As Mark Twain famously put it, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” And so it is with movies. As authors and screenwriters use their imaginations to come up with some truly amazing stories, they do draw inspiration from the real world on occasion. Events, places, and even characters are influenced by what really is out there. Believe it or not, many of our beloved protagonists, or villains for that matter, are rooted in real life.
Be warned: there might be some small spoilers, but we’ll try to minimize them.
10. Ahmad ibn Fadlan – The 13th Warrior
In 1999, Antonio Banderas starred in a movie called The 13th Warrior, playing an Arab ambassador. The film was based on a Michael Crichton novel called Eaters of the Dead. While stopping for supplies in a Viking village, he finds himself drawn into a quest with 12 Norsemen. The 13 men must face an overwhelming force, threatening a distant Viking king. Throughout his quest, Fadlan learns to speak the language, experiences Norse customs, and fights alongside them against that threat.
The film was a fantastical adventure, but surprisingly an Arab traveler by the same name did exist during the 10th century. As a member of an embassy of the Abbasid Caliphate, Fadlan is most famous for his first-hand accounts and detailed descriptions of the Rus Vikings, Pechenegs, Khazars, and other Turkic peoples living throughout Eastern Europe and Central Eurasia. His descriptions are the most detailed of that age. They present us with the most knowledge we have about the Vikings to date. His accounts also present the famous ship burial of a local chieftain, accompanied by the sacrificial death of a maiden.
Unlike Europeans at that time, Muslim chroniclers bore no grudge against the Vikings and thus their reports are considered by modern scholars to be far more trustworthy and reliable. And since the Norsemen had only a runic alphabet, unsuited for recordkeeping, the historic events as described by Fadlan are the best we have about the Vikings.
9. Ursula – The Little Mermaid
Even if you’ve never seen the 1989 Disney film The Little Mermaid, you’ve probably seen the evil sea witch Ursula somewhere on the internet. But what most people don’t know is that she was actually inspired by Harris Glenn Milstead, a real person who gained fame in the 1970s and ’80s. Harris was better known by his stage name, Divine. He performed as an actor on both stage and screen. His most notable characteristic, however, was the fact that he was a drag queen. Divine was closely associated with independent filmmaker John Waters, who called Harris, “the most beautiful woman in the world, almost.”
Ursula’s general appearance and demeanor were inspired by Divine. Similar to her human counterpart, Ursula received positive reviews from film critics. She was dubbed “Disney’s strongest villain in decades.” However, Divine didn’t live long enough to see the cartoon version of himself, dying one year earlier at the age of 42 of an enlarged heart.
8. Johnny Fontane – The Godfather
Johnny Fontane is a fictional character in Mario Puzo’s novel, The Godfather, and subsequent movie adaptations. Godson to Don Vito Corleone, Fontane is a famous singer and film star who needs the help of the family in order to launch his career. The line about the “offer he can’t refuse” was used in reference to Vito getting Fontane out of an ironclad contract. And on another occasion, in an act of intimidation, a film producer wakes up with a severed horse head in his bed. This was Don Corleone’s way of ensuring Fontane would be cast in a film that could revitalize his career. Each scene has become the stuff of cinematic legend.
In real life, however, the role of Johnny Fontane was “played” by none other than Frank Sinatra. Though never confirmed, Sinatra is believed to have been closely linked with the Mafia underworld. And while his career was plummeting during the early 1950s, many believe that some of these connections helped him get a role in From Here to Eternity. That film earned him an Oscar and saved his career. Puzo never did make the claim that Fontane was based on Sinatra, but he also never denied it either.
Featured in numerous books, films, and various TV series, Zorro is a fictional character created in 1919 by Johnston McCulley. Like Robin Hood of old, Zorro (“fox” in Spanish) was a vigilante who helped the commoners against tyrannical officials and all sorts of other villains. He’s always dressed in black, wears a mask over his face, and always leaves behind his calling card, the letter “Z.” He leaves that iconic mark with a few quick slashes of his rapier. The action takes place in California in the 19th century, during the era of Mexican rule. And surprisingly enough, the legendary bandito is based on a real Californian legend.
McCulley is believed to have received inspiration for his fictional character, Don Diego de la Vega, a.k.a. Zorro, from a book called The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murrieta. Joaquin Murrieta was in fact a real person who lived during the Californian Gold Rush. He turned from an honest miner into a unlawful bandit. Even to this day controversy surrounds Murrieta. Some call him a renegade; others, a national hero. So many stories have been told about him that it’s almost impossible to distinguish fact from fiction. What is certainly true about Murrieta, however, is that the English drove him from a rich mining claim. They also raped his wife, lynched his brother, and had Murrieta horse-whipped. All of these unfortunate events made him follow a life of crime, with the rest becoming legend.
In the 1998 film adaptation, The Mask of Zorro, Anthony Hopkins plays the role of Don Diego de la Vega. Victor Rivers plays Joaquin Murrieta, and Antonio Banderas plays Joaquin’s brother, Alejandro, who takes on the mantle of Zorro.
6. Ignacio/Nacho – Nacho Libre
A devout priest turned luchador? That’s a comedy perfectly suited for Jack Black. But nobody in his right mind would believe it to be based on actual events. Somewhat similar to the plot of the movie, Sergio Gutierrez Benitez was a Catholic priest in charge of an orphanage in a rundown neighborhood in Veracruz, Mexico. Born in 1945, as the 16th of 17 children, Benitez was a troubled kid using drugs from a young age. He decided to become a minister, however, after he was kicked out of a church by a priest. Basically, he thought the world needed more “cool” priests.
In 1973 he founded the “La Casa Hogar de los Cachorros de Fray Tormenta” orphanage, home to 270 children. In need of money to take care of them, Father Benitez took up wrestling as Fray Tormenta. He designed a red and yellow lucha libre mask kept his true identity hidden. The padre believed that “No one would have taken me seriously as a wrestler had they known I was a priest.”
To prepare for the ring, he woke up at 4:30 a.m. every morning for a year, went to a gym in Mexico City to learn the art of lucha libre, and returned back to the orphanage by 8:00 a.m., in time for mass. The bishop overseeing his parish demanded that Father Benitez stop his wrestling career. Instead, Fray Tormenta told him that he would gladly stop only if the bishop himself would donate the equivalent of what he was earning in the ring. Naturally, that didn’t happen. Father Benitez officially retired in 2011, after 23 years of wearing the mask for his children.
5. Lucy Whitmore – 50 First Dates
Back in 1985, an English woman by the name of Michelle Philpots suffered a motorcycle accident. The same year, she met future husband, Ian. Five years later, she was involved in another serious car accident. Together with the previous one, she was afflicted with a rare form of anterograde amnesia. In 1994, Michelle was diagnosed with epilepsy as a result of her head injuries. Ever since, she’s struggled to form new memories.
Every morning for the past 22 years, her husband, who she only remembers as her boyfriend, presents her with their wedding album and answers whatever questions Michelle might have. She leaves herself Post-It notes on the refrigerator, and all sorts of other helpful tips she might need throughout the day. She even uses a GPS to navigate her hometown of Spalding, in southeastern England.
Though she can’t form new memories, she can carry out everyday things like driving a car or having a conversation. That’s actually unusual for someone in her condition. She can also remember some bits and pieces after 1994, too, but mostly as feelings or sensations. Sometimes, she can remember special occasions. You may have noticed her story is strikingly similar to that of Lucy Whitmore, the character played by Drew Barrymore in 50 First Dates. While it’s hard to say if the film is based on Philpots’s story, it’s hard to ignore how eerily similar the plot is to her real life.
4. Frank Costello – The Departed
In the 2006 blockbuster The Departed, Jack Nicholson plays the role of a ruthless Irish mob boss, Frank Costello. Costello controls the Boston underworld. This character is based on James “Whitey” Bulger, a notorious gangster. In 1999, Bulger was named by the FBI as their second most wanted man, behind only Osama bin Laden. The movie’s plot (spoilers!) revolves around Costello planting a mole within the state police. Meanwhile, the police assign an undercover agent to infiltrate Costello’s “Winter Hill Gang.” The relationship between Costello and his mole is loosely based on Bulger and John Connolly, a corrupt FBI agent who grew up with Bulger. Connolly helped Whitey rise to power in Boston for over 20 years.
Connolly would feed Bulger information about what was going on in the criminal rackets, giving Whitey an edge on anyone else. In 1995, Connolly tipped him off about his imminent arrest, and Bulger was able to escape the authorities. A $1 million reward was issued for providing any information leading directly to his arrest. In 2011, he was finally captured and brought to trial. The 81-year-old gangster was sentenced two two life sentences, plus five years in prison. The charges included federal racketeering, extortion, conspiracy, and 11 murders. In 2015, Bulger’s story was told in a more “official” capacity with the film Black Mass, starring Johnny Depp as Bulger and Joel Edgerton as Connolly.
3. Steve Zissou – The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
In 1930, Jacques Cousteau was accepted into France’s Naval Academy and trained as an aviator. However, a near-fatal car accident at age 26 ensured he would never be able to fly. As a Navy man, he swam rigorously to strengthen his weakened arms. One day a fellow officer gave him a pair of goggles to keep the saltwater away. The goggles opened his eyes to the beauty of the undersea world, where he spent the rest of his life.
In 1950 he leased an old minesweeper from a British philanthropist for a symbolic one franc per year. He named it Calypso and transformed it into a mobile laboratory. With it, Cousteau explored the world’s waters from the Mediterranean, to the Amazon, to the Antarctic Ice Shelf. He developed the Aqua-Lung to help divers stay submerged for long periods of time. Cousteau wrote countless books and produced dozens of documentaries. He even had his own weekly TV series, “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.”
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a 2004 American comedy-drama, which focuses on oceanographer Steve Zissou. Played by Bill Murray, the film tells the story of Zissou’s quest to exact revenge on a mythical shark that killed his partner. Along for the trip on his aging research vessel, the Belafonte, are his estranged wife, a journalist, and a man who may be his son. The similarities between Zissou and Cousteau are abundant. Their aging vessels, the names of their shows, and especially the way they dress (blue clothing and red hat) all point to this connection. The only obvious difference is that Cousteau never went on a hunt to blow up a jaguar shark.
Or did he?
2. Viktor Navorski – The Terminal
In the 2004’s The Terminal, a man becomes trapped in New York’s JFK Airport when he’s denied entry into the US. Viktor Navorski, played by Tom Hanks, can’t return to his home country, either. A military coup took place while he was in the air. His country is no longer recognized, making his passport invalid. And so, Navorski is forced to live inside the airport. The film, as well as the character itself, is based on the story of a Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee.
Being expelled from Iran after protesting against the Shah, Nasseri sought asylum in Britain. But during his layover in Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport, his papers were stolen. Nevertheless, he boarded a plane to London but was promptly returned to Paris. Since he legally entered France, and no longer had a country of origin, Sir Alfred Mehran (as he became known) became a permanent resident of Terminal 1. The airport employees gave him food and newspapers. He spent his days reading, writing in his diary, or studying economics. Since he wasn’t allowed to enter France, he wandered the airport for 17 years, from 1988 to 2006, when he was hospitalized for an unspecified ailment. Since 2008, Nasseri has been living in a Paris shelter.
1. Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones
Many of us grew up with Indiana Jones as a role model. Since his first appearance in Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, Indy has become one of cinema’s most revered characters. George Lucas created the beloved character as an homage to various action heroes he grew up with. One such example is Charlton Heston, who in 1954 played a character named Harry Steele in a movie called Secret of the Incas. Steele has a striking resemblance to Indiana Jones, and not just when it came to their choice in clothing.
However, both Indy and Steele can thank an early 20th century professor for their existence. Hiram Bingham III was an American academic, explorer, and politician. After completing a PhD at Harvard, he became a professor of Latin American history at Yale in 1907. In 1911, he organized a Yale Peruvian Expedition. With the help of some locals, he was able to rediscover the lost city of Machu Picchu. However, he misidentified it as the “Lost City (Capital) of the Incas.” It turns out, Machu Picchu was really more of a summer resort for the Inca Emperor Pachacuti and his entourage. The actual “Lost City” (and last capital) of the Inca Empire, before falling to the Spaniards in 1572, was Vilcabamba. Bingham actually also discovered that on his way to Machu Picchu, but didn’t recognize what it was.