First stop: Prague, 1790. At this time, the city is home to none other than musical legend Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Thinking back to the movies, you remember that he was poisoned by bitter rival Antonio Salieri. Is this a factual crime you can hope to prevent?
You'd be wasting your time in the 18th century if you waited around for the moment Salieri tried to poison Mozart. While the plot made for great cinema, most historians agree that the rivalry between the two composers was likely friendly and respectful. If anyone poisoned Mozart, it was likely Mozart himself. Yep, "Amadeus" was dead-on when it came to the alcoholism.
You have to be careful traveling in time not to screw anything up. You know from watching "Shakespeare in Love" that the Bard was inspired to write "Romeo and Juliet" by his real-life relationship with an aspiring actress. So does this mean you need to be careful flirting with the Elizabethans, lest you derail the course of English literature? Was this bit of cinema fact, fiction or almost fact?
We don't know much about William Shakespeare's life, so on one hand, you don't have to worry about accidentally stealing the inspiration for one of the most famous works in the English language. On the other hand, stay away from striking ladies of dark complexion.
Having seen the film "300," you're pretty excited about checking out a historic battle between muscle-bound underwear models and a hellish monster army. All right, so you're bright enough to know that most of that stuff is purely fictional fantasy. Did the movie even get the "300" part right about the historic Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C.?
Yes, historical accounts indicate that a squad of 300 Spartans did indeed lead the defense at the Battle of Thermopylae. Of course, the movie follows the common trend of ghosting over the various slaves and Greek soldiers helping them out. All told, the defense may have numbered anywhere between 5,200 and 7,700, depending on which account you go by. Even so, they were still tremendously outnumbered by the invading Persians.
Talk about a battle! How about jaunting back through the centuries and checking out the death of Roman Emperor Commodus at the hands of a mere gladiator. Is there any truth to this scene in "Gladiator," or are we in for another Amadeus/ Salieri disappointment?
"Gladiator" takes some liberties with history, but Commodus really did meet his end at the hands of a wrestler in the baths. So yes, there's some truth to the scene -- more so than in films like "The Name of the Rose," which, despite its wealth of medieval flavor, depicts the violent death of villain Bernardo Gui, who actually died a few years later in the south of France at the age of 69.
The 1990 film "Mountains of the Moon" depicts the historic character Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton as not only sustaining but surviving a vicious javelin wound -- the weapon entered through one cheek and exited the other. It makes for a very grisly moment of film time, but did it really happen?
Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton is one of those rare historic figures with whom every detail sounds like fantastic embellishment. In addition to actually sustaining and surviving such a wound from a Somali javelin in 1854, he was also an accomplished explorer, writer, translator, soldier, fencer, lover, spy, diplomat, hypnotist and ethnologist. Some individuals, it seems, are simply larger than history.
In the 2006 film "The Last King of Scotland," Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan barely escapes the regime of Uganda's Idi Amin by hiding himself among a group of hostages from a hijacked Air France airliner. Is this a case of fact, fiction or almost fact?
While Idi Amin's violent rule was very much a reality, the character of Nicholas Garrigan was only loosely based on Bob Astles, a former British soldier. Astles spent six years in a Ugandan prison before returning to the U.K. in the 1980s.
The 1963 film "The Great Escape" follows a host of American and British airmen as they plot their escape from a Nazi prisoner of war camp. Is this a matter of fact, fiction or almost fact?
The film was based on Paul Brickhill's autobiographical account of the famed tunnel escape. However, despite the film version's emphasis on American Capt. Virgil Hilts (played by Steve McQueen), no serving members of the American armed forces were involved in the actual escape. And forget about that motorcycle stunt.
In the 1995 space adventure "Apollo 13," the famous words "Houston, we have a problem" are uttered by command module pilot Jack Swigert (played by Kevin Bacon). Is this factual, fictional or almost factual?
"Apollo 13" is often praised for its historic accuracy. Yet while most of the dialogue between the astronauts and ground control were taken verbatim from transcripts, Swigert's exact words were, "Okay, Houston, we've had a problem here."
Consider Mel Gibson's "Braveheart." Early on in the film, the hero William Wallace becomes an enemy of the English when he objects to primae noctis (which allowed the British officers to be the first to deflower a new bride). Did King Edward II really institute this policy?
There is no historical evidence to suggest that Edward ever instituted the idea of primae noctis.
In the "Pirates of the Caribbean" film series, the few villains who aren't fanciful pirates, cannibals, zombies or deep-sea monsters tend to belong to something called the East India Trading Company. Can we believe this?
While "the Company" is one of the more believable aspects of Disney's pirate films, it's a fictionalized version of the British East India Company. In the film, the company even uses a fictional flag and coat of arms.
Did you learn most of your history from the silver screen? If so, you might want to fact-check a few things. Test your real history knowledge by separating the real story from cinema inaccuracies.
About HowStuffWorks Play
How much do you know about dinosaurs? What is an octane rating? And how do you use a proper noun? Lucky for you, HowStuffWorks Play is here to help. Our award-winning website offers reliable, easy-to-understand explanations about how the world works. From fun quizzes that bring joy to your day, to compelling photography and fascinating lists, HowStuffWorks Play offers something for everyone. Sometimes we explain how stuff works, other times, we ask you, but we’re always exploring in the name of fun! Because learning is fun, so stick with us!