Whenever a new movie claims to be based on a true story, it is guaranteed that the film’s advertising will emphasise that the events of the film actually happened in real life. While this marketing ploy is a tried-and-true method of getting people to see the movie, film enthusiasts are not idiots.
It is common knowledge that movies which are supposedly based on true events take a lot of liberties with what really happened in order to tell a more interesting story. However, there are times where filmmakers claimed a movie was based on a true story, when in fact it was completely made up!
While this is definitely false advertising, film studios still promote these entirely fictional movies as fact. The closest some of these movies seem to come to the “real life events” is that the scenes are a collection of random, unrelated events that were strung together in narrative form for a movie.
The films listed below all claimed to be based on true stories, but have only a minimal, if any, basis in reality.
1. Fargo (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1996)
Fargo was one of the most acclaimed movies of the 1990s, and it was not only an Oscar darling, but now also has a TV series based on it. While its legacy in movie history still lives on, its status as actual history is nonsense.
The film has the audacity to start with a fake disclaimer stating the movie is based on real events, and that only the names of the “real” people were changed in order to protect their identities. Protecting their identities would have been quite easy considering these people never existed to begin with!
There was a case in the mid-1980s where a body was put through a wood chipper, and a separate case where someone was committing through fudging serial numbers of cars, but everything else is complete fiction.
Joel Coen once explained his decision to claim Fargo was based on a true story by saying, “If an audience believes that something’s based on a real event, it gives you permission to do things they might otherwise not accept.” In other words, the Coens manipulated audiences into believing the more farfetched scenes in the film by claiming it really happened.
2. The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, 1999)
The Blair Witch Project was a low budget horror film that became one of the biggest movies of 1999, and which started the found footage horror genre. While the film’s advertising did place emphasis on the film being shot through a normal video camera, the old method of claiming the film was based on actual found video footage was what helped the film strike gold at the box office.
However, what transpires in the movie is completely made up. The filmmakers even went as far as to film a fake documentary and fabricated fake newspaper articles about the witch to further back up the legend in order to promote the film. The film was not even filmed in the real town of Burkittsville, Maryland, that the film claims used to be called Blair; it was filmed at another location 25 miles away from Burkittsville, and Blair never existed.
3. Killer Elite (Gary McKendry, 2011)
Killer Elite is based on a novel entitled The Feather Men by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, who claims the novel’s story of three mercenaries hired by a sheik to assassinate three SAS personnel is based on a true story. Not only that, but Fiennes claims the “real” Feather Men saved him from being assassinated too, because of the book apparently exposed the shady activities of the Soviet trained terrorist group depicted in the book.
While Killer Elite is certainly an entertaining action and espionage film, it is simply not a true story at all. Despite that, the names of SAS soldiers who died in combat were used to further fabricate that the story was true. Many of the families of the deceased were outraged by how the book depicted their deaths as assassinations, and the filmmakers did nothing to change this story. As the saying goes, don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.
To be fair to the filmmakers, the book it is based on claimed to be based on fact long before the film went into production. Although years later Fiennes admitted the book was complete fiction, that did not stop the filmmakers from making a film based on the book rather than reality.
4. The Strangers (Bryan Bertino, 2008)
The Strangers was advertised as being based on a true story. The film was a success, partially in how it claimed this home invasion is based on a true story, as it could happen to anyone. This common fear of having your house broken into and being threatened by psychotic killers was exploited and made The Strangers a hit.
A disclaimer at the beginning of the film claims that in 2005 a couple were in fact murdered after their home was broken into by strangers. However, none of this happened, and the couple never existed. Director Bryan Bertino got the idea for the film from a childhood memory when a stranger knocked on the door, asking for people that did not live there.
It turns out they were burglars trying to see what houses were empty to rob them, as other houses in Bertino’s neighbourhood were robbed that night. This creepy experience inspired Bertino to make a film about what horrible things could happen if the wrong people entered your home.
5. The Perfect Storm (Wolfgang Petersen, 2000)
Besides the all-star cast consisting of George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Diane Lane, and John C. Reilly, another big selling point for The Perfect Storm was its claim that it was based on the true story of a boat, called the Andrea Gail, which got caught up in what was dubbed “the perfect storm”, and that neither the boat nor the crew were seen alive again.
The truth, however, is that the events of The Perfect Storm are a collection of different and unrelated boating disasters that were documented in a book which was also called The Perfect Storm. They were all strung together to create a narrative. The only signs of the true aspects of the story were that the names of the real boat crew were used for the characters in the film, and that there really was a boat called the Andrea Gail.
6. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)
While the impact The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has had on horror films since the 1970s is undeniable, one factor of its success and notoriety for over 40 years was its claim of being based on a true story. However, the story of college kids brutally murdered by a chainsaw-happy maniac and a family of cannibals living in Texas is complete fiction.
While it is very fortunate that a family as deranged as the psychotic family in the film does not exist, the film was in fact inspired by the heinous crimes of the infamous serial killer and cannibal Ed Gein. Even so, it was a trip to a store that had chainsaws on display that got director Tobe Hooper’s creative juices flowing, as he felt like using those chainsaws to cut through the other customers to leave the busy store sooner.
While the film’s false claim that the it was based on fact was done in order to attract people to see it in cinemas, Hooper also has a more personal reason for this action. Hooper was outraged and disillusioned with America due to the Watergate scandal and other lies the government told the public at the time. Hooper’s inclusion of the true story disclaimer, for people to find out the whole “true story” was a lie, was for viewers to understand what an impact the U.S. government’s lies had on their country.
7. Escape To Victory (John Huston, 1981)
Nazis are one of Hollywood’s many go-to villains who are evil for the sake of being evil, and the audience will automatically accept that Nazis are the villains. So whenever anything remotely resembles a true story about how the “good guys” defeat the ultimate villains of the 20th century, Hollywood are all over it.
The 1981 sports drama Escape To Victory is one such tale. Allied soldiers imprisoned in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp are set up to play a game of soccer against Nazi soldiers, with the idea being that the Nazis think they can easily defeat the Allies and that that would serve as a perfect piece of Nazi propaganda.
The Allies use the game to their advantage by plotting their escape at the football stadium. However, being a Hollywood movie, the prisoners decide to forfeit their escape and continue playing against the Nazis to win back their honour, and boy do they win in a glorious Hollywood fashion.
While the film is a combination of an entertaining sports and war movie, the problem is that what happened in Escape To Victory barely resembles the “true events”. For one, the Allies had nothing to do with this soccer match; the men played by Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine, Pele, and everyone else simply never existed.
It was actually a group of Ukrainian prisoners, whose country was under Nazi occupation at the time, who were forced to play the Nazis, and who easily won every single match against the Nazis. Unfortunately, the Nazis executed these poor Ukrainians for humiliating them, hence the more inspiring, although false, Hollywood version.
8. Wolf Creek (Greg McLean, 2005)
One of the more well-known Australian movies from the past fifteen years is Wolf Creek, a horror film directed by Greg McLean. It gave Australian horror films a new lease on life, and also got Hollywood’s attention. It also claimed to be based on the true story of a serial killer targeting young tourists in the Outback, which is almost completely false.
In the film, three young British backpackers are exploring a meteorite crater called Wolf Creek where they become stranded and are helped by a local bushman named Mick Taylor, only for him to turn out to be a serial killer. However, in real life, no such event happened there, and the place is actually spelled Wolfe Creek.
The film is a combination of two separate murder cases that involved the killing of backpackers, and which happened in completely parts of Australia. Mick Taylor was inspired by a notorious murderer named Ivan Milat who preyed upon hitchhikers during the 1990s in New South Wales, and the other case happened in 2001 when two British backpackers were captured in the Northern Territory by another killer named Bradley John Murdoch, although one of the backpackers managed to escape.
9. The Mothman Prophecies (Mark Pellington, 2002)
Urban legends like Bloody Mary and Bigfoot have always been spread around the world, but one legend that seems to have stuck to a particular part of America is the Mothman legend in the town of Point Pleasant, West Virginia. The legend spread thanks to the film The Mothman Prophecies, and its marketing team indeed emphasized that the film was based on true events.
In the film, reporter John Klein (Richard Gere) inadvertently drives to Point Pleasant without having any idea of how he ended up there. He is investigating the Mothman creature that his deceased wife claims to have seen just before her death in a car crash. Klein slowly learns that he was meant to arrive in this small town full of people who have seen the Mothman.
The “real” events happened between 1966-67, unlike the film, which is set in the early 2000s when the film was made. However, the events are said to be connected to a bridge collapsing like at the end of the film. The reason the creature was called the Mothman was because a copyeditor at a local newspaper named it so, inspired by Batman. John Klein’s real name was John Keel, and he was a reporter assigned to go to Point Pleasant to cover the Mothman phenomenon.
10. Open Water (Chris Kentis, 2003)
Like the aforementioned Wolf Creek, Open Water is also a horror film supposedly based on a true story that happened in Australia, except this time it’s in the ocean around the Virgin Islands and the Bahamas rather than the Australian Outback. An American couple gets lost in the ocean while scuba diving, as their boat left them. Now they not only have the ocean to face, but also its greatest predator, sharks.
In real life, an American couple from Louisiana, Tom and Eileen Lonergan, travelled to Australia in 1998 and indeed did go to the Great Barrier Reef to scuba dive and were never seen again. An incorrect headcount by the boat crew was to blame for not noticing that the couple was not on the boat. It was until two days later when bags with their belongings were found on the boat, and a search for the couple was conducted, but they were never found.
Besides that basic idea, everything that transpires in the film is made up. While it might make for great viewing, there is no way of knowing how closely the film resembles reality, simply because no one was there to see it and live.
Originally published here at tasteofcinema.com on Thursday 19 January 2017