What makes a king? Inaccurate movies about kings peddle tired tropes that misrepresent what it means to be a king and what the lives and reigns of rulers from the past were really like.
Films have disproportionately shaped what most people believe about kings, especially since high-profile actors like Sir Laurence Olivier, Colin Firth, and Peter O'Toole have each brought something unique - if not necessarily accurate - to the historical kings they've portrayed. Even in the case of relatively realistic royal biopics, historical accuracy is always up for debate.
Films and television shows often deploy inaccurate tropes that reinforce rigid, old-fashioned, and overly simplistic ideas about historical kings. While tropes may provide easy, recognizable storylines, historical reality proves again and again that fact is wilder than fiction.
- Photo: Hamilton / Disney+
The Trope: King George III was a "mad" tyrant who didn't believe in liberty.
Why It's Inaccurate: King George III certainly didn't want to lose the American colonies and he really did suffer from an unknown - though much speculated - mental and physical illness for several years.
But George wasn't a "tyrannical nincompoop," as historian Rick Atkinson believes many people imagine him. George ruled over a constitutional monarchy, which means he didn't engineer the policies that enraged so many American colonists on the eve of revolution. Far from a tyrant, he almost offered to abdicate the throne in exasperation over all that had happened.
Notable Offenders: This representation of George III has a long history. Pro-independence Americans painted George as a tyrant before and during the American Revolution to justify their break with the British Empire.
That tradition has continued. The Broadway musical Hamilton depicts King George III as an entitled, cold tyrant. The Madness of King George defines George through his struggle with mental and physical health in 1787.Turning off your TV?
- Photo: Braveheart / Paramount Pictures2
Edward I Encouraged English Nobles To Claim A Scottish Bride's Wedding Night
The Trope: King Edward I invoked the ancient right of prima nocta so that the English could "breed" out Scots in Scotland.
Why It's Inaccurate: Edward I - who was known as "Hammer of the Scots" - really acted like a bully to Scotland (and Wales too). But there is nothing to suggest that Edward encouraged English nobles to claim a bride on her wedding night as a strategy to dominate and subordinate Scotland. In fact, historians question whether "prima nocta" was ever actually a thing outside of literature.
Notable Offenders: Edward's supposed implementation of this policy is a critical plot point in the wildly inaccurate film Braveheart.Turning off your TV?
- Photo: Game of Thrones / HBO3
Kings Were Drunk And Uninterested In The Business Of Ruling
The Trope: Jovial and always up for a good time, kings would rather drink than rule.
Notable Offenders: In Netflix's The King, Prince Hal's immaturity is signaled by his drinking. King Robert Baratheon in Game of Thrones would rather drink and hunt than rule the Seven Kingdoms.Turning off your TV?
- Photo: Anastasia / 20th Century Fox4
Everything About Nicholas II's Family Life Was Perfect
The Trope: The Romanovs' tragic end was all the more heartbreaking because their family life was so perfect and happy.
Why It's Inaccurate: Family certainly was important to Nicholas II. But it would be disingenuous to call his family life "perfect." One giant cloud over his family life, for example, was the anxiety surrounding the frequently poor health of his hemophiliac son and heir, the Tsarevich Alexei.
Notable Offenders: Anastasia - the play, musical, and animated film - emphasize the warm family life of the last Romanovs.Turning off your TV?