When people think of Hollywood, the first thing that comes to mind usually isn't factual accuracy. Filmmakers take all kinds of liberties with their projects to put moviegoers in seats and sell tickets at the box office, though every so often, a writer or director comes along who would rather keep the facts intact than bend the truth for the sake of entertainment. While many of these films are among the greatest ever made, you'll be happy to know that along with their pedigree, they're also hailed as the most fact-forward of all time.
1. Apollo 13 (1995)
In order to recreate the perilous events of the failed Apollo 13 mission, director Ron Howard went to incredible lengths to make sure his film was technically accurate. Not only did Howard bring in NASA consultants to train cast members, but he also got special permission to film aboard a reduced gravity aircraft in order to realistically capture the weightlessness of space.
2. Shane (1953)
Shane is regarded by many as the greatest western of all time. George Stevens’ movie follows the attempts of the titular aging gunslinger to settle down on a Wyoming farm. But Shane — memorably portrayed by Alan Ladd — gets pulled into a battle with the callous cattle baron Rufus, whilst falling for Joe Starrett’s wife Marian. Acclaimed though it was for its moving story, Shane also gets high marks for its accurate depiction of the era. From the beginning, director Stevens and his trusted deputy Joe De Yong embarked on a period of research. The pair left no stone unturned in ensuring their movie was true to the era. This included everything from the garbs worn, the weapons and items used, and the buildings' architecture.
3. Schindler's List (1993)
Steven Spielberg's groundbreaking masterwork originated with Poldek Pfefferberg, one of the Schindlerjuden (Schindler Jews), who made it his life's mission to tell the story of Oskar Schindler and his rescue of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust. After convincing author Thomas Keneally to adapt the story into his 1982 novel Schindler's Ark, Pfefferberg then managed to persuade Spielberg into turning the book into a film.
4. The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (1966)
There are precious few westerns that are as spellbinding as The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. The classic features standout performances from Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach, stunning cinematography, and an evocative Ennio Morricone score. The spaghetti western is set in the Southwest during the American Civil War and follows Eastwood’s mysterious stranger Joe and his unlikely partnership with a Mexican outlaw named Tuco. The general gist of the story was quickly improvised by American film executives, so it was not based on real-life events. Nonetheless, Leone worked hard in researching the period of the film, traveling to America to pore over documents from the Library of Congress, as well as the photographs of period snapper Mathew Brady. Still, there was one major historical error in it: dynamite hadn’t been invented yet!
5. Glory (1989)
Chronicling the role of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment — the Union Army's first African-American regiment — during the Civil War, Glory is hailed not only as one of the finest Civil War films ever made, but also as one of the most accurate. Screenwriter Kevin Jarre actually pulled directly from letters written by Robert Gould Shaw — one of the regiment's white commanders — to make the film as true-to-life as possible.
6. Selma (2014)
Based on the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights marches led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Selma is arguably the most historically accurate film ever made. This accuracy was achieved not only through the many writings that exist on the event, but also thanks to the accessibility of King's recorded phone calls, video footage, and handwritten letters from the time.
7. Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
What makes this 1970 film about the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor the most true-to-life retelling of the infamous event is the fact it was a co-production by both the US and Japan. Hoping to eliminate any accusations of bias, both nations' point-of-views were incorporated to make the film as objective as possible.
8. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Subverting the traditional feel of a Western, this film trades gunfights and train robberies for a deeper exploration of its characters. Between the costumes, dialogue, and the way it paints its protagonists as more than just criminals, this retelling shows a far more realistic side of the notorious Jesse James than any other film before it.
9. A Night to Remember (1958)
Before James Cameron's 1997 classic, A Night to Remember was the preeminent Titanic disaster movie. But while Cameron's film chose to center more on the romance between Jack and Rose, A Night to Remember was much more technical, focusing on the sinking of the ship and the fates of real people aboard it.
10. Joyeux Noël (2005)
Meaning "Merry Christmas" in French, the historical accuracy of this film mainly centers on the event it portrays. While many of the main characters are fictionalized, the Christmas truce of 1914 between French, British, and German troops during which soldiers from both sides joined in no man's land to celebrate the holiday was a very real event.
11. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
Although the film's story and characters are fictionalized, Master & Commander is hailed for its historical accuracy to the maritime culture of the period. From the outfits to the set pieces to even how the sailors behaved, this 2003 epic is totally on point.
12. Zodiac (2007)
Audiences love a nice, tidy, happy ending, though director David Fincher forwent a satisfying conclusion to keep Zodiac as true-to-life as possible. Over the course of nearly three hours, the film builds up to a reveal that never comes, mirroring the real-life case of the Zodiac killer that still hasn't been completely solved.
13. Young Guns (1988)
Young Guns received a mixed reception from critics, but it proved more popular with audiences, taking $43.4m at the U.S. box office. The movie boasted an all-star cast of Emilio Estevez, his real-life brother Charlie Sheen, and Kiefer Sutherland. It told the tale of young a group of cowhands — including Estevez’s Billy the Kid — seeking vengeance for the murder of their mentor. The historian Paul Hutton labeled it the most historically accurate of the numerous “Billy the Kid” movies. But it was not without its goofs, from the singing of a song in a cantina that wouldn’t be released until 34 years after the movie’s events to the use of a Smith & Wesson Model 1899. The gun was 21 years too soon, you see.
14. The Lion in Winter (1968)
While the plot of the film itself is mostly fictionalized, the characters in The Lion in Winter were all real people from the court of King Henry II. The fates of the characters were all accurate as well. Though beyond just mere fact, the film also does an excellent job of capturing the political tension of this time period.
15. The Covered Wagon (1923)
Another classic western from the silent era, the movie — which was directed by James Cruze — was based on Emerson Hough’s book of the same name. That focused on the difficulties pioneers stumbled upon during their long and arduous treks to the American West. But how historically accurate was the film? The Covered Wagon has been widely praised for its realism. And deservedly so, as the director and his team went to great lengths to achieve it, notably eschewing replica wagons for the real deal. Yes, Cruze even hired folks who had been pioneers and moved out west in them, and knew how to drive them properly! Plus, the silent acting in the film was more natural than many of its contemporaries.
16. Chapter 27 (2007)
While other bio-dramas about the murder of John Lennon tend to focus more on the actual killing itself, Chapter 27 takes an uncomfortably deep dive into the twisted psyche of Mark David Chapman. This was accomplished through Let Me Take You Down: Inside the Mind of Mark David Chapman, a collection of Chapman's thoughts on why he committed the murder and the book upon which the film is based.
17. The Alamo (2004)
This "Alamo" is definitely one not many people remember, but despite bombing at the box office in 2004, this film is easily the most accurate portrayal of the Battle of the Alamo to date. Not only does the film provide a detailed look at both sides of the famous conflict, but it even accurately depicts a number of famous historical deaths — including that of Davy Crockett — that other retellings get wrong.
18. The Big Trail (1930)
The Big Trail is notable for being the first leading role of arguably the Western genre’s most famous son, John Wayne. The Duke plays a fur trapper called Breck Coleman, who works to safeguard pioneers traveling along the dangerous Oregon Trail, falling in love with a frontier woman on the way. Director Raoul Walsh demanded accuracy in his attempts to detail the American pioneers’ trek from the Mississippi to the Pacific Northwest. The trail was followed with shooting at 15 specific locations, from the Grand Canyon to the Grand Teton Pass, to Zion and Yellowstone National Parks. Around 1,800 cattle and 1,400 horses were used along with 20,000 extras.
19. All the President's Men (1976)
Being that this film is a biographical drama concerning one of the biggest political bombshells in American history, exaggeration wasn't really necessary to tell the story of Washington Post journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward's role in uncovering the Watergate scandal. In fact, the only main discrepancy in the film is that no one actually said "follow the money" in real life. What a shame.
20. Tombstone (1993)
The modern classic Tombstone follows the attempts of Wyatt Earp and his siblings to quit the gunslinger life to begin a business in the titular Arizona town. Of course, it doesn’t go to plan, and the brothers Earp have to fend off a merciless Cowboy gang and reestablish a semblance of order there. Events that you might have assumed were Hollywood embellishments — like Bill Brosius failing to shoot Wyatt Earp from point-blank range — actually occurred in real life. Plus, the famous OK Corral shootout closely matches how courtroom proceedings said it’d turned out. Finally, remember Billy Claiborne? Well, he was portrayed by none other than Wyatt Earp’s actual fifth cousin. Cool!
21. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Hollywood studios have a tendency to sugarcoat some not-so-palatable topics, but with 12 Years a Slave, the horrors of slavery were on full display. Not only did the film use historical consultants to get incredibly real with its subject matter, but the true story of Solomon Northup's kidnapping and enslavement is followed to a T.
22. The Iron Horse (1924)
Released during Hollywood’s silent era, The Iron Horse tells the story of Pony Express rider Davy Brandon, who finds work in helping build the first transcontinental railroad. But Brandon has to fight off a bunch of saboteurs who try their best to stop him from succeeding. John Ford was a stickler for accuracy, too. He intercut remote Nevada backgrounds with the California sites used for filming. Plus he utilized a real locomotive from the bygone era that is shown chugging through the rocky mountains of Truckee. It’s worth noting, too, that in 1924 when the film was released, the Wild West was within living memory. Indeed, Ford actually knew Wyatt Earp and gleaned his knowledge.
23. Spotlight (2015)
Based on a series of stories published by The Boston Globe's "Spotlight" investigative journalist team, Spotlight uses its source material to bring to life the group's harrowing investigation into reports of systemic child sex abuse in the Boston area by a number of Roman Catholic priests. Not only was the entire film true-to-fact, but the production also nailed the look of the early '00s.
24. Dances With Wolves (1990)
The Kevin Costner-directed Dances With Wolves nearly cleaned up at the 1991 Oscars, earning seven gold statuettes from 12 nominations. The film told the story of Costner’s Civil War soldier John Dunbar, who fosters an unlikely kinship with a band of Lakota Indians, taking the name Dances With Wolves. But Unionist soldiers eventually arrive with plans to seize the Natives’ land. Dances With Wolves was based on the novel of the same name by Michael Blake. Like the novel, the film was — for a western — unusually sympathetic to the Native Americans. This was acknowledged by the Sioux Nation, who made Costner an honorary member. The story itself was mostly a fictionalized account of John Dunbar’s life, and the character Stands With A Fist was based on the Camanche kidnapped child Cynthia Anne Parker.
25. Downfall (2004)
Also known as Der Untergang, this German film was controversial from the start, as critics and audiences alike accused it of humanizing Adolf Hitler and a number of SS officials. Still, the film shows sides of these men most Hollywood productions would never dare to, and director Oliver Hirschbiegel even used historical sources and eyewitness accounts to retell the movie's events as accurately as possible.
26. Little Big Man (1970)
Little Big Man tells the story of 121-year-old Jack Crabb, a Civil War veteran who, kind of like Forrest Gump, was there at many of the major events of his time. Dustin Hoffman’s Crabb takes an oral historian through his life story, including being rescued and brought up by the Cheyenne, to toiling as a snake-oil salesman and a gunslinger. The movie was realistic in a way that was unusual for westerns at the time. You see, it was one of the first that paid forensic detail to Native American life. Director Arthur Penn and his cinematographer Harry Stradling Jr. opted to shoot in real-life locations too, incorporating Little Big Horn and Indian reservations in Montana.
27. Ride with the Devil (1999)
Ang Lee’s Civil War-era western follows the Missouri Bushwackers as they use guerrilla warfare to fight with Union Jayhawkers. They are looking to get revenge for the murder of one of their fathers, and the movie culminates in the infamous Quantrill raid in Lawrence, Kansas. From a firearms and clothing point of view, the movie was very accurate. Indeed, True West Magazine makes the bold claim that “the authenticity of firearms and clothing has never been matched, much less surpassed, in films about the same subject.” Still, there is some artistic license used, such as confrontations between guerillas over the barbarity of Lawrence.
28. Lincoln (2012)
Spielberg once again shows his penchant for historical accuracy, as Lincoln was both a fantastic film and one that stuck to the facts when painting a portrait of America's 16th president. Though some small liberties were taken, Lincoln captured the true state of political affairs during this turbulent time as well as Lincoln's own personal struggles in the months leading up to his assassination.
29. Arizona (1940)
Arizona follows the travails of a hardy female pioneer named Phoebe Titus looking to set up a freight service in Tucson. She gets involved in a romance with a passing vagabond and then entwined with a menacing southerner out to destroy her business dreams. Directed by Wesley Ruggles and starring a young William Holden, the film received an indifferent reception from critics and the public upon its 1940 release. Rather than just filming anywhere in the West, Ruggles and his crew elected to shoot in southern Arizona, which is geographically authentic. Furthermore, the production oversaw what might be one of the most genuine western movie sets. The Tohono O’odham tribe — who had been creating adobe buildings out of mud bricks for centuries — were recruited to help build it.
30. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Thanks to director Stanley Kubrick's extensive research, Full Metal Jacket is one of the few films made about the Vietnam War that isn't just outright propaganda. Instead of non-stop action scenes and "Fortunate Son" blaring from helicopters, Full Metal Jacket shows both the physical and mental toll of the war as well as the death and destruction it caused.
31. Geronimo: An American Legend (1993)
The flick tells the story of the fabled Apache Indian Geronimo. He famously led an uprising against the United States Cavalry, when his tribe was pushed out to a small reservation to work as corn farmers. Unfortunately, the movie was something of a flop, earning mixed reviews and taking just $18.4m at the U.S. box office. The film crew hired a Sioux activist called Sonny Skyhawk as a consultant, and every actor playing a Native American had to be vetted to ensure they had sufficient roots. Historic reenactment groups with their authentic uniforms and weapons were also featured as the sixth cavalry.
32. Stalingrad (1993)
One of the bloodiest battles in the history of warfare, the violence depicted in Stalingrad does as much justice to the true horrors of the Battle of Stalingrad as a film can. Though the vast majority of the film's characters are fictionalized, the bloodshed they see and the atrocities they suffer were all deemed true to fact by a German military consultant who advised director Joseph Vilsmaier on set.
33. The Searchers (1956)
Another western from the old master John Ford, The Searchers is widely regarded as one of the best ever. Ford’s epic stars John Wayne as Ethan Edwards, a civil war soldier who goes back to Texas after the confederacy’s defeat. Things get worse for him when members of his brothers’ family go missing — including his young niece Debbie — believed to be kidnapped or abducted by Comanches. This was the first big movie to have a “making-of” filmed about it, at the request of director Ford. This behind-the-scenes look at the western shows how much effort went into selecting and preparing the sites, building props, and more. The Searchers has been noted for the realistically portrayed attitudes of whites and settlers towards the Natives, as Ford was keen to shine a light on this key element of American history.