Victorian Period Movies That Got History Totally Wrong

No doubt about it, audiences adore films from the Victorian era (1837-1901). The Internet Movie Database lists 17 movies set in the 1800's during 2020, plus 16 more and counting being released in 2021. 

Unfortunately, however, some period movies go over the line when rehashing an historic event that really happened. In his article "The Danger of Historically Inaccurate Movies," Vincent Yam submits that "historical inaccuracies in films can have a dangerous impact on their audiences." Movies portraying real history are popular because the viewer can learn the story in two hours instead of spending hours more reading about it. But in today's society where fake news is often called out, The Guardian rightfully asks what we are doing about "fake instant history."

Edutopia suggests using movies as a learning tool by having students compare the story onscreen to what really happened. And in Hollywood's defense, The Conversation points out how producers are tasked with making an historical event or person into a money-maker that audiences enjoy watching. So while period films are made to appeal to the viewer, websites like 24/7 Wall Street feed on lists like the "50 Worst Movies Based on True Events." So do historically inaccurate movies really spawn misconceptions of real history? Read this sampling of films that got Victorian history totally wrong and see what you think.

P.T. Barnum would have loved The Greatest Showman

Phineas Taylor Barnum might have been among the greatest showmen of his time, but his habit of sensationalizing (read: lying about) his myriad amusements before the public often went too far. This is the man who teamed with James Bailey to form the Barnum and Bailey three-ring circus (aka the "Greatest Show on Earth"), and outright used or conned others to make money. In short, says Zimbio, Barnum "was a street hustler" and not a very charming one. Just look at his 1835 actual purchase of and disrespect for an elderly Black woman, Joice Heth, as one of the many gimmicks he used to fool his public. Following her death, Barnum sold tickets to her autopsy. Ick.

In 2017, along came "The Greatest Showman," which turned Barnum into a Doctor Doolittle-type, loveable man who just wants his outcast performers to have fun and be themselves. Buzzfeed reveals that despite his character's appeal, the real Barnum was an exploitative racist whose only good point was that he didn't cheat on his wife as proposed in the film. Goliath rightfully points out that those hoping for a truthful rendition of Barnum's life "would be sadly mistaken." Maybe one day Hollywood will present this swindling scammer in his true light, which Collider submits "would make a fascinating film."

Amistad made heroes of white men

In 1839, according to History, a United States ship on the east coast happened upon a schooner of Black men who had been taken from their native home of Africa and sold into slavery in Cuba. But it was now illegal to import slaves, and the captives had successfully staged a revolt against their captors. Had they been born into slavery, the men would be guilty of murdering the men who detained them. But they were not, making them kidnapped victims of an illegal act instead. That part is true, but in the 1997 movie about the legal proceedings that followed, director Steven Spielberg has been accused by Molly Pennington in Reader's Digest of creating white heroes, not victorious Black victims. And Pennington wasn't the only one.

Indeed, Zimbio's review noted how "Amistad" blatantly "transfers the heroism" of the Black victims to their white saviors, who were not really saviors at all. The point-turning revolt scene was too short, and left out of the movie was an incident where thousands of whites paid 12 cents to gawk at the captives. The characters of real people like Judge Andrew Judson and former president John Quincy Adams, meanwhile, were skewed to be more pro-Black than they really were. Roger Ebert also submitted that the clear difference between descent-based slavery and someone who becomes enslaved remained fuzzy in the film to begin with.

The 'incredibly true story' of Hidalgo wasn't true at all

According to Findagrave, Frank T. Hopkins was born circa 1865 and died in New York in 1951. Slate says that he really did write some memoirs with his wife, Gertrude. Beyond that however, the rest of his story is, let's say, sketchy at best. Historians across the board, including True West, have run the gamut to see whether Hopkins's claim that he and his horse, Hidalgo, participated in a cross-country race from Texas to Vermont is true. Nothing backing his story has surfaced, yet Disney and Touchstone Pictures claimed it really happened when they made a movie about the epic race — but set it in Arabia to boot.

Response to the movie has been pretty acrimonious. Goliath, which says Hopkins did nothing more than wrangle horses for Ringling Brothers circus, called the sources for the film "a pack of dirty lies." Screenwriter John Fusco refutes that, citing some 70 years-worth of mention of the man in various books. But former Buffalo Bill Museum curator Juti A. Winchester says she, along with CuChullaine O'Reilly of The Long Riders' Guild and many others, fruitlessly searched to back up Hopkins' claims that the race happened. No American newspaper mentions the race, and even Louise Samson of the Fort Laramie Historical Association failed to find Hopkins as being born there like he said he was.

Princess Kaiulani was inaccurate and boring

While there are plenty of Elvis Presley films and the like that were shot in Hawaii, it's rare to see a movie that talks about the history of the Aloha State itself. So when a group of producers gathered in 2009 to make "Princess Kaiulani," a "true story" about the fight to keep Hawaii separate from America, audiences hoped to glimpse some real history about a real person in a real place. But right out of the gate, the princess is seen turning on the lights at Iolani Palace, illuminating Honolulu for the first time in 1888. At the same time, confirms LA Progressive, "an armed group of haole men" storm the grounds — but all that really took place a year earlier.

Such discrepancy right off the bat quickly led to other questions about the movie's historical accuracy. Critics like Frock Flicks might have forgiven the producers for their mistakes had the rest of the film not been so "very, very loosely based" on Hawaii's last royal family. To add insult to injury, director Mark Forby flippantly commented that "Events, times, places, those things don't matter" while strongly insinuating that Hawaii's history held no interest for the public. The Journal Star also noted that much of Kaiulani's life was glossed over and as a result, made the film boring. "We, and she, deserve more," wrote critic Dana Barbuto.

The real truth would have made Woman Walks Ahead brilliant

Make no mistake, the true story of New York artist Catherine Weldon's journey to paint a portrait of the legendary Lakota chief Sitting Bull is one of the most unique pairings in history. As History explains Weldon was a divorcee with an illegitimate son when she inexplicably decided to go west and fight for the Sioux native's rights to keep their land at Standing Rock in North Dakota. Sioux leader Sitting Bull was especially intriguing to the artist, who paid him to let her paint his portrait. But when her efforts to help the tribe failed, Weldon left. A year later Sitting Bull was killed by Indian police. What a great, tragic story.

In 2017, A24 made an attempt to tell this story in "Woman Walks Ahead," titled after Sitting Bull's name for Weldon. Unfortunately, the producers had no idea how to handle the story. There's a man and woman in the film, so the creators seemed to feel obligated to stick a few sexual references in the script, notes critic Susan Wloszczyna. Another issue? The characters are seldom allowed to really express their thoughts. Rolling Stone's Peter Travers was more point-blank, chastising the creators for making Weldon and Sitting Bull younger than they were, omitting Weldon's son, and making the awful mistake of portraying Weldon as the white savior for a bunch of natives. 

Escaping the Madhouse: The Nellie Bly Story skewed history

Born in 1864, Nellie Bly (née Elizabeth Jane Cochran) lost her father as a child, endured her mother's second abusive marriage, and found a job as a columnist for the Pittsburgh Dispatch. Her most prominent work was accomplished in 1886 when Bly feigned mental illness and spent 10 days in an asylum on Blackwell's Island in New York to record and report on the way patients were treated. When finished, her editor stepped in to have her released. And when Lifetime created a film based on Bly's story in 2019, the Internet Movie Database synopsis described the plot as though it mirrored the true story. Except it didn't.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Rob Owen was quick to explain that "Escaping the Madhouse: The Nellie Bly Story" really "is just that — a story, one whose dramatic thrust is mostly made up." The producers decided to go for the ol' psychological thriller motif, leading viewers away from the real issue at hand: the treatment of mental illness during the Victorian era, which Talkspace rightfully calls "inhumane." The writers also decided to have our heroine lose her memory and forget why she's even there. Hollywood Reporter calls the movie nothing more than a "deliciously silly gothic horror movie."

The Raven had critics pleading 'Never more!'

According to the Poe Museum, Edgar Allan Poe was the first American author to attempt making an actual living from his literary works. One of his most intriguing poems, "The Raven," was written in 1845 and reflects upon loss and that a loved one, Lenore, will return "nevermore." As with many writers, Poe was also known as a heavy drinker, although his alleged addictions were grossly exaggerated by his publisher, Rufus Griswold. Thankfully, Poe's generations of fans still love him; rocker Stevie Nicks even made one of his other famous poems, "Annabel Lee," into a song in 2011.

When the newest version of "The Raven" starring John Cusack premiered in 2012, viewers had high hopes. But the premise was already far-fetched, portraying Poe as he joins up with police detectives to catch a killer who is committing crimes based upon the writer's poems. Chicago Reader notes that the film, "a highly enjoyable piece of gothic hokum," informs viewers that Poe's last days began with finding him a hot mess on a park bench in Baltimore in 1849. That's not true; he was actually found at Gunner's Hall before dying days later. There is more: Moria points out that the film employed modern forensics versus those of the period, and that there were no such people as detectives until Allen Pinkerton was appointed in 1849 — in Chicago, not Baltimore.

Winchester tried a scare tactic that made viewers laugh

The popular story goes that Sarah Winchester hated the guns that made her husband rich and spent the latter part of her life trying to outfox death by continuously building more rooms onto her amazing mansion, the Winchester Mystery House, in California. Some scholars take umbrage with this: The Truth About Sarah Winchester submits that it was Winchester's love for all things numbers that spurred her to build onto her farmhouse willy-nilly until she died in 1922. Not until 2012 did anyone bother with the truth about the lady herself. In her book, "Captive of the Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winchester, Heiress to the Rifle Fortune," historian Mary Jo Ignoffo took a solid look at Winchester's life versus the myths about her. 

But in Hollywood, revealing truths about a legend that has become "fact" can be quite boring. Thus in 2018, when brothers Michael and Peter Spierig teamed with Tom Vaughan to create "Winchester," the myth was stretched to epic proportions. The film supposes that the victims of Winchester rifles are floating around haunting the lady of the house, and parts of it were even filmed on location. Critic Simon Abrams called it "cheesy but fun," noting the uncertainty of whether to laugh at the intended scary scenes that resulted in the movie being "trashy and fairly dumb."

Razors: The Return of Jack the Ripper was a complicated mess

For those fascinated by serial killers who prey on women, Jack the Ripper is their man. Myriad sleuths, both professional and amateur, have studied the guy ever since what Jack the Ripper calls "The Whitechapel Murders" began in 1888 when 11 women were mysteriously murdered in London. Five of the killings were blamed on "Jack" due to the nature of the crime: The women's organs were mutilated while the killer, says History, taunted the authorities. The crimes remain unsolved to this day. Since 1924 over 50 films have focused on the killer, without resolution.

One of the latest movies in the Jack the Ripper saga, "Ripper," (also known as "Razors: The Return of Jack the Ripper") took a totally twisted stance. Heralded as part of an "exciting new horror franchise," Jack's spirit returns to modern day London where an aspiring writer has found the knives (not razors) he used to butcher his victims. But as the heroine, Ruth Walker, gathers with others to solve the mystery, everyone begins disappearing and meeting their own grisly ends. Horror News points out that Ruth's bouncing between her vivid dreams and reality causes the plot to get so muddled that by the end "it made zero sense." And although HK and Cult Film News commends the location and cinematography, it was pretty obvious that a "ghost girl" was no more than "a chatty costumed child actress in stagey makeup." 

Dorian Gray was anything but picture worthy

Oscar Wilde was a colorful Irish wit and playwright who dared to barely hide his homosexuality during 1890's and was subsequently jailed for it. His one and only novel, "The Picture of Dorian Gray," focused on a young man whose debauched lifestyle keeps him in his youth while his portrait grows more hideous by the day and must be hidden away in the attic. The book remains a Gothic horror mainstay even today. But while a 1945 film on the story was called "a reasonably decent adaptation of a classic story," a 2009 version failed miserably, beginning with the shortening of the title to just "Dorian Gray."

It is actually surprising that this film went so far south, seeing as director Oliver Parker had already successfully adapted two other works of Wilde's, "An Ideal Husband" and "The Importance of Being Earnest." But The Punk Theory was just one of many reviewers who noted right off that the original story was changed dramatically, adding, "I won't even begin talking about the dreadful ending of the movie. I despise it." A Film A Day by Sonia was equally disappointed to the point of wondering how the film could even be associated with Wilde's classic Victorian novel and questioning whether screenwriter Toby Finlay even read the book.

Alice Through the Looking Glass was way too far-fetched

This fictional tale originates with Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, who wrote "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" back in 1865 and "Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There" in 1871. Both were written for Alice Liddell, Carroll's so-called "child friend." History Collection acknowledges that Carroll openly admitted to being friends with Alice and many other pre-adolescent girls, while Victorian Web confirms that the reverend had no use for little boys. That may have been acceptable in the Victorian era, but not so much after the turn of 1900. Even so, Disney politely looked the other way when "Alice in Wonderland" premiered in 1951.

Although Disney's adaptation proved true to Carroll's original story, says Romper, a 2010 version of "Alice in Wonderland" definitely did not. Neither did 2016's "Alice Through the Looking Glass," which was "like nothing that ever sprang from Carroll's pen" and starred Johnny Depp as a downright creepy Mad Hatter. Renowned film critic Roger Ebert called the movie's design "hideous and bland" and the storyline devoid of feeling. DrogeMiester's Lair said it was "like the whole crew was on drugs when they came up with this screenplay." No wonder, since critics of Carroll's books have asked the same thing.