It's no secret that Hollywood takes liberties when presenting historical figures on screen. Biopics like Marie Antoinette and J. Edgar may provide insights into their namesakes, but when major events in their lives are either over-dramatized or downplayed, the line between fact and fiction is blurred. Sometimes historical figures in movies take on entirely new characteristics or lose full chapters of their lives, misrepresented to simplify, erase, or exaggerate historical truths.
Many misunderstood historical figures have been repeatedly depicted in a way that has defined so-called conventional wisdom. As a result, real individuals like Cleopatra, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Genghis Khan have all attained a status that owes more to legend than fact.
- Photo: Cleopatra / Twentieth Century Fox
What Hollywood Did: Cleopatra is portrayed as an Egyptian queen and master manipulator, the lover of both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, yet an inept ruler known for her beauty above all else. While many of the onscreen portrayals of Cleopatra draw upon historical sources, they fall victim to the biased accounts presented by men who never met her and, according to author Stacy Schiff, were unsettled by "her independence of mind... [and] enterprising spirit."
Why It’s Wrong: First and foremost, Cleopatra was not Egyptian. She was Greek, a member of the Ptolemaic line, which ruled Egypt since 305 BC. And despite her reputation for having no political acumen beyond her seduction skills, Cleopatra was a savvy ruler, skilled in diplomacy and leadership alike. Cleopatra was born around the year 70 BC and ruled Egypt with her younger brother Ptolemy XIII from 51 BC forward. Forced to flee by her brother's supporters in 49 BC, Cleopatra gathered an army to fight her way back to power.
Cleopatra did have a relationship with Julius Caesar, bearing him a son in 47 BC. Cleopatra ruled Egypt with her son as co-regent from 44 BC, and later became consort to Mark Antony. The "seduction" of Mark Antony by Cleopatra is a defining part of Cleopatra's story, but the political realities of the time were much more complex than a simple love story.
Cleopatra was well-educated, acutely aware of her tenuous position, and deeply intertwined with Roman affairs. Her relationship with Antony was based in mutual need, with Cleopatra hoping to regain control of land that had once been part of her Egyptian empire. Antony, for his part, wanted control of the Roman Empire and needed Cleopatra's help to defeat Octavian (Caesar's adopted son) to take it.
Hollywood may have overstated Cleopatra's legendary beauty as well. In the words of Cassius Dio, writing in the second and third centuries, Cleopatra was, "a woman of surpassing beauty, and at that time, when she was in the prime of her youth, she was most striking." A century earlier, however, Plutarch described Cleopatra's appearance as, "in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her."
Films And TV: Antony and Cleopatra (1913), Cleopatra (1917), Cleopatra (1963), Antony and Cleopatra (1974, TV Movie), Antony and Cleopatra (1981, TV Movie), Rome (2005, television series)
- Photo: The Blue and the Gray / CBS
What Hollywood Did: Generally speaking, the 16th President of the United States has been portrayed as a morally righteous, almost messianic, hero. Movies and television have seized upon and perpetuated the notion that Abraham Lincoln, the "Great Emancipator," was always against slavery and determined to bring the institution to an end. As early as 1911, Abraham Lincoln was portrayed on the big screen with deep resolve and intensity - not to mention an even deeper voice. One of the most notable presentations of Lincoln as a low-voiced speaker was by Gregory Peck in the television miniseries, The Blue and The Gray.
Why It’s Wrong: Even Peck knew Abraham Lincoln's voice was higher than he portrayed it, but the actor didn't think it fit the man. With the exception of 2012's Lincoln, the president known for famous speeches like the Gettysburg Address is usually presented with a heavy baritone. While there are no recordings of Abraham Lincoln, his contemporaries described his oratory style as "a little shriller, a little higher" than other speakers. According to Historian Harold Holzer, observers, "All seem to say, for the first 10 minutes I couldn’t believe the way he looked, the way he sounded, his accent. But after ten minutes, the flash of his eyes, the ease of his presentation overcame all doubts, and I was enraptured."
With respect to Lincoln's views on slavery, he didn't openly come out against the institution until 1854. Even then, Lincoln and his fellow Republicans were not against perpetuating slavery in the new states being added to the union. In 1860, the Republican platform included "the right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively." In other words, domestic institutions, such as slavery, were intended to stay under the purview of the states themselves.
Films And TV: The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln (1924), Abraham Lincoln (1930), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Blue and The Gray (1982, Television miniseries), Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989), The Day Lincoln Was Shot (1998), The Conspirator (2010), Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012), Lincoln (2012)
What Hollywood Did: In 1956, John Wayne played Genghis Khan in The Conqueror, a movie that has been listed among the most problematic ever made. As Temujin, or Genghis Khan, Wayne portrays a lovestruck leader who kidnaps Bortai (played by Susan Hayward), the daughter of one of his Tartar rivals, Kumlek. The perpetuation of the Mongol leader as a woman-obsessed man, barbaric and brutal in nature continued to dominate how Hollywood presented Genghis Khan and all of the Mongols. It's only been fairly recent films like 2007's Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan that Temujin found a less over-the-top presence on screen.
Why It’s Wrong: Mongol society was indeed dominated by men, but Mongols' relationships with women were far more complex than Hollywood would have you believe. Genghis Khan and his successors took multiple wives, but throughout the empire, women had rights not afforded to their counterparts in other areas of the world. Women in the Mongol Empire could inherit property, participate in religious rites, and express their opinions on political matters.
The brutality of the Mongols shouldn't be dismissed but, again, the complexity of the Mongol presence is rarely acknowledged on screen. Genghis Khan and the Mongols fostered religious tolerance and facilitated trade. The cavalry raids, harsh conquests, and intrusions with which the Mongols are associated gave rise to the largest contiguous land empire to have ever existed.
Films And TV: The Conqueror (1956), Genghis Khan (1965), Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989), Genghis Khan (1998), Mongol (2007)
- Photo: The Three Musketeers / Summit Entertainment
What Hollywood Did: As often as not, Cardinal Richelieu - whose full name was Armand-Jean du Plessis, Duc de Richelieu - has been presented as an antagonist in Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers. As King Louis XIII's most trusted minister, different versions of The Three Musketeers find Richelieu both deterring and perpetuating a conspiracy against the monarch. In an early biopic, 1935's Cardinal Richelieu, he is an ambitious, power-hungry minister in the court of King Louis XIII; two years later, he's presented as a persecutor of Protestants in Under the Red Robe. Always a manipulator, Richelieu is a plotter, a manipulator, and cruel suppressor of some group within the French populace.
Why It’s Wrong: Richelieu's motivations were based in power and money, things that may have factored into his actions but do not reflect his multifaceted nature. Richelieu was a churchman, one who wanted to strengthen the Catholic Church in France. To do this, he entered into diplomatic agreements with Protestants in foreign countries including Sweden and Germany.
As First Minister to King Louis XIII, he also consolidated royal power, and essentially shaped the French monarchy. His taxation of the lower classes has long been criticized, but his reform of the French economy also pushed back against the interests of the upper classes, Catholics included. Richelieu simply needed to pay for combat. The Musketeers of the Guard, the King's personal guard, remained in place until 1646, four years after Richelieu's demise. They were disbanded by Richelieu's protege and successor, Cardinal Mazarin.
Films And TV: Cardinal Richelieu (1935), Under the Red Robe (1937), The Three Musketeers (1921, 1935, 1953, 1993, and 2011), The Musketeers (2014-2016, Television series)
- Photo: 1492: Conquest of Paradise / Paramount Pictures
What Hollywood Did: The two most obvious representations of Christopher Columbus on the big screen are 1492: Conquest of Paradise and Christopher Columbus: The Discovery. Both movies were released in 1992 and paint the Italian explorer in a heroic light as he voyages to the New World.
Directed by Ridley Scott, 1492 stars Gerard Depardieu as Columbus and features grandiose imagery, music, and dialogue. The film presents Columbus as a benevolent visitor to the Caribbean, well-informed and enlightened in his interactions with the natives. Similarly, the Christopher Columbus in Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, played by George Corraface, makes friendly connections with natives while carrying out his voyage for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella - portrayed by Tom Selleck and Rachel Ward, respectively.
Why It’s Wrong: Re-evaluations of Christopher Columbus and his role in history have left the explorer with a much less enlightened and far more bloody reputation. In 1492, Christopher Columbus is portrayed as both a hero and a tyrant of sorts, perhaps landing somewhere close to accurate, but his arrival in the Caribbean - not North America - was a happy accident more than a planned discovery. The presentation of Columbus as a messianic figure in The Discovery completely misrepresents historical realities.
Aside from the Columbus-as-hero trope, there's more from Hollywood that's just wrong. Columbus was not kind to the natives he encountered, seizing many of them and forcing them into slavery. And while Hollywood shows Columbus as a glorious explorer, he actually had great difficulty finding support for his journey. Columbus was only able to make his way to the Caribbean under the auspices of Spain after being rejected by Portugal, England, and France.
Films And TV: 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (1992)
What Hollywood Did: Charismatic, brave, and a skilled gunslinger, Billy the Kid has been represented in comedies, dramas, Westerns, and even horror movies. The outlaw is often depicted as the wily young man slain by Sheriff Pat Garrett, his nemesis in many films. In 1970's Chisum, John Wayne is John Chisum, the rancher who employs Billy the Kid to protect his cattle. During the late 1980s, Young Guns and its sequel, Young Guns II, feature Emilio Estavez as Billy the Kid, fighting with The Regulators in the Lincoln County Wars during the 1870s.
Why It’s Wrong: The man history remembers as Billy the Kid was born Henry McCarty, and went by the alias William Booney. While it is true that Billy was an outlaw, participated in the Lincoln County Wars, and was slain by Pat Garrett, his frontier-legend persona was created by Garrett himself. In Garrett's book, The Authentic Life of Billy, The Kid, the lawman sets the foundations for decades of dime novels, television shows, and movies. The real Billy the Kid was an orphan whose first criminal act was stealing from a laundry.
Garrett may have written that Billy "had a lurking devil in him; it was a good-humored, jovial imp, or a cruel and blood-thirsty fiend, as circumstances prompted," but the ideal Wild West outlaw Billy became was less about the man and more about the myth.
Films And TV: Billy the Kid (1930), Billy the Kid Returns (1938), The Parson and The Outlaw (1953), Chisum (1970), Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), Young Guns (1988), Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989), Young Guns II (1990), The Kid (2019)