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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 him 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.

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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 Dumb Dodo Bird for two of the most common targets.

Compare Historical Villain Downgrade. Contrast Historical Badass Upgrade.


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Examples:

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    Common Cases 
  • Whether she's depicted in a positive or negative light, Marie Antoinette's intelligence will generally be downplayed in fictional depictions of her. She proved quite the schemer during The French Revolution, and played a significant part in stroking and then sabotaging the 1792 war.
  • Ulysses S. Grant tends to get portrayed as a chronic drunk whose military successes were simply the result of him sending his men into the meatgrinder until the enemy lost. Not only were his drinking habits nowhere near as bad as is frequently claimed (historians find it more likely that he was simply bad at handling booze), but his victories were at least partly due to his use of innovative combat engineering and stratagems.
  • John Adams played a crucial role in the push for independence, funding The American Revolution, and the country's early diplomatic efforts, but he correctly predicted that he would be forgotten in comparison to figures like Franklin and Washington. Regarding the accomplishments of his presidency, Adams was most proud of the fact his administration had managed to narrowly avert a war with France, but likewise knew most people would have trouble appreciating a president for something they prevented. For a long time, if he was mentioned at all it was in connection with the Alien and Sedition Acts (but rarely the circumstances under which he signed them), causing him to be remembered mainly as the guy who restricted free speech. This started to change in the late 1960s, when a popular musical raised his profile significantly.
  • In addition to being frequently accused of killing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — which he almost certainly didn't do — Antonio Salieri spent over a century being derided as a mediocre composer. While his music spent centuries in obscurity, the revival of his fame in the 1980s (ironically spurred by a play that demonized him) has led many people who've actually heard it to strongly dispute the idea that he was "mediocre". While it's generally agreed that he wasn't as good as Mozart, that's hardly a slight against his talents.

    Films — Animation 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Dick depicts Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as a couple of egotistical buffoons.
  • 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.
  • 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 Somme". In the film he is further reduced to the status of Ares' puppet.
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    Literature 
  • 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.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Blackadder thrives on this trope.
  • 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 a civilization 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.

    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.

    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.

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