Catherine the Great is one of history's most storied rulers and one of Hollywood's favorite muses. But classic and recent depictions of her life are riddled with Catherine the Great inaccuracies. Indeed, though Hollywood has changed over time, what movies get wrong about Catherine the Great has remained pretty constant: Rather than present nuanced, complex portraits of a powerful female ruler, most biopics about Catherine the Great focus on her love life.
Born Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst in 1729, the woman who would become Catherine the Great spent her childhood in her native Prussia. In 1744, she traveled to Russia to become the bride of the Russian empress's nephew Peter. Empress Elizabeth of Russia didn't just give Sophie her nephew's hand in marriage, she also gave the young princess a new name: Catherine. Peter became Tsar of Russia in 1762, but his reign didn't last long: Catherine usurped him and ruled over Russia until 1796.
Most films and television shows about Catherine the Great aren't very accurate. Movies - like The Scarlet Empress (1934) and A Royal Scandal (1945) - and television productions - like The Young Catherine (1991), Catherine the Great (1995), Catherine the Great (2019), and The Great (2020) - often misrepresent or outright ignore historical facts. They employ tropes that mythologize Catherine's affairs, sacrificing fact for salacious, sexed-up legend. The historical accuracy of Hulu's The Great and HBO's Catherine the Great has been recently called into question, proving that showbiz still struggles to tell Catherine's story fully and accurately.
Hollywood may spin entertaining stories about the Russian empress, but those stories aren't necessarily good history lessons.
Critics throughout history have overstated Catherine's sexuality in a bid to tarnish her reputation. Hollywood picked up this myth and often depicted Catherine as a seductress, as in Josef von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress.
The fact that Catherine usurped Peter III with the help of her lover Count Orlov has led some to wrongly believe she simply seduced men into doing her bidding, a belief that diminishes her political skill and power.
Helen Mirren, star and producer of HBO's Catherine the Great, saw her miniseries as a way to debunk the myth of Catherine's outsized sexual appetite:
It's such an easy way to belittle a woman who's been successful in history. They did the same with Cleopatra, instantly [...] Catherine's reign in the 18th century had a different kind of attitude toward sex and sexuality. But she was a serial monogamist. She loved men. She loved having a guy, she loved going on dates [...] But she was in no way some sort of crazed sex addict.
Some Hollywood biopics about Catherine the Great indicate that she became the consort to Emperor Peter III immediately upon her arrival in Russia in 1744. In doing this, these stories erase about 18 years of Catherine's life.
When Catherine married Peter, his aunt Elizabeth was the Russian empress. Peter didn't inherit the throne until Elizabeth's demise in 1762; six months later, 33-year-old Catherine launched a coup and took the throne for herself.
By the time she became empress at the age of 33, Catherine had spent more than half her life at the court of Empress Elizabeth of Russia, who had hand-picked Catherine as her nephew's bride. The two women had a complicated relationship, and Catherine eventually positioned herself as a counterpoint to Elizabeth.
Hollywood rarely centers the relationship between two of Russia's female monarchs. The Scarlet Empress even depicts Elizabeth's court as a violent world - even though the historical Elizabeth actually abolished executions.
Some productions that explore the relationship between Empress Elizabeth and Catherine include the 1991 miniseries Young Catherine and Ekaterina, a historical TV series produced in Russia.
As head of Russia, Catherine the Great was surrounded by a huge cast of advisors, friends, courtiers, diplomats, and enemies. Rather than include and contextualize these historical figures, many depictions of Catherine's life create composite characters or invent new ones from scratch.