Here, I took a look at my personal take on the Top 20 so-called “True Stories” as seen on film. To keep the list as diverse as possible, the rules are that only ONE film from any given genre will be included, for example, only one film from World War 2, one from 9/11 or Tombstone etc... The films don’t necessarily have to be that accurate either, as theatrical licence is very much a part of creating true drama as well as tradition within the medium.
The other key rule is that a the “True Story” which either inspires or dictates the story has to be the main plot of the film, so for example, Saving Private Ryan WON’T qualify as the story is fictitious, even thought is set in a very real-time and situation and based loosely on a similar event. The Fighting Sullivans for example, which is the basis of Saving Private Ryan would count but I haven’t seen it, nor really wish to, so it wasn’t be included.
My aim is to offer an interesting list of films, from a broad period of time and genres. The list is also not presented in any particular order…
- ZULU (1964) Based on the true story of just over a 100 British troops fighting against incredible odds and 4000 Zulu warriors at Rourke’s Drift in 1879, Zulu must stand the test of time as being one of, if not the best example of both a war film and a screen adaptation of a historic event. This film does not offer a perfectly accurate account and at times takes some outrageous theatrical licence, particularly when portraying characters such as Private Hook, who in real life was not a drunken layout as comically portrayed here, but that aside, the story and film work brilliantly to immortalise its subject and that must surely be the aim of any such work. Oh, and this is of course the film which introduced us to the now legendary Michael Caine…
- BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001) Ridley Scott’s take on the 1993 Somalian street battle owes a lot to Zulu. Again, our “heroic” troops are out numbered by the indigenous population and must fight a seemingly futile battle to simply survive but both work so well to convey the truth of war, even if you doubt the legitimacy of the hero’s reasons for being there in the first place… That a battle won is simply to survive and do so with whatever honour you live by, in this case, never to leave a man behind, fallen or not. The main difference here though is that Scott is not as forgiving nor as sympathetic toward the Somalians as Cy Endfield (Zulu) was towards the Zulus, I don’t care what they say…
- ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN (1976) (see also: ZODIAC & GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK) This is not necessarily an easy watch, but it has to be one of Robert Redford’s best films and one where there is no doubt about its influence. David Fincher’s Zodiac (2006) owes a lot to this in style and would have made this list if it wasn’t for the impact of All The President’s Men on it and so may other titles. It’s just a real document of the times and the journalism industry as whole of the 1970’s, never bowing to any theatrical pressures and having the courage to stay the course with its own telling of the story.
- TORA! TORA! TORA! (1970) (see also: THE LONGEST DAY, DOWNFALL (aka , SCHINDLER’S LIST & THE SOUND OF MUSIC) A slow burn wartime thriller with good payoff at the end. This story of Pearl Harbour is the definitive one as far as I’m concerned, and as it was a U.S. and Japanese co-production, it is unbiased and shows both sides fairly. This is not Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, this is how a war film should be made.
- A NIGHT TO REMEMBER (1958) (see also: TITANIC) Since the disaster in 1912, Titanic had appeared numerous times and by 1958, there had already been two titular versions, with the little known Nazi propaganda piece from 1943, Titanic, and the 1953 Barbara Stanwick take of the same name. But then came the very British, A Night To Remember starring Kenneth Moore. This was, and in many ways, still is the most accurate version of the tragedy, though more effort was paid to some of the small details in James Cameron’s equally as brilliant 1997 epic. But this offers a more detailed look at what happened, what went wrong and who was blame.
- UNITED 93 (2006) Just five years after the world-changing events of 9/11, two director’s dared to tackle the subject. The normally bold and controversial Oliver Stone made the tame movie of the week which was World Trade Center and British director Paul Greengrass, of Bourne fame, made one of the best examples of dramatic documentary filmmaking ever with United 93. This is a chilling dramatisation of the events of that day, cast with the real people in parts and directed to feel very real, every 9/11 film to come will have a tough act to follow. This is simply one of the best real life adaptations that I have ever seen…
- JFK (DIRECTOR’S CUT) (1991/1993) (see also: NIXON, THIRTEEN DAYS & FROST/NIXON) Oliver Stone made his name with his Vietnam films, taken from his own experiences but in the 1990’s, he began to tackle issues of American culture, as with the banned for a time, Natural Born Killers, but before that there was JFK. This is a very seductive film, cleverly layering on conspiracy theories with loose facts or unanswered questions and filtering it through the obsessed character of Jim Garrison played by Kevin Costner. The problem is that in real life, Garrison was no nice guy and his noble character as portrayed in the film, which is the lynch pin of our faith in his quest to reveal the truth, is probably fictitious also. But, theatrical licence or not, JFK is riveting and the director’s cut is better and offers a more complete story than the theatrical version. Stone would later direct Nixon, often dismissed nowadays but it was far from a poor biopic, but its jumbled narrative can be too much to take for a lot of people.
- THE DAMNED UNITED (2008) Not a fan of sports movies persay, the fact that I think so highly of this film about football manager, Brian Clough’s short tenure as manager of Leeds United back in 1974 is somewhat puzzling. But I’m sure that Michael Sheen’s stella performance as Clough certainly has something to do with it, as well as the smart script and some more theatrical licence from Peter Morgan.
- ALIVE (1993) The film made famous by the fact that in this true story about a plane crash in The Andes, and some of the passengers walking the torturous walk across the mountains to get help, is known mainly as “the one where they eat each other!” Yes, there was some eating of frozen human flesh but there was also a decent story of survival and let’s not forget one of cinema’s greatest plane crashes which opens this little classic.
- APOLLO 13 (1995) (see also: THE RIGHT STUFF) “And that’s how we do that” sums up this film which pretty much covers the highs and lows of the U.S. space programme in one macrocosmic event; that of the doomed mission of Apollo 13.There’s no reason to make another film about NASA after this, but that didn’t stop the same production team making the more that decent 12 part drama, From The Earth To The Moon in 1999 focusing on the entire Apollo programme. There’s a lot technically wrong with this film but there’s a lot right with it too and if you simply want to know what happened then this more than covers it. The Right Stuff, (1983) was a close second but as good as it is, considering it’s almost three-hour running time, it only covers the Mercury Programme and takes its time doing that so as a film, it’s first-rate but as a film which draws you in to its world and leaves you feeling fulfilled that you know all about it, The Right Stuff is ain’t.
- THE BOUNTY (1984) If you’re looking for a historical epic about sailing the high seas then you need to see Peter Weir’s Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World but as that is a fictional story set in a real world, I can’t list it here. Instead I would look at The Bounty, the third version of the true story of the Mutiny On The Bounty, which is the title of the two previous versions. This early Mel Gibson starrer is blessed with a fast and modern pace, and Mel, who certainly in his younger years, was made for roles like Fletcher Christian, though that’s not to say that Marlon Brando’s take in the 1961 epic wasn’t more entertaining…
- EL CID (1961) Possibly one of the best Epics of the era. Its style is darker than most, with a macabre yet uplifting ending and a grand scale all the way through. It is also a subject often ignored by mainstream cinema, with the nearest modern example being Kingdom Of Heaven, with is right up there with the Cid.
- PLATOON (1986) (see also: BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY) Oliver Stone is back and this time this is The Deer Hunter for my generation. The horror or Vietnam have never been so honestly portrayed and Platoon set the tome for war films which would lead us straight to Saving Private Ryan in 1998.
- SPARTACUS (1960) Not dead on accurate, but it will always be hard to make an accurate Roman epic due to the ever fluid nature of archeology but this is truly Stanley Kubrick’s best mainstream achievement. After this he would become the genius behind the 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining but in this role as director for hire, Spartacus is the best Roman Epic full stop. Ahead of its time in many respects, boasting some scenes that world be cut for 30 years, namely the “Oysters and Snails” scene, which featured a thinly veiled conversation of homosexuality.
- RAGING BULL (1980) A simple biopic about a troubled subject. Possibly Robert De Nero’s best role and defiantly Martin Scorsese’s best film, Raging Bull’s portrayal of a small time boxer turned comedian would hardly seem to be the subject matter for such plaudits. Filmed in black and white and boating some of the most artful boxing scenes of all time, this is a film that you NEED to watch and judge for yourself…
- WYATT EARP (1994) (see also: TOMBSTONE) Lawrence Kasden’s western epic, again starring Kevin Costner as the titular western hero. This is long film but in my option, a well crafted if not again, guilty of some theatrical licence. It may be more romance than document, but it looks great and stands up against to any epic that has gone before or since.
- ELIZABETH (1998) (see also: THE KING’S SPEECH & THE QUEEN) British monarchs are certainly in fashion at the moment. As I’m writing this, The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee has just taken place here in the United Kingdom and even though Peter Morgan’s 2006 film, The Queen did an admirable job of portraying Elizabeth II, it’s neithef her or her father in the good, but overrated The King’s Speech that makes my list. It is rather the first Queen of England, Elizabeth I. In 1998, the solid and well-worn genre of BBC drama portrayals of The Tudors was turned on its head by director Shekhar Kapur who presented Australian actress, Cate Blanchet as the titular monarch. This version was sharp, dramatic and whilst feeling fresh, still felt solidly British.
- WALK THE LINE (2006) I’m not normally a huge fan of music biopics but James Mangold’s Walk The Line seems to get it right. Choosing only to focus on the early portion of Johnny Cash’s life and dealing primarily with the on/off romance between him and his eventual wife (Spoiler!) June Carter Cash, this does not tread the same old boring episodic lines, joining the dots at were, as a lot of biopics of this kind seem to do. Seeming fresh and boasting a brilliant sound track performed by the stars rather than being mimed, this is how to make a music biopic.
- CHANGELING (2008) The most bizarre and outrageous true story to feature, Clint Eastwood’s, Changeling tell the story of an abducted child who is returned to his mother, Angelina Jolie, only for her to swear that this is not her son. The rest was an ever fluid and at times, harrowing tale that has to be seen to be believed, and yes, this is pretty much a true story. The most bizarre ones often are.
- THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010) And finally, when news broke about Arron Sorkin (The West Wing) was going to tackle the story of Mark Zuckerberg’s, the founder of Facebook, story, there were mixed feelings. The result was a sharp and effective take on the evolution of the social networking revolution, and an insight into one of the worlds most socially inept men and his success in the changing of relationships forever. The film is good but I suspect that it’s life will be long in as a small “must see” rather than a film which everybody has actually seen.
Other films with didn’t make the list were little remembered ones such as THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS (1996), which was unfairly criticised in my opinion but was still based on a fascinating true story somewhere down the line. THE PERFECT STORM (2000), which whilst not being Wolfgang Peterson’s best work, still offers some insight into both storms and fishing!
Peter Weir’s may not have made the list with MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD, but GALLIPOLI almost did, as it tells the little known story of Australian runners during the horrific World war 1 battle. CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR, a Tom Hanks starring, Aaron Sorkin, West Wing styled drama charting the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan in the 1980’s was also a close one.
And the exclusion of THE GREAT ESCAPE and THE DAM BUSTERS will no doubt offend many but great as they both truly are, they are both World War 2 classics and that slot was taken by TORA! TORA! TORA! and I stand by it.
Well, there it is. My Top 20 True Stories, covering twenty different subjects. I hope you enjoy agreeing and HATING my choices, but that is the list.