Issues of Historical Accuracy

jboyl5av on Nov 10th 2008

The real Al Capone

    Historical Accuracies

  1. The film’s opening scene is that of Al Capone being shaved, surrounded by waiting reporters and business associates. The film’s director Brian De Palma wanted Capone to seem as if he were the Sun King of Chicago, upon which all activity revolved. One reporter even asks Capone why he didn’t run for the office of mayor, since he already effectively ran things in Chicago. Robert De Niro’s response as Al Capone is that he was simply a businessman, a man who provided the people of Chicago with an important service. Violence, he said, was never part of this operation. Capone’s relationship with the press depicted here was relatively accurate. Capone served as a sort of folk hero to the American populace, admired for his achievements and colorful personality. Capone is also famous for making such grand defenses for his involvement in organized crime and bootlegging.
  2. In the film, after Capone finishes his statement on how his business was not a violent one, a shopkeeper and an innocent little girl are blown apart by one of Capone’s henchmen, Frank Nettie. The shopkeeper had refused to buy Capone’s “green beer.” According to many accounts, during these “Beer Wars” in Chicago, Capone often turned to assassination attempts to deal with sour business deals, so this shocking scene was not too far off in its portrayal. People did not cross Al Capone and live to tell about it.
  3. During Ness’s first raid in the movie, Ness “busts out,” due most likely to a phony tip from one of Capone’s men. Until Ness and his Untouchable were able to establish an elaborate wire-tapping system, phony tip-offs were common. The snow plow Ness uses to break down the door of the suspected distillery actually existed, built after several unsuccessful attempts to break down reinforced doors with axes and guns.
  4. Although the movie gets the time sequence wrong, Ness’s squad of elite men, nicknamed the “Untouchables” were handpicked by Ness, who acknowledged the corruption within the Chicago police. The Untouchables, however, were made up of agents of the Treasury Department, handpicked by Ness, after looking through all the records of the treasury agents to create a reliable team; initially consisting of fifty men, it was later reduced to fifteen and finally to just eleven trustworthy men.
  5. In the film, Ness is portrayed as having a good relationship with the press, represented by the one reporter who follows his various successes. In reality, Ness did have good contacts within the press and often sought publicity. Ness’s Prohibition squad was given their nickname, “The Untouchables” after refusing a bribe from one of Capone’s men, an episode Ness played up to the press.
  6. One thing Director Brian De Palma does very well in the film, are his accurate representations of sets, clothing, cars and guns from the time period. Capone’s real-life dwellings inside the Lexington Hotel were very luxurious, and the home of some of his less than reputable industries, such as prostitution and gambling, all of which was depicted in the film.
  7. While undercover, one of Ness’s men acquired evidence of Capone brutally slaying three of his own men, who he considered to be traitors, with a baseball bat, at a fancy dinner with his associates. This brutality is accurately depicted in the movie.
  8. As the leader of an investigation aimed at crippling the business pursuits of Al Capone, Ness received several death threats. It was typical after these threats for Ness to place his wife Edna under police protection, as depicted in the movie, a common source of frustration for her.
  9. The policy of federal agents to prosecute members of organized crime for income-tax invasion did not begin with the investigation of Al Capone. The government went this route because they were often able to prove a crime of tax fraud, allowing for at least some jail time for a dangerous criminal. Linking members of organized crime to murders proved much more difficult, since the killings were often done by third parties. The disapproval of a tax-based attack on Capone depicted in the movie, was an opinion that did exist among the American public, many Federal agents and Al Capone himself.
  10. The scene depicting a liquor raid along the border of Canada and the United States, was a common occurrence. Many bootleggers, such as Capone, received shipments from across the border to maintain the highly lucrative business of alcohol trafficking. Border raids sometimes did end in shoot-outs, as depicted in the film, but for the “untouchable,” shoot-outs were rare, especially on horseback, 1870s Western style.
  11. According to several newspaper editorials and interviews, the general public did not approve of the Volstead Act by the late 1920s. In fact, many acknowledged that the act actually increased the violence in cities and made drinking deadlier. In the film, when Sean Connery tells Ness that “Nobody wants you here,” this was an accurate representation of public opinion.
  12. One of the key weapons for convicting Capone of tax-income evasion was the testimony of Frank Ries, a cashier responsible for one Capone’s lucrative businesses. In the film, Ries is represented by the character of Walter Payne, Capone’s bookkeeper, who serves as the key witness in Ness’s case against Capone. Ries even attempted to flee Chicago, terrified after an encounter with Federal agents, as did the Bookkeeper in the movie. Of course, there was never any spectacular shoot-out at a train station in order to retrieve the witness.
  13. Although the film does simplify Al Capone’s trial process, Capone did in fact attempt to bribe his jury. Judge Wilkinson, who resided over the trial, caught on and had the jury switched with the one in the adjacent courtroom. Although not Frank Nettie as depicted in the film, one of Capone’s bodyguards was removed from court, after being accused of carrying a gun into the courtroom.

Robert De Niro as Al Capone

    Historical Inaccuracies

  1. The film’s storyline starts in 1930, with Eliot Ness coming to town as a United States Treasury Department Agent, determined to bring down Al Capone. The problem with this is that Ness had been working in Chicago since 1927 as part of the Bureau of Prohibition, as a special agent in the Treasury Department. Not only did Ness grow up in Chicago, familiar with the corruption rampant throughout the city, but Ness had been performing liquor raids long before 1930. Ness was never as naïve to think the Chicago police could be trusted in terms of enforcing Prohibition.
  2. The struggle to bring down the bootlegging empire of Al Capone had been going on for many years, and was two-pronged: Ness was the head of the division in charge of gathering evidence for Capone’s violation of the Volstead Act and crippling his organization financially. IRS agents conducted an investigation against Capone for income-tax evasion, on the grounds that Capone failed to declare his vast income on illegal business dealings. Ness was not involved in the IRS’s investigation, and certainly was not single-handedly responsible for bringing down Capone.
  3. The scenes with Eliot Ness and his young wife and daughter in their home in Chicago are not accurate representations of Ness’s real family life. Ness was very young when he started working as a “G-man” in Chicago and did not marry his longtime girlfriend Edna until several years had passed, as she was afraid of the violence his job often attracted. While in Chicago, Ness never had a young daughter. This detail most likely was added for effect, to portray him as “honest family man.”
  4. Although the movie gets the time sequence wrong, Ness acknowledged the need for an elite force of men, since the majority of Chicago law enforcement was corrupt. The Untouchables initially consisted of fifty men, later reduced to fifteen and finally to just eleven. The men were agents of the Treasury Department, handpicked by Ness, after looking through all the records of the treasury agents to create a reliable team.
  5. The character of Oscar Wallace was supposed to represent real-life IRS agent, Frank Wilson, responsible for much of the case against Al Capone for tax evasion. Although the character in the movie was based on an actual person, Frank Wilson was never an untouchable – his investigation into income tax evasion was separate from Ness’s investigation into Capone’s violations of the Volstead Act. Frank Wilson was also never murdered, even though his life was threatened.
  6. The “untouchables” represented in the film had little basis on the actual men who made up the elite squad. In addition to the agents who helped Ness investigate and uncover Capone’s bootlegging industries, several specialists were part of the squad, including a wire-tapping specialist and expert undercover investigators. There was no Jim Malone, no elderly beat cop with a heart of gold, guiding Ness through the various obstacles the squad would encounter. The real Eliot Ness, however, was surrounded by experienced men, often older than him to help guide the direction of the investigation.
  7. The liquor raids in the film, where Ness and his “untouchables” brandished weapons, sometimes participating in shoot-outs with the “bad guys,” were rarely as violent as depicted. Although considerable risk was involved in being part of a squad that took on notorious gangster Al Capone, no “untouchable” was ever killed, nor were violent bloodbaths part of the common experience of a Federal agent.
  8. One major inaccuracy in the film is the depiction of the relationship between Al Capone and Eliot Ness. For much of Ness’s stint in Chicago, Capone was either in prison, or at his home in Florida, escaping the violent battle between rival gangs in the city. Many accounts suggest that Capone never even met Ness until after his sentencing, as he was loaded onto the train for Alcatraz Prison. There are no records that Capone ever even acknowledged Ness’s existence. In the film, the plot is based on the central idea that Ness and Capone were engaged in a battle with each other. The film even includes a scene where Ness confronts Capone in the lobby of the Lexington Hotel, a complete fallacy.
  9. In the film, one of Capone’s bodyguards, Frank Nettie, is responsible for the murder of half the untouchables and eventually is thrown off a roof by Ness. This depiction is absurd. Although Nettie was nicknamed, “The Enforcer,” no untouchable was ever killed, especially by his hand. Nettie met death by his own hand through suicide, after receiving a second indictment for tax-income evasion.
  10. Capone’s withdraw of a non-guilty plea into one of guilt, as portrayed in the movie, was inaccurate. Capone initially pleaded guilty to accounts of income-tax evasion, expecting two and a half years from a deal struck with the prosecutor. When the judge denied this deal, Capone pleaded not-guilty and went to court. Even after his attempt to bribe the jury was corrected by the judge, Capone maintained his non-guilty plea and was found guilty by his peers of tax evasion.
  11. At the end of the film, a reporter accredits Ness with single-handedly taking down Capone. In reality, Ness’s evidence of Capone’s violation of the Volstead Act never was part of the trial, and Capone was found guilty only on evidence gathered from the IRS investigation.

Sources

The information presented in this section was gathered by general background research. Sources for the information presented in this section are reflected in the bibliography.

One Response to “Issues of Historical Accuracy”

  1. Judith Tayloron 30 Mar 2010 at 3:56 pm

    Thanks so much for your information. I recently watched a broadcast of the movie. The incidents you cited seemed fantastic when I watched it. I appreciate the information and the validation.

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