From The Patriot to The Revenant, the Age of Revolutions has proven fertile ground for blockbuster historical films. But which of these famous films are most faithful to history?
Mel Gibson and Daniel Day Lewis both led historical epics set during the American Revolution, while the period’s naval battles have found cinematic treatments in Master and Commander (2003) and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s extraordinary, Oscar-winning film The Revenant (2015) depicts a terrible encounter on the North American frontier. And one of the most ambitious film projects ever undertaken, Waterloo (1970), presents a gigantic depiction of the essential battle that determined Napoleon Bonaparte’s downfall.
Join me as I review battle scenes in movies set in the Age of Revolutions.
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The Patriot (2000)
The Patriot depicts the Battle of Camden, where the Americans attempt to fight the British on level terms. It shows the two lines getting close and exchanging musket volleys. You also see an ambush scene, which I think is slightly overblown.
But it does give you a sense of the advantage that the Americans sought by using rifles. They used their skills as marksmen to prey on isolated British detachments.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Pirates, really like the Vikings before them, want to attack where the enemy is weakest. Attacking the heart of British power in the Caribbean, Port Royal – that would be crazy. It’s expensive and difficult to repair your ship if there’s battle damage, and you don’t want to lose casualties. It’s tough recruiting people.
As a result, this scene is pretty unrealistic. The pirates were much more likely to have sailed along the coast, looking for settlements that were undefended, and pounce on ships that might be carrying valuable cargoes. Pirates of the Caribbean: great fun, not super accurate.
The Revenant (2015)
This attack is one of the most extraordinary scenes in history. The group of fur trappers in the opening are heading upcountry towards the Rockies to hunt for beaver. Beaver skins were miracle goods of the 19th century: everyone wanted them for hats and to keep warm.
Leonardo DiCaprio is playing a character based on a historical figure. We think he’s called Hugh Glass. There are a few accounts of his life; many of them are probably wound up with mythologizing and folklore, but it seems that he was abducted by pirates, had to serve on a pirate ship, swam ashore, then had various adventures on the frontier including one very near death experience with indigenous people which saw his mate killed in front of him.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
There would have been so-called frigate actions like the one depicted in Master and Commander fairly regularly through the 18th and 19th centuries. I’ve never seen a better depiction of fighting at sea.
We don’t know exactly what happened, but I think they’ve gone through the sources, looked at technology that was available, and come up with a pretty convincing portrayal of what it would have been like.
The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
It’s a true historical event that Last of the Mohicans depicts. The French are advancing from Canada, besieging the British garrison of Fort William Henry at Lake George. In the film, no one knows the siege is taking place which I think isn’t actually the case.
The Last of the Mohicans is a wonderful film, however, even if the ambush which takes place didn’t quite go down like the way it depicts.
This is an unbelievable scene depicting Napoleon’s last roll of the dice. The French cavalry ride across the battlefield to encounter massed British and allied squares, bayonets pointed outwards, though there are probably slightly too many squares here.
The cavalry swirl around them, unable to rout the troops. This is an impressive battle scene, and Waterloo itself is one of the most ambitious film projects ever undertaken.