Shoeless Joe Was A Lefty: Cinema’s Biggest Inaccuracies

© 1990 Universal City Studios, Inc.

with Karl J. Paloucek

With his version of Robin Hood, opening in theaters today, director Ridley Scott is purporting to tell the true story behind the legend. It’s safe to assume then that men in tights need not apply.

Call it what you will — artistic license or big, fat lies — Hollywood has never been the best source to use if you’re cramming for a history exam. Scott himself took a few liberties with ancient Rome in Gladiator, after all, and there are many who say Robin Hood never existed. We’ve gathered just a few of celluloid’s biggest whoppers, which make us wonder just how dull it would be if movies always told the truth.

“Shoeless Joe” wasn’t right-handed

Field of Dreams got a heckuva lot right. The enduring allure of baseball, the poignant dynamic between fathers and sons, “If you build it, he will come.” Which makes it all the more head-scratching that when it came time to show all-time great “Shoeless Joe” Jackson up to bat, the filmmakers put him on the wrong side of the plate. Explanations range from Ray Liotta simply not being able to pull off a convincing southpaw swing to the filmmakers saying that a ghostly ballplayer wouldn’t be beholden to the same rules of physical coordination as his real-life counterpart. If that’s the case, then someone needs to explain why the all-powerful spirit of Shoeless Joe would spend eternity still dressed in his Black Sox uniform while trapped in an Iowa cornfield. — SH (who is left-handed and grew up in Iowa)

“Braveheart” lays it on a little thick

He still had plenty of reasons to be upset.
They probably didn’t wear kilts either. © 1995 Paramount Pictures

It’s called Prima Nocte, which literally translates to “first night,” but really means “moral atrocity used to piss off Mel Gibson.” In Braveheart, Gibson’s William Wallace is set for a lovely life in the Highlands with his new wife when it all goes horribly wrong. Some sneering Brit comes in and invokes prima nocte, a tradition that gave local lords the right to have sex with a newly married woman. You know, like Wallace’s wife. It’s among the litany of offenses that turns Wallace into a revolutionary who leads an assault on the king’s forces to secure Scottish independence. Trouble is, there is little to no evidence of prima nocte ever existing. It’s a myth, told to make the Middle Ages seem even more horrible than they were. Since the Brits later slit the wife’s throat, you kind of wonder if the filmmakers could have gotten away without this bit of shenanigans, but then, it wouldn’t be a Mel Gibson movie without the bad guys messing with his woman, would it? It also fits in with Braveheart‘s overall pattern of being the cinematic equivalent of all those “inspired by” soundtracks. For a full account of Braveheart bloopers, see this Scottish scholar’s rundown. — SH


The “Birdman of Alcatraz” wasn’t that gentle a soul

If this bird were a person, he'd probably kill it.
If this bird were a person, he’d probably kill it.

See the kind of trouble you cause, Burt, when you do these soft-spoken roles?

Burt Lancaster’s genial portrayal of Robert Stroud, the so-called “Birdman of Alcatraz,” who spent decades in solitary confinement at Leavenworth and later, Alcatraz, earned him an Academy Award nomination. It also created a wave of sympathy for Stroud, still rotting away in prison. Moved by Lancaster’s portrayal of Stroud as a big softy, the still-somewhat-innocent American public took to writing letters on the Birdman’s behalf, attempting to persuade the authorities that he should be released. Reality, of course, was very different. Stroud’s original conviction, for killing a man who’d welched on a girl he was pimping, was followed by several incidents of assault while in prison, including the murder of a prison guard that earned him a sentence to die by hanging, later commuted to life without parole when his mother pleaded for his life. But ol’ Burt’s portrayal makes you wish you could have hired him as a babysitter, right? — KJP

Salieri (most likely) did not kill Mozart

As enthralling as beauty and true artistry is, just as enthralling sometimes is someone disgusted by it. In Amadeus, composer Salieri is insanely jealous of the gifts afforded to his rival Mozart, who is portrayed as a simplistic boob, and in his rage he conspires to have the wunderkind killed. F. Murray Abraham deservedly won an Oscar for his performance as Salieri, who confesses to his feelings about Mozart while a broken-down old man finishing out his days in a mental asylum. There is some debate as to the true nature of the relationship between Salieri and Mozart, ranging from bitter rivals to casual friends, but it’s hard to find any historian who believes Salieri a killer. Amadeus wasn’t the first story to exploit this legend, with playwright Peter Shaffer having taken inspiration mainly from Alexander Pushkin’s “Mozart and Salieri.” It’s a double-edged sword for Salieri — yes, the popular perception of him is as a jealous murderer (i.e. Don’t go all Salieri on me, OK?), but at least people are still talking about him. After all, with Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, Chopin, Vivaldi and so many others out there, you need a little something to stand out. — SH

Vampire movies don’t suck (Get it?)
What? There are no vampires? Then who are all of those goth kids on Facebook? Yeah, we know that 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire takes the ultimate liberty and uses the real-life making of a movie into a narrative for another fictional tale, but it’s worth mentioning simply because it reveals the impulse of Hollywood to take a factual story and turn it into something it’s not, and takes that to its furthest conclusion. (Which is part of the film’s point in itself — the willingness to sacrifice everything, from truth to a few human crew members, to get a film made.) Willem Dafoe is ultra-creepy as the “actual” vampire who basically gets to play himself in Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau’s version of the Dracula story, after Murnau makes a devil’s bargain with him, offering him the leading lady’s jugular vein and its contents in exchange for a convincing performance. He gets it, but it’s just too bad that by that time, we don’t care and we’re hoping the vampire chomps his way through the rest of the cast and crew just to allay the boredom. — KJP

Willem Dafoe's creepy, but not THAT creepy.
Willem Dafoe’s creepy, but not THAT creepy. © 2001 Lions Gate Films © 2001 Universal Studios. Credit: Jean-Paul Kieffer

Americans did not crack the Nazi code

U-571 is a rousing, riveting account of how brave American sailors during World War II boarded a German U-boat to capture one of the Enigma machines and sailed through treacherous waters to bring it to England where it could be used to break the Nazi war codes. It’s also completely full of crap. Or perhaps bollocks might be the more appropriate term. The story that it’s based on (I guess) involves the British sailors of Operation Primrose who boarded the German vessel U-110 and nabbed the Enigma machine and several codebooks to help decipher it. This was in May 1941, a full six months before Pearl Harbor prompted the U.S. to join the war. The movie was such an affront to British sensibilities that several members of the government, including Prime Minister Tony Blair, publicly condemned the movie’s revisionist history for dishonoring the memory of the real soldiers involved. Yeah, that, and it cast Jon Bon Jovi. Seriously, though, there are so many brave stories involving American soldiers that have yet to be told, why go steal a British one? — SH

Queen Elizabeth II isn’t a robot
The Queen is something of a mystery, really. We don’t actually know what transpired behind the walls of Buckingham Palace and certainly not within those of Queen Elizabeth II’s mind in the days and weeks after the death of Princess Diana of Wales. So what are we left with? A pile of speculation — brilliantly conceived and deftly executed — but still speculation. It’s entirely possible that the Queen’s emotional experiences traced very close to those as explored by Helen Mirren in her Academy Award-winning role, but isn’t it just possible that the Queen’s real reaction to the news was something closer to, “I’m sorry it had to happen this way, but the little tart really was asking for it, wasn’t she?” Ultimately, it’s a film about what’s behind that famous British reserve, “stiff upper lip” and all that, but to those tempted to take it at face value, we can only say, “Rubbish.” How do we know that the Queen isn’t an automaton? Have you seen her? Have you touched her? Michelle Obama, can you help us with this one? — KJP