"Based on a true story" - we see it plastered on posters and zooming towards us in movie trailers all the time, but we all know that Hollywood plays with the phrase in a very fast and loose fashion.
Just because a movie is based on true events does not mean it's actually accurate to the reality it claims to portray. 'Based' is, after all, a very ambiguous word.
However, occasionally there are movies which go out of their way to try and replicate events as close as possible to what actually happened. Of course, the practicalities of film-making, as well as the need to tell an exciting story, often mean that even these films are not 100% accurate, but they are certainly close enough to warrant admiration. Here are some of them.
1. 127 Hours
Danny Boyle's survival thriller 127 Hours tells the tale of Aron Ralston, an adventurous young man who found himself wedged beneath a boulder for, as the title suggests, 127 hours.
After he realized no one was coming to save him (he hadn't told anyone where he was going), he was forced to amputate his own arm with a pocket knife in order to escape.
Ralston himself was closely associated with the movie (he even appears in the final epilogue scene) and has described the film as incredibly accurate, claiming "the movie is so factually accurate it is as close to a documentary as you can get and still be a drama."
Ralston actually did record a video diary of his ordeal, including the moment he cut off his arm. This footage is now kept in a secure safe, however both Boyle and lead actor James Franco were permitted to watch it in order to inform their work. Furthermore, the canyon in which Ralston becomes trapped is almost identical to the one shown in the film, while Franco even uses the actual camcorder used by Ralston.
2. Apollo 13
Ron Howard is known for going out of his way to achieve authenticity in his movies. His relatively recent release Rush, was praised for its attention to realism, while his masterpiece Apollo 13 is upheld as one of the most accurate movies ever released.
One of the main reasons for this is the actual use of dialogue from NASA transcripts during the real Apollo 13 mission - including the now famous "Houston, we have a problem line." Although generally the dialogue is delivered more dramatically in the movie, some lines are taken directly from the transcripts. You can compare the movie and real version of the line, below:
The real transcript
To portray the weightlessness of space, Howard also decided to do things as accurately as possible. This included extended trips in the 'Vomit Comet,' a specially designed airplane which creates a sense of weightlessness through massive climbs and dives.
Goodfellas is an extremely candid gangster biopic based on the book about former mobster Henry Hill. Hill himself was closely attached to the project and claims all of the scenes were based on real events, while the portrayal of the psychotic Tommy DeSimone by Joe Pesci was particularly accurate. According to Hill, Pesci's performance was 90 to 99% accurate, with the only major difference being the real DeSimone was a massive, well-built man.
Furthermore, to ensure the authenticity of the background cast, Martin Scorsese actually cast real gangsters in the movie in minor roles, while many associates of the gangsters being portrayed were on hand to provide insights into setting and character.
In fact, when Henry and Karen are negotiating entry into the Witness Protection Program, former U.S. Attorney Edward McDonald actually portrays himself. He was the real attorney who worked with Henry Hill to gain his testimony against the mob. You can watch his pretty impressive performance below:
4. Into The Wild
Although not 100% accurate, Sean Pean's continent sprawling tale of wanderlust and eventual disaster does maintain many accurate elements regarding the life of Chris McCandles.
Many of the monologues and letters which appear in the film are word-for-word taken from real letters and notes written by McCandles, while many of the people he met along his way also shared their tales with the production team. For example, Jim Gallien, the Alaskan who gives Chris rubber boots at the beginning of the movie, actually plays himself. The McCandles family, which are not exactly shown in flattering light in the film, also gave their permission and provided background details to his life and their familial problems.
Penn also tried as much as possible to film in the real locations mentioned by McCandles in his journal and in the book based on his adventures. Ultimately, he decided against filming at the abandoned 'magic bus' location in Alaska out of respect for McCandles, although an almost exact replica of the set was constructed nearby.
However, there is one major inaccuracy in Into The Wild. McCandles is shown to die from ingesting a poisonous seed, however in reality he is likely to have died from starvation. At the time of the movie's release, there was no single theory regarding his death (eating poisonous seeds was one of the most popular), and even to this day people still debate the cause.
5. Der Untergang (Downfall)
The German war movie cataloging the end of the Second World War in Berlin is often seen as one of the most accurate depictions of Adolf Hitler. One of the main reasons for this was the incredible performance by Bruno Ganz who attempted to show the German Führer as a real human character the viewer could almost empathize with.
To inform his performance, Ganz listened to secret tapes of Hitler made by Finnish intelligence officers in 1942. Hitler had made a surprise visit to celebrate the 75th birthday of Field Marshal Gustaf Mannerheim of Finland and during the 11-minute tape recording talks casually and candidly about the war. In order to preserve his cult of personality among the German people, Hitler generally forbid recordings and photographs being taken in private.
Much of the film also draws inspiration from the life of Traudl Junge, Hitler's secretary and one of the few people to make it out of the Führer Bunker alive. Pieces of Ganz's dialogue are based on actual phases spoken by Hitler and were drawn from accounts by Junge and Albert Speer, Hitler's chief architect and Minister of Armaments. However, some of the dialogue was spoken at different points in the war.
The climatic scene in which Hitler breaks down upon hearing of the failed attempt to relieve Berlin, however, is generally believed to be historically accurate. Records talk of Hitler breaking down and, for the first time, admitting the war was lost before dismissing his generals. This scene is now famous for its parody versions, although the original is still extremely powerful.
Master and Commander: Far Side of the World
If Master and Commander had come out in any other year than 2003, there's a good chance it would have made off with several high value Oscars. Unfortunately, that year also saw the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which ultimately took 11 Oscars home, including many which Master and Commander was also nominated for.
Master and Commander earns a honorary mention since, although it isn't based on a true historical event, it does go to major lengths to authentically portray life on a 19th century Royal Navy ship-of-the-line. All the actors were given a thorough training in naval life in the period, including use of naval vernacular and weapon drills. Furthermore, the dueling between the ships is also relatively accurate to the firing and maneuvering tactics used by fighting ships at the time.
The sound team also spent hours recording the sounds of actual cannons firing different types of shots to accurately feature the various sounds of naval combat. It's no surprise Master and Commander won the Oscar for best sound editing.
The crew was even allowed to film on the real Galapagos Islands to accurately portray the setting. Usually, filming on the islands is reserved for documentaries only.
Now, this one might strike you as a surprise and yes, generally speaking, 300 is not a historically accurate movie. However, if we strip away the graphic novel aesthetics and highly-questionable orientalism, we discover a movie which is a lot more historically accurate than it has any business being.
In particular, some of the dialogue spoken by Gerard Butler has been actually attributed to the real King Leonidas of Sparta. In fact, some of the film's most 'badass' and "Hollywood-esque" lines do also appear in historical accounts of the Battle of Thermopylae.
For example, when told of the number of enemy archers mobilized against them, Leonidas reportedly retorted, "Won't it be nice, then, if we shall have shade in which to fight them?", a line which is more succinctly repeated in the movie by Michael Fassbender's Stelios. Before battle commenced, a Persian ambassador also demanded Leonidas and the Spartans lay down their arms, to which Leonidas famously replied, "Come and take them." A version of this line is also said in the movie, and it is also actually inscribed on the monument of Leonidas built at the site of the real battle.
Queen Gorgo's line of "Come back with your shield, or on it" also has historical precedent as it is claimed Spartan mothers would say this to their sons and husbands heading off to battle. The basis for this is that fleeing soldiers would often abandon their heavy shields to allow for faster flight, losing your shield was therefore synonymous with dishonor.
Unfortunately, there's no historical evidence to suggest Leonidas shouted 'THIS IS SPARTA!" However, he did actually throw the Persian emissaries down a well.
USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage
Now, I'm cheating a little bit with this one, but USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage is an upcoming war disaster film which fans of accurate movies might want to tentatively keep an eye on.
Of course, at this stage we don't know how accurate it will be, but from production details learned about the movie we can cross our fingers it will provide an accurate retelling of his incredible story.
The USS Indianapolis was an American heavy cruiser which was sunk by a Japanese submarine on July 30, 1945. The ship, which was transporting materials for the first atomic bomb, had 1,196 men on board, 300 of which died during the sinking. The remaining 900 were left floundering in the ocean to face exposure, dehydration, saltwater poisoning and continued shark attacks. By the time they were rescued, only 317 remained. Those of you who recall Quint's monologue in Jaws, might remember he tells the tale of the Indianapolis:
The film's pre-production included over five years of consultation with the survivors of the disaster, while the US Navy and Coast Guard also advised on the script (although, to be honest, this does not always mean it will be accurate). One of the survivors of the attack, Granville "GS" Crane is also portrayed by his own grandson, Johnny Crane in the movie. GS Crane lost an arm to a shark while in the water, although somehow he managed to survive till today. Hopefully, the inclusion of his grandson will mean the events will be portrayed accurately.