Top 10 Movies You Won’t Believe Are Based On True Stories


“Based on a True Story” is generally a pretty dubious claim for a movie to make. Hollywood is notorious for taking things that actually happened and throwing in enough flashy stupidity to keep the lowest common denominator distracted from how overpriced movie tickets are.

But sometimes movies actually do pull truth from reality, and it’s not always the movies you’d expect. Sometimes they’re not even very good movies! We’re talking about…

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Now and then we like to dig back into the archives and re-share some of our best content as TopTenz Classics. Please enjoy this classic list from 2014.)

10.  Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS Isn’t Just Nonsense

If you haven’t seen Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, then you’re in luck, because the whole thing’s on YouTube for some reason. Keep in mind we’re not actually recommending it (it’s one of the least safe-for-work things that exist, what with the sex, torture and gratuitous Being-A-Nazi), but yeah, it’s all there. And so are its sequels.

The titular Ilsa is a Nazi “scientist” bent on proving that women can take more punishment than men. Her methods include a lot of torture and nudity — it’s basically the 1970’s version of Hostel, except even worse. Somehow.

The Real Story

And yet, it’s based on fact: Ilsa Koch and Irma Grese were female concentration camp guards, going down in history as committing the most mythically horrifying personal atrocities of the Third Reich, which we won’t list here.  Like the fictional Ilsa, both these scientist women used science as a shoddy excuse to cause people a lot of pain, which makes Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS the only “based on a true story” sexploitation film we know of to have actually toned things down.

9.  The Hunt for Red October Is Actually Based on a Much Cooler Story

If you’re having trouble explaining the 90’s to your kids or younger siblings, this movie is a great place to start. Nowhere else can you see that, in the 90’s, a Scotsman could play a Lithuanian, Alec Baldwin could be a badass, and movies about submarines weren’t terrible.

Okay, okay, so Hunt is actually a pretty cool movie: Sean Connery plays the captain of a Russian submarine in charge of experimental technology who wants to defect to America to end what he sees as “a war without battles; only casualties.” However, the Americans think that he’s preparing to launch an attack, and only Alec Baldwin knows the truth because…he’s Alec Baldwin.

The Real Story

This one’s weird, because as far as we can tell the true story would make a way better movie. In 1975, Valery Sablin (the third ranking officer in the entire Soviet Naval Hierarchy) decided that the Soviet Union was failing but, instead of defecting like that cowardly Scotsman, he decided to sail his Frigate, the Storozhevoy, directly into the Baltic and broadcast revolutionary propaganda. That’s right: instead of running away, Officer Sablin was actually trying to start a revolution.

8. Final Destination Based Its Opening Scene on a Real Plane Crash

The Final Destination series of films exists in that weird niche where they make a ton of money (or at least enough to warrant sequels) but never manage to be any good. The ongoing premise is that the characters “cheat death” in one manner or another, and then spend the rest of the movie dealing with the fact that Death doesn’t like to be cheated. As far as “ideas for a good movie” go, this barely seems to qualify as an “idea,” but the producers have struck it rich five times over and we haven’t, so they obviously know something we don’t.

The Real Story

Obviously, the actual premise has never happened, but the opening scene did: As Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, the plane crash from the first film (where death is initially cheated) is based on TWA Flight 800, the third-worst airborne disaster in US History.

The movie’s version has a different flight number, but is headed to the same location, and crashes in a way that is almost identical. Ebert said he didn’t want to “belabor the point,” but we don’t feel like we’re “belaboring” anything by saying that if you base your schlocky murder-p-rn on an incident where real people died, the only thing worse than the “art” you think you’re creating is how the rest of the world has to put up with your inept, callous stupidity.

7. 50 First Dates Is (Coincidentally) A True Story

The 2004 romantic comedy starring Drew Barrymore as “Lucy” and Adam Sandler as “the same boring-ass schmuck he always plays” tells the story of a lovable, plucky veterinarian who falls in love with a lovable, quirky woman with a crippling psychiatric disability resulting from massive head trauma (as a side note, no TopTenz writer has ever been hired to write the blurb on the back of a DVD box). The head trauma is the gimmick for the film: Lucy’s short term memory is reset every time she goes to sleep, so Sandler has to woo her in a new way every day. Why doesn’t Sandler just woo her the same way each time, since he knows it’ll work and she won’t remember it the next day? We’d love to answer that but, unfortunately, this paragraph is about to end.

The Real Story

Meet Michelle Philpots, a British woman who suffered two head injuries in 1985 and 1990, and now has all her memories wiped clean every night while she sleeps. Like Lucy, Michelle has gotten married since her injuries, and has to be reminded of her marriage every morning by her husband, most often by being shown pictures of the event.

Her attitude is either a major testament to the human spirit, or the British’s stubborn tendency to “carry on” in spite of pretty much anything: she says she enjoys the soap opera “Eastenders,” despite never having “any idea what’s going on.” And though she doesn’t remember getting married, she does remember the day she met her husband.

Also, somewhat hilariously, that article about her seems to really badly misunderstood the plot of Groundhog Day.

6. Men Behind the Sun Will Haunt Your Nightmares

As the first film to be given a “III” rating (the Hong Kong equivalent of NC-17), Men Behind the Sun (or Black Sun: 731) is one of the earliest examples of what we now call “torture p-rn.” It tells the story of “Unit 731,” a Japanese Unit during World War II that conducts experiments on Chinese and Soviet prisoners, in order to gauge their pain threshold and find out how enjoyable it is to undergo a vivisection without anesthesia (spoiler alert: not very).

The Real Story

Unit 731 was real. Their purpose was to develop a highly contagious version of the Bubonic Plague

to use against the Chinese, because Japan really wanted to outdo the Nazis, we guess. In addition to the “cutting people open while they’re still alive” thing, Unit 731 tested weapons on living people, infected them with various diseases and… yeah, you can read about the rest here, if you want. Though again, we don’t actually recommend it.

5 AND 4: Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Psycho Are Both Based on the Same Serial Killer

Though having little in commons stylistically, both Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Psycho have become hugely influential horror films. While the latter introduced the world to the twist ending, and what is almost universally regarded as the finest horror film score in history, the former proved that you don’t need to have plot and acting if you show women getting chased a lot by big dudes holding scary things.

The Real Story

Both killers (and, to a lesser extent, Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs) were based on the Wisconsin murder Ed Gein. What’d Ed do to get a following in Hollywood? It’s hard to nail it down to any one thing, but we’re betting it was a combination of the fact that he was creepy-looking, had a weird obsession with his mentally imbalanced mother, and made a belt out of human nipples. There was also the mask made of human skin, the suit made of human skin, the lamp made of human skin…

Hey, leather’s expensive.

3. Rocky‘s Real Name is Way More Badass

It’s tragic how often it’s forgotten that Sylvester Stallone’s career — which is made up almost entirely of crap — started off with a psychologically complex and engaging story about a guy who, at the end of the day, just wants to have his efforts and hard work noticed. Rocky’s the story of an underdog who stays the underdog. It taught us that sometimes just getting a shot is enough, even if you don’t make it.

The Real Story

In the 1970’s, there was a little-known boxer named Chuck “The Bayonne Bleeder” Wepner and, if Rocky isn’t based on this guy, it’s one hell of a coincidence.

Okay, fine, not everything’s the same: Bleeder* is from New Jersey instead of Philly, worked as a security guard instead of a butcher shop and, by his own account, never ice skated or wore turtlenecks.

So what are the similarities? Everything else. Bleeder boxed a wrestler (like Rocky did in Rocky III), maintained a winning record, and even faced off against a black heavyweight champion: Muhammad Frickin’ Ali.

Luckily, the Bleeder got his due: he sued Stallone in 1976, and they settled for an undisclosed amount.

*Like hell we’re gonna call him “Wepner.”

2. Jaws is a True Story, But Not The Way You Think

Most people know that the original “summer blockbuster” doesn’t try too hard to be realistic. No shark — not even the hyper-aggressive Bull Shark — will attack that frequently, or that mercilessly, or even get that big.

Still, who cares about realism? WE DO. Jaws is a badass movie with a fantastic soundtrack but, at the end of the day, this article is all about realism.

The Real Story

Jaws is openly based on the 1916 Jersey Shore Shark Attacks and, though the behavior of the shark has been exaggerated for effect, the reactions of the victims isn’t. After four people were killed by an unidentified shark, the people of New Jersey panicked and launched massive shark hunts in an attempt to eradicate the “man eater” and protect the tourism industry — an act the perfectly mirrors the plot of the film.

Keep in mind, ichthyologists at the time thought that sharks in temperate climates were relatively harmless. One even claimed that it was “beyond the power of even the largest Carcharadon (Great White) to sever the leg of an adult man.”

When this was proven untrue, the shock would’ve been similar to the appearance of the massive predator seen in the classic film.

1. To Hell and Back Just Straight Up Happened

Image result for audie murphy

We’re going to skip the plot synopsis this time, because the plot synopsis is what happened for real. The story of Audie Murphy, an American soldier of World War I, To Hell and Back stars…Audie Murphy, an American Veteran of World War II, playing himself.

Murphy’s story is basically the story of Captain America minus the injection of super serum. Like Steve Rogers, Murphy was 5’5″, 110 pounds  and, again like Rogers, applied to every branch of the military before finally being accepted into the Army. Then he got malaria, because everyone knows war is boring if you don’t have a debilitating illness.

There’s actually no shortage of crazy stories about this guy, but the most amazing has got to be the one that got him the Medal of Honor (those stories tend to be pretty badass). At the battle of Holtzwihr, Murphy’s unit was reduced down to 19 men (from 128) by the advancing German line, so he did what any reasonable soldier would do: sent the remaining men back so he could hold the line by himself. After his M1 Carbine was empty, he climbed into a burning tank and held off an entire squad of German Infantry with a .50 caliber machine gun while calling in artillery shots.

Then he got shot in the leg.

Then his phone line to the artillery was cut.

Then he organized a counter attack. Somehow.

So, why did he decide to take on an entire company of German infantry by himself, when almost anyone else would’ve wet themselves and run away crying? In his words: “They were killing my friends.”

So it turns out that, by “reasonable soldier” we actually meant “crazy badass.” Cheers, dude.

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  1. Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill is actually based on several serial killers. The scene where he fakes a broken arm is something Ted Bundy did.

  2. This was a good idea for a list, but the choice of movies to present is puzzling. These are supposed to be movies we “won’t believe” are based on true stories? Several of these actually aren’t based on the true stories; they only use a character or one or two incidents from reality. They may have been inspired by the events, but they aren’t based upon the stories. Others have been written up so much that most people already know about the events they’re based upon, and those shouldn’t be on the list or else the writer should change the name of the list.

    I’d like to read a list on this same subject that would actually surprise me. There must be some movies that actually tell reality-based stories but aren’t trumpeting that fact in their marketing.

  3. I’ve seen Men Behind the Sun. It’s more disturbing than it sounds. Especially the scene where they nuke a child in a large microwave. One of the most realistic and disturbing things I’ve seen in a movie *shudder*

  4. The Honeymoon Killers (1969) was based on a true story that happened in the 1940’s. Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck were lovers and pretended to be brother and sister when Raymond answered lonely hearts ads. The couple would steal everything they could from the victim and then kill them.

  5. Intriguing to say the least. The films that is however, the comments posted above gave me the most entertainment!!!!
    Adams’ post humoured me the most! So this is to Adam : “there were NO death camps in Germany”
    Are you absolutely certain of that? If you are then I must advise that you tell the world immediately!!!
    Of course history will have to be rewritten but hey if they’ve got it all wrong then Adam put them right!

    Either that or you’re merely clutching at straws over a technicality?
    Concentration camps : death camps! “Isla was tried twice, interesting fact she turned up at her third trial pregnant” do you see the contradiction?
    Thank you for making laugh you funny funny man…

  6. What about the Philadelphia story? About the Navy’s attempt to making ships stealth to radar?

  7. i think theres a fairly recently made movie call 127 hours which was based on reality and should have made the list because i dont know anyone with the balls to cut off his hand the way this man had to…inspirational story just thought it deserved a mention.

  8. Calling Sly Stallone’s career crap made me immediately disregard everything else on this website. It was a cheap shot and poorly executed. BTW Rocky did not work in a butcher shop.

    • As in some cases, the views of the writers on this site are not necessarily the views of the owner of In this case, I don’t agree with the writer. Rocky III was a long-time favorite of mine growing up and I fondly remember Rocky IV as well. Anyone interested in a compilation of Top 10 Sylvester Stallone movies? Kinda over done, but could be a fun read if someone has an interest in writing it.

  9. Sean Connery did NOT play a Russian in The Hunt for Red October, he played a Lithuanian. There is a line in the film “he’s not Russian, he’s Lithuanian”

  10. Jaws isn’t a true story, it’s BASED on an actual event. There’s a big difference. Jaws is fiction.

  11. There are other Ilsa movies, they only borrowed the name… Ilsa Koch (The Witch of Buchenwald) didn’t actually do any of those things you’d rather not mention, at least there really isn’t any proof except hearsay. She was tried twice and let go twice for lack of evidence, or served very little time, and then all of a sudden a bunch of ex Buchenwald inmates testified… still no evidence. Buchenwald was never a death camp. There were no death-camps in Germany. She wasn’t even at Buchenwald when most of the alleged crimes took place. Also, an interesting fact, she showed up at her third trial pregnant at 42 years old. She was completely isolated with the exception of Jewish guards. Why the third trial? Because people wanted revenge against everybody and anybody associated with the Nazi party. That’s called a witch-hunt… if ALL those NAZIS were so bad, why did the CIA recruit so many of them after the war? And Ilsa Koch was an accountant, I wasn’t aware accountants were scientists. I’ll let all my accountant friends know that they are actually scientists, because JF Sargent, on the internet, said so. I’ll make sure to avoid anything with your name on it in the future…

    • Adam, the Nazis WERE THAT BAD, INCLUDING THE ONES WE DESPICABLY TOOK IN BY THE CIA! It’s not a witch hunt, it’s called JUSTICE. At the end stages of WW II he Nazis tried to burn and destroy any evidence of their war crimes and genocide, so yes that did hinder in the way of physical evidence such as documents, films, and photos. However they had many many witnesses who survived the death camps. There definitely were death camps in Germany, your statement is totally false. The CIA decided these Nazis like von Braun and others were more “valuable and useful” for good or not good reasons. The CIA, like governments anywhere do pragmatic things, not necessarily the moral or ethical thing.
      Don’t lie and distort the truth you lying neo-Nazi sycophant.

  12. Hmm this list is okay but arbitrary when compared to significant films like…

    both involved Oliver Stone

    very loosely based on FBI lore about using serial killer interviews to profile for active cases.

    and the whole generation of surrealism like LoneStar, Fight Club, A Beautiful Mind, The New World, Primary Colors… where real and surreal get regularly blended…

  13. As long as you’re using a reference like “To Hell and Back” – why not also reference “SGT York” – the true story of a backwoods pacifist being drafted against his will and winding up the most decorated US soldier of WWI – that’s another amazing story…and a great movie to boot.

  14. “In 1975, Valery Sablin (the third ranking officer in the entire Soviet Naval Hierarchy)”
    This is wrong, not to say – ridiculous. He was just a Capitan 3rd rang, which corresponds to Corvette capitan (or – the SMALL ship capitan) in NATO Navy.

  15. It’s kind of irresponsible to make light of such a monstrous situation as the one Ed Gein was involved in, don’t you think?

    • yeah, but its the truth, and i feel bad for him being looked upon like that, but he did some really nasty things that need to be told so people know whats possible in reality…

  16. #1 is another movie that got toned down from the real story. When Hollywood approached Audie Murphy about making a movie of his heroic actions, Murphy decided to leave out some of his actions for fear that audiences would think he was embellishing to cash in on his fame.

  17. The Hunt for Red October is based on absolutely other story. Not on Valery Sablin’s story. You are WRONG!!!!!!!!! True story is about captain Jonas Pleškys. He in 1961 escaped to the Swedish island of Gotland with the Soviet military barge from Klaip?da. He died in 1993.

  18. Murphy’s statue is in front of the academy on Camp Mabry, i remember having to do 10 push ups for it any time you wanted to pass. The statue has a wire stock M2 carbine, in the movie he carried a regular M1 carbine, I don’t which is accurate. Being a hero has nothing to do with physical size.

    CSM (ret)

  19. Texas Chainsaw Massacre isn’t based on Ed Gein. Tobe Hooper says in the films audio commentary that he had no clue who Gein even was until after the film was released.

  20. There are a few typo errors but nonetheless this is a good list! And no.1 really is deserving! That guy has some iron balls!!

  21. A lot of horror movies have roots in reality, a couple of them were even listed. Calling out Final Destination for it is kind

  22. I admire Sly Stallone and take great offense to the “which is made up almost entirely of crap” statement, and in case you have forgotten, Mr. Stallone has nearly a billion dollar net worth. Money may not be everything, but it sure as hell beats nothing!

  23. Rocky didn’t work in a butcher shop, he was a collector for the mob. Pauly worked in the butcher shop.

  24. #8. Sablin was not the 3rd highest ranked office in the Soviet “Naval” Hierarchy; he was a Captain, 3rd Rank, also called a Corvette Captain (small warship).

  25. Number 2 actually happened in my hometown of Matawan, New Jersey. The shark attacked a boy swimming in what is now called Lake Lefferts. We used to learn about it every year in high school.

  26. Number 1 is the most inspiring one and it shows a man true metal in face of such incredible odds