See Which 10 Classic Historical TV Shows Got the Details Right… and Which Ones Were Just Wrong

See Which 10 Classic Historical TV Shows Got the Details Right… and Which Ones Were Just Wrong

Larry Holzwarth - May 9, 2018

Beginning in the 1950s and lasting well into the 1970s, history was presented in both dramatic and comedic fashion on television. Many of the most popular programs which presented historic characters and events have become popular again on cable networks which focus on nostalgic television. Being presented as entertainment, some of these shows present what they call history as pure fiction while others are more or less true to historical events. For example, the television Daniel Boone remained in Kentucky into the nineteenth century, the real Daniel Boone was long gone to Missouri by that time.

Throughout the fifties, sixties, and into the seventies television featured tales of the American west, stories about World War II, and programs which described American heroes of the past. Disney created a media and marketing sensation with its heavily fictionalized biographic films about Davy Crockett. Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, Kit Carson, Daniel Boone, and other characters whose names resonate in American history appeared on the small screen. Later a television invention, the situation comedy presented history in a “war is fun” light. American history is a large part of the history of American television.

See Which 10 Classic Historical TV Shows Got the Details Right… and Which Ones Were Just Wrong
1958 Braun television. From its inception television changed history, in more ways than one. Wikimedia

Here are just ten examples of history on television, what it got right, and what it got wrong.

See Which 10 Classic Historical TV Shows Got the Details Right… and Which Ones Were Just Wrong
Rick Jason as Lt. Hanley and Vic Morrow as Sgt Saunders on the set of Combat! in 1962. ABC Television


In the opening credits for the World War II series which featured American infantry at the squad level fighting their way across France in 1944, the exclamation point in the title was signified with a bayonet. Combat! made its debut in 1962 and lasted through the 1967 season before growing anti-Vietnam War sentiment made war related programs less popular. Several of its episodes were directed by Robert Altman, later nominated five times for the Oscar for Best Director. Combat! was a black and white production for four of its five years on the air. When Germans or French people spoke, it was in their native languages and there were no subtitles.

This nod to realism was part of what made the show a gripping depiction of the life of a combat infantryman during the Second World War. Although the squad of Americans featured a French speaking Cajun who could interpret from French to English, spoken German was seldom interpreted, and the viewer, like the characters on-screen, were forced to guess at what was being said. The weapons used by the main cast were correct for the period, as was the remaining equipment on the Allied side. Actual combat film was used frequently, adding to the sense of realism, including scenes of both German and American artillery.

Combat! focused on individuals trapped in war. The fatigue of the soldiers was on constant display, as was a fact of infantry life – the ground is an infantryman’s best friend. Guest stars were often replacements for members of the squad who had been killed or wounded, meaning other than the main characters the brothers in arms were an ever-changing family. Some men could be trusted in combat, others couldn’t. Rough, brusque exchanges between the soldiers were a fact of life during the war and on the show. The displeasure with the never changing rations, the lack of opportunity to bathe and don clean clothing, and the constant pressure from both their own officers and the opposing Germans was a feature of the scripts. It was the war through the eyes of the lowest ranking soldiers and their non-coms.

As the show evolved over its run it offered more episodes in which the squad interacted with the French citizens and German prisoners. Most of the Germans were depicted as professional soldiers rather than Nazi zealots. More guest stars appeared as Germans and French citizens as the story line which had focused on replacements for the squad, who were usually killed at the end of the episode, began to run thin. The list of guest stars was long and distinguished, including Telly Savalas, Ricardo Montalban, Frankie Avalon, Beau Bridges, Dennis Hopper, Charles Bronson, and Leonard Nimoy, among many others.

No other show on television approached the Second World War as did Combat! Through its run it depicted troops in the field having to consume their rations using their ponchos to shield them from the pouring rain, facing sudden and heart shocking attacks, and then being forced to resume some semblance of humanity. While all of its stories were written as fiction and the squad was wholly fictitious, it presented men at war in a manner which would not be replicated in its realism either on television or in film for decades. For the most part, Combat! was one television show which got history right.

See Which 10 Classic Historical TV Shows Got the Details Right… and Which Ones Were Just Wrong
A young James Caan, with Keryn Kupcinet and Roy Thinnes on an episode of Death Valley Days in 1963. Wikimedia

Death Valley Days

Death Valley Days was a radio broadcast beginning in 1945 and first appeared on television in 1952. It was unique in entertainment television in that each episode was based on a true event or personage of the American west. As an anthology series it had no set cast. Each episode was opened by a narrator, who sometimes appeared in a role in the ensuing story. In 1964 Ronald Reagan served as the opening narrator or host, and over the course of his association with the program he appeared in 21 episodes as a character, including an episode which aired in September 1965, his final role as an actor.

Because the stories were based on real events or people, but broadcast in half hour programs, there was considerable editing of history. Some episodes were just loosely connected to reality while others were accurate to the final detail. There was a broad range of diverse stories. One week the show might feature someone such as James Kelly, a San Francisco kidnapper who once “Shanghaied” 100 men in a single evening. The next episode could be about an event like the record breaking run of the Scott Special, a passenger train chartered for the purpose of setting a new speed record between Los Angeles and Chicago.

Stories on Death Valley Days covered the time period of the 1820s through the early twentieth century. Robert Louis Stevenson was portrayed in one episode (by Lloyd Bochner) during a trip to Colorado seeking a better climate for his health. The real Stevenson made such a trip in 1888. L. Frank Baum, the creator of The Wizard of Oz, was portrayed in an episode of the show’s final season in 1970. Robert Blake played Billy the Kid seeking revenge for the murder of his employer and friend John Tunstall, an event which really occurred, but Blake at 33 was considerably older than Billy the Kid had been at the time.

In addition to the depiction of the events of the story, the producers took great pains to dress the sets and the characters in the proper manner for the time portrayed. Manners also changed greatly over the ninety years of the settlement of the west, and these were reflected in the stories as well. Baylor Thomas, who attempted to develop a system of sails to propel Conestoga wagons across the prairie – creating true prairie schooners – was a noted eccentric and he was so portrayed and regarded by his fellow characters when he was played by George Gobel on an episode of the series in 1963. Often the acting was over the top, so to speak, to reflect the personalities of the characters portrayed.

Many other western heroes and heroines appeared on Death Valley Days, with episodes featuring Belle Starr, Calamity Jane, Butch Cassidy, Lew Wallace (who wrote Ben Hur), Brigham Young, Geronimo, James J. Corbett (who boxed a 61 round no-decision against Black Prince Jackson in San Francisco), and Horace Greeley. Death Valley Days was faithful to American history in its portrayals, usually remaining focused on the human characters which shaped it and their individual motivations, successes, and failures. sometimes corny to the point of seeming camp, it remains popular in reruns.

See Which 10 Classic Historical TV Shows Got the Details Right… and Which Ones Were Just Wrong
Bob Crane and John Banner on the set for Hogan’s Heroes in 1966. Wikimedia

Hogan’s Heroes

The premise of Hogan’s Heroes is almost too ridiculous to consider, a commando operation being run out of a German prisoner of war camp. It was produced near the end of a period when military comedies were common, usually because of the manner in which innocents pointed out the absurdities of the military. McHale’s Navy, Gomer Pyle USMC, and F Troop were all examples of the genre. But none were as much of a stretch as Hogan’s Heroes, in which American ingenuity, with a nod to its Allies, always trumped stodgy Teutonic closemindedness and prevailed in the end, thanks to their willing devotion to duty and overall goodness.

The historical inaccuracies abound, as would be expected from the premise. German POW camps were separated by both nationality and rank. Americans, British, and French prisoners were nearly always kept in separate compounds within a camp, and officers were separated from the enlisted men. An exception to the rule would be foreigners serving in another nation’s armed services, for example Polish, Canadian, and South Africans all served in the British RAF and were imprisoned in the same camps as their British comrades as RAF prisoners.

There was a considerable effort to assist prisoners of war attempting to escape, run by both the British and the Americans throughout the war, but this is barely hinted at in the series. Money, escape maps, the identity of safe houses, and other escape aids were smuggled into the camps via ingenious means, including in cigarettes packages, board games such as Monopoly, and pressed inside phonograph records. Many camps managed to obtain radios, but they were receivers for obtaining war news from the BBC, not transmitters. German triangulation devices would have detected a transmitter quickly, particularly a stationary unit.

The absurdity of the show’s premise did not prevent it from becoming an instant hit, and it ran for six seasons, launched a comic book version, lunchboxes, games, and even an album of popular songs from the World War II era, sung by members of its cast Ivan Dixon, Richard Dawson, Robert Clary, and Larry Hovis. Ironically four of the main German characters were played by Jewish actors; Werner Klemperer (Colonel Klink); John Banner (Schultz); Leon Askin (General Burkhalter); and Howard Caine (SS Major Hochstetter). Several of the actors on the show fled Nazi Germany prior to the war, with Robert Clary and John Banner spending time in concentration camps before the war.

About the only historical accuracy contained within Hogan’s Heroes is the aversion by German military men toward being sent to the Eastern Front to face the Russians. The SS and Gestapo were anything but inept in their dealings with civilians and escaping prisoners, and the vast majority of allied prisoners who escaped from German POW camps were quickly retaken prisoner. Many were murdered, including the majority of Poles, Czechs, and other nationalities which served with the British forces. Hogan’s Heroes remains popular, mainly for the manner in which the Germans are portrayed as buffoons taken in by clever scams, both outlandish and implausible.

See Which 10 Classic Historical TV Shows Got the Details Right… and Which Ones Were Just Wrong
The real Daniel Boone stood about 5’8″, as compared to Fess Parker who portrayed him (right). Parker was 6’5″. Wikimedia

Daniel Boone

Daniel Boone was first shown on September 24, 1964, with its theme song announcing that Daniel “…was a big man.” It was the first of many historical inaccuracies which the show would present over the next six seasons. The real Daniel Boone was not a particularly big man, standing about 5’8″, nor did he typically wear a coonskin cap, preferring a slouch hat to cover his head. On the television program the size of his family changes as actors come and go, but he did have a son named Israel (who was killed at the Battle of Blue Licks in 1782) and he was a famous hunter and leading citizen of Kentucky.

Over the course of the program’s run, Daniel interacts with George Washington (as President and as a General), Benjamin Franklin, Aaron Burr, and other historic personages, in Boonesborough and in locales ranging from New Orleans to Philadelphia. Boone normally walked during the series, the real Daniel Boone traveled on horseback during his longer trips. The series depicts his extended residence in a cabin outside the fort at Boonesborough, in reality Boone lived there but a short time before moving to nearby Boone’s Station, after which he resided in Virginia (now West Virginia), Limestone, (where he operated a store and tavern, now known as Maysville, Kentucky) and other locations before settling in Missouri.

The series’ many historical inaccuracies led the Kentucky legislature to complain of them formally. The Kentucky of Daniel Boone’s day was originally part of Virginia, and was a slaveholding territory. Many of the early settlers arriving in Kentucky came from Virginia and North Carolina and brought their slaves with them. Boone himself went to Kentucky from the Yadkin Valley of North Carolina, though he had been born and spent his youth in Pennsylvania. In 1787, while living in Limestone, he claimed ownership of seven slaves, women and children. The women most likely worked in his tavern as cooks and servers. The Daniel Boone of the television series was virulently anti-slavery.

The Oxford educated Cherokee Mingo, played in the series by Ed Ames, was entirely fictional, and may have been inspired by the Mohawk leader Joseph Brant. The Mingo were a small tribe related to the Iroquois who lived near the Miami River in the Ohio Country. Mingo had an evil twin – a favorite plot device of sixties television – also played by Ames, and despite preferring to wear Cherokee dress he often posed as British officers in redcoat regalia, sang opera on one episode, and was skilled with the bullwhip and the tomahawk. Ames left the show after the fourth season.

Daniel Boone was more family entertainment than history, and it did not follow a straight timeline, but presented episodes covering more than two decades (based on the backdrop of the Revolution) in a non-sequential manner. Some events from the life of the real Daniel Boone, such as the siege of Boonesborough, were depicted but usually in a highly fictionalized manner, and Boone’s lifelong battle with the taxman and failed land speculation are completely ignored. Fess Parker’s Daniel Boone, like his earlier portrayal of Davy Crockett, was based on and added to the myths which swirled around the legendary frontiersman and explorer.

See Which 10 Classic Historical TV Shows Got the Details Right… and Which Ones Were Just Wrong
Robert Lansing played General Frank Savage in the first season of Twelve O’Clock High, a role filled by Gregory Peck in the film version. Wikimedia

Twelve O’Clock High

The award winning film of the same name starring Gregory Peck was the inspiration for the television series Twelve O’Clock High, which was originally broadcast in September 1964 and lasted until January 1967. The program depicted the American bombing effort against Nazi Germany during the Second World War. A fictional heavy bombardment group, the 918th, sorties against the Germans in daylight precision bombing runs, and the activities of the aircrews when not engaging the enemy are featured. So are the difficulties of leadership. Both the film and the television series were descended from a 1948 novel.

Several of the characters in the novel appear in the first season of the television series, both ground personnel and aircrew. In the early days of the daylight precision bombing campaign American bombers took heavy casualties from German anti-aircraft artillery and Luftwaffe fighters. The Americans lacked adequate fighter escorts for the bombers, and German defenses were formidable. These problems are displayed in the first season of the television series, though in the end the Americans are able to report that despite the difficulties of the mission their target was destroyed.

American heavy bombing in Europe using the B-17 and its later derivatives, and the Consolidated B-24 Liberator, began in the late summer of 1942, with raids on targets in occupied France. In January of 1943 the Americans bombed a target in Germany for the first time. Casualties in terms of planes and men mounted throughout 1943. The completion of 25 successful bombing missions allowed the men to have done so to rotate out of the combat area, the first American bomber to succeed in achieving 25 missions was named “Hells Angel”, finishing the tour in May 1943. Six days later the more famous Memphis Belle accomplished the feat.

In the television series, several missions within a single episode are not uncommon, and although casualties are displayed, they are nowhere near the reality experienced by the United States Army Air Forces. Because the first two years of the series were filmed in black and white the producers were able to include actual combat footage shot over Europe during the war. Many of these scenes are used repeatedly during aerial battles, and when the show shifted to color for its final season they could no longer be inserted to add to the realism. Some of the scenes which were included were tinted.

Twelve O’Clock High presented character studies in an historical context rather than the events of history, though there were some episodes which focused on the difficulties encountered and overcome by the Eighth Air Force. The maintenance difficulties, logistics problems, and challenges posed by the weather were all historically true and presented faithfully. The effectiveness of the American (and British) bombing campaigns during the war – especially prior to 1944 – are a subject of debate. The impact of the bombing on the German and French civilian populations is not a subject of presentation in the series.

See Which 10 Classic Historical TV Shows Got the Details Right… and Which Ones Were Just Wrong
Actor Christopher George affected an Australian Slouch hat for his role in the entirely fictional Rat Patrol. Wikimedia

The Rat Patrol

During the North African Campaign of the Second World War two British units, the Special Air Service (SAS) and Number 1 Demolition Squadron, were formed to conduct raids, reconnaissance, and sabotage operations against the German Africa Corps. Number 1 Demolition Squadron became known as Popski’s Private Army (PPA), after the nickname of its commanding officer, Vladimir Peniakoff, a Russian Jew raised in Belgium and serving in the British Army. Both of these units used vehicles such as Jeeps and White Armored Cars, armed with heavy machine guns, to conduct hit and run raids.

These units were the inspiration for the 1966-68 American half-hour television program The Rat Patrol. In the program the small independent unit used Jeeps armed with heavy machine guns to harass the Germans, usually led by Hauptmann (Captain) Hans Dietrich. Dietrich is portrayed by Hans Gudegast as a professional German soldier rather than as a fanatical Nazi, unlike most of the officers of the real Africa Corps. Dietrich and the unfortunate German troops who served under him are foiled in every attempt to capture or destroy the Rat Patrol, and he is outwitted nearly every week by the Allied unit.

The Rat Patrol itself is an American unit, with one British member who joins the unit as the series begins. Operating independently, the unit uses unconventional methods to accomplish their missions. In one storyline two members of the Rat Patrol allow themselves to be captured as a ruse in order to in turn capture Dietrich’s superior officer. The same scheme is employed later as the means of obtaining information on German plans. In another the Germans under Dietrich and the Rat Patrol are captured together by Arabs who consider them infidels and intend to kill all of them. The Germans and Allies work together to defeat the Arabs, and the following week they are back attempting to kill each other.

In short, The Rat Patrol is pure fiction from beginning to end, with little historical fact presented in its 58 half hour episodes. The commanding officer of the Rat Patrol, Sergeant Sam Troy – played by Christopher George – is an American who shuns official uniform and typically wears an Australian Army slouch hat. The “Rat” of the Rat Patrol refers to a nickname earned by the British Commonwealth Forces in and near Tobruk, who became known as the Desert Rats. It was not an appellation applied to Americans. The only non-American member of the Rat Patrol is a British sergeant who possesses an expertise regarding the desert and the Arabs in the manner of an Englishman of an earlier war, T. E. Lawrence, known as Lawrence of Arabia.

The Rat Patrol has little relationship with the real Desert Rats of North Africa (many of whom were from Australia and New Zealand) and no historical basis in either its premise or its presentation. As an American television program it leaves the impression that the Americans won the battle against the Africa Corps almost singlehandedly, with but token assistance from the British and Commonwealth Forces. The Rat Patrol and their German opponents capture and recapture each other, attack and rescue each other, and in essence have a private war of their own in the desert, with temporary truces when convenient to the story.

See Which 10 Classic Historical TV Shows Got the Details Right… and Which Ones Were Just Wrong
The Untouchables rewrote the history of crime and became a smash hit. It was also controversial. Wikimedia

The Untouchables

The Untouchables was based on the memoirs of Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraley, and though the group which became known as the Untouchables – because they could not be touched by threats or bribes – was based on real characters the show soon forgot the history it was supposed to be presenting and devolved into complete fiction. That did not affect its popularity at its height, it was a massive success, spawned numerous imitations, inspired feature films about the mob and Al Capone, and presented Frank Nitti as the successor to Capone in control of the Chicago mob. Although this was not correct, it remains widely believed.

The show also created an immediate backlash for its portrayal of Italian Americans, creating stereotypes of them all being gangsters or corrupt officials in the pockets of gangsters. Protests by unions and other groups led to a boycott of the program’s sponsors. Frank Sinatra was loud in his support of the protests and boycott (the sponsor was Chesterfield cigarettes). Desi Arnaz, president of Desilu, issued new policies mandating how Italian Americans were to be depicted on The Untouchables and other Desilu programs, including refusing to allow any more fictional criminals to have Italian names.

The Italian American community wasn’t alone in finding the program offensive. In the series’ second episode, an indication that it was fiction through and through, Ness and the Untouchables are instrumental in the destruction of the notorious Barker Gang. In truth Ness and his group of law enforcement professionals had nothing to do with the demise of the Barker gang, it was primarily an FBI operation, and director J. Edgar Hoover demanded that the viewers be so informed when the episode was rebroadcast. Desilu complied, and the series went on.

After the conviction of Al Capone the Untouchables, which were formed for the sole purpose of taking down the Chicago mob leader, were disbanded. Ness was soon chasing bootleggers in Ohio. Paul Ricca took over the control of the Chicago Mob, with Frank Nitti as a figurehead, but with no real authority or control. But the fictionalized Untouchables went on week after week, battling organized crime in Chicago and across the country. Dutch Schultz, Lucky Luciano. Bugs Moran, and Louis Buchalter all crossed swords with the Untouchables and all came out second best to the intrepid Ness and his gang.

There really was a group of law enforcement officers who were assembled to take down Al Capone and they were really labeled the Untouchables by the Chicago press. They were really led by Eliot Ness. That’s about the sum of the television show’s relationship with the truth. Eliot Ness’s memoirs have since been questioned as well as regards to how much of Capone’s downfall was part of the efforts of his special force and how much came from other individuals, including some within the Chicago Mob. In many ways The Untouchables was a history making program, but nothing within it should be confused with history.

See Which 10 Classic Historical TV Shows Got the Details Right… and Which Ones Were Just Wrong
Marine Major Greg “Pappy” Boyington ended the war in a Japanese prison camp. He was portrayed on the program by Robert Conrad. US Navy

Baa Baa Black Sheep

Later renamed Black Sheep Squadron, the series tells the story of US Marine Major Greg Boyington and the men under his command in the South Pacific during World War 2. The program depicts Boyington and his fliers as somewhat contemptuous of regulations they consider inconvenient, yet they are crack fliers and are thus difficult for authorities to discipline too severely. They are based somewhere in the Solomon Islands, and are often forced to resort to petty thefts and other crimes in order to get the parts they need to keep their planes flying. The series was based on the life of Greg Boyington, who was known as Pappy to his charges during the war.

In real life Boyington left the US Marine Corps to fly with the American Volunteer Group (AVG) in China, the famous Flying Tigers, before the United States entered the war. After Pearl Harbor he rejoined the Corps, and in 1943 was assigned to command another Marine Fighter Squadron for a few weeks before being reassigned as commander of Squadron 214, the Black Sheep Squadron. By December 27 1943 he was credited with destroying 25 Japanese aircraft. A week later he was shot down over the ocean and according to his autobiography the Japanese submarine which captured him was sunk less than two weeks later.

Boyington was held as a POW at Rabaul, later at Truk, and finally in Japan. After his release following the Japanese surrender he was awarded the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross. In 1958 he wrote his autobiography, which he entitled Baa Baa Black Sheep. Both his autobiography and the television show based on it were subject to heavy criticism, one of the most frequent being that Boyington’s presentation of his story was self-serving and ignored the contributions of others. Boyington served as a technical adviser during production of the television series, and had walk on parts in at least two episodes.

Most of Boyington’s men who served with him in the Solomon Islands were disappointed with the show and with Robert Conrad’s portrayal of Major Boyington. Frequently repeated comments were that Boyington took too much credit for himself, presented himself in the best possible light to the detriment of others involved in many events, and claimed air to air victories which by right should have been awarded to another pilot. One claim was that Boyington would fly above a multi-aircraft engagement, waiting until he saw a damaged enemy attempting to disengage before pouncing to finish it off. Boyington shrugged off the negative comments about his war record, but agreed that the television show was mostly fiction.

The Marine fliers during the Solomons campaign did suffer from logistics problems and the maintenance issues prevalent when equipment made of steel and other metals is exposed to a humid jungle climate, made worse by the salt air. Baa Baa Black Sheep can be placed in the “war is fun” category, with a boys will be boys air about its characters and stories. Many of its episodes deal with problems within the US supply chain or intractable desk bound military superiors, but in the end Boyington and his men always prevail.

See Which 10 Classic Historical TV Shows Got the Details Right… and Which Ones Were Just Wrong
An operation underway at the 8209 MASH in Korea, summer 1952. National Archives


The television series MASH is entirely a work of fiction, based upon a film which was based upon a novel of the same name. Despite its pedigree as the product of the imagination of writers, it may be one of the most historically accurate television programs dealing with American history ever made. One of the early pioneers who helped establish the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) units near the end of the Second World War was famed cardiologist Dr. Michael DeBakey, who helped create the idea of immediate life-saving surgery and stabilization before transporting an injured person to a more sophisticated treatment facility. This was the basic idea of a MASH unit.

Under the system created by DeBakey and others, wounded or otherwise injured personnel were treated in the field by a unit medic or another soldier, transferred to a battalion aid station for preparation to be sent to a MASH unit by ground or air ambulance, and then treated to save life before being sent to a recovery center. All of these steps were shown on the television series, and the need for the MASH to be as close as possible to the front was also frequently reinforced in the scripts. During the Korean War wounded soldiers who arrived at a MASH unit still alive had a 97% survival rate, a remarkable improvement over preceding wars.

Many newly arriving surgeons and nurses found it difficult to adjust to the concept of a MASH unit and what was contemptuously referred to as the meatball surgery they found there. This was displayed in the show when new replacement surgeons arrived to take over from characters who had departed the show. Although most Korean War MASH units were much larger than that depicted on the television show, with more than ten surgeons assigned to many of them, the stages of treatment were depicted accurately. The system of triage, assigning medical priorities of treatment based on severity of injuries and likelihood of survival, was demonstrated nearly every time wounded arrived at the fictional compound.

MASH units contributed to the improvement of the new system throughout the Korean War, with new surgical techniques, equipment, and procedures emerging as the need dictated, another aspect which was shown in the series. The majority of the surgeons serving in the American MASH units were in fact draftees, while nearly all of the female nurses who served in Korea were volunteers. Other nations provided MASH units as their contribution to the support of the United Nations effort to end the North Korean invasion of the south. All of these facts were part of the television program, which ran eleven seasons.

MASH also captured the boredom prevalent in wartime, the homesickness of both the medical team and the young soldiers who were their patients, and the frustrations of dealing with a moribund military system seemingly trapped within its own bureaucracy. Although it did little as far as following the military situation was concerned, it presented the war through the eyes of those suffering the most from it, and it did it with both drama and humor. There is no doubt that as the program depicted, MASH units saved thousands of lives in Korea which would have been lost otherwise. The show displayed it the way it was.

See Which 10 Classic Historical TV Shows Got the Details Right… and Which Ones Were Just Wrong
Walt Disney brought history to his audience but shaped it to suit their – and his – tastes. Wikimedia

The Wonderful World of Disney

Disney presented several different versions of anthology programs beginning in the 1950s with Walt Disney’s Disneyland. It was this program which first aired three one hour programs which were later edited into the film Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, and started the Davy Crockett craze of the 1950s. Disney’s Crockett contained elements of truth and fiction (as did Crockett’s autobiography) and for the most part remained true to history, although some elements were altered for dramatic reasons. Crockett preferred to be called David rather than Davy, and like fellow frontiersman Daniel Boone he did not favor a coonskin cap.

The huge success of the Crockett film led to another being produced, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates. This second Crockett project was wholly fictional, combining the Crockett legend with that of riverboat legend Mike Fink. There is no record of Crockett and Fink ever meeting and substantial evidence that Mike Fink is a legendary combination of more than one individual. The film does introduce real life river pirates and serial killers the Harpe brothers, as well as the murderer and kidnaper Sam Mason, but they are presented as far less deadly than their real-life counterparts.

The taste of success from historical films for his young audience was pleasant for Disney, and in 1959 another obscure American hero (Crockett had been all but forgotten before the Disney films) was presented on television. This time it was Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, and the full Crockett treatment was applied including a catchy ballad to introduce the show, a distinctive cap on the head of the hero, and several episodes covering historical events which took place in the Carolina swamps of the Revolutionary War. Canadian actor Leslie Nielsen was cast as Marion.

The Swamp Fox was aired in eight episodes, and it followed the activities of Marion’s band of guerrillas harassing the British Army. Many of the incidents related in the program were based on real events and were repeated in the film The Patriot years later. In real life, Francis Marion wore the uniform of an officer in the Continental Army when in battle, in part to protect him from accusations of spying in the event of his capture. In the film the Swamp Fox did not wear a uniform. Nielsen’s Swamp Fox was not as brooding nor as violent in battle as Francis Marion. Their frequent enemy, Banastre Tarleton, was a far more competent officer than is depicted in the program.

The Swamp Fox was not as big a success as the Crockett series, and marketing deals for hats, lunchboxes, and other items were considerably less lucrative. By the time the series ended it was nearly all fiction, presented in the same manner as the cowboys and Indians westerns popular in the late fifties and early sixties. It has been a common practice of television to rewrite history when it doesn’t sell on its own merits, a practice evident as recently as 2017 in TURN: Washington’s Spies. Even in programs purported to be about history and airing on channels dedicated to history all too often what airs on television is continuation of myth, to the denigration of truth.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Combat! A Viewers Companion to the Classic WWII TV Series”, by J. Davidsmeyer, 2008

“The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows”, by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, 2007

“Bob Crane: The definitive biography”, by C. M. Ford, 2015

“Boone: A Biography”, by Robert Morgan, 2007

“The General Died at Dusk”, by Jerry D. Lewis, TV Guide, May 1965

“Eliot Ness and the Untouchables: The Historical Reality and the Film and Television Depictions”, by Kenneth Tucker, 2000

“Black Sheep One”, by Bruce Gamble, 2003

“The Medics War”, by Albert E. Cowdrey, Center of Military History, US Army, 1987