Margaret’s sortie among the wild nighttime celebrations of commoners on VE Day loses the facts in the crowd – except for that conga
A Royal Night Out (2015) Director: Julian Jarrold Entertainment grade: C+ History grade: D
The end of the second world war in Europe was marked by VE Day on 8 May 1945. “We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing,” said Winston Churchill (whose broadcast is used in this film). There followed three days of uproarious...
Hepburn’s real-life affair with director John Ford adds extra spice to this tale of a fiery proto-feminist queen’s love for the Earl of Bothwell
Mary of Scotland (1936) Director: John Ford Entertainment grade: B+ History grade: B+
Mary, Queen of Scots was the daughter of James V of Scotland and Mary of Guise. Her great-grandfather was Henry VII of England, which gave her a strong claim to the English throne during the reign of Elizabeth I.
Alan Rickman’s historical romance, about the landscape architect to the Palace of Versailles, is a limp, aimless film without any feel for 17th-century speech or manners
A Little Chaos (2015) Director: Alan Rickman Entertainment grade: D History grade: C-
In the 17th century, André le Nôtre was considered the greatest landscape architect in France. He designed or co-designed gardens at Versailles, Vaux-le-Vicomte, Fontainebleau and Chantilly, as well as the Tuileries in Paris.