If you watch the end credits of a film, you will eventually read the following phrase or something very similar:
“The events and characters depicted in this movie are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”
Obviously, it is a disclaimer to state the intent of a movie is not to portray anything that happened and that could be seen as defamatory. While movies sometimes use historical fiction in their narrative, it is not done to intentionally distort the truth or falsely display a moment as fact. It is why when Fargo was released with the famous intro stating that the events shown were a true story with real names being changed, they actually had the fictitious disclaimer at the end. (The Coen Brothers have given conflicting accounts if there was a crime that inspired the story or if it was totally made up; two separate murder cases suggest the former.)
But the story of the “all persons fictitious” disclaimer goes back to the 1930s when one biographical depiction went to court. In 1932, MGM released Rasputin And The Empress, a historical drama set in the last years of Russia before the revolution overthrew the Czar and his family. Starring the Barrymore family of John, Ethel, and Lionel; it was a mostly fictitious story of their relationship with Rasputin, the monk who was seen as divine in helping the Czar with his decisions to fight the war as well as heal his hemophiliac son. In the center of it was Princess Natasha, who represented Princess Irina Alexandrovna in real life and is one of the few direct relatives of the Romanovs to escape Russia unharmed.
In the movie, she is raped by Rasputin, an event that never happened and was written for dramatic purposes. Nowhere did the movie state it wasn’t being presented as fact, but only at the beginning with, “This concerns the destruction of an empire … A few of the characters are still alive—the rest met death by violence.” Angered by this, Princess Irina, who was living in France and would so until her death in 1970, sued MGM for libel and won after the movie and actual events were presented to the jury. She was awarded $1.1 million in damages, which is estimated in 2021 money to be around $21 million. Studios immediately wrote their own fictitious disclaimers to avoid similar lawsuits.
With true stories, movies are required to extend their disclaimer with qualifications to how far they stretch the truth as well as stating that, “No animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture.” In one case, while The Idolmaker is inspired by a real-life music manager, one singer, former 1950s teen idol Fabian Forte, sued, claiming the fictional character around him used actual facts from his life in the story and defamed him. This was settled out of court. Some have been used at the end to make a political statement (see Z) while others can use it as satire (the beginning of every South Park episode). Disclaimers have been inserted as a legal shield for the past 90 years, even though productions are not immune from libel suits if the truth is altered dramatically.
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