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Which Historical Figures Are Most Frequently Depicted in Movies? A Statistical Analysis
Which historical figures appear in the greatest number of films?
Intro: Hollywood's Napoleon Complex
Ridley Scott's Napoleon hits theaters next week as the legendary director of Gladiator, Alien, and Blade Runner puts forward his vision of France's brutal and mercurial dictator. But Scott's epic is hardly the first adaptation of Napoleon's story, let alone the only Napoleon project in development. Steven Spielberg has been working on a seven-part Napoleon series for over eight years, adapting Stanley Kubrick's famously unproduced Napoleon movie from the 1970s.
Kubrick originally planned to make his Napoleon film after the blockbuster success of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the project was derailed when two other Napoleon-centered movies, Waterloo and War and Peace, tanked spectacularly. Since then, movies have relegated Napoleon (a historical figure) to comedic relief, with short humorous appearances in Woody Allen's Love & Death, Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits, and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. Napoleon, a real-life person whose savage military campaigns were responsible for over 2,500,000 deaths, even went bowling for his turn in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure.
Producers love building movies around intellectual property (like 2017's Emoji Movie or 2012's Battleship). Adaptations provide a project with a pre-developed narrative and built-in marketing buzz. Over the past decade, cultural criticism has fixated on Marvel's burgeoning MCU as evidence of Hollywood's aversion to original stories. And yet, cinema has always mined inspiration from pre-existing narratives, developing projects around the trials and tribulations of historical figures. So today, we'll explore the real-life icons most often featured in cinematic fare, what Hollywood's continued preoccupation with these figures tells us about the industry, and how these trends compare to those surrounding recurring fictional characters.
Which Historical Figures Are Most Frequently Depicted in Movies?
What makes a historical character worthy of adaptation? There are so many accomplished figures across the tapestry of recorded human history; why do we frequently return to the same people?
To investigate, I combined IMDb film credit data with information from "A cross-verified database of notable people, 3500BC-2018AD," a dataset of every "notable" individual in human history. Combining these datasets enables the identification of extraordinary historical figures (otherwise known as celebrities) from a repository of over 137,000 leading movie characters.
When we count the number of movie credits tied to each notable individual and group our most heavily credited figures by occupation and historical era, we find repeat adaptations of stories concerning politicians, American frontiersmen, nobility, and (of course) Jesus, with characters from Ancient and Mid-Modern times.
Our group of oft-portrayed historical figures is the product of numerous cinematic trends, including:
1. The Versatility of Jesus
I understand this reads like a satire, but depictions of Jesus span a wide variety of film genres and storytelling formats. Jesus has appeared in historical epics (The Greatest Story Ever Told), subversive dramas (The Last Temptation of Christ), faith-focused stories (Passion of the Christ), and even musicals (Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell). Filmmakers have taken liberties beyond biblical accounts of Jesus' life, setting his story in various contexts and periods.
2. The Popularity of Westerns in the 1950s and 1960s
The early 1900s saw the rise of widespread fascination with the American Old West. Many prominent figures from this period were romanticized and mythologized in various forms of media. Dime novels and pulp magazines spun cheap, serialized stories concerning the exploits of Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok, and Wyatt Earp. The Hollywood Western brought this folklore to the big screen. In the 1950s, westerns were wildly popular and inexpensive to produce. Movies like Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and I Shot Jesse James could be filmed using recycled costumes and set pieces. The genre largely fizzled out in the 1970s and went extinct in the 1990s following the duel-release of Wyatt Earth and Tombstone. Hitting theaters six months apart, both movies told the story of lawman Wyatt Earp, with the titular film about Earp bombing at the box office.
3. Historical Epics and Costume Dramas
The 1950s and 1960s saw Hollywood in direct competition with the growing popularity of television. Studios counteracted the rise of TV with costume dramas and historical epics that featured lavish production values, grandiose storytelling, and expansive set pieces. Movies like Cleopatra, Ben-Hur, and The Ten Commandments told glorious stories on a grand scale. These films shined in newfound widescreen formats like CinemaScope and were punctuated by leading performances from Hollywood megastars like Elizabeth Taylor, Charleton Heston, and Richard Burton.
4. Lack of an Authoritative Adaptation
This point may read as mushy, but I'd argue many of our repeat historical figures are oft-adapted because they lack an authoritative accounting of their life's story. Consider The Social Network, Ray, and The Aviator, three of the most popular biopics in recent memory. These films serve as sweeping character studies of their central figure, detailing the events of their lives while also probing their internal world. It's hard to imagine another movie attempting a depiction of Mark Zuckerberg or Howard Hughes for fear of comparison with these productions. An overlap in biopic subjects (such as the case of Wyatt Earp or Steve Jobs) is regarded as bad business as the films are perceived as mutually exclusive, leading viewers to consume a single movie. In contrast, many historical figures repeatedly portrayed on screen lack a signature adaptation (like Napoleon). In many cases, these characters do not dominate the story, either embedded within an ensemble (like in westerns) or overshadowed by a grand artistic production (like costume dramas and epics).
5. Fewer Contemporary Figures
Few figures born in the last 120 years are repeatedly portrayed on screen. Of course, given the recency of their accomplishments, there has been less time to depict these figures, especially when compared to Jesus, though other factors are at play. There is the issue of life rights and filmmaking permissions, which is subject to highly complex legalese. In short, you don't need a person's consent to make a movie about their life, but doing so significantly increases legal exposure if your work is deemed liable. Producers frequently obtain exclusive rights for adaptations of definitive biographies on a given subject, like American Prometheus for Oppenheimer or Into the Wild, largely preventing future work on these topics. By contrast, figures from earlier eras, whether mid-modern or ancient history, can be incorporated into film projects without increased risk of legal action. There is no estate or legal team for Wild Bill Hickok, Caesar, or Socrates. Plus, many details about their lives are widely unknown, providing ample room for fictionalizing aspects of their stories.
Repeat depictions of a given historical figure are often the product of genre filmmaking. Films about Cleopatra, Jesse James, and Queen Elizabeth are compelling for reasons beyond their immediate story elements, as their mythology often serves as a vehicle for fantastical sets, costumes, and escapism. Hollywood's continued usage of historical icons bears similarity to its long-running reliance on fictional commercial properties (Marvel, James Bond, etc.), as characters operate as starting points for cinematic world-building. Yet, there are significant differences between fictional and historical movie characters, particularly in how they're presented to audiences.
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Which Fictional Characters Are Most Frequently Portrayed in Movies?
One of the earliest-known characters to become intellectual property is Sherlock Holmes. Created in 1887, Conan Doyle's brilliant detective spawned a vast array of adaptations, including plays, films, and a television series. The legal concept of intellectual property didn't exist in the late 19th century at the time of Holmes' invention. However, the popularity of Sherlock Holmes led to extensive licensing and control over the character's use. Doyle himself was involved in adaptations and even took legal action against unauthorized uses of his character.
Hollywood embraced Doyle's creation, acquiring the character rights from the Doyle estate and producing fourteen Sherlock films between 1939 and 1946. The series took a bizarre turn in later episodes as the movies eschewed Sherlock's traditional Victorian setting, rooting the character in WWII so that the detective could fight Nazis. Somehow, Sherlock Holmes became a mouthpiece for American war propaganda.
When we look at fictional characters most often depicted on screen, we find Doyle's beloved sleuth featured in 28 films.
Aspects of these characters present a stark departure from our list of frequently featured historical figures. Many of our real-life movie icons are known for wicked and violent behavior, such as Jesse James, Al Capone, Adolf Hitler, Richard Nixon, and Napoleon. Excluding "monster" and "vampire" characters from the horror genre, nearly all our heavily featured fictional film characters are known for fighting crime. Perhaps we enjoy historical stories of flawed real-life figures and mythical tales of selfless suprahuman do-gooders.
"Nobility" is the only overlapping category between our fictional and historical film icons. Real-life detectives and secret agents, who inspire many fictional film heroes, are seldom as well-known as the extensively documented actions of kings and queens. In the absence of notable real-life crime fighters, we create the extraordinary James Bond, Ethan Hunt, and Jack Ryan.
But my number one takeaway from this list, and our list of real-life icons, is the transient nature of genre films and the characters they valorize. There have not been movies about Sherlock Holmes, Wyatt Earp, Tarzan, The Three Musketeers, Queen Elizabeth I, or Caesar in the past decade. Genres and storytelling formats come and go.
If we look at the most popular character archetypes (fictional and real-life) by decade, we see a mixture of fleeting fads and evergreen mainstays.
Western adaptations, like Annie Get Your Gun and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, dominated the 1950s, while nobility-centered costume dramas, like War and Peace and Hamlet, flourished in the 1960s. Yet, these genres hardly appear in today's cinema. Meanwhile, stories of detectives and monsters endure over long periods, as mystery, thriller, and horror have remained a mainstay of contemporary film.
As you might have expected, superhero stories dominate the 2010s and 2020s, a product of the MCU's marvelous success. But Marvel's Cinematic Universe has had problems over the past few years. The studio's most recent release, The Marvels, grossed a paltry $47M in domestic box office in its opening weekend. Media coverage of the debacle has questioned the longtime viability of Marvel's MCU amidst widespread superhero fatigue. Will superhero tales be a flash in the pan, like westerns, or will these stories endure? Did people in the 1950s have cowboy fatigue?
Final Thoughts: Nothing Lasts Forever
In his recent piece "How to Kill a Superhero,"addressed the waning cultural supremacy of superhero films, in part by examining the extinction of once-ascendent genres.
“Other genres have come and gone—westerns and musicals and other box office draws of the past. Comic book franchises would eventually meet the same fate.”
He then featured a fantastic graphic that charts genre interest across time, where we see the rise of thriller and horror and the fall of westerns and musicals.
When I was younger, I assumed the movie concepts I knew and loved were evergreen—popular forever and always. And yet, in my twenty years of obsessive movie fandom, I've seen archetypes come and go. There are no more mid-budget movies, documentaries have migrated to streaming, romantic comedies are rarely released in theaters, and war films are extinct. There's nothing wrong with change—tastes are fluid, and markets conform to viewer preference.
Many cinephiles exclaim existential despair at the declining cultural eminence of moviegoing. Cinema has been reduced to superhero CGI garbage, and that's what movies will be forever. But what if these films are simply a fad? What if forty years from now, superhero fare is a relic from a ten-year run of solid Marvel movies followed by five to ten years of terrible comic book films?
Moviegoer tastes are dynamic. A successful Napoleon film may yield a universe of Napoleon content (or prove too authoritative to replicate). Westerns could return to vogue and revive the folklore of Calamity Jane and Jesse James. Anything's possible. The only certainty is that people will keep making films about Jesus—other than that, who knows.
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