Characters From Historical Movies You Didn’t Realize Were Real

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Vote up the characters from historical properties you weren't sure actually existed.

Movie characters based on real people, and characters based on historical figures specifically, are nothing new. Sometimes, films just happen to be about real events that really happened in real life. But plenty of films are more loosely based on history or just feature historical settings. In those movies, the occasional character can pop up who seems fictional, but isn’t. Or sometimes fictional characters might not be exact representations of people from the past, but are based on historical figures. 

Nothing beats the feeling of connecting with an iconic film character, then finding out they were once a living, breathing person. In some cases, they’re the sort of people you'd want to have dinner with - and others are the sort you're glad aren’t still walking around. 

Photo: 20th Century Fox / Wikimedia Commons

  • The portrayal of Margaret “Molly” Brown by Kathy Bates in Titanic is ultimately a complimentary one. Her character is depicted as a down-to-earth millionaire willing to mix it up with the lower classes and who's kind enough to lend Jack Dawson a fancy suit. But what is seen on screen pales in comparison to the full tale of the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown.

    The real Brown, for one, preferred “Maggie” to Molly, which she found condescending. Taking a ride on the Titanic to visit her sick grandson, Brown initially refused to get into a lifeboat when the ship started to go down. She insisted on helping others until a crewman picked her up and threw her into Lifeboat 6. 

    Aboard that vessel, Brown soon butted heads with Quartermaster Robert Hichens, who was of the opinion that women should never row a lifeboat - despite the fact that Lifeboat 6 had only three men on board, and Hichens himself didn’t want to row. He also refused to go back for survivors, something that Brown demanded. Eventually, she lost her patience with the man and threatened to throw him overboard if he didn’t get out of her way and allow her to hand out paddles to the other women, and he finally complied. 

    After being rescued by the Carpathia, Brown spent her time aboard organizing the Survivor’s Committee, which raised $10,000 for second- and third-class survivors of the sinking. She spent the rest of her life campaigning for human rights and education, becoming the first woman to run for Congress in 1914.

    • Age: Dec. at 65 (1867-1932)
    • Birthplace: Hannibal, Missouri
    1,740 votes
  • 2
    1,195 VOTES

    Cuba Gooding Jr.’s Character From ‘Pearl Harbor’ Was Real, And Really Awesome

    Though Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor obviously depicts a real historical event, it does so with some serious editorial flair. Most of the characters, aside from big names like FDR, and their individual plotlines are entirely fictional. Except for, interestingly enough, the character with the story that seems the most “Hollywood," Cuba Gooding Jr.’s “Dorie” Miller.

    The real Doris Miller, an amateur boxer and Navy serviceman who worked in the laundry room aboard the USS West Virginia, started his run of bravery by carrying wounded crewmen to safety when a torpedo struck the ship, but he didn’t stop there. Despite having never been trained on it, Miller then manned a .50-caliber antiaircraft gun and started blasting away at Japanese fighters. For this, Miller became the first Black man to be awarded the Navy Cross for valor. 

    • Age: Dec. at 24 (1919-1943)
    • Birthplace: Waco, Texas
    1,195 votes
  • 3
    630 VOTES

    Hugh Glass From ‘The Revenant’ Really Lived Through All Of That, And Then Some

    The story of Hugh Glass, as depicted by Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, is already so outrageous that it strains belief to learn it was based on true events. But the life of the real Glass contained far more moments of extremity than could be fit into a 156-minute film.

    Glass started his adventures in his 30s, when he began a life of piracy off the coast of Texas. He and another man eventually jumped ship, swam 2 miles, and walked more than 1,000 miles in the direction of St. Louis - only to be captured by the Pawnee people. Glass’s companion was stuffed with pine needles and burned at the stake, but Glass was able to win the Pawnee people over with gifts and become an honorary member of their tribe.

    There’s no evidence that Glass ever married a Pawnee wife or fathered a child before leaving to restart life as a mountain man, but from there his tale follows much the same path as that of The Revenant - though his actual bear injuries were even more disgusting than those sustained by DiCaprio. In reality, he just wanted his stuff back, not to get revenge for a slain son. However, when the real Glass caught up with the two men who had harmed him, he was twice forced to forgo vengeance - once out of mercy, and another because his quarry had enlisted in the Army, or so the legend claims. 

    In 1833, back in action as a fur-hunting mountain man, Glass and two companions were slain by Native Americans. 

    • Age: Dec. at 53 (1780-1833)
    • Birthplace: Pennsylvania
    630 votes
  • In her cinematic solo debut, Wonder Woman comes up against a bevy of baddies, including Danny Huston’s Erich Ludendorff, a real-life German WWI general who received a bit of a comic book upgrade in order to make him a match for Diana of Themyscira.

    There’s no evidence that the actual Ludendorff experimented with wondrous superpower-inducing serums or convened with any deities, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a true historical villain. Ludendorff definitely lobbed gas shells at towns on the Eastern Front, and eventually came to essentially be in charge of the German effort - despite slowly losing his mind due to a reported average of one hour of sleep per night. 

    With no Wonder Woman around to harm him, Ludendorff also survived WWI, and it’s perhaps unfortunate for the rest of the planet that he did. Following his military career, Ludendorff became involved in politics and became one of the loudest proponents of the “stabbed-in-the-back” theorem, which posited that Germany had only lost the conflict due to internal betrayal at the hands of Jews and Marxists. Thus, he laid the groundwork for the eventual rise of the Nazi movement, and even stuck around long enough to participate in a certain infamous future-chancellor's 1923 Beer Hall Putsch

    • Age: Dec. at 72 (1865-1937)
    • Birthplace: Kruszewnia, Poland
    627 votes
  • 5
    491 VOTES

    Bill the Butcher From ‘Gangs of New York’ Was The Actual Leader Of Manhattan’s Bowery Boys In The 1850s

    Throughout Gangs of New York, Daniel Day-Lewis’s Bill the Butcher is a worthy foe and strong foil for Leonardo DiCaprio’s Amsterdam Vallon. But while Vallon was a purely fictional creation, Bill was ripped straight from the pages of Manhattan history, with a few notable changes.

    Rather than William Cutting, the real Bill’s name was William Poole, though he was also mostly known by his nickname. Like the film character, Poole was the leader of a major Protestant gang called the Bowery Boys. If anything, the real Bill was more vicious than the fictional one, renowned for his burning hatred of Catholics, the Irish, and all immigrants, which he parlayed into a brief association with the notorious Know-Nothing political movement before his demise at the age of 33. 

    • Age: Dec. at 33 (1821-1855)
    • Birthplace: New Jersey
    491 votes
  • The film 300 tells an exaggerated version of an already extreme historical event: King Leonidas and a few hundred soldiers holding off the numerically superior Persian invaders long enough for the rest of Greece to rally their defenses. In both movie and reality, Leonidas and his Spartan warriors may have done even more, if not for the betrayal of one Ephialtes.

    In 300, Ephialtes is a grotesquely deformed individual, shunned by Spartan society as an infant, who offers aid to Leonidas, only to be shunned once again because of his limitations. Ashamed, Ephialtes pays Xerxes a visit and lets him in on a secret goat-path that allows the Persians to surround, and slaughter, the Spartans.

    The betrayal itself actually happened, and Ephialtes was the one who did it, but only for the promise of a rich reward, not because he’d been rejected by Leonidas. In fact, there’s no reason to believe he had a hunch or any other disfigurement at all, and he wasn’t a child of Sparta, but of Malis. 

    584 votes