Historical Villain Downgrade

"Caligula was no Boy Scout; he did things we can't even talk about."

Of course, we all know what an Historical Villain Upgrade is: that's when you take an Historical-Domain Character who is generally notable for being not a nice person (or at worst, an opponent of whoever your hero happens to be) and transform them into full-on Hollywood-style villain.

But there are certain characters in history whose actions can't be depicted realistically on, say, a children's TV series. Sometimes not even on adult series.

That's where the Historical Villain Downgrade comes in. You don't need to dwell, for example, on the fact that Adolf Hitler was responsible for a systematic genocide that resulted in almost twelve million deaths; it is enough for audiences to know that he was a Very Bad Man. Likewise, you might present Emperor Caligula as a lech with a god complex. No need to get into the squicky details of his life.

Basically, this trope occurs whenever an historical villain's evil actions are either glossed over or reduced in severity, in order to make them palatable, even as a villain, to mainstream television audiences. Sometimes it's because Reality Is Unrealistic — there are a few cases of real people displaying such pantomime levels of evil that if you put it in a movie script, the audience would just roll their eyes at your obvious exaggeration.

Compare Lighter and Softer, Politically Correct History. Contrast Historical Villain Upgrade.


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    Comic Books 
  • Astérix plays Caesar's campaigns for laughs and generally makes life in 52 BC Europe palatable to everyone.

  • In Conspiracy, which revolves around the 1942 Wannsee Conference where prominent officials of Nazi Germany met to discuss the implementation of the Holocaust, SS Major Rudolf Lange is given this treatment. Given the subject matter, it is not surprising that all the people portrayed in this film are unambiguously evil. Major Lange, however, is depicted as almost sympathetic, possibly to better contrast with the even more brutal figures sitting at the table such as Reinhard Heydrich and Heinrich Müller. He is clearly haunted by the atrocities that he has overseen in Latvia, expresses contempt at Heydrich for insisting on euphemisms during casual discussions of organized genocide, and shows a philosophic bent. In real life, the guy was an unrepentant anti-Semite, mass murderer, and ruthless careerist.
    • Part of this is because Lange is used to highlight the Nazi objection to the Einsatztruppen: it was deeply unsettling to execute large numbers of noncombatants with a gun. This is one of the reasons why the gas chambers were developed; they removed the killers from the consequences of their actions. Lange's objections are intended to reflect this - he doesn't give a damn about the fact that Jews have died, but doesn't like having to kill them. He is contemptuous of Heydrich, because Heydrich hasn't been there and overseen the killing himself. The fact that he is at least a source of irritation for Heydrich conspires to paint him in a better light than he actually is in the film.
    • In Real Life, nobody at the conference offered any real objection to killing the Jews, in part because the conference itself falls under either this trope, Historical Villain Upgrade, or History Marches On: the extermination of the Jews was already a go-ahead. The point of this conference was not to organize the Holocaust so much as rubber stamp it.
  • The SS camp commander Amon Goeth in Schindlers List is a prime portrayal of a sadistic monster who loved murdering people during the Holocaust. The real life Goeth was even worse: Spielberg had to tone down the man's senseless cruelty because his crimes were so horrible and numerous (which included a frequently used torture dungeon built under his house, feeding prisoners alive to his starved dogs, shooting playing children with his sniper rifle, personally killing five hundred people, and more) that an audience simply wouldn't have believed it on screen - some had trouble even grasping that a lunatic such as the one shown in the movie could keep his job, even in the S.S.
  • Kingdom of Heaven has various Historical Upgrades and Downgrades abound. The film's portrayal of Reynauld de Chatillon, however, was if anything too mild. He's portrayed as Guy's dragon, whereas in real life the two men hated each other, and the film leaves out the fact that he led a Pirate fleet that threatened to burn down Mecca and that he flayed the Patriarch Of Antioch alive. This is one of the most common criticisms by critics, since these elements could've made it a much more interesting story.
  • Goodfellas is told through the eyes of Unreliable Narrator Henry Hill, who implies that for all the bad things he does in the movie (theft, assault, drug dealing, drug taking, etc.) he had never personally murdered, with the closest he gets being to lock the door while Jimmy and Tommy beat Asshole Victim Billy Bats to death and helping them cover it up (though this would still make him culpable legally). In Real Life he is known to have murdered at least two people. Jimmy and Tommy, though, while each portrayed accurately as extremely ruthless and violent gangsters who murder countless people throughout, were actually even worse in Real Life: Jimmy Burke (Conway in the film), in particular, would sometimes lock children in refrigerators, murdered or had murdered even more people, and really did screw nearly everyone out of the Lufthansa heist. The killing spree was partly prompted by the others asking for their fair cut; Tommy De Simone (Tommy De Vito) was also more murderous and was killed not just for the murder of Billy Bats, but because Paulie found out he had tried to rape Hill's wife Karen while Henry was in prison (Henry didn't find this out until the trial shown at the end of the movie). Paul Vario (Paulie Cicero) was also much more violent in reality: what disdain he had for it was pure Pragmatic Villainy as violence drew attention and was bad for business. He was also having an affair with Karen, hence selling out Tommy for the Billy Bats murder.
  • While the gang itself is correctly portrayed as a bunch of vicious morons in Pain and Gain, individually speaking, Adrian was much more of an unstable lunatic in real life.
  • Birdman Of Alcatraz portrayed Robert Franklin Stroud as orders of magnitude gentler than his prison records show.

  • Happens sometimes in the Dear America series, due to the fact that it's made for children. A very obvious example of a whole group being downgraded is in My Heart is on the Ground by Ann Rinaldi, which makes the white men who took Lakota children to be "reeducated" in the ways of white people seem only like misguided missionaries.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Sabrina the Teenage Witch's aunts met Caligula in one episode.
  • Uday Hussein's sadistic nature is toned down quite a bit in the House of Saddam Mini Series because the producers thought that the audience would just have trouble accepting that a human being could be as wantonly cruel as he was in real life.
  • The Borgias:
    • Juan Borgia is depicted as a stupid lech whose actions can be explained away by insecurities. And he really does love his family. The real Juan was sometimes referred to as a sort of idiotic sociopath: he was once chided for killing cats.
    • His older brother Cesare is The Dutiful Son who also loves his family and would do anything for them. The general consensus is that the real Cesare Borgia was all but a sociopath: the only person he loved in the world was his sister, Lucrezia (the show does get that right, but he seems to have never felt the loyalty to his parents that the series implies). While he falls madly in love over the course of the show, he all but stated in reality that the only woman who had any worth in his eyes was Lucrezia. Though the first season is set up as his Start of Darkness, he was already dark by the time these events occurred, so dark that he would stand on a balcony, shooting at prisoners for target practice (with little sis by his side, of course). The writers may have downgraded him for now due to the fact that few would believe that someone could be that bad that early in his life. Also remember that all these accounts of the Borgias were by their enemies, who of course can always be relied upon to give unbiased descriptions.
      • However, by the end of the second season, both of these become more historically accurate. Overall, this is a shtick of the show, making characters less-evil than their counterparts TEMPORARILY so they can have some Character Development to go around.
  • Being a kids' show, Horrible Histories has to do this occasionally; though they do talk about death and violence frequently, some historical figures still have to be downgraded or at least simplified. Hitler is rarely used at all, and a lot of things are omitted from the segments about people like Caligula or Henry VIII.
  • Richard Nixon has shown up in Doctor Who on a couple of occasions, generally coming across as a reasonably sensible, personable type, although no more than usually progressive for his era. The matter of his being crooked as a bag of snakes is conspicuous by its absence.
    Nixon: Doctor, dare I ask, being a President at the beginning of his time... will I be remembered?
    Doctor: Oh, Dicky, Tricky Dicky... they are never gonna forget you. Say hello to David Frost for me!
  • Deadwood: The real Al Swearengen's whorehouse was a sexual slavery racket in which he lured young women and then forced them into prostitution through abuse. The Swearengen on the show is a cutthroat and at times abusive to his prostitutes, but he isn't nearly so systematic about it, and he gets several Pet the Dog moments.

  • Two examples from the Command & Conquer: Red Alert Series:
    • The Soviets after the first game. The first game gives what many accounts would consider an accurate depiction of Stalin's regime, but in the next two games they're just a joke.
    • A bigger case is the Empire of the Rising Sun in RA 3, who are clearly modeled after Imperialist Japan, which in real life was infamous for its war crimes, which include pointless mass murders by the hundreds of thousands, enslavement of tens of thousands of women as sex slaves, and performing medical experiments on prisoners from their colonies that killed thousands of people. Even the whole honor aspect that's presented as a joke in the game was a scary thing in real life; they considered surrender dishonorable and would execute or use enemies who surrendered as slave labor, and fed their civilians propaganda about the Allies that drove them to commit suicide by the tens of thousands when America invaded the Japanese home islands. All of these thing are of course never brought up in the game and the Empire is simply presented as an over-the-top comedic organization, though interestingly it is brought up in an in-progress mod called Red Alert 3: Paradox where in the mod's version of RA 3 events, the Empire butchered a major Soviet city.
  • Civilization's Civilopedia generally glosses over the boatloads of terrible things its various civilization leaders did. The general trend appears to be that only leaders famous for warmongering and being all-around jerks like Josef Stalin or Attila mention their crimes. Others whose crimes are not completely confirmed, were Fair for Its Day (e.g. slavery before the ~1500s) or were somewhat balanced out by good acts generally receive little to no badmouthing in the Civilopedia.


    Western Animation 

  • Pretty much any depiction of North Korea will tone their atrocities down significantly.
  • Any depiction of Imperial Japan will be toned down from their real life versions, especially if Japanese media made it. Despite being one of the most horrifying civilizations ever, with brutality that matched the Mongol hordes, they tend to seldom be depicted accurately. Sometimes they are even depicted sympathetically - "forced" into a war they didn't want by the hypocritical West against an overwhelming foe as they honorably lay down their lives in defense of their island. As for any purported atrocities, they either didn't happen, are exaggerated, their victims deserved it, or the other side was just as bad. Most filmmakers instead choose to focus on the crimes of the Nazis, most likely because the Japanese public is still uncomfortable about acknowledging the actions of the Empire, unlike the Germans. As the historian Stephen Ambrose put it, "The Japanese presentation of World War II to its children runs something like this: 'One day, for no reason we ever understood, the Americans started dropping atomic bombs on us'".
  • Various historical dictators will have their atrocities glazed over by the modern apologists, for political reasons.
  • This action figure of Sir John A. Macdonald comes with a brief biography (obviously written for children) in which it is stated that he and Louis Riel "did not get along very well." The fact of the matter is that Macdonald and Riel fought two wars against each other, at the conclusion of which Riel was executed.
  • In media based on the New Testament of The Bible, Pontius Pilate is often portrayed as reluctant to sentence Jesus to execution. This is unlikely given that Pilate was recalled to Rome because the Romans though he was too brutal.
    • Well, there are very, very, very few sources pertaining to Pilate; perhaps the only two sources apart from the Gospels that deal with him at all are the Jewish scholars Philo and Josephus- the latter, in particular, not known as the most reliable source. Both men portray him as a man who was insensitive to the Jews and who went out of his way to deliberately annoy them (which inspired minor rebellions; the brutality thing concerns how they say he put those rebellions down)- it's possible he did indeed want to let Jesus go, perhaps partly or even only because he wanted to annoy the Jews!
  • Gilles de Rais was one of Joan of Arc's companions, an all-around man's man, and a successful soldier. That's the Theme Park Version, anyway-the fact that he was also a serial rapist and killer of children tends not to be mentioned in kid's history books. For older readers, however...
    • Gilles, while being one of the inspirations for Bluebeard (who's himself definitely not on the level of his historical counterpart), is a somewhat contentious case for modern scholars; a non-negligible number theorise (with pretty good though not definitive evidence to back it up) that his crimes, trial, and condemnation were a politically-minded frame-up (as a Breton nobleman loyal to France at that time was pretty much guaranteed to have lots of nearby enemies, especially one famed for being a companion to Joan of Arc). The Other Wiki elaborates a bit on the topic.
    • Averted in Fate/Zero, which plays out this aspect of him for all its worth.
  • The history books often leave out the African Slaver-Kingdoms, who were among the most heavily-armed (with muskets and cannon, no less) people in the world and rolling in cash. They made their money from, you guessed it, sending troops out on raiding expeditions to round up whole villages and tribes and sell them to the Arabs and Europeans. Their existence is the reason why European slave-traders brought so many old(-ish) people and children to the new world - the Slaver-Kingdoms dictated the terms of trade, and the Europeans had to accept what they were given.
    • Likewise, the Arab slave trade is rarely brought up, even while it started centuries earlier and ended decades later than the European slave trade. Functionally there was little difference between Mesopotamian and American plantations either in the structure of said plantations or the mortality-rates (i.e. low enough that natural population increase was possible, something unimaginable in the disease-ridden tropics of the Caribbean), save the raw numbers (i.e. fewer East African/Arabic slaves). Additionally, due to its greater length, the Arab slave trade actually racked up more victims than the Europeans.
  • The Marquis de Sade's writings are well known of course, but most people do not realize that he appears to have acted on the same impulses his characters expressed. He was imprisoned repeatedly for raping prostitutes and servants, getting off lightly because he was a nobleman. Despite his notoriety, these crimes are rarely mentioned when his name comes up, and many people think of him as a great liberal inspiration.