Weird History
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Movies That Unnecessarily Made Real People Into Villains

Updated September 17, 2020 326.3k views12 items

It's impossible for a movie based on historical events to be 100% accurate. If it were, that would make for a boring movie. Still, it's one thing for a movie about medieval England to have the wrong candlesticks; it's another thing entirely for a movie to completely misrepresent real people for the sake of a better story. And just as historical movies can make people like Scottish knight William Wallace much more heroic than he was in real life, they can also make someone much more villainous than they actually were. 

Earlier historical figures lived so long ago that it's impossible for modern historians to know exactly what they were like. Often, everything known about a distant historical figure comes from later historians who had a vested interest in portraying them negatively. In those cases, a movie might just be continuing a longstanding tradition of trashing someone's reputation. But with more recent historical figures, about whom we have plenty of information, it's clear that certain movies have turned them into villains for the sake of entertainment. Stories do need conflict, after all. 

Here are some historical figures who were much less villainous than movies would have you believe.

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  • Hopefully you're not surprised to learn that a cartoon with talking animals doesn't accurately depict history. But Disney's Robin Hood is just one of many movies to portray King John, the medieval English monarch, as much more of a tyrant than he really was. In the Disney version, he's a conniving thumb-sucker. In 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood, John is a tyrannical and cruel tax collector. More recently, Paul Giamatti played him as an oppressor of noble English barons in 2011's Ironclad. However, not only was the real King John not a talking lion, but he also wasn't nearly as evil as he's been made out to be. It's more that he was just a really incompetent ruler. 

    When John was born in 1166 AD, he wasn't expected to rule or inherit land. His older brother, King Richard the Lionheart, raised taxes more than any English king had previously, both to pay for his participation in the Third Crusade and to pay a large ransom to the Duke of Austria, who captured him on his way home from the Holy Land. When John inherited the crown in 1199, England faced several problems that would have vexed any ruler, but John proved unable to improve his country's position. He tried to settle a French political dispute by marrying into the noble Angoulême family. This sparked a war with France, during which England lost most of its French territories. John then raised taxes to pay for his failed conflict, which led to his reputation as a greedy over-taxer. Finally, after another failed attempt to invade France in 1214, English barons rose up in revolt. John was unable to quell the rebellion and was forced to sign the Magna Carta, which forever limited royal power.

    When John's successor, King Henry III, took power, historians like Roger Wendover were obliged to tarnish John's reputation. They painted him as a cruel tyrant, and this portrayal stuck for centuries afterward. John was by no means a good ruler - he's often described as "one of the worst kings [of England]" - but that's a far cry from the outright monster we've seen in so many Robin Hood stories.

    • Age: Dec. at 49 (1167-1216)
    • Birthplace: Beaumont Palace, United Kingdom
  • Movies have a way of flattening complex historical figures into "good" and "bad" archetypes, which often has more to do with story demands than historical reality. The 1972 movie 1776, based on the Broadway musical of the same name, does this with John Dickinson. Dickinson was a wealthy landowner from Philadelphia, and in 1776, he's portrayed as a loyalist, the strongest opponent to revolution, and the main antagonist of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. He prefers a course of reconciliation rather than revolution, mainly out of his own financial self-interest. It's only after Adams, Jefferson, and their allies move forward with independence that Dickinson agrees to join the Continental Army and fight for his country.

    The real John Dickinson was a lot less loyal to England and had much stronger reasons to oppose independence than money. In fact, Dickinson was actually one of the leading voices advocating for American interests. In 1765, he led the opposition to the widely hated Stamp Act, as well as the Townshend Duties in 1767. But when talk of war began a decade later, Dickinson proved to be much more moderate than Adams, Jefferson, and their cohorts. Dickinson's parents and his wife were Quakers, and while he stopped short of pacificism himself, he strongly preferred peaceful resolution to conflict. In 1776, the British Empire had the strongest military in the world; Dickinson believed taking it on would lead to a massacre. He also worried that even if the colonies did break free, they would still be vulnerable to invasion from France and Spain. Instead, Dickinson wanted to present King George III with a list of grievances and negotiate for better terms.

    His moderate views lost out to Americans who wanted independence, but Dickinson still supported the cause, and he signed the Constitution in 1789. Dickinson was never fully able to shake the stigma of opposing the revolution, but his contemporaries didn't think of him as the conservative villain like the musical did. When Dickinson passed, Thomas Jefferson wrote, "A more estimable man, or truer patriot, could not have left us," while John Adams described him as "primus inter pares," or first among equals.

    • Age: Dec. at 76 (1732-1808)
    • Birthplace: Maryland, United States of America
  • According to the 1979 play Amadeus and the 1984 film based on it, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a singular genius of a composer who would have accomplished even more if it weren't for his less-talented mentor, Antonio Salieri. Both stories portray Salieri as an insecure hack so jealous of Mozart's abilities that he takes his life. But neither story resembles the real Salieri. 

    When Salieri and Mozart first met in the 1770s, Salieri was six years older and already a star composer at the court of the Holy Roman Empire. While both men did compete for jobs, there's no evidence that Salieri viewed Mozart as a threat. If anything, it was the other way around. In his letters, Mozart complained about the Italian influence at the Viennese court, but he didn't specifically blame Salieri for it. There's much more evidence that Salieri and Mozart treated each other collegially. Salieri often conducted Mozart's operas and he tutored Mozart's son. Finally, in 2016, researchers discovered a long-lost musical arrangement the two men collaborated on together.

    The idea that Salieri resented Mozart didn't start until after Mozart's demise. Right before Mozart perished, he suggested he'd been poisoned by those same Italians at the Viennese court, and soon a rumor spread that Salieri was responsible. Five years after Salieri's passing in 1825, Dmitry Pushkin published a collection of four poems called "Little Tragedies," one of which was based on the Salieri-poisoned-Mozart rumor. More than a century and a half later, that version of events persists.

    • Age: Dec. at 75 (1750-1825)
    • Birthplace: Legnago, Italy
  • Richard III, 'Richard III'

    King Richard III is not only one of the most notorious villains in literature, but also one of the most reviled rulers in British history, and it mainly has to do with how he rose to power. When Richard's brother, King Edward IV, perished in 1483, he had two living sons, 12-year-old Edward V and 9-year-old Richard of Shrewsbury, the Duke of York. But Richard III soon claimed Edward V was illegitimate, had both boys arrested and confined to the Tower of London, and took the crown himself. The boys were never seen after the summer of 1483, and it's commonly accepted that Richard had them executed. Richard's reign ended in 1485 when Henry Tudor led an uprising and defeated him at the Battle of Bosworth Field, becoming Henry VII. 

    Shortly after Richard's demise, chroniclers like Thomas More were writing disparagingly about both his physical appearance and his supposed transgressions. A century later, William Shakespeare portrayed him as a duplicitous schemer in his tragedy Richard III, in which Richard says:

    And thus I clothe my naked villainy

    With odd old ends, stol'n out of holy writ

    And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.

    This portrayal carried on for centuries afterward. Sir Laurence Olivier played Richard in a 1955 adaptation of the play, and portrays him as a homicidal lecher who definitely offed his nephews. In 1995, another movie adaptation of Richard III was set in 1930s England, and features Ian McKellen as a fascist version of Richard who schemes to take the English throne. 

    But in more recent years, Richard III's reputation has seen a bit of a reexamination. The Richard III Society was founded in 1924 to rehabilitate Richard's image, and since then it has been pointing out the many inaccuracies in Richard's portrayals. Shakespeare's play was itself based on the pro-Tudor chronicle written by Sir Thomas More. The Tudors had a vested interest in de-legitimizing Richard to strengthen their own claim. The Richard III Society points out that there's no actual evidence that Richard had his nephews terminated, or that he did the same to his brother, his wife, or King Henry VI, as Shakespeare's play insists. The group also points out that Richard actually accomplished quite a lot when he wasn't being accused of terrible acts, such as establishing the presumption of innocence and championing the printing press.

    Richard definitely did take the throne from his nephews, but his other supposed misdeeds are unprovable.