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Historical Villain Downgrade

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"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 a 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 squicky details of his life.

Basically, this trope occurs whenever a 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 extreme levels of evil that if you put it in a movie script, the audience would just roll their eyes at your "obvious" exaggeration.


Note that this trope isn't the same as Historical Hero Upgrade. That trope is when you turn a historical-domain character (whether he was really nice or not) into a full-on Hollywood-style hero. This trope is when you tone down some of the worst actions of your historical-domain character, but keep him as a villain.

Compare Lighter and Softer, Politically Correct History, Historical Downgrade. Contrast Historical Villain Upgrade. If a villain indulges in self-downgrading within the story, that's Evil Is Petty; if downgrading is all a villain does, that's Poke the Poodle.



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    Common Examples 
  • For obvious reasons, Fascist Italy is hardly ever portrayed in a positive light these days, but it tends to be portrayed as a relatively lesser evil than it was in reality. While its totalitarianism and imperialistic tendencies generally don't get glossed over, it's generally not depicted as being especially brutal or bloody, presumably at least partly due to the atrocities of its allies Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan being far more dominant in the popular imagination. In truth, while they may not have been quite on their level, the Italians did commit serious war crimes, particularly in Ethiopia, Yugoslavia and Greece. Not only that, but after the Nazis had established the Italian Social Republic in 1943, the Italian police and Fascists directly assisted the Holocaust (before the Jews had not been killed, though subject to segregation laws modeled on those of Germany). The situation there was mixed though, as the Italian Fascists were not officially antisemitic prior to 1938 (although they had antisemitic members) and some Jews were even Fascists (along with anti-Fascists, of course). However, increasingly they aligned with the Nazi as part of the Axis, resulting in the antisemitic laws and eventually assisting the Holocaust.
  • General Robert Lee often gets this treatment (especially in the South), mainly due to him having something of an honorable streak. Despite this, he still did some pretty terrible things (such as re-enslaving slaves that had escaped or joined the Union). Also while he did free his own slaves eventually, it was done entirely because his father's will required they be freed within five years of his death. He also had the slaves his wife inherited from her father flogged when they escaped prior to being freed (in his father-in-law's will, similarly) because he refused to let them go early. Although Lee did oppose slavery, this was in the abstract, not practically. Many fictional portrayals mention his opposition while omitting the rest.
  • World War II stories often give Imperial Japan this treatment. While they weren't as horrible as Nazi Germany, that's not much of an achievement, as they were still a brutal dictatorship who, among other things, were extremely racist towards non-Japanese Asians, as well as thinking that being defeated was the most dishonorable thing imaginable and thus treated prisoners and conquered people as badly as they could.

    Anime & Manga 
  • Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha The Movie 1st provides an in-universe example, given it's nature as Recursive Canon. While the movie doesn't make any attempt to gloss over Precia's crimes, it does try to paint her as more of a Tragic Villain who is shown to regret her actions in her final moments. Given that Fate served as a technical advisor for the movie, it would be fair to assume that she asked for her mother to be portrayed in a more sympathetic light.

    Comic Books 
  • Asterix plays Caesar's campaigns for laughs while using Non-Lethal Warfare and generally makes life in 52 BC Europe palatable to everyone. It's a rather complex case: on one hand, this being a comedy, most of his crimes against Gaul are downplayed-there are Gauls who seem to be no worse for wear, living in Roman land and he often makes peace with Asterix as it is in his best interests. On the other hand, he is often played as a vindictive and hateful Big Bad who would love nothing more than turn the Gauls to toast, a Bad Boss who will reward any failure with a free ticket to the Circus Maximus and a megalomaniac whose ego will never accept the village's independence.

  • In Conspiracy (2001), 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.
  • The SS camp commander Amon Goeth in Schindler's List is an Ax-Crazy individual who uses the Holocaust to indulge in murder. 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 SS. In fact, he didn't - he was so bad that the SS relieved him from duty in 1944, accusing him of embezzlement and maltreatment of prisoners. Imagine what you have to do to get disciplined for maltreatment of prisoners while running a Nazi concentration camp.
  • 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 DeSimone (Tommy DeVito) killed random strangers for target practice and was killed by the mob 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.
  • Casino doesn't try to pretend that Ace is any kind of hero, but he's portrayed as a doting husband who only makes his wife wear a beeper after she tries to run off with their daughter. His real life inspiration Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal actually brutally beat his wife, openly cheated on her & humiliated her by buying other women more expensive gifts than her yet was still enough of a hypocrite to make her carry around a beeper so he knew where she was all the time and that she was being faithful before she tried to run off (which considering how he was treating her was a lot more understandable).
  • 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. Of course, it would be very hard to buy the idea of a world-renowned bird scholar also being a sadistic murderer and child pornographer, even if you did want to vilify him.
  • Black Mass portrays Steve Flemmi as considerably more conflicted about his role in the Winter Hill Gang than he actually was. According to many people who knew him, including former associate Kevin Weeks, the real Flemmi enjoyed murder.
  • Tibeats and the Epps in 12 Years a Slave managed to be even worse in real life than in the film. For instance, the film omits a later scuffle between Northrup and Tibeats that ended with Tibeats chasing Northrup with an axe, while (contrary to the film where Patsey tries to bribe Northrup to kill her) Mrs. Epps tried to bribe Northrup to kill Patsey.
  • Alan Alda's Sweet Liberty had the author of a book about the Revolutionary War upset that they were making the sadistic Green Dragoon Banastre Tarleton a romantic lead. Ironically, The Patriot did the reverse - see Historical Villain Upgrade.
  • The Nazis in Bedknobs and Broomsticks are, of course, the bad guys. However, since this is a Disney film aimed at children, they aren't shown doing much real warfare or any of the other things they were infamous for. Even though, during the climax, a battalion of them is conducting a small-scale invasion / operation of sabotage on British soil, they never directly use their weapons on a human. The climactic battle is fought against possessed armors and furnitures.
  • The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc: Bishop Pierre Cauchon is here portrayed as trying to save Jeanne, and somewhat sympathizing with her. There is no historical evidence of this-much the opposite.
  • Downplayed in The Devil's Double with Uday Hussein, son of Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein and Ax-Crazy personified with a penchant for rape and torture. While the movie depicts Uday's atrocities and makes no bones of hiding it, it still comes nowhere near the real thing. For example, during the climax, he is gelded by his body double which did happen in real life after an assassination attempt, making it look like his days of raping are over. In reality, doctors managed to treat his wounds and he embarked on a sexual rampage, raping any young girl and women he could find to prove his virility.
  • Also downplayed with Lavrentiy Beria in The Death of Stalin; even in a cast full of unlikable Villain Protagonists, he stands out from the rest due to being a depraved sexual predator who has not a single redeeming quality. This is accurate to real life, but according to the director, they actually had to tone him down for the movie. For example, even Stalin himself was wary of him: after learning his daughter was alone with Beria at his house, he telephoned her and told her to leave immediately, and Beria even gloated about Stalin's death in real life, even going so far as to brag that he killed him.
  • Straight Outta Compton actually tones down infamous Death Row Records executive Suge Knight's Ax-Crazy behavior, with multiple real-life antics of his left out of the movie.

  • 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.
  • In his afterword for Sharpe's Enemy, the author notes that he probably wrote the deserters' leader Pot-au-Feu as a more likeable figure than he really was.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Sabrina the Teenage Witch's aunts met Caligula in one episode. While the true extent of the real Caligula's madness is debated it's generally agreed that he was at least rather unstable, but the Sabrina version appears a bit quirky but harmless.
  • 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.
  • In the TV version of Generation Kill, there is a minor character who told the POV group that Delta Company attacked a civilian hamlet because of cultural differences. The aftermath of this firefight is not described, though Fox News reporter Oliver North is said to be filming the incident. The author of Generation Kill later divulged that the real incident was far worse than the show's description: it caused massive casualties and Oliver North is said to be eager to take part in the attack himself.
  • 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.
  • Deadwood: The real Al Swearengen's whorehouse was a sexual slavery racket in which he lured young women and 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.

  • Hugh Spencer the Younger in Edward II is undoubtedly an opportunist who's happy to accept the rewards Edward showers on him for his support against the barons, but the Compressed Adaptation leaves no room for him to engage in the historical Hugh Despenser's land-grabs, extortion, and general exploitation of his relationship with the king.

    Video Games 
  • Command & Conquer: Red Alert Series:
    • 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. This might be partially explained by the fact that between the first two games the USSR was apparently a western puppet regime, which only broke free thanks to Yuri's influence. Out-of-universe it's just because the creators decided to emulate cheesy 1950s Dirty Communists propaganda (mind control plots, anyone?) rather than documentary material about the horrors of the early Soviet regime.
    • The Empire of the Rising Sun in RA3 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 enemies who surrendered or use them 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 RA3 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 the result of Values Dissonance (e.g. slavery before the ~1500s) or were somewhat balanced out by good acts generally receive little to no badmouthing in the Civilopedia.
  • Comes up In-Universe in Dishonored 2: there’s a small activist group/cult that hold the Lord-Regent from the first game in high regard and insist that, while his murder of Empress Jessamine was obviously bad, he was an Anti-Villain who just wanted save Dunwall and saw Jessamine’s death as as a tragic necessity. They’re not entirely wrong about this, but are conveniently leaving out the fact that the Lord-Regent’s idea of "saving" Dunwall was unleashing a plague to kill all of the city’s poor and criminal elements.
  • In the Crusader version of Stronghold, the atrocities of The Crusades are completely ignored. While the Crusaders in The First Crusade are mentioned as "ransacking the countryside for food" and while the fall of Jerusalem mission has a large amount of civilians around the camp fire (all of whom get killed by your forces on the way to the enemy lord), the more gruesome aspects of these wars are utterly ignored.
  • Zhang Fei from Dynasty Warriors gets his horrible behavior ignored. Historically speaking, he was a cruel and violent man, prone to beating his own men and brutally murdered several innocents. He was so unbearable, he was assassinated by his own men. Unlike Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which blames this behavior on alcohol, Dynasty Warriors ignores it completely. This comes as a small problem as the death of one of Shu's most important characters goes completely unaddressed.

  • Hark! A Vagrant often does this for laughs, such as this comic about Genghis Khan.
  • Parodied in Freefall, set on a newly colonized planet 500-odd years in the future, where cultural mores have drifted a bit:
    Florence: This used to be a monster! He shouldn't be portrayed like this!
    Winston: Just like Vlad the Impaler. He was also a monster. Then given distance and hundreds of years, look what happened to him.
    Florence: I don't care. (Picking up a plushie) Hitler shouldn't be cute. And he definitely shouldn't sparkle!

    Web Original 
  • In Hitler Rants, the notables of Nazi Germany are nowhere near as evil or threatening as they were in real life. Adolf Hitler is little more than a Butt-Monkey who comes up with ridiculous and nonsensical plans, Hermann Goering is hardly anything other than a quiet Big Eater who habitually checks his watch, Joseph Goebbels generally doesn't do anything worse than rant and snark, Alfred Jodl generally objects to Hitler's plans rather than doing anything himself, Wilhelm Burgdorf is pretty much just a temperamental drunk, and Hans Krebs' defining traits are his obsessions with maps and fish. Even Hermann Fegelein — a "Master of Antics" who's constantly pulling nasty tricks (usually on Hitler) — is a saint compared to his real-life counterpart, who committed serious war crimes and was described by Albert Speer as the most personally loathsome of Hitler's inner circle.

    Western Animation 
  • As the page quote suggests, this is lampshaded by Pinky and the Brain while discussing Caligula in one episode.
  • One episode of Captain Planet and the Planeteers has Doctor Blight and her future self go back in time to sell a nuclear bomb to Adolf Hitler, who is only called "the Fuhrer". The good guys react to him with horror, and he's so hateful that his gaze actually hurts Captain Planet, but the show never explains to its young viewers who exactly he is or what makes him so evil. Also, they redesigned his mustache so they could avoid really showing him.
  • One episode of Histeria! indicated that the World's Oldest Woman had met Hitler. Granted, the scene showed her shouting down to him in what was clearly Fire and Brimstone Hell.
  • There's an in-universe example in the South Park Halloween episode in season 1, arguably a parody of this trope as well. Cartman dresses up in a Adolf Hitler costume for Halloween, so the principal shows him a classroom video about how Hitler was a bad person. Because it's made for 8-year-old American children, it only says that "Adolf Hitler was a very, very naughty man!" and merely shows him speaking to a bunch of parading soldiers, which Cartman can't understand because of the language barrier. note  Based on that, the children are supposed to learn An Aesop that dressing up as Hitler to school is not acceptable. Things like the Holocaust and other war crimes couldn't be shown of course, because it's directed towards children. Cartman finds Hitler very cool instead, and imagines being in his place.
  • Nero appeared on one of Sherman and Peabody's segments of Rocky and Bullwinkle, where he was presented as Not Evil, Just Misunderstood. His music teacher started the Great Fire of Rome in this reality. Though it perhaps bears mentioning that the true extent of Nero's culpability is not at all clear, as discussed in detail on the History Marches On page, so this might be an unintentional subversion.
  • Nero also appeared in an episode of Garfield and Friends in the legend of the cat who invented lasagna. While he was depicted as a Villainous Glutton who has been known to have bad cooks executed, none of his real atrocities are mentioned.


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