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Historical Downgrade

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Sometimes a historical figure is twisted from their original roots into something more grand or vile, as a Historical Hero Upgrade or Historical Villain Upgrade.

But sometimes a story isn't interested in either of these. It neither wants them to be lionized or necessarily vilified, but at the same time it can't resist taking some of the shine off of them. While this could easily be just an attempt to humanize these figures and try to be more historically accurate, it's often far too easy to go that extra step and stuff a bit of Straw Loser in there. The result is a Historical Downgrade: while either a heroic or villainous shift could be said to be an increase in status, this take is definitely a lessening of stature no matter where the figure started out.

Those who have been lauded by history are most often made the target of this, but those who got the short end of the stick aren't immune... especially when their villainous portrayal is more pathetic than intimidating.

Extinct animals have been hit with this trope too; see Dumb Dinos and Doofy Dodo for two of the most common targets.

Compare Historical Villain Downgrade. Contrast Historical Badass Upgrade.

See Historical Relationship Overhaul for other changes a Historical Domain Character may receive.


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    Films — Animation 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Braveheart: For all the real Edward II of England's faults, he was certainly no coward. At the Battle of Bannockburn, he had to be dragged away because he wanted to keep fighting even after it became clear the day was lost. Here, however, he's notably craven.
  • The Death of Stalin:
    • While Georgy Malenkov was pretty weak-willed in reality, he wasn't quite as incompetent as he's portrayed. He was a charming conversationalist and knew about Beria's attempts to make him into a Puppet King, though he couldn't do much about them.
    • Anastas Mikoyan is portrayed as a cowardly Yes-Man like the rest of the Presidium. By contrast, the real Mikoyan was not only respected by both the American and Soviet political elites, he was something of an Honest Advisor who was actually ballsy enough to argue with Stalin.
  • Dick depicts Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as a couple of egotistical buffoons.
  • Operation Valkyrie: Claus von Stauffenberg, leader of the failed 1944 assassination attempt against Hitler, is often portrayed as practically a saint; Tom Cruise played him this way in Valkyrie. But the German film Operation Valkyrie takes pains to point out that Stauffenberg was a Hitler supporter when Hitler first came to power in 1933. It also shows some of the unfortunate comments he made in letters to his wife from the front line in 1939 Poland, like how Poland was a "riffraff" country filled with "Jewish and mixed races" and how Polish prisoners could be made to work German farms.
  • The 2010 Robin Hood movie was quite fond of this, the most obvious example being King Richard the Lionheart, who wobbles around the battlefield drunk and winds up being killed by a French cook taking a potshot. Prince (and then King) John meanders between this and the villainous version. The Sheriff definitely gets this, being rendered so laughably incompetent that even if he had been given a chance for villainy, he probably couldn't have managed it.
  • Schindler's List, surprisingly, does this with both Oskar Schindler and Amon Goeth—which you wouldn't think would be true, given how heavily the film emphasizes both the enormity of Schindler's attempts to save others and the utter cruelty of Goeth. In real life, Schindler started saving Jews well before he does in the film, as early as 1939—due to his connections with the Nazi Party, he was one of the first to know what was going on, and started acting fairly soon. In the film, he is depicted as hemming and hawing on the issue somewhat until he sees a massacre for himself, likely to give him more of an arc and emphasize his nature as a Mr. Vice Guy. Goeth, meanwhile, is estimated to have killed at least 500 people, and that's just the ones he killed personally—indeed, much of his infamy is that the Nazis ultimately fired him for cruelty to prisoners. That is not a joke. According to Spielberg, he felt that had he put more of the real Goeth's feats in the film, it would have been too over the top for audiences to believe it.
  • Time Bandits does this to every historical figure the heroes meet. Napoléon Bonaparte is obsessed with his height and barely pays attention to his conquests. Robin Hood is a clueless idealist who cannot control his thuggish followers. Even King Agamemnon, a nice guy and a brave warrior, would have died if Kevin hadn't saved him, and he allows Kevin to get kidnapped right under his nose.
  • Wonder Woman does this to Field Marshal Douglas Haig. In wartime and shortly thereafter Haig was considered as very capable strategist who was practically inventing modern warfare on the fly. Only after his death he became criticized as ineffective "Butcher of the Somme". In the film he is further reduced to the status of Ares' puppet.

  • The Masters of Rome series of novels does this to Brutus, who is portrayed as a basically decent person (at least compared to most of the other characters), but with the flaws of greed, timidity, pedantry and cowardice.
  • War and Peace loves to do this to every major historical figure in the Napoleonic Wars, particularly Napoleon himself, emphasizing how they don't really know what's going on and their commands are actually so out of touch with the actual reality of war that they don't matter much at all, as well as showing them to have more pathetic human motivations. This is to criticize the "Great Man" view of history that was popular at the time.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Blackadder thrives on this trope.
    • 'Blackadder II'' portrays Queen Elizabeth I as a total nutjob.
    • Prince George IV (a.k.a. Prince Minibrain) of 'Blackadder the Third'' would also count. Prince George may have been a glutton and profligate spender, but there's no indication he was an idiot. Then again, considering who he was replaced by in the end... In a case of Inverted Trope however, he was described as very fat in real-life (and several times in the series) but Hugh Laurie can hardly be described in this way.
    • Blackadder Goes Forth depicts Field Marshal Haig as a callous butcher in an office of tactical maps set up with soldier figures, and he casually sweeps them off and chucks them over his shoulder when Blackadder calls about that battle Haig is "planning." Haig does not respond well to being asked to return the favornote  and tells him to feign insanity (which has already failed), then hangs up.
  • The Crown (2016): The series ignored Princess Margaret's life-long passion for Childrens Care and her patronage for the arts and instead focused on her role as the Screw Up Partying Sister to Elizabeth II (ironic, given that early in the series Margaret pointed out the media's tendency to play "good sister, wicked sister" regardless of the truth).
  • I, Claudius: History remembers Augustus Caesar as a brilliant statesman, one of the most powerful and successful monarchs in human history, who laid the foundation for an Empire that would last 1,500 years. In the series, however, he's depicted as an emotional and gullible Manchild who is also an incompetent statesman. His wife Livia easily manipulates him and states that she's been the one holding Rome together in the face of Augustus's foolish policies.

  • 1776:
    • Richard Henry Lee did not behave so ridiculous-Lee in real life. Adams actually wrote of Lee as one of the people he liked the best in the Second Continental Congress and Lee had already done a great deal of work drumming up support for independence. His behavior in the show is by way of explaining why Lee, not Adams, introduces the measure, exposition for the political dynamics in play at the time, they needed a bombastic Show Stopper to make it through the lack of music for the next 30 minutes, and it was funny.
    • There was precious little scholarship on James Wilson at the time 1776 was written and with no information to go on, Stone and Edwards had to invent a reason for his last-minute switch to the Independence faction. The play's weak-willed Wilson is put on the spot and realizes that he can either vote "yes" in obscurity or vote "no" and be remembered forever for killing independence. Later research revealed that Wilson was a well-respected Congressman and a strong proponent of independence. He'd only withheld his "yes" that long because he insisted on polling his district to make sure he wasn't overriding their wishes.
    • This is an in-universe discussion between Adams and Franklin. Adams morosely speculates that he won't end up in the history books at all—instead, Franklin and Washington will have done it all. (And this was true for many years. 1776 did a lot to raise Adams from obscurity.)
      Adams: Franklin smote the ground and out sprang George Washington, fully-grown and on his horse. Franklin then electrified him with his miraculous lightning rod and the three of them—Franklin, Washington, and the horse—conducted the entire revolution by themselves.
      Franklin: I like it.

    Video Games 
  • The Great Ace Attorney: Soseki Natsume was, and still is, considered a strong contender for the greatest author in the history of Japanese literature. While the Soseki of GAA is a talented literary scholar and writer (and has already achieved national acclaim by the time of GAA 2-1), he's also an insanely paranoid Nervous Wreck who is mainly used as comic relief due to his overblown mannerisms and Large Ham tendencies.

    Web Animation 
  • Unbiased History: Played for Laughs, as the openly pro-Roman narrator Dovahatty frequently demeans accomplished people to promote his agenda. For example, he paints the Ancient Greeks as being dumb brutes who adopted the trappings of civilization from the Romans' Trojan ancestors, while in reality, the Greeks were widely respected by other cultures for their achievements and innovations, even by the Romans themselves.

    Web Original 
  • Hitler Rants generally turns Adolf Hitler into a Butt-Monkey who holds negligible influence outside the Führerbunker and is a constant victim of antics generally (but not always) committed by Fegelein. It also makes a mockery of the vast majority of his inner circle as well.

    Western Animation 
  • Robot Chicken does this to Adolf Hitler.
  • Time Squad played with this. The usual mission of the eponymous squad was to correct an individual who had, by the cause of whatever temporal anomaly, been on the receiving end of a Historical Downgrade, and it was their job to fix them and save history.