I admit, historical goofs bother me more than they should. Imagine if I'd majored in history instead of English literature. At least sometimes I can watch in mostly blissful ignorance and not know until afterwards, when I can no longer resist the urge to research, how wrong that script really was. This list doesn't consider movies like Immortals, where they clearly aren't trying to be accurate in any sense of the word; but it is otherwise the Top Five Movies that sent me scrambling for the history books.
5. Public Enemies
Supposed Time Frame: 1933-1934
On the other hand, if the guy with the big gun says the film's accurate, who am I to argue?
If You Wrote a History Paper Based on This: You'd probably get a B. There's a whole mess of minor mistakes (radios shown not manufactured until 1940, cars from a year or two into the future, movies quoted that weren't yet made, etc.), but what might cost you some points are things like Baby Face Nelson actually having been killed after Dillinger; or Dillinger's role in his own jailbreak being substantially less heroic in real life than in the film. Mostly, this one just suffers from the typical problems films about famous people have -- everything's rushed, exaggerated, or both.
4. Robin Hood
Supposed Time Frame: 1198-1199
The Magna Carta: Still Not Written by Stonemasons.
If You Wrote a History Paper Based on This: You'd probably get a C+. To be fair, it's hard to write a history paper about a man who was probably mostly myth, but it doesn't work terribly well as a summary of the myth, either. And the surrounding history is dubious. People use extremely rare and expensive glass goblets as everyday tableware, Richard the Lionheart says (in English, a language he probably barely knew) that he can't wait to lock up his mother when in fact he was the one who freed her after her husband locked her up, and anachronistic songs abound. The real kicker, though, is that the movie revolves partly around the Magna Carta, which wasn't written until 1215, or about sixteen years after the events in the film -- and at least thirty years after Robin Hood's father, who supposedly helped write it, would have died.
Supposed Time Frame: 140 A.D.
It isn't quite this inaccurate, but I couldn't resist the picture.
If You Wrote a History Paper Based on This: You'd probably get a C. Esca and the people he and Marcus encounter beyond the Wall all speak Gaelic, a language unknown in that area until the 4th century A.D. -- they would have spoken Brythonic, the forerunner to modern Welsh, or possibly Pictish. The Wall was supposedly built by orders of the Emperor Hadrian after the Roman Ninth Legion disappeared in about 120, when it was actually part of an empire-wide project. But there are two serious problems: first, their standard was probably a bull, not an eagle; and second, they probably weren't lost beyond Hadrian's Wall. Historians today believe that the legion was simply broken up about 120 and its members reassigned elsewhere.
2. Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows
Supposed Time Frame: 1891
Just put some gears on it and call it steampunk already.
If You Wrote a History Paper Based on This: Well, okay, you wouldn't be writing a history paper on Sherlock Holmes at all, unless your teacher is a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, since some of them seem to think Holmes was a real person. However, for a while there, I thought this film was going to shoot straight to the top of this list at the last possible moment, though it didn't quite make it. It's sort of accurate. It tries. But then there are the cars driving around -- it wasn't until 1895 that cars started to become anything like mass-produced. Chest compressions to help restart a person's heart weren't thought of until the 1960's. Lipstick in a tube wasn't invented until the 1920's. The German flag seen in Moriarty's office is the wrong design; at that time it would have been black, white, and red, lacking the familiar yellow. They also use handguns invented in 1896 with a design tweak (a removable clip) that wasn't invented until the 1930's.
1. Season of the Witch
Supposed Time Frame: 1335-1344 (mostly 1344)
The Gulf of Edrimet. Note the lush olive groves in the background.
If You Wrote a History Paper Based on This: Expect a D. You'd know better than to mention the demons and zombie monks at the end, but even using just the first three-quarters of the movie, when they're still pretending to be historical, you'd go wrong in a lot of ways. Technically, there were no Crusades after 1291, when the last Crusader city fell; so it's a little difficult to believe that main characters Behmen and Felson are Crusader knights between 1335-1344. Regular knights, sure, but they would have been there to protect pilgrims, or on pilgrimages themselves, rather than trying to take over anything. It's also geographically inaccurate. One of the seemingly endless captions says they're on the "Coast of Styria", but Styria is landlocked. Maybe they meant Syria? One fight in the midst of a desert is captioned "Gulf of Edremit", except the Gulf of Edremit is actually a temperate, entirely non-desert spot in Turkey. They grow olives.
Most jarring for me, though, and the reason why this film gets the top spot (or bottom, depending on your point of view), is the way it depicts the Black Death. They show a character dying of the plague, with this huge, misshapen, oddly colored lump of flesh above his eyebrow. According to the imdb, this is because the filmmakers went with an alternate plague theory proposed in 2001, saying that the plague was not the bubonic plague at all, but an Ebola-like virus. Researching the Ebola virus, however -- a thoroughly unpleasant task, I assure you -- hasn't turned up any such symptom, though, so I'm still not sure what's up with that. Maybe they wanted to jar us, so that we'd think less about the dubious plot.