5 worst portrayals of historical figures in film

Cinema has always had a penchant for portraying historical figures. There’s something about paying homage to famous people that seems to guarantee brownie points at film festival panels and awarding bodies. With the recent wave of fairly high-quality biopics such as The King’s Speech, The Iron Lady and My Week with Marilyn, we should maybe take a moment to appreciate some of the sloppiest cinematic portrayals of history’s finest folk.

#5 Kevin Costner – Robin Hood

It’s hard to tell what Costner’s acting approach was in his role as Robin Hood. He never really seems to give the whole ‘British accent’ thing a go, seemingly thinking that so long as he’s scripted to say the occasional Olde English word every now and then, he can get away with it. Even if you could possibly ignore the accent, the other aspects of his performance are equally tame. His ‘rousing’ speech in which he says something about the forests and trees suggests that he doesn’t give a shit about doing justice to our semi-fictional national icon, and his receding hair looks far too clean to convince us that this is a swash-buckling hero of the poor masses. Come to think of it, is there any role that Costner’s actually right for?

#4 Keira Knightley – The Duchess

The Duchess of Devonshire was a pretty interesting character. She was an active political campaigner (unheard of in those days) and had a keen interest in writing her own literature and poetry. All this is brushed over in The Duchess in exchange for the more cinematic fact that she lived in a ménage a trois for 25 years. Knightley is typically dull in her portrayal of this dynamic historical figure, relying on her prominent jaw to express whatever emotions her character’s supposed to be feeling. All Knightley has that’s right for the part is a pristine English accent, a fairly pretty face and the fact that she’s Keira Knightley – the inexplicable go-to girl for period films.

#3 John Wayne – Ghengis Khan

Tragically, The Conqueror is best remembered for the fact that it was shot on an ex-nuclear testing site, which has been connected to the fact that nearly half of the cast and crew developed cancer by 1981. In light of this, it’s easy to forget the hilarious fact that John Wayne played Genghis Khan. Even though Wayne is used to rampaging around plains on a horse in Westerns, this isn’t quite enough to justify this perplexing casting. Despite being kitted out with a spiked hat, painted-on moustache, and eye-liner to make his eyes look more, erm, Asian, Wayne’s inability to play anyone other than John Wayne, oh and the fact that he’s WHITE, makes this an endearingly awful attempt at depicting old Ghengis.

#2 Xerxes and the Persian army – 300 

OK, so 300 never had any pretences to historical accuracy, being based on Frank Miller’s comic rather than historical accounts of the Battle of Thermopylae. Nevertheless, the portrayal of the Persian forces – in particular King Xerxes who’s depicted as an androgynous, fetishistic giant – incensed Iranians the world over. Even Iranian President Ahmadinejad spoke out on the film, accusing Western countries of “trying to tamper with history by making a film and by making Iran’s image look savage.”

Not only was the Persian army amassed of a mixture of slaves, Ogres and the zombie-like Immortals, but they pretty much have the shit beaten out of them for the whole film. What better way to further sour relations with a regime that hates us and is developing nuclear capabilities?


#1 Colin Farrell – Alexander

Alexander was a pretty awful film. Jumping on the early 2000s bandwagon of overblown historical epics, this was the worst of the bunch thanks largely to Colin Farrell. For a start, the man’s a gruff, Guinness-drinking Irishman cut out for roles that at least partly acknowledge that fact. What he’s doing prancing around the Middle East armed with sword, sandals and an awfully mismatching blonde wig is anyone’s guess. In fairness, the film did garner some publicity, if only for a threatened lawsuit by a group of 25 Greek lawyers over the film’s portrayal of Alexander as gay, despite little historical evidence supporting this claim.

About The Author

Robert is a freelance writer specialising in film and technology. Since completing his Film Studies MA at King's College London in 2011, he has been writing for several websites and blogs, including WhatCulture, The Independent blogs and now Best For Film. On the side, he's an aspiring screen-writer, but isn't getting carried away with lofty visions of Hollywood stardom just yet