Movies have introduced audiences to a wide variety of colorful characters for over a century. While some are original and born out of imagination, many filmmakers prefer to center their narrative around actual historical figures. Upon examination, the portrayal of many of these characters are exaggerated to the point of being fictionalized, but Hollywood has never shied away from pulling from the past to tell a good story. The following is a list of fifteen real people who you may have seen depicted on the silver screen.
15. King Leonidas
Even though the 2006 film 300 is a fantastical retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae, Gerard Butler’s character of Leonidas was based on a real Spartan king. He is known for his valor in leading a small group of Spartans and other Greek allies in 480 BCE against the King Xerxes. While Leonidas and his soldiers were eventually defeated at Thermopylae, they managed to delay the Persian king’s invasion of Greece. Due to his sacrifice, Leonidas earned himself hero status among the ancient Greeks.
14. William Wallace
William Wallace is perhaps one of the most famous historical figures in the Wars of Scottish Independence. After Edward I declared himself ruler of Scotland, Wallace spearheaded a campaign against the English king. His forces went on to win unlikely victories against the English army, leading to the capture of Stirling Castle and the invasion of northern English territories. In December 1297, Wallace was knighted; however, Edward I soon invaded Scotland again. Wallace was captured in 1305 and brought to London where he was hanged. He survived as a martyr for the Scottish people who continued to struggle for independence. While much of the film Braveheart is historically inaccurate, Mel Gibson’s portrayal of William Wallace quickly became iconic.
13. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Austrian-born Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is lauded as one of the greatest composers of all time. A prodigy at the age of six, he is credited with creating 24 operas and more than fifty symphonies. He died in 1791 at the age of 35. The 1984 film Amadeus was praised at the Academy Awards, taking home eight Oscars in total; however, much of the film itself, including the portrayal of Mozart, is inaccurate. Its central plot concerning a rivalry between the titular character and composer Antonio Salieri is based on unfounded rumors.
12. Solomon Northup
Based on the memoir Twelve Years a Slave, the film of the same name tells the story of Solomon Northup, a talented violinist. In 1841, two men who were supposedly affiliated with the circus tricked Northup into leaving the relative safety of the north to travel further south where he was then drugged and sold into slavery. After twelve years of suffering, a Canadian carpenter and a New York lawyer managed to secure his release. It has been reported that Northup was reunited with his wife and children.
11. Abraham Lincoln
While the sixteenth American president has made several cinematic appearances—Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter among them—perhaps the most famous portrayal is that of Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, a performance that earned him an Oscar. Lincoln is known for his role in the Civil War, the denunciation of slavery, and the Emancipation Proclamation issued in January 1863. Later that same year, he delivered the Gettysburg Address in which he described the US as a nation dedicated to the idea that all people are equal. On April 14, 1865, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.
10. Bonnie and Clyde
Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were a pair of infamous and often glamorized outlaws during the Great Depression. The couple met in 1930 and soon after embarked on a crime spree among the southern states. Their misdeeds often involved robberies and police shootouts. In May 1934, after being betrayed by a friend, they were ambushed by police and died. With Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty playing the titular characters in the 1967 movie, Bonnie and Clyde have been immortalized by Hollywood.
The 2003 movie Seabiscuit captures the story of one of the greatest underdogs and American athletes of the 20th century. From 1935 to 1940, Seabiscuit won 33 races and a record total of $437,730. His unprecedented fame can be attributed to the Great Depression, his unlikely story a wonderful distraction from the economic hardships of the times. An injured ankle meant the end of Seabiscuit’s career. He raced one last time, winning the Santa Anita which he had previously lost twice, before finally retiring. Seabiscuit died in 1947.
8. Oskar Schindler
Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Schindler’s List tells the real-life story of Oskar Schindler, a member of the Nazi party who managed an enamel factory in Krakow, Poland. Struck by the horrors of the Holocaust, he hired out of the Jewish ghetto, placing the local population under his care. Once Jews were being sent to Auschwitz or other death camps, Schindler used bribery and his wits as a war profiteer to keep his Jewish workers safe. At the war’s end, he was left penniless, but today is credited with saving over 1,200 Jews.
7. Mary Jackson
Mary Jackson is known for excelling as NASA’s first women of color working as an engineer. Beginning in the 1950s, she worked primarily on wind tunnels and analyzing the data from various flight experiments. Her position at NASA was hard won after years of fighting the injustice of racial segregation within the school system. Later in life, she switched to human resources where she worked tirelessly to create opportunities for other women and people of color. Her story, alongside that of Katherine Goble Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan, is told in the 2016 film Hidden Figures.
6. Adrian Joseph Cronauer
Adrian Cronauer was a disc jockey during the Vietnam War. In 1965, he was sent to Saigon as the news director for the Armed Forces Radio. He eventually took on the role of host for the “Dawn Buster” morning show. While Robin Williams’s portrayal of Cronauer in the movie Good Morning, Vietnam was loose at best, it stayed true to his energetic and bombastic greeting that inspired the film’s title.
5. Bob Woodward
The notorious Watergate Scandal is explored in the 1976 film All the President’s Men in which Robert Redford portrays famed investigative journalist Bob Woodward. Woodward was relatively new to his position at The Washington Post when he became involved in the story of a burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington in 1972. Alongside Carl Bernstein, he investigated the break-in, shocking the nation when they connected it to the highest levels of President Nixon’s administration. The Watergate Scandal greatly propelled Woodward’s career as a journalist forward.
4. Harvey Milk
Portrayed in the movie Milk by Sean Penn, Harvey Milk was the first openly gay elected official in American history after being appointed to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. His popularity among the gay community skyrocketed due to his activism and for challenging conventional conservative ideas. In November 1978, he was assassinated alongside Mayor George Moscone by Dan White, a former member of the Board of Supervisors.
3. Herb Brooks
Herb Brooks was the coach that led the US Olympic hockey team to victory in 1980 at Lake Placid. Seen as the underdogs, there had been very little chance of success against the seemingly undefeatable Soviet Union. Considering the tension-filled backdrop of the Cold War, the American victory also held great symbolic significance. Following the Olympics, Brooks later joined the NHL as coach for the New York Rangers. The gold medal game was the center of the 2004 film Miracle.
2. Freddie Mercury
Born Farrokh Bulsara, Freddie Mercury was the frontman of the British rock band Queen. Alongside his three other bandmates, Mercury composed such classics as Bohemian Rhapsody and We Will Rock You. After he came out to his fiancé Mary Austin, the two continued to share a close friendship. Popular in a time when homophobia ran rampant not just in the music industry but society at large, Mercury challenged gender norms, primarily through his bold fashion choices. He died of an AIDS-related illness in 1991. While the film Bohemian Rhapsody has been criticized for presenting a somewhat toned-down version of the superstar’s sexuality, Rami Malek won an Oscar for bringing an energy to the role that mirrors Mercury’s own.
1. Paul Rusesabagina
Portrayed by Don Cheadle in the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda, Paul Rusesabagina was the manager of the Diplomat Hotel in Kigali during the genocide of Rwanda’s Tutsi population. In 1994, he offered sanctuary to over 1,000 people. Threatened by the local militia, he resorted to desperate pleading and the bartering of luxury items to keep everyone safe. Not a single person who stayed at the Diplomat Hotel during the genocide died.
About the Author
Nathaniel Whelan has an M.A. from Carleton University and a diploma in Professional Writing from Algonquin College. When he is not serving coffee at his local Starbucks, he can be found reading, writing, or buried under a pile of LEGO. He currently lives in Ottawa with his partner and pet cats Goose and Loki.
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