What kind of lessons has Hollywood been teaching our school children this summer?
Well, for starters, that a ragtag group of mutants ended the Cuban Missile Crisis and that Buzz Aldrin played a key role in covering up the early 1960s moon landing by the Transformers. And that Red Skull was a bigger menace than Hitler in 1940s.
The colorful reinterpretation of our nation’s past continues this weekend with the release of “Apollo 18.” The low-budget horror film attempts to explain the real reason NASA pulled the plug on its Apollo moon missions (Hint: It doesn’t involve budget cuts).
From “Cowboys & Aliens” to “Captain America,” this summer’s crop of tentpoles took enormous creative licenses with the historical record in a way that makes Oliver Stone’s “JFK” seem slavishly literal.
Even the critically-lauded Civil Rights drama “The Help” has come under scrutiny in recent weeks for its overly rosy picture of life in segregated Mississippi.
Clearly, with kids returning to school, America’s teachers are going to have their work cut out for them undoing the damage from a summer full of movies that play fast and loose with the facts.
Here’s a look at the carnage on the truth, graded on a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of historical desecration.
Hollywood’s Historical Liberties: Here’s how the Cuban Missile Crisis went down: Instead of a near-clash between two worldwide super powers over the Soviet Union’s decision to install offensive weapons in communist Cuba, it turns out that a mutant ex-Nazi scientist Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) convinced the Russians to arm Fidel Castro.
In this alternate history, Shaw helps the Soviets break through a U.S. naval blockade, but the X-Men ultimately kill him off, preventing the two sides from firing on each other and kicking off World War III.
What It Gets Right: The costumes look pretty accurate, at least if “Mad Men” is any guide. Plus President John F. Kennedy really did order a naval blockade.
Degree of Desecration: 7. The period details are right, but the reasons for the nearly catastrophic clash between the forces of communism and capitalism are pure fantasy.
Hollywood's Historical Liberties: Turns out that whole space race was really just an elaborate effort by President Kennedy (him again!) to cover up the crash of Cybertronian lunar craft. No less than Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin cops to the ruse during a meeting with Optimus Prime.
What It Gets Right: Not much, but Aldrin, who played himself, really did land on the moon.
Degree of Desecration: 10. Aldrin, who has spent years shooting down moon-landing conspiracy wack jobs, did nothing to help the cause. Fortunately the whole movie is as incoherent as its version of history, so no harm done.
Hollywood’s Historical Liberties: Apparently Adolf Hitler wasn’t all that big a threat to the Free World. That would be his lethal subordinate Red Skull, who turned on the weird mustachioed despot to take on the forces of truth, justice and the American Way.
Moreover, Skull’s henchmen, a group of black-costumed baddies called Hydra, are the war’s real villains, not the goose-stepping Nazis.
To combat the threat, America pumps a 90-pound weakling with super soldier serum and sends him across the pond as the tights-wearing Captain America.
What It Gets Right: Well, there was a global war in the 1940s. Like the Red Skull, Hitler invested heavily in science and believed up until his final hours that a super weapon could turn the tide of the war. And that’s about it.
Degree of Desecration: 8. Like “X-Men,” some of the costumes and music appear historically accurate, but we’re pretty sure that the Nazis were World War II’s real heavies.
Hollywood’s Historical Liberties: Beyond the costumes and the time period, the Jon Favreau film is almost wholly a work of science fiction. In the movie, cowboys don’t clash primarily with Native Americans. Instead, their chief rivals for control of the West are aliens, who basically turn some Arizona outposts into the aftermath of the Battle of Little Big Horn.
What It Gets Right: Arizona was a territory in 1873, when the movie is set. It didn’t join the Union officially until 1912. We’re also pretty sure that cowboys rode horses and got dusty, but they probably lacked the kind of nautilus equipment necessary to pull off Daniel Craig’s washboard abs.
Degree of Desecration: 10. It draws more on classic Westerns such as “My Darling Clementine” and “The Searchers” than history books — most of which leave out that whole alien invasion incident.
Hollywood’s Historical Liberties: Forget Martin Luther King Jr. The real hero of the Civil Rights movement was a white newspaper reporter who dared to ask her racist readers to treat their maids better.
Though the performances of African-American actresses such as Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer have drawn nearly universal praise, the film has been slammed for downplaying the dangers that black people faced during segregation. The Association of Black Women Historians, for one, said the movie suffers from widespread inaccuracies and stereotyping. It notes that the movie also ignores the role that the Ku Klux Klan played in suppressing African-Americans by making a group of rich society women the film’s adversaries.
What It Gets Right: The film does capture the despair and terror felt by many African-Americans following the 1963 assassination of a Mississippi NAACP field secretary. It also correctly dramatizes the economic struggles that black women in the South faced, with few opportunities for career advancement beyond domestic service.
Degree of Desecration: 4. A cotton candy version of a painful chapter in American history, but its heart is in the right place.
Hollywood’s Historical Liabilities: Well, it hasn’t hit theaters yet, but based on early plot descriptions, the found footage documentary centers on the crew of the last moon mission and their battles against parasitic space creatures.
What It Gets Right: Not much. Last we checked Apollo 17 was the last moon mission on record, but maybe discovering the real story depends on having some brave space adventurer discover a few hours of grainy images of outer space terror.
Degree of Desecration: 8 to 10. Nobody’s seen it yet, but based on the trailers it’s a doozy.