Hollywood Got It Wrong
Nearly all war films based on true events contain errors, either because the director, hoping to increase the excitement factor to appeal to a wider audience, exercised too much artistic license; or because he conducted inadequate research or lacked funding to achieve historical accuracy. Examples of the latter circumstance abound and are largely unintended. Mostly harmless, such faults don’t diminish the film viewing experience. After all, not many viewers will recognize or care if an officer’s uniform bears the wrong colored insignia, that American tanks are disguised as German ones, that sound effects don’t match a specific weapon’s discharge, or that a battle’s geography or weather is slightly off kilter. Just so long as any discrepancy isn’t too obvious and distracting. Most filmgoers focus on the action and the performance of the players. So long as they grasp the central gist of what the film is trying to portray as history, no foul.
More disturbing is when a director intentionally makes changes for dramatic purposes that veer too far from real events. Here, he misinforms the viewing audience, and over time, can alter the public’s perception of history. You can call this the “Liberty Valance Syndrome,” where the director morphs legend into fact.
Here are some of the most egregious instances in the genre of directors tinkering to improve ticket sales.
The Great Escape – 1963 by John Sturges
This is the film that solidified Steve McQueen as an international star and made him the King of Cool. In the film he joins James Garner, another American pilot shot down in the war, and other Allied airmen imprisoned at German Stalag Luft III as they plan and execute the biggest mass escape made during World War II. Sturges generally stuck to the facts, though deviated in three key elements.
No Americans participated in the actual tunnel escape—the German Luftaffe had transferred them to an adjacent facility a few months earlier. A story centered on British flyers, however, would hardly excite American audiences, so Sturges gave his two headliners prominent roles. No great sin itself, but in emphasizing McQueen and Garner—indeed giving their characters the most dramatic and fabricated escape episodes—Sturges downplayed the sacrifice made by British, Australian, and other European Allied officers.
And, contrary to the film, the March 1944 breakout of the 76 POWs took place while the countryside was still blanketed in snow, making it an even greater risk than depicted. Finally, the subsequent murder by the Gestapo of fifty of the escapees actually happened, but sporadically in several locations, not in the mass manner as depicted.
The Alamo – 1960 by John Wayne
The Duke’s ode to America badly confuses the role of key participants in one of our quintessential battles. He attributes the decision to defend the Alamo to Sam Houston and William Barrett Travis instead of to Jim Bowie, and has Houston ordering Travis to San Antonio to delay the march of Santa Anna and his 6,000-man Mexican army. Houston’s motive is purportedly to buy time to build his own army.
However, the real Houston was more strategically minded. He sent Jim Bowie, not Travis (Travis was sent by the provisional government, not Houston), expecting Bowie to destroy the mission fortifications and bring its troops to Goliad, some eighty miles southeast, where he hoped to consolidate forces to better contest Santa Anna. But upon his arrival, Bowie decided to defend the Alamo, essentially disobeying Houston’s wishes. The film exacerbates the mistake to Bowie’s detriment by incorrectly depicting him as initially wanting to abandon the Alamo. Several scenes show Travis and him butting heads over the issue.
Wayne also embraced the American myth surrounding the battle hook, line, and sinker, and portrayed Davy Crockett and company as heroic defenders of liberty and democracy. This only tells half the story. Heroic they were; but at the same time, they were revolutionaries. Texas legally belonged to Mexico at the time. Its inhabitants, including the Alamo officers, Bowie and Travis, and most of its defenders, were Mexican citizens. Santa Anna was no foreign invader, but a president—albeit a brutal dictator—looking to fend off a rebellion. Wayne downplays this aspect.
There are other mistakes as Wayne mixes up his timing in two critical episodes. He has Bowie receive news of the death of his wife while stationed at the Alamo, ostensibly to help explain why Bowie changed his mind and chose to remain and fight, rather than retreat. Presumably, he had nothing to live for. In fact, Bowie’s wife died three years earlier. Bowie’s primary reason for fighting was to protect his substantial land holdings in the area.
And the film is wrong about James Fannin, an off-screen character and another Texas leader in the revolution. Travis sent messengers to Fannin calling for reinforcements. The film attributes Fannin’s failure to send any to his being ambushed in route. The news casts a brief pall over the desperate defenders, who now face certain annihilation. In reality, Fannin did not reinforce the mission because he chose not to abandon his position at Goliad. He and his troops indeed met an awful death—executed by Santa Anna after surrendering at the Battle of Coleto—but that event happened two weeks after the Alamo fell.
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