Historical dramas can fail for many reasons, from playing fast and loose with the facts, to miscasting, to making an important event or figure seem boring. It's great when a movie really gets the historical component right, but immensely frustrating when one doesn't. In fact, a failed historical drama can be about as exciting as reading a high school textbook.
Some of the worst films of this type can at least lay claim to one great performance as a saving grace. In a number of cases, actors have managed to deliver noteworthy turns in pictures that, for whatever reason, didn't achieve what they hoped to in capturing a period of time or a notable chapter in history. Among them are well-known names such as Cate Blanchett, Billy Bob Thornton, and Leonardo DiCaprio. Given their level of talent, it's no surprise they can shine even in weak material. This list is about more than shining, though. These actors did genuinely inspired work while saddled with decidedly uninspired screenplays.
Some of the films are based on actual history, while others are merely set in prominent historical eras. In each case, there's plenty to explore about why the movie doesn't work and what the actors did to rise above the flaws.
The Movie's Deal: There are plenty of things you can criticize Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves for, and critics hit all of them: Kevin Costner's inconsistent accent, action scenes that are ineptly staged, and an out-of-place assault scene that's far more disturbing than a lightweight action film needs. It was a box office hit in 1991, although no one seemed to get too attached to it.
The Really Great Performance: Without any competition, the best thing in Robin Hood is Alan Rickman, who plays the Sheriff of Nottingham. The role came three years after his show-stopping turn as the villainous Hans Gruber in Die Hard, and somehow Rickman managed to be even more deliciously evil here. Rarely has the "love to hate him" factor registered so high. Roger Ebert singled out the way the actor makes his character a "wicked, droll, sly, witty master of the put-down and one-liners." He added: "When Rickman appears on the screen we perk up, because we know we'll be entertained, at whatever cost to the story."
- Photo: Universal Pictures
The Movie's Deal: Historical dramas aren't the most obvious movies to inspire sequels, but 1998's Elizabeth was such a hit with both critics and audiences that the filmmakers decided to try it again. The magic did not return. Rather than working as a recreation of history, Elizabeth: The Golden Age feels like a soap opera, with more attention paid to costumes and sets than plot or character development. "This film rides low in the water, its cargo of opulence too much to carry," said Roger Ebert.
The Really Great Performance: Cate Blanchett reprises the role of Queen Elizabeth, and let's be honest: She can do no wrong. Even Ebert had to celebrate her, commenting, "Who else would be so tall, regal, assured and convincing that these surroundings would not diminish her?" Everything around her feels melodramatic, but Blanchett strives to make the woman she's playing as authentic as possible. She overcomes the excess of visual trappings to deliver a complex, sophisticated performance. Carrie Rickey of the Philadelphia Inquirer put it best, writing that Blanchett's "unforced majesty makes a so-so film worth watching."
- Photo: Buena Vista Pictures3136 VOTES
The Movie's Deal: There have been more cinematic versions of the King Arthur story than you could shake Excalibur at, and the one from 2004 ranks pretty low among them. The decision to make it action-heavy was seemingly inspired by the success of pictures like Braveheart and Gladiator. A revisionist spin, which minimizes some of the most beloved elements of the tale, doesn't do the film any favors. Critics slammed it for being "profoundly stupid and inept."
The Really Great Performance: Stellan Skarsgard portrays Cerdic, the Saxon king. The Washington Post described his interpretation of the character as "Yosemite Sam with a serious case of constipation" and that's honestly a great compliment in this case. The actor takes a big swing, coming up with a way to play Cerdic that's surprising, a little kooky, and undeniably menacing. In a movie where everything else feels kind of pre-fabricated, Skarsgard's eccentricities stand out in the best possible way.
- Photo: Focus Features4141 VOTES
The Movie's Deal: Although Mary Queen of Scots got passable reviews, it was a flop with audiences, grossing $16 million domestically. And most everyone agrees that the manner in which it takes liberties with history is unsatisfying. The movie concludes with Mary (Saoirse Ronan) meeting her cousin Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) - the same one who later signed her warrant for passing. Such a meeting never happened, and it appears it was created simply to get the two lead actresses together and to manufacture artificial drama. That led The Atlantic to dub it "a two-dimensional take on an intricate piece of history."
The Really Great Performance: As Mary, Saoirse Ronan transcends the shaky material. She does something vital for period dramas, in that she makes the personality and motivations of a historical figure - a young queen, no less - feel relevant to today's audiences. Her work isn't stuffy, but vibrant and relatable. As critic Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Examiner put it, Ronan portrays Mary as "someone with the dangerous certainty of youth, willing to wager everything on a weak hand."
- 5171 VOTES
The Movie's Deal: Wyatt Earp was supposed to be an epic look at the life and career of the legendary sheriff, played by Kevin Costner. A 191-minute running time was widely viewed as a hindrance, as was the story's tendency to bite off more than it could chew by cramming in too many things. Roger Ebert summed it up by calling the film "a rambling, unfocused biography" and "a three-hour film that needs better pacing."
The Really Great Performance: To play the tubercular Doc Holliday, Dennis Quaid physically transformed himself, dropping his weight down to 138 pounds so that he would look credibly emaciated. That creates a sense of authenticity in the character that benefits the film overall. You care about him, if nothing else. Entertainment Weekly called Quaid "a major saving grace" who is "more alive than anyone else in the movie."
- 6172 VOTES
The Movie's Deal: The sequel 300: Rise of an Empire got made despite 300 star Gerard Butler and director Zack Snyder deciding not to come back. Without their defining input, the film had to go a different way, telling the story of Greek general Themistokles taking on Persian forces, led in part by Artemisia (played by Eva Green). It was roundly slammed by critics for putting much more focus on gore than on storytelling. "Headache-inducing" is how The Dissolve described it.
The Really Great Performance: Even reviewers who hated the movie had to bask in the glow of Eva Green's awesome pedal-to-the-floor performance. The actress gives her villainous role everything she's got, infusing Artemisia with such charismatic evil that it's impossible to take your eyes offof her. She seems to know 300: Rise of an Empire is junk and single-handledly tries to elevate the material. Scott Mendelson of Forbes called Green's work "a fully physical and genuinely shaded star turn that is almost as exciting as all of the hacking and slashing."