Even the most far-fetched films now come with a disclaimer confirming it’s fictional – and there’s a legal reason for that.
We’ve all seen some version of the same disclaimer at the end of a film. It generally reads something akin to ‘This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead or actual events is purely coincidental.’
It’s appeared in endless movies over the years, whether they’ve been based on true stories or not. There have even been parodies. Thunderbirds Are Go is set in 2068 and twists the standard disclaimer by stating ‘all persons are fictitious as they don’t exist yet.’
But why is this notice so ubiquitous? What happened that made Hollywood so intent on exercising caution? Well, it all kicked off because of a court case involving Rasputin, the man who assassinated him, and the assassin’s wife.
Rasputin was born a peasant but became famous as a mystical healer. He gained considerable influence over the Russian imperial family. The Tsarina was particularly captivated by him because she believed he could heal her haemophiliac son. Conservative aristocrats hated that he was in such a position. They thought that he was a dark force behind the throne, particularly as Russia suffered more defeats in World War I and greater economic hardship.
In 1916, a group of aristocrats led by Felix Yusupov assassinated Rasputin. Yusupov claimed that he gave Rasputin poisoned cakes and when that didn’t work he shot him. Purishkevich, a fellow conspirator, finished him off with four shots to the back. The Tsar sent Yusupov and his wife into exile and ultimately saved them from the Bolsheviks.
MGM saw the potential in the story and made Rasputin and the Empress in 1932. The film suggested that there was only one assassin: the entirely fictional Prince Chegodieff who was a composite of the conspirators. MGM expected a hit. They cast the Barrymore siblings, high profile stars of stage and screen in keyroles: Lionel starred as Rasputin, Ethel was the Tsarina and John played the Tsar. The studio also spent a huge amount of money on trying to recreate the opulent look of Imperial Russia. That practise obviously didn’t extend to the facts. They didn’t just create the character of Prince Chegodieff, they also suggested that his wife was raped by Rasputin.
Spoilers ahead. In the film, Chegodieff’s wife Natasha is a lady-in-waiting and a supporter of Rasputin. But Rasputin abuses her because Chegodieff is plotting against him. The mystical peasant puts Natasha in a deep trance and threatens that he will punish her husband through her. She then writes a letter stating that she’s no longer fit to be Chegodieff’s wife. She also confesses that, despite being in a trance, she can remember Rasputin’s beard against her cheek.
MGM’s creative head Irving Thalberg was intent on making Rasputin more of a villain so that the Tsar would come across more favourably. A researcher warned him that Yusupov’s wife, Irina, could be identified as Natasha. She even stated that this could pose a bigger problem since Irina had never met Rasputin. But Thalberg paid no attention. This was definitely not a case where MGM was unaware of the potential for difficulties.
Yusupov, now living in poverty in Paris, notified MGM that the film was defamatory in the way it presented the assassination. But he couldn’t exactly complain about how it’d depicted the events since he’d confessed to the murder in his memoirs. Instead, his wife Irina sued for libel claiming that the film slandered her character.
MGM’s big mistake was its prologue. It stated that ‘a few of these characters are still alive – the rest met death by violence.’ This clearly suggested that all the characters were based on people in real life. The Yusupovs were the only main protagonists that weren’t dead. So there was a compelling argument that the Chegodieffs were based on them.
The Yusupov’s lawyer decided that the initial case should be tried in England because they had better privacy laws. During the case, the main argument was that Irina could easily be identified with Natasha because Yusupov would be identified as Chegodieff, especially after his confession. The New York Times clearly saw the resemblance when reviewing the film stating ‘Prince Chegodieff, as Prince Youssoupoff is known here.’
But that wasn’t all. The prosecution argued that the filmmakers even made the fictional Natasha the same age as Irina and modelled Natasha’s gown on an outfit she had once worn. Irina, herself, stated that by including a rape scene, the film completely slandered her character, especially as she’d never met Rasputin.
The jury deliberated for only an hour and found MGM guilty of libel. In the end, it had to pay £25,000 ($125,000), the equivalent of nearly $2.4 million today. The Chief Justice stated that it could have avoided accusations of defamation if it’d just included a disclaimer stating that the film was fictional. The film was taken out of distribution for years. When it was rereleased decades later, the offensive scenes between Rasputin and Natasha were cut.
Rasputin and the Emperor set a precedent. Now, decades later, many films still include a disclaimer to reduce the chances of the studio getting sued.
Even a movie like Raging Bull, that’s based on Jake LaMotta’s memoirs and employed him as a consultant, ended by declaring that all the events are fictional. And that’s not the only case. Oliver Stone’s Platoon is actually based on his own experiences of the Vietnam War but even he felt that he had to include a disclaimer. It just shows how scared many filmmakers are of being sued. In the last few years, there’s been a slight decrease in the number of films using this notice but it’s still a very common practise.
Who knew that a film based on Rasputin’s life and death could leave such a legacy.
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