Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time
Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time

Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time

Shannon Quinn - November 12, 2020

Some of the greatest films of all time are “based on a true story”. But how true are they, really? In many cases, screenwriters have to edit and delete certain aspects of a person’s life in order to make it fit in a 2-hour movie. Most of the time, they’re trying to keep in as many details as they can, and these deletions don’t really change the overarching theme of that person’s life. In other cases, writers and movie directors just go ahead and completely twist the truth until it looks nothing like reality. Here at History Collection, we’re going to talk about some of the historic figures who have been completely misrepresented in TV and film. Keep reading to find out the true stories behind the fiction you’ve seen on screen.

Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time
Burt Lancaster in the 1962 film Birdman of Alcatraz. Credit: The Film Forum

30. Robert Stroud, AKA The Bird Man of Alcatraz

In 1962, the movie Birdman of Alcatraz hit the silver screen to tell the real-life story of inmate Robert Stroud. The movie makes him out to be a gentle, misunderstood man. After all, a guy who studies birds can’t be all that bad, right? But the reality is that his cell was transformed into a makeshift laboratory. It was unsanitary, full of bird poop and the bodies of dissected birds. He was in prison for murder, and was always starting violent fights with fellow inmates. The movie shows how he killed a prison guard in 1916, but tries to downplay the seriousness of it. The truth is that psychologists diagnosed him as a psychopath, and a danger to society, which is why he was in solitary confinement. After studying birds inside of his cell for decades, he published a book called Digest on the Disease of Birds.

Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time
Cleopatra was a legendary beauty, but she was more than a pretty face. Credit: Shutterstock

29. Cleopatra

Growing up, you’ve probably heard that Cleopatra was supposed to be one of the most beautiful women in the world, and that she was a master manipulator who captured the hearts of both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony. Her character has been portrayed in several movies titled Antony and Cleopatra, and well as the TV series Rome. The first thing most of these films get wrong is the fact that she was Greek, not Egyptian. Her family was a part of the Ptolemaic line that ruled Egypt since 305 BC. Cleopatra was also so much more than a pretty face. She was actually very intelligent, and known for her skills in diplomacy. At one point, her brother staged a coup, and she gathered an army to fight him back for her throne in 49 BC.

Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time
The movie Amistad gives John Quincy Adams more credit than he deserves. Credit: Shutterstock

28. John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams was an American lawyer and diplomat who served as the Secretary of State from 1817 to 1825. In the 1997 Steven Spielberg movie Amistad, John Quincy Adams is arguing for the freedom of African refugees. They portray him to be anti-slavery, and that he fought hard for their freedom. In reality, the 1839 slave ship rebellion that resulted in a Supreme Court case had little to do with the white heroes shown in the movie. And in real life, Adams wasn’t as outspoken in his anti-slavery beliefs as the movie would lead you to believe. This movie is an example of how white people are getting the credit for a revolutionary act committed by the black people. The movie leaves out the fact that 3,000 white people paid 12 cents to stare at the Africans behind bars as they awaited trial.

Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time
Lincoln was the 16th President of the USA. Credit: Shutterstock

27. Abraham Lincoln

Everyone knows that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States. His story is so epic, he’s been portrayed in movies and TV series like The Blue and The Gray, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), The Day Lincoln Was Shot (1998), The Conspirator (2010), Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012), Lincoln (2012) and more. He’s always portrayed as the larger-than-life “great emancipator”. However, Lincoln stayed silent on his anti-slavery stance, and never openly condemned the practice until 1854. And in 1860, he decided to leave it up to the states to choose, rather than banning it in federal law. On top of this, most movies depict him as having a deep, baritone voice. Sure, he was a great speaker, but in reality, he actually had a higher pitched voice.

Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time
A waxwork showing the depiction of William Shakespeare Credit: Shutterstock

26. William Shakespeare

The playwright William Shakespeare has been depicted in a few movies like Shakespeare in Love, and All is True. However, there is very little that is known about Shakespeare’s personal life outside of what people can interpret from his poetry, historic records, and anecdotes from people who knew him. The movie All is True tells the story of the years Shakespeare spent living in retirement after the Globe Theatre burned to the ground in 1613. All of this is pure speculation, and a thought experiment. Could such a prolific writer truly ever trade writing for gardening and other typical retirement activities? And Shakespeare in Love is straight-up fiction, only vaguely inspired by the reality of William Shakespeare’s life. If you want to know more about Shakespeare, it’s best just to read his plays. He poured his heart and soul into his last play, The Tempest.

Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time
The Mongolian ruler Genghis Khan is often misrepresented on the silver screen. Credit: Shutterstock

25. Genghis Khan

The 1956 movie called The Conqueror is considered to be the one of the most problematic movies ever. Not only is Genghis Khan portrayed by a white man, John Wayne, but it also turns him into a terrible person. He kidnaps women, is barbaric, and a tyrant. The 2007 movie Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan is slightly more accurate. In reality, Genghis Khan had a harem of multiple wives. But he was kind to all of them. Yes, he conquered a lot of territory – but he was also extremely open-minded when it came to various languages, religions, and women’s rights. If you want to see a more realistic depiction of the Mongolian empire, check out the series Marco Polo on Netflix.

Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time
A bust of Cardinal Richelieu. Credit: Shutterstock

24. Cardinal Richelieu

In every depiction of The Three Musketeers, Cardinal Richelieu has been turned into the villain. He was King Louis XIII’s minister, but the movies imply that he was planning a plot against the monarchy. In real life, he was concerned with power and money, and wanted to grow the strength of the Catholic Church in France. Because of this, he made sure to sign diplomatic agreements with Protestants Sweden and Germany. Yes, he raised taxes on the poor, but this was because he needed to raise money for combat. Historians can look back and criticize his actions, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he was the manipulative villain we see in the movies.

Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time
The Greatest Showman, P.T. Barnum. Credit: Shutterstock

23. P.T. Barnum

The movie The Greatest Showman is amazing, and it captures the heart and soul of a boy’s journey to becoming a successful businessman. However, the movie isn’t very accurate to real life at all. The real P.T. Barnum began making money from a very early age by working at a local grocery store and running lotteries. His first “freak show” attraction was a slave woman who claimed to be over 100 years old, and Tom Thumb was his cousin. The Greatest Showman gets a lot of things wrong, but it’s still true that he supported people who would otherwise have never had successful careers in normal society. If you want to know more about how P.T. Barnum made millions, lost it all, and made it all back again, I highly recommend reading his book The Art of Money Getting.

Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time
Portrait of Christopher Columbus. Credit: Shutterstock

22. Christopher Columbus

In 1992, two movies about Christopher Columbus hit the silver screen. These were 1492: Conquest of Paradise and Christopher Columbus: The Discovery. In both movies, Christopher Columbus is painted as being brave, and benevolent towards the Native Americans. These movies may have contributed towards the celebration of his work, especially with the fact that we have Columbus Day in the United States. In reality, what was shown in the movies couldn’t be further from the truth. He was actually tyrannical, and responsible for the murder and enslavement of a countless number of native people. On top of that, he wasn’t even the first explorer to discover the Caribbean islands.

Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time
Bonnie and Clyde. credit: Shutterstock

21. Bonnie and Clyde

In American TV and film, Bonnie and Clyde have been immortalized as this naughty couple we love to live vicariously through. They’re often depicted as sexy, young people who do what they want, when they want. In reality, we actually don’t even know if Bonnie in Clyde were a couple at all. It’s just assumed that they must have been romantically involved, since they were a man and woman working together. Most movies also gloss over their brutal murders, and give them more of a fun Robin Hood type persona. In reality, they were ruthless criminals that held up small businesses like grocery stores and gas stations. Unlike the movies, they weren’t exactly pulling off Oceans 8 style heists. If a couple were to do similar things today, they would more likely be vilified than glorified.

Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time
One of the only photographs of Billy the Kid. Credit: Shutterstock

20. Billy the Kid

Hollywood loves Billy the Kid. He’s been in at least 10 movies, and it’s likely that there will be more in the future. In nearly every movie, he’s shown as being a really brave gunslinger with a charismatic personality. The truth is that he was an outlaw named Henry McCarty. He battled in the Lincoln County Wars, and was killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett. What we know of his life comes from a book written by Pat Garrett called The Authentic Life of Billy, The Kid. It’s hard to tell how much of this is coming from Garrett’s biased opinion. After all, as the Sheriff who was responsible for apprehending him, he may have wanted to create a character that was larger-than life. He wrote, “(Billy the Kid) had a lurking devil in him; it was a good-humored, jovial imp, or a cruel and blood-thirsty fiend, as circumstances prompted.”

Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time
Photo of Steve Jobs. Credit: The Verge

19. Steve Jobs

For a couple years following Steve Jobs’ death, Hollywood studios were fighting to put out the best biopic of his life story. There was Jobs in 2013, followed by Steve Jobs in 2015. According to Wozniak, a lot of the lines in the 2015 movie weren’t even technically accurate, showing that the writers didn’t do their research very well. He also disagreed with the 2013 movie’s depiction that made his role a much smaller part of the creation of Apple Computer. Lastly, everyone who knew Steve Jobs says that the movies make him out to be a terrible, cruel, and ruthless person. In reality, he was a much nicer person.

Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time
Statue of Napoleon Bonaparte. Credit: Shutterstock

18. Napoleon Bonaparte

In most movies and cartoons, Napoleon Bonaparte is always depicted as an incredibly short person who is angry, tyrannical, and bold. In reality, records state that he was 5-foot-5 to 6 inches tall, which was actually the average size at the time. He was not someone with dwarfism. In most fictional versions of Napoleon, it belittles his real-life accomplishments. There were so many people who looked up to him as a hero. Most of the negative satirical depictions of Napoleon Bonaparte came from British political cartoons, and that stereotype continued throughout British and American history. Eventually, it ended up in movies and TV. The poor guy never stood a chance.

Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time
Herod the Great with the Three Wise Men. Credit: The Times

17. Herod the Great

In real life, Herod was a Jew, and he was also Roman king of Judaea. He was remembered for bringing peace in his kingdom during the course of his rule. As a Jewish man, he showed a lot of respect for the Torah. In the movies, he is always pictured as the villain who is out to get the Christians. He is portrayed as being angry about being outwitted by the 3 Magi, and orders the slaying of all the boys in Bethlehem under 2 years old. According to a historian and professor named Paul Maier, there are absolutely no historical records that corroborate this story presented in the New Testament. If something as tragic as this truly had happened, we would have been it in more books and records. Obviously, this is up for debate, depending on how much faith you put in the accuracy of the Bible.

Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time
Pontius Pilate with the crucified Jesus. Credit: Shutterstock

16. Pontius Pilate

Anyone who grew up going to Sunday School knows that Pontius Pilate is the ultimate villain, as the one responsible for the death of Jesus Christ. And it’s no surprise that in the 1959 movie Ben-Hur, the directors purposely made Pontius Pilate resemble Adolf Hitler from the 1936 Olympics. In real life, Jesus was actually breaking Roman laws, and crucifixion was the standard punishment for his crimes. Obviously, Christians are going to take his side, because they understand in retrospect that he was the son of God. From Pilate’s perspective, this man was nothing special. He was just another criminal who needed to be punished. Hollywood movies have also made Pontius Pilate look weak, and like a terrible leader. However, for Christians, this isn’t going to be enough for them to forgive the man, and we’re going to continue to see him as the villain in movies and TV.

Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time
Photo of writer Hunter S. Thompson. Credit: GQ Magazine

15. Hunter S. Thompson

In 1980, Bill Murray starred in a movie called Where the Buffalo Roam, which was supposed to portray Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Unfortunately, he hated this depiction of himself. Thompson called it “just a horrible movie, a cartoon”. He was also made into a character called Uncle Duke in the Doonesbury comic strip. Because of these fictional depictions, he felt as though he was expected to act that way in real life. Before filming Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Johnny Depp actually lived with Hunter S. Thompson beforehand to make sure he depicted the man as he truly was. However, Thompson admitted that even this more accurate wild side was a persona. All of this contributed to the existential crisis that lead to his suicide. This is an example of why it’s probably best to wait for potentially unflattering biopics until after the person has already passed away.

Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time
A tapestry featuring John, King of England. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

14. John, King of England

John Lackland, also known as King John I of England, is typically featured as the villain in every Robin Hood movie. Whenever possible, these stories depict John as a failure. He lost control of Normandy, had issues with the Pope, and signed the Magna Carta during his rule. However, a lot of these negative perceptions are simply because he’s constantly being compared to his brother, King Richard I. John was really only the temporary ruler while Richard was on his Crusade in 1199 AD. Right from the start, the barons were after his crown. And at one point, he had to free Richard by paying ransom money to Germany. In a lot of ways, he was stepping into a situation that was already difficult from the start. And for whatever reason, history (and Hollywood) always paint him as a failure because of it.

Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time
The statue of Richard I. Credit: Shutterstock

13. Richard I of England

Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionheart, is featured in most Robin Hood movies, just like his brother John. Only in many cases, Richard comes in as the hero to dethrone his brother, and he returns to save the day. Many historical resources build him up to be a perfect Christian king. However, as we mentioned in the last bullet point, John didn’t really have a choice in temporarily taking over his brother’s throne while he was on The Third Crusade. He was even captured by the Germans, and his brother had to pay to get him out. And for the remainder of his rule, Richard was always fighting with Philip II of France trying to hold on to English territory.

Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time
This waxwork is a recreation of what Richard III would have looked like. Credit: Shutterstock

12. Richard III of England

King Richard III is one of the first people to have a dramatized biography, in William Shakespeare’s play aptly called “Richard III”. In the play, Richard is a hunchback villain. And in the 1962 movie Tower of London, he is depicted as a horrible tyrant, child killer, and total failure when he’s killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field. While some of the events of his life might be accurate, he was actually much younger that most movies make him out to be. He was only 33 when he died. Instead of having a hunchback, his remains revealed that he simply had a curved spine due to scoliosis. If you want to know more about his remains that were uncovered in 2012, check out our article that goes over all of those details.

Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time
Portrait of Marie Antoinette. Credit: Shutterstock

11. Marie Antoinette

People love Sofia Coppola’s movie Marie Antoinette, mostly because of the opulent colors, costumes, and music. However, while it might look like eye candy, the movie ignores a lot of the real-life political context, making it seem as though people simply don’t like her. In real life, she was in an incredibly long courtship with Louis-Auguste. It took them seven years to actually have sex, rather than the few months we see in the movie. They also never shared a bed. He was given the nickname “Louis the Chaste”, and he never had a mistress, which was common for a lot of kings. This sparked rumors that he may have been gay. Her affair with Count Axel Fersen was never confirmed, either. For people who really want to nitpick about the historic accuracy, there were a lot of costumes dyed in colors that weren’t available at the time.

Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time
Blackbeard is so famous, he made it onto a postage stamp. Credit: Shutterstock

10. Blackbeard

The name Blackbeard and pirates go together like peanut butter and jelly. In most movies, he’s depicted as being greedy, chaotic, and rather scary. Other times, he’s seen as being like Robin Hood stealing from the rich to pay for his own free lifestyle. One historic record says, “struck lighted matches under his hat, which appearing on each side of his face, his eyes naturally looking fierce and wild, made him altogether such a figure that imagination cannot form an idea of a fury, from hell, to look more frightful”. In real life, his name was Edward Teach. Historians believe that a lot of these stories were hyperbole, and that the legend of Blackbeard was twisted more and more as time went on. Most likely, the name is kind of like “The Dread Pirate Roberts” from The Princess Bride. It’s a legend, rather than a man.

Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time
A screenshot from the movie Argo. Credit: Warner Brothers

9. Argo

The 2013 movie Argo depicts the true story of when CIA agents pretended to be Hollywood producers in order to rescue hostages in Tehran. Even though the movie won Best Picture, there were a lot of people who were offended by the one-dimensional portrayal of Iranians as fanatical terrorists. Unfortunately, some of the most interesting scenes in the movie never actually happened in real life, either. One of the biggest controversies is the portrayal that the American government was resisting the plan to have the CIA pretend to be a film crew. In reality, that was never a problem at all, and Canada was actually responsible for 90% of the planning, not the US. In the movie, they were also almost lynched, and drama with confirming their plane tickets, which never happened. Basically, the movie turned the drama up to 11, putting obstacles in the way at every turn.

Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time
A wax work of Albert Einstein. Credit: Shutterstock

8. Albert Einstein

In a lot of Hollywood movies and cartoons, they turn Albert Einstein into a scatterbrained genius. Think of that famous photograph with him sticking his tongue out, eyes wide, and crazy hair everywhere. In The Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, they even turned him into little dancing bobble head doll, rather than a real person. Sure, he had a sense of humor. However, his real life was actually very tragic. One of Albert’s sons, Eduard, had schizophrenia. This caused a lot of strain on their marriage, and he ended up having multiple affairs. Creepily enough, he even slept with his first cousin Elsa, and ended up marrying her. We may never see an accurate bio pic because of that controversy.

Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time
An ancient painting of Alexander the Great. Credit: Shutterstock

7. Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great was born in 356 BC, and became the ruler of Macedon, an ancient Greek Kingdom. He lived an epic life, with Aristotle as his personal tutor until age 16, and becoming king at age 20. An explorer at heart, Alexander vowed to find “the end of the world”. Unfortunately, Hollywood has done a terrible job of depicting his life story. The 2004 adaptation called Alexander was actually so bad, there was almost a lawsuit against director Oliver Stone and Warner Brothers for passing off that movie as being anything close to reality. In the years following the film, they released multiple director’s cuts to try to fix the problems with the inaccuracies. Because of this, future directors have tried to tread more carefully when depicting historic events.

Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time
One of the many portraits of Anne Boleyn. Credit: Shutterstock

6. Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn has been featured in several movies and TV shows, including the most recent The Other Boleyn Girl, Wolf Hall, and The Tudors. Nearly every depiction shows her as a manipulative temptress who convinces King Henry VIII to divorce his wife and marry her, instead. In real life, she wrote letters refusing to be his mistress, writing, “Your wife I cannot be… because you have a queen already. Your mistress I will not be.” And yet, the king still got what he wanted, and was alienated by the Catholic church as a result. After their marriage, she wrote that she was constantly harassed by other men in the kingdom. But in the movies, she is always depicted as a powerful, seductive, conniving woman who is more like a villain.

Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time
The William Wallace statue in Scotland. Credit: Shutterstock

5. William Wallace

In the famous movie Braveheart, Mel Gibson both directs and stars in the main role of William Wallace. The real man was a Scottish warrior who led a revolt against King Edward I of England. There are plenty of divinations from reality made in the movie like the ages of characters, timeline of events, and more. Many historians also have issues with the battle scenes, which were poorly choreographed compared to military strategy at the time. Kilts make an appearance in the movie, even though the wouldn’t appear in real life until 300 years later. And the facepaint was also out of line for the era. Last by certainly not least was the romance in the movie, whee William Wallace seduces Queen Isabella. Say what?! In real life, Isabella was just 3 years old during the Battle of Falkirk, so this was complete fiction.

Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time
The wax work of Amadeus Mozart. Credit: Shutterstock

4. Amadeus Mozart

In the 1984 movie Amadeus, they describe Amadeus Mozart as being “arrogant, vulgar, and obscene”, while accusing another composer, Antonio Salieri, of poisoning him. The movie paints him to be childish, which adds to the comedy of the film. But the entire premise surrounds the idea that the two composers were in a bitter rivalry. In reality, historic records show that they were more likely to have been friends and collaborators, rather than rivals. And Salieri definitely wasn’t responsible for Mozart’s death. In real life, Mozart suddenly came down with a fever. His body swelled up, and he slipped into a coma. Modern day doctors believe that this was actually strep throat, which is common and totally curable today. The screenwriter, Peter Shaffer, tried to defend his story choices by saying, “It was never intended to be a documentary biography.”

Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time
Memorial of Alan Turning. Credit: Shutterstock

3. Alan Turing

While The Imitation Game was a brilliant film, there’s a lot in it that isn’t true to real life. One of the main plot points is that a man named John Cairncross was a Soviet spy, and her blackmailed Alan Turing, threatening to reveal that he was gay. Turing is anti-social, but a true genius is able to break the code virtually on his own. In real life, a lot of the code broken in the movie was accomplished by Polish codebreaker who came before Turing. According to records, Alan Turing was also far more friendly and talkative than how he was depicted in the film. Unfortunately, the drama between him and Cairncross was total fiction, which ruins a man’s legacy. A historian named Alex von Tunzelmann was infuriated by this, saying that it was an act of slander.

Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time
Stephen Hawking. Credit: Shutterstock

2. Stephen Hawking

The 2014 movie The Theory of Everything was the first movie to depict Stephen Hawking, since he only just passed away in 2018. In the movie, we see Hawking’s marriage with Jane Wilde as a loving relationship. She helped him get through ALS. Unfortunately, the film brushes Jane’s story off to the side. In real life, she wrote a memoir called Travelling to Infinity. She writes how difficult it was for her to give up her professional career and personal ambitions. By marrying him, she became his caretaker, only to end up being cheated on by Elaine Mason. There were also a lot of rumors that Elaine Mason was nowhere near as good of a caretaker, who neglected and abused Stephen Hawking. While the movie is beautiful in its own way, it really does a disservice to Jane. If you want to know more, we recommend reading Jane’s memoir.

Movies Totally Misrepresent These Historic Figures All The Time
This statue stands on top of Pocahontas’ grave in England. Credit: Shutterstock

1. Pocahontas

One of the worst cases of twisting the truth is the Disney movie Pocahontas. In the cartoon, John Smith and Pocahontas are the same age, and they fall in love. Sadly, the reality was tragic. Pocahontas was a little girl when John Smith arrived, and they didn’t know each other. The story of her saving his life was complete fiction. She had already married to Kocacum, and she had just given birth to their child. The 16-year old Pocahontas was kidnapped and used as leverage to take supplies from the Powhatan tribe. Then, the English used her as a false symbol of peace between the Native Americans and the colonists. John Smith wrote a fictional version of the story, because he was covering his tracks. If you want to know more, check out our post called 16 Facts About The Real Pocahontas.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Historical Figures Who Are Consistently Misrepresented In Pop Culture. Melissa Sartore. Ranker. 2020

Most Inaccurate Biopics of All Time. David Bell. Collider. 2020

The 15 Most Historically Inaccurate Movies Ranked. Medium. Jack Delaney. 2017

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