Film credits are an opportunity to highlight the amount of hard work put into a movie by the behind-the-scenes crew. They can also be quite formulaic and occasionally boring. This includes the repetitive disclaimer that states a film and persons depicted are fictional and not intended to be taken as absolute fact. While the statement itself does not seem to be that interesting, the story behind its existence certainly is.
It all started with Rasputin and the Empress, a 1932 film from MGM Studios about “Grigori Rasputin, the famously hard-to-assassinate Russian mystic and intimate of the last, doomed Romanovs.” In reality, Rasputin was poisoned, then shot by Prince Felix Yusupov — who was then exiled, penniless, to Paris for his crime in 1916. When he heard about the MGM film, he was furious and offended at the character of Prince Paul Chegodieff, who was an amalgamation of himself and a few other aristocrats — and ultimately Rasputin’s murderer in the film.
Yusupov had actually written a memoir about his life and crime. He was very proud of his actions and did not appreciate the way he was depicted in the film. However, as the actual murderer, he was unable to bring about a libel case in his own favor. Instead, his wife Irina sued the studio, as it was reasonable to deduce that she was the inspiration behind the Princess Natasha character.
Despite never having met Rasputin, the Irina-stand-in Natasha is hypnotized and raped in the film. An MGM researcher actually informed the filmmakers that since there was no basis for the interaction in real life, they would be vulnerable to a lawsuit. The filmmakers decided to fire this researcher because they liked the plot and thought it was more interesting than real life. This arrogance was ultimately their undoing.
Part of the reason why MGM was so vulnerable to this particular lawsuit was that the film actually acknowledged the real people the characters and story was based on. There were disclaimers in the film assuring the audience that a few of the characters depicted in the film were still alive, and those who were dead met their end violently. The filmmakers essentially told the audience to trust the film as fact despite knowing very well that it was not true.
Irina’s lawsuit was successful. The film was pulled from circulation and Irina was granted approximately $125 thousand, which amounts to about $2.4 million now due to inflation. That substantial amount of money was enough to scare Hollywood long-term into making sure it covers itself by adding the “all person and events fictitious” disclaimer on all films.
This even includes films like Raging Bull, about boxer Jake LaMotta, whose memoir was the basis for the film, he was even a consultant on the project. Still, there is a disclaimer protecting the film from a libel or defamation lawsuit. So as silly as it seems, the disclaimer appears on biopics and super unrealistic science-fiction stories alike, just to be safe.
The disclaimer not only helps to protect the filmmakers and studios from lawsuits, it also provides them with creative freedom. MGM and the filmmakers behind Rasputin and the Empress preferred their fictional version of events to reality because they thought it made for a more interesting movie. By adding the disclaimer, filmmakers can make decisions that best serve the story rather than adhering to reality.
The film disclaimer about people and events being fictitious is rooted in a lawsuit against MGM for the 1932 film, Rasputin and the Empress.