Over the course of history, we’ve gotten to know many rulers that became popular for different reasons, and in many cases, thanks to their bad qualities as well. These rulers have transcended their time thanks to works of art, novels, theater, and, in recent years, cinema and television. Today, many celebrities are proud to bring to your screen the stories of these famous rulers, in order to inspire you and the rest of the public to learn more about humanity’s past.
Bright Side put together a new selection of actors who played historical characters in series and movies, to compare what was seen onscreen with the paintings, sculptures, or photographs that would reveal what these leaders actually looked like when they were alive.
1. Emily Blunt as Queen Victoria in The Young Victoria
One of the most outstanding and well-known monarchs of the United Kingdom is Queen Victoria. She actually remained on the throne for more than 60 years and she has the second-longest reign in the country’s history now that Queen Elizabeth II broke the record. Victoria attempted to influence government affairs, becoming a national figure throughout the Victorian era that carries her name.
Both her story and her image have been depicted in several films, including the 2009 period drama The Young Victoria. This film stars actress Emily Blunt, who plays the monarch during her younger years. Back in the day, she had to deal with her possessive mother and her consort Conroy. Then, after inheriting the throne, she meets Prince Albert and is amazed by his level of education and sophistication, so she decides to marry him.
2. Joaquin Phoenix as the emperor Commodus in Gladiator
Commodus was a Roman emperor. He became known mostly because he was the last of his dynasty. In his early years on the throne, he had to share his power with his father, philosopher and emperor Marcus Aurelius. Then Marcus Aurelius died and he started ruling alone. But Commodus ended up bringing the empire to a major political crisis. He is also known for participating in the spectacles of the Colosseum as a gladiator, where he also emulated some of the great exploits of demi-god Hercules.
This unusual emperor was played by actor Joaquin Phoenix in the movie Gladiator. There, he was depicted as a man that was capable of doing anything to seize the throne. Although there are certain actions of the character that do not match the historical data, it is true that he fought as a gladiator at the same time as he was ruling the Roman Empire.
3. Colin Farrell as Alexander the Great in Alexander
Alexander the Great’s conquests throughout the ancient world were very inspiring and influential, not only for Macedonians at the time, but also throughout the centuries. This king wanted to expand his dominion beyond his home country of Macedonia, so he started by unifying all the city-states of Greece. He then expanded into Persia, Egypt, Macedonia, and finally he reached India. His goal was to create a multicultural empire.
In the film industry, we can highlight the biopic Alexander, where actor Colin Farrell played the greatest conqueror of Antiquity. While in the film, there were a few elements that are inconsistent with what existed during the time of Alexander the Great, like, for example, the lighthouse of Alexandria and the mosaic of Alexander, which wouldn’t have been built or made until a few years after his death.
4. Leonardo DiCaprio as King Louis XIV in The Man in the Iron Mask
Louis XIV’s reign lasted a total of 72 years and 110 days. It was the longest ever recorded in European history. He was crowned king of France in 1643 and is known for instituting a new political system: absolute monarchy. He basically centralized all the power in the country’s capital, Paris, and in himself. Other titles he received during his time “in office” were “The Sun King” and “Louis the Great.”
In the film The Man in the Iron Mask, actor Leonardo DiCaprio plays this historical figure who was also known for being a king who lived in luxury and enjoyed the pleasures of life, while his people went through a great economic crisis. Parallel to these events, the former musketeers meet the king’s twin brother who’s locked in prison. Together, they seek to free him in order to overthrow the tyrant. Historically, the identity of the masked prisoner has never been proven, although there are hypotheses about it that go in a similar direction as the plot of the movie.
5. Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown
Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne in 1952. By that time she was already married to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. In addition to the United Kingdom, she is also a monarch of other nations belonging to the Commonwealth. Some of these are Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Pakistan, and Ceylon.
Actress Claire Foy brought this current emblematic figure to the small screen in the first episodes of the series The Crown. There she shows how she made her transition from being a princess to the queen that we all know. However, she had to deal with an environment that was full of changes and conflict. At the time, Elizabeth II was a newlywed who had to maintain a whole empire in decline.
6. Yul Brynner as Ramesses II in The Ten Commandments
Among the most distinguished and well-known rulers of Ancient Egypt is Pharaoh Ramesses II. He was known to his successors by many other names such as “Ramses the Great” and “Great Ancestor.” In the early part of his reign he built a vast number of cities and temples. He ended up establishing the capital at Pi-Ramses, located in the Nile Delta. He also led important expeditions in Canaan, Nubia, and Syria.
This historical character appeared in several works of fiction, including the film The Ten Commandments. Actor Yul Brynner played this king of yesteryear. His portrait of Ramesses II was that of a ruler who subdued the ancient Jewish people. He ruled with an iron fist while at the same time he brought his foster brother, Moses, to shame after he returned from exile to liberate what he found out to be his people.
7. Gerard Butler as King Leonidas I of Sparta in 300
Sparta, a city-state that was Athens rival in Ancient times, was led by King Leonidas I during the Second Persian War. His army, however, was the last standing army that could protect the Greeks from the invasion of the Persian Empire. Leonidas was part of the legendary troop of 300 Spartans that passed away in battle in 480 BC while defending Greek freedom. A year after their defeat, the Greeks managed to defeat the Persian Empire’s army and cast away their enemies from their territory.
This and other historical battles were depicted in the film 300, where actor Gerard Butler stars as King Leonidas. In the film, Leonidas led a troop of 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, and 400 Thebans who were facing an army of more than 100,000 Persians. According to historical data, Leonidas’ troop consisted of 300 Spartans and 900 helots, a total of 1200 people who left Sparta to be part of the resistance.
8. Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in Cleopatra
Cleopatra was the last ruler of ancient Egypt. With her, ended a long dynasty of native rulers in the kingdom and, right after the end of her rule, the land became a Roman province. When she rose to power she had to share power with her brother Ptolemy XIII. But after a dispute between the 2 of them, a civil war broke out, from which the outcome is known to everyone today. On her end, Cleopatra started a relationship with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Finally, their sons became rulers of different territories that were controlled by Rome.
In the movie featuring Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, we see how she manages to win Caesar’s favor so that he will banish her brother Ptolemy and declare her the sole and absolute ruler of Egypt. The actress’s style influenced the popular image the world had of Cleopatra. She appeared with make-up and hairstyles that were similar to those of the ancient “Egyptian” style.
9. John Lone as Pu Yi in The Last Emperor
As a young boy, Pu Yi was named Emperor Xuantong of China. After that his rule lasted for about 4 years, and it ended when the country’s political regime changed from an Empire to a Republic. Despite this, he lived much of his childhood and youth isolated from the world, surrounded by the luxuries and benefits enjoyed by his ancestors for centuries. He is considered to be the last emperor of the country. He is also known for being the one who broke with some of the typical rules and formalities of a Chinese monarch, among them the prohibition of wearing glasses and the cutting of their traditional braid.
Actor John Lone starred in the movie The Last Emperor, playing Pu Yi during the time he had to spend in prison around 1950. In the movie, we are led to remember his youth through his eyes, and how he felt about being completely cut out of the political situation of the time. Then, when the revolution spread throughout the country, his life changed radically and he, as an individual, had to adapt to a new world as well.
10. Eric Bana as Henry VIII in The Other Boleyn Girl
One of the most renowned actions of King Henry VIII is his rupture with the Catholic Church. After that he established the Anglican Church and became its supreme leader. He is also known for marrying 6 times. His first wife was Catherine of Aragon, whom he divorced in order to marry Anne Boleyn, with the idea of having a son that could inherit his throne.
This famous king has appeared in several movie productions, one of them being The Other Boleyn Girl. In this film, actor Eric Bana plays Henry VIII, who is attracted to Mary, Anne Boleyn’s younger sister. Later during the movie he makes her his official mistress. However, the whole movie goes about how later on he would show interest in Anne and how she caused the divorce between him and Catherine.
11. Ciarán Hinds as Julius Caesar in Rome
During Rome’s Republican era, Julius Caesar went from being a military officer and patrician to gaining absolute control of Roman politics. This famous statesman managed to bring prosperity to his people during his tenure, but some senators saw him as a threat to the Republic. It’s because they believed that he was planning on bringing back the monarchy that they decided to conspire against him.
The first season of HBO’s series Rome features Julius Caesar played by actor Ciarán Hinds, who portrays him as a very ambitious man with ambiguous goals. During this time, one of his main concerns is to test the loyalty of other members of the Senate to see who’s on his side. Even though he is a patrician, he sides with the plebeians, announcing himself as a reformer.
12. Sean Connery as Richard I of England or Richard the Lionheart in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
In medieval England, there was a king who rarely spent time in the palace, sitting on his throne to rule his kingdom: this was Richard I of England. Also known as “Richard the Lionheart,” this monarch spent much of his reign outside England because he was taking part, first in the Crusades, and then in military campaigns in the regions of Cyprus and Sicily.
He became well known because in popular culture he appeared in several literary and cinematographic works. The most famous of these works is the legend of Robin Hood. And in the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, King Richard was played by actor Sean Connery, who appeared briefly in the final scene to make Hood’s marriage to Lady Marian official.
13. Cristiana Capotondi as Empress Elisabeth of Austria in Sisi
Raised far from the strict rules of the royal palace, Empress Elisabeth of Austria (also known as “Sissi” or “Sisi”) was known for being a free spirit. Her love for freedom prevented her from adapting to the protocols of royalty. Her daughters were raised by Archduchess Sophie, who disapproved of the young sovereign’s actions, which meant they were always in dispute.
In the TV show Sisi, this empress was played by actress Cristiana Capotondi. Sisi is portrayed in her younger years and the series is about how the Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph, falls in love with her at first sight, much to the displeasure of her mother. According to historical data, Princess Sophie planned for her son to marry Helene, Sissi’s older sister, because she wished to have a relative as a daughter-in-law instead of a stranger.
What historical character would you like to see in a series or a movie? And what celebrity do you think would be a good fit for that role?