Titanic and 9 Other Movies Some Folks Don't Know Are Based on Real Events

James Cameron’s Titanic is a stunningly realistic portrayal of a sinking ship, but apparently it just got more real for at least a handful of people. According to some tweets that are making the rounds, some younger Americans had no idea until now that the “unsinkable” cruise liner existed and did in fact hit an iceberg and sink in the Atlantic 100 years ago. What? They didn’t watch Downton Abbey and put two and two together either? (Note: Just like the deceased would-be heirs of Downton, Jack and Rose are fictional. Though something tells us many of the Titanic’s passengers probably had acting abilities comparable to Billy Zane’s.)

Instead of ridiculing these youths for being ignorant of a fairly remarkable historic event and complaining about Idiocracy becoming more factual each day, let’s turn this into a teaching moment. Here are nine other films that depict a very real thing that happened in human history:

Pearl Harbor
In case the reference didn’t register at the time, there was a real Day of Infamy behind those insipid comments on Twitter a year ago about the Japanese earthquake and tsunami being payback for Pearl Harbor. Those jerks weren’t talking about the Ben Affleck movie, but a real military strike that happened. The movie that tells the sobering story of the naval base attack in 1941, in which 2,402 Americans were killed, was directed by Michael Bay (which seems like a joke but is true).

Apollo 13
The three-man crew on the Apollo 13 mission really did spend four bleak days in their spacecraft after an oxygen tank exploded on the service module. What had been planned as the third manned moon landing instead became a harrowing effort to make it back to Earth safely. The drama captivated the nation on television in 1970, a time before the Internet.

The Perfect Storm
Before George Clooney and his perfectly disheveled beard hairs set sail in 2000, the dangerous storm that swept away the Andrea Gail fishing vessel really occurred, serving as the basis for the ill-fated film of the same name. Some of the facts in the movie have been disputed, but the 1991 nor’easter/hurricane did in fact collide in what many referred to as “the perfect storm.”

The Killing Fields
The mass killings by the Khmer Rouge in the mid- to late 1970s might be difficult for even Cambodian youths to fathom, but the story of journalists Dith Pran and Sydney Schanberg was very real. The two were covering the fall of the capital to the regime, and at the time, many journalists managed to flee. Pran was stranded but ended up escaping the death camps. He coined the phrase “killing fields,” the mass grave sites of which there are a mind-boggling 20,000.

A chartered flight really did crash in the Andes in 1972, and survivors stayed alive by eating the flesh of dead passengers. Sixteen of them were rescued two months later when Uruguayans Nando Parrado (played in the film by Ethan Hawke) and Roberto Canessa climbed through the mountains for 10 days to seek help.

All the President's Men
Wondering where the “-gate” suffix originated? Decades before Weinergate, a little scandal called Watergate happened, and journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were there to reveal the truth behind the wrongdoing and President Nixon’s involvement in it. The film is an adaptation of the reporters’ book, which was based on their investigative reporting in an era before “truthiness.”

Another pop culture reference is about to make sense to many: A “Silkwood shower” isn’t just something germophobes want to take after they get off the subway. It’s a term derived from a scene in which plutonium plant worker Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep) is, horrifically, contaminated with radiation. Silkwood really did die mysteriously as she planned to reveal wrongdoing at the plant in the mid-'70s.

Based on the book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi, GoodFellas recounts the dirty deeds of Henry Hill and Co. Hill, who became an FBI informant, was a member of the Lucchese crime family and was involved in the also-real Lufthansa heist, among other crimes. Hill’s still out there somewhere, being forced to eat “egg noodles and ketchup” instead of spaghetti with marinara.

United 93
After terrorists hijacked United Flight 93 on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, passengers and crew learned of the strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Those aboard refused to let the plane hit its intended target, likely a government building in Washington, D.C., and planned to storm the cockpit. Some liberties were taken regarding whether they successfully entered the cockpit, but unless you believe conspiracy theorists, the plane did crash in a field in Pennsylvania.


  • Megan says:

    How can anyone not know that Titanic and Pearl Harbor are based on real events?

    • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

      Some young Americans didn't know Titanic was based on a real event, not necessarily Pearl Harbor (Pearl Harbor was brought up in the piece primarily to magnify the ridicule-worthiness of the young tweeters, as well as those tweeters actually quite familiar with notable historical events but who use them for cruel purposes). It's a smallish mistake, not a grandiose instance of misreading; but no one of the smart set would have made it -- and they know it. Hope you weren't hoping to break in.

  • Mike says:

    The attack on Pearl Harbor occurred in 1941, not 1942.

  • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

    I'm fairly sure you've done a good job of making sure at least a few more kids aren't naive enough to tweet their ignorance / innocence in future, or perhaps to study up, but only on things that'll ensure they're on the right end of public lashings next time.

    There's been a lot of discussion around movie / historical event "Bully" this very month; would you believe some go about as if wholly ignorant of a significant ballyhoo as recent as this? (Hint: the point wasn't to learn to further seize on naivete and, "holy shit, we'll crucify her!" for it -- let's make her ignorance level suggest she's probably never heard of Pearl Harbor / WW2! -- but to figure out another way.)

  • J says:

    Such a postmodern dilemma, not being able to distinguish between historical events and fictional stories! I just read a FUNNY blog post this morning that retells the history of the Titanic from the perspective of an 11 year old boy: http://www.pickleope.com/2012/04/history-lessons-from-11-year-old-boy.html

  • M&M says:

    United 93: "but unless you believe conspiracy theorists, the plane did crash in a field in Pennsylvania"

    I'll take the conspiracy theory, thank you.

    See "Loose Change: 9/11"

    • Haven says:

      Contrary to popular belief, seminal horror camp classic Troll is not based on the above commenter's worldview.

  • Jan Kubicki says:

    I was in North Platte, NE back in the 80's researching a film script for a story about the Canteen and how it affected the town and the transient soldiers in WWII. I went to the local high school, hoping to get yearbooks from that period for some authenticity. I asked the yearbook adviser, a twenty-something English teacher, if I could see some yearbooks from the war years. She looked at me blankly then said innocently, "I don't know when World War II was." I still have the yearbooks which I dug up myself.

    • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

      From this experience and ones like this, did you conclude that maybe Deweyite democracy wasn't such a hot idea after all, that maybe given the nature of its constituents, a society of betters actually makes most sense? I very much doubt it; but take note that your old school liberal orientation on actually wanting everyone to share your level of literacy and concern, and being genuinely dismayed when even those you might expect to approach don't come close to even matching it, doesn't seem as much to typify the new breed, who I think kinda like that they have to sometimes push themselves to recognize that Downton Abbey should strike us more as a foreign British thing than the rightful new American ideal.

  • KevyB says:

    The only truth out of The Perfect Storm, are that they died in that storm. Everything else on the boat is pure invention and that film should be labeled as fiction.

  • Latricia Casillas says:

    Based on the book Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi,

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  • Gene says:

    Writer Brian Michael Bendis likes to talk about his Elliot Ness script, and a Hollywood producer's reaction to it. You see, the story wasn't about Ness' "Untouchables" days; it was set at a different period in his life. The producer loved the story, but was afraid of copyright infringement. He actually thought that Ness was a fictional character!!!

    • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

      That's a notch or two more remote than the "Titanic" example, and might well have tripped up some aghast at tweeters' "Titanic" ignorance. If you went further than this, writing about someone's ignorance of, say, the dates of the Napoleonic wars, what the Dreyfuss affair was all about, exactly when women got the vote in the U.S., or what was significant about the Baroque, the challenge becomes more how to negotiate you away from simply being educated into the category of the nerd idiot pendant (aren't we all so charming these days?). Anyway, can anyone with a straight face say they were truly aghast at examples of American ignorance they've come across? -- it's food we the intelligent feast on -- we search it out -- and likely explains one of the reasons the situation's not likely to change any time soon, or that what's most important in life -- people's ability to emphathize, to embody the democratic spirit (I don't believe what impressed DeToqueville about the U.S. was its impressive continental learnedness) -- gets emphasized.

  • Mark says:

    LOve the footage from the harbor. man I am getting old. I really enjoyed the videos on this site.