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Movie Monarchs: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The eagerly anticipated The King’s Speech is soon to be released on a greater scale. There is a high amount of Oscar buzz already for this historical film, which was nominated yesterday for a best seven Golden Globes. Many kings, queens, emperors, princes and princess have ruled in films, in factual and fictional stories. Here are some of the good and bad rulers we have seen in film so far.


– – – THE GOOD- – –

Queen Elizabeth of England – Elizabeth
Many actresses have played Queen Elizabeth I: Helen Mirren, Glenda Jackson and Judi Dench, but Cate Blanchett is the most famous cinematic adaptation. Blanchett earned two Oscar nominations and both performances were different. The first film showed Elizabeth I as a young woman thrown into a situation she never expected and became the surprised ruler of a country that was politically and religiously divided. She had to learn quickly to survive and grew as a character. Elizabeth: The Golden Age turned Elizabeth into a tougher, fiery character and a warrior-woman, leading England to one of her greatest victories. Despite Blanchett’s strong performance, I do love Miranda Richardson’s comical version in Blackadder. She made out Elizabeth to be a spoiled child-like character with very funny results.

King Leonidas I of Sparta – The 300 Spartans, 300
King Leonidas I of Sparta’s story about leading a small forces to defend the Thermopylae mountain pass has been made into a film twice: one a historical epic, the other a stylised comic book adaptation. Both films showed Leonidas as a brave, smart and charismatic leader. Richard Egan made Leonidas out to be a calmer, studious character, whilst Gerald Butler’s version was louder, a man who inspired his troops with his speeches (which worked well with his Scottish accent). Both were fitting for the film’s setting. Isn’t Leonidas the man you would want leading your army? In reality the Greek force numbered from 5,000 to 11,200 and modern estimates of the Persian army was around 70,000 to 300,000: the Greeks were still heavily outnumbered but 300 against a million is an exaggeration. My medieval history lecturer said he would have sided with the Persians because they were less brutal then the Spartans, but that would not have made such as romantic story.

King Henry V of England – Henry V
We English love talking about our heroes: Horatio Nelson, Winston Churchill, Bobby Moore — Henry V is considered one of England’s greatest commanders and kings. William Shakespeare turns the story of his invasion of France into one of his most famous plays with some of the best speeches in literature. The play has been adapted twice, one as a pro-war film, the other an anti-war piece. Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh played the king and both made him out to be human, a man with doubts before the Battle of Agincourt when outnumbered by the French. Both actors made Henry V out to be an intelligent man, with Branagh’s being more cunning and calculating then Olivier’s. Oliver’s version of the film was a more fantasy-like film, starting as a stage play with a Wizard of Oz-like background. Branagh made his film to be much more violent and realistic, showing the horrors of war. Like with King Leonidas, Henry V’s actions were reckless, but again, it would not have made as romantic of a story without the “madman” leading troops into a suicidal battle.

– – -THE BAD- – –

King Edward I of England – Braveheart
In Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, his vision of Edward I is a truly horrible figure. He allows his nobles to rape Scottish women on their wedding day, enforce brutal laws, betrays and kills people when he promised peace talks, attempts to breed the Scots out, fires arrows at his own troops, threw his son’s gay lover out a window and worst of all, he is a Pagan! Patrick McGoohan was in fall pantomime mode when playing this villain who was naturally pure evil. There was no ounce of goodness or reason for his actions. In real life, Edward I did enjoy going to war, conquering the nation of Wales and installed a puppet king in Scotland after the Guardians of Scotland invited him to solve their succession crisis. He fought in the Crusades and kicked the Jews out of England after he borrowed money off them. Shouldn’t he have been Mel Gibson’s favourite English King?



KIng Louis XIV of France – The Man in the Iron Mask
Alexandre Dumas’ The Man in the Iron Mask is popular novel and features King Louis XIV of France as the main antagonist. The novel has been adapted a number of times, making the king a good guy and a bad guy: one of the most famous was Randall Wallace’s version. Louis was made into a dastardly pretty boy and Leonardo DiCaprio was a perfect fit. Louis did everything possible to be evil, including locking up his own twin brother in isolation and in an iron mask, making an army officer lead a suicidal charge so he could seduce his fiancé, giving the people of Paris rotting food and executing one of his advisors because of it and ordering the assassination of the leader of the Jesuits. And he did this whilst he lived in luxury in the French countryside, seducing beautiful women, hosting parties and dances as the people suffered. Don’t you just hate him?

Emperor Commodus – Gladiator
Following the footsteps of a successful predecessor can be a daunting prospect. Many monarchs have not been able to match their fathers. Commodus of Rome was one of them. His father, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), had such little faith in his son in Gladiator that he wanted one of his most loyal general to succeed him. Commodus’ evil traits started early, murdering his own father with his own hands, then ordering the rape and murder of Maximus Decimus Meridius’ wife and child as well as commissioning countless gladiatorial contests. But worst of all he wanted to sleep with his sister. Joaquin Phoenix gave Commodus a quiet demeanour, making him a Machiavellian political strategist and was very willing to use violence in some form. He cared about his own position then the people he ruled. It was the role that made Phoenix into a major actor and he earned himself an Oscar nomination. Ridley Scott, Phoenix and the writers understood to make Commodus a more complex character, someone who did love his nephew and he hosted the games for the people (as well as for himself). And a little fun fact, Phoenix was so into his performance he really did faint.

– – -THE UGLY- – –

King Richard III of England – Richard III
Shakespeare made many plays about English kings and Richard III is one of his most famous. Richard III is one of the most unpopular kings in English history, most historians believe his killed his nephews, the Princes in the Tower and usurped the throne for himself. He only lasted two years before overthrown by Henry VII and he is the only English monarch not to be buried in Westminster Abbey. In Shakespeare’s take on history, Richard III has a hunched back and a withering arm and Sir Laurence Olivier kept that feature in what is consider one of the best Shakespeare adaptations. Olivier, who had a love for Shakespeare, took on his second English king role. His version of the king is a bitter one because of his deformity and willingness to do anything to gain the crown of England for himself. Olivier gave one of his most passionate performances.

King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem – Kingdom of Heaven
Not all ugly kings are necessarily evil kings. Edward Norton took on the role of Baldwin IV, a peaceful man who wanted peaceful relations with his Islamic neighbours and cooperation between the three religions within his realm. Norton made his character a calm finger throughout Kingdom of Heaven. But Baldwin IV was cursed with leprosy and forced to wear a silver mask. Despite his disability and attempts to be a good king, he does have a ruthless streak, making one of his disloyal commanders kiss his diseased hand — nasty! And when his mask was finally taken off, he really was ugly.

The Witch King of Angmar – Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
The Witch King of Angmar is easily one really ugly king, but weirdly if there was a Mr. Mordor competition he would be the favourite to win it: his competition would be a bunch of Orcs and the Eye of Sauron (reason alone to buy the extended version of “Return of the King”). The Witch King of Angmar was a king who was corrupted by one of Sauron’s men because as you know men are stupid and corrupt. He is the leader of the Ringwraiths and the main threat to Middle-Earth, ruling the northern lands of Angmar. He led Mordor’s armies during the battle of Minas Ithil where he nearly succeeded and batters women! He had a particular dislike for Gandalf, but how could anyone hate that white haired wizard.

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