Scriptwriters often turn to history for inspiration. In particular, historical figures inspired some famous fictional movie characters.
Therefore, reading history can help screenwriters and fiction writers create intriguing characters. History helped past writers create some of their most famous characters.
Some famous movie characters and the historical figures who inspired them include:
1. Napoleon III and the Emperor Palpatine (Darth Sidious)
Palpatine is the most prominent movie character whose career mirrors that of a major historical figure. Even the name Palpatine, is similar to the name Napoleon.
Unlike his famous uncle Napoleon I, Napoleon III rose to power through politics not military conquest. Napoleon III was a brilliant and ruthless politician who manipulated the French Republic’s political system to make himself Emperor.
In the Star Wars universe, Palpatine was a brilliant and ruthless politician who manipulated the Galactic Republic’s political system to make himself Emperor of the Galaxy. Napoleon III destroyed France’s Second Republic and created the Second Empire on its ruins. Palpatine destroyed the Galactic Republic and built the Galactic Empire.
Palpatine served as Chancellor (Chief Executive) of the Galactic Republic until he established the Galactic Empire. Napoleon III used his office as President of the Second French Republic to establish the Second French Empire.
In a final similarity, both Palpatine and Napoleon III were incompetent military commanders. Napoleon III oversaw two bungled military campaigns that led to his downfall.
First Napoleon III’s invasion of Mexico, wasted resources and cost lives but ultimately failed. French armies became bogged down in Mexico to create a puppet state ruled by the incompetent Emperor Maximilian.
It was the clear the Mexican people rejected Maximilian and French occupation but Napoleon III went ahead with the plan. French troops only withdrew from Mexico after U.S. President Andrew Johnson (D-Tennessee) threatened to send the victorious Union Army into Mexico.
Second, Napoleon III lost the Franco-Prussian War which destroyed his empire. Napoleon III believed his armies were invincible even though the German armies were far superior.
Palpatine wasted his empire’s resources on massive and ineffective weapons the Death Stars. Remember, the rebels easily destroyed the Death Stars despite the vast resources invested in them.
Moreover, Palpatine’s top commanders; including Darth Vader and Grand Admiral Thrawn, warned him that the Death Stars were ineffective weapons. Additionally, Imperial commanders were aware of the Death Stars’ weaknesses. Darth Vader, in particular, made a point of getting off the first Death Star before its only battle with Rebel forces.
Under Palpatine’s command, the Empire’s firepower could not overcome rag-tag Rebel forces. In fact, they redeployed most of the Imperial forces to defend the Second Death Star.
A strategy that allowed the Rebels to concentrate their forces for a successful attack. Notably, Imperial Forces were far more effective under Thrawn’s command after Palpatine’s death.
Under Napoleon III’s command the French Empire was incapable of defending France despite heavy investment in elaborate military technologies. For instance, Napoleon III deployed one of the world’s first machine guns which proved no match for Prussian artillery.
Hence, Palpatine could the movie character who most closely matches the behavior of a historical figure.
2. The Emperor Palpatine and the Sultan Mahmud II
Another historical monarch who inspired Palpatine’s career was the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II.
In the Revenge of the Sith Palpatine cemented his power with the Great Jedi Purge or Order 66. During the Purge, Palpatine ordered his clone Stormtroopers to hunt down and kill all Jedi.
Palpatine created a new military force; the Clones and used that army to eliminate the biggest threat to his power the Jedi. The Jedi were the historic military and police force of the Galactic Republic.
Likewise, in 1826, Sultan Muhmad II eliminated the Ottoman Empire’s historic military and police force; The Janissaries, in the Auspicious Incident. In the Incident, Muhmad’s new army the Sekban-ı Cedit used artillery to bombard the Jannisary barracks and set it on fire. During the fight Turkish soldiers killed over 4,000 Jannisaries.
Similarly, Palpatine’s reign began with an attack on the Jedi Temple by the 501st Legion under Darth Vader’s command. Like Muhmad II, Palpatine justified his slaughter by correctly claiming the Jedi tried to overthrow him.
After the Auspicious Incident Muhmad II banned the Jannisaries’ major religious organization: the Sufi Bektashi Order. After the Great Purge, Palapatine banned the Jedi Order.
Muhmad exterminated the Jannisaries because they threatened his program of military modernization. The program included a new corps of soldiers loyal to the Sultan to bolster his political power and destroy Muhmad’s enemies.
Similarly, Palpatine exterminated the Jedi to gain absolute control over the Republic’s military. Like Muhmad, Palpatine built a new military force the Imperial Army and Navy loyal to him to replace the Jedi.
After the Auspicious Incident, surviving Janissaries went into hiding. After the Great Jedi Purge, the surviving Jedi went into hiding.
Therefore, Star Wars creator George Lucas grounded Palpatine’s story in real history. The fictional Emperor Palpatine employs the tactics of ruthless historical monarchs.
3. Tony “Iron Man” Stark and Howard Hughes Jr.
The notion Marvel based Iron Man’s alter ego Anthony Stark on Elon Musk is wrong. Instead, Marvel guru Stan Lee based Tony Stark on another colorful innovator Howard Hughes.
Iron Man; and Tony Stark, first appeared in Tales of Suspense #39 in March 1963; a full eight years before Musk was born in 1971. Thus there is no way Musk inspired Stark.
Iron Man’s original creative team; Lee, writer Larry Lieber, and artists Jack Kirby and Don Heck based Stark’s persona on aviator and millionaire Howard Hughes. In fact, Heck and other artists drew Stark to resemble Hughes. For instance, Stark originally had a thin mustache resembling one Hughes sometimes wore in the 1930s and 1940s.
Both Hughes and Stark were wealthy playboys who inherited their money from successful self-made fathers. Howard Hughes Sr. made a fortune building oil field equipment. Howard Stark made a fortune as a defense contractor during World War II and the Cold War.
Both Hughes and Stark were major defense contractors and eccentrics with serious mental problems. Stark is an alcoholic, while Hughes was a raving paranoid. Plus, both Stark and Hughes own major aerospace companies.
Like Stark, Hughes was a reckless adventurer who tested his own inventions. In fact, the 7 July 1946 crash of an experimental plane the XF-11 almost killed Hughes. Stark, famously, tests all the new weapons he builds for SHIELD.
Unlike Stark, Hughes was a major player in the entertainment business producing many films and buying the RKO film studio in 1948. Hughes also owned a major airline TWA, casinos, and large amounts of real estate in Las Vegas.
However, Stark seems to be a better businessman than Hughes, because Stark Enterprises usually makes money. Yet in some comic books, Stark Enterprises nearly collapsed because of the massive debts Tony ran up. A comic back story is that Nick Fury’s spy agency SHIELD secretly finances Stark’s company by buying its stock.
In another similarity to Stark, Hughes engaged in secret missions for an espionage agency. In the 1970s, Hughes was part of the CIA’s secret effort to raise a sunken Russian submarine, the K-129. Stark undertakes many secret missions for SHIELD and occasionally serves as that organization’s director.
Finally, actor Robert Downey Jr’s appearance is similar to pictures of Howard Hughes. However, Downey spent time with Musk to prepare for the 2008 movie Iron Man. Thus, Musk has had some influence on the most popular version of Iron Man.
4. Citizen Kane, William Randolph Hearst Sr., and Horace Tabor
The Emperor Palpatine is not the only influential movie character inspired by multiple historical figures. Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz based their Charles Foster Kane on two figures from American history.
They based most of “Citizen Kane’s” persona on press baron William Randolph Hearst Sr. Like Kane, Hearst inherited a mining fortune and used it to build America’s largest newspaper empire.
Both Kane and Hearst build circulation by publishing sensational tabloids and playing fast and loose with the truth. In addition, both Hearst and Kane had promising political careers destroyed by their personal demons.
After leaving politics, both newspaper tycoons build massive pleasure palaces with architectural salvage from historical European structures in remote areas of the United States. You can still visit the Hearst Castle at San Simenon in Northern California.
Hearst began his newspaper career at the struggling San Francisco Examiner his father owned. Kane began his journalism career at a New York newspaper his company owned.
Hearst built a huge newspaper empire by utilizing the tabloid journalism invented by British press barons; such as the First Viscount Northcliffe. Similarly to Kane, Hearst spent his later life at a remote mansion filled with art treasures.
However, they based two famous sequences in Citizen Kane on the career of Colorado mining tycoon and politician Horace Tabor. Tabor, a Leadville storekeeper, became Colorado’s Silver King by extending credit to two miners. The miners struck silver and Tabor became rich.
In Mankiewicz’s story Kane’s mother; a boarding house owner, gets rich by accepting the deed to a gold mine as payment for rent. Like Kane, Tabor entered politics and became a lieutenant governor and U.S. Senator from Colorado.
In common with Kane, Tabor became notorious by divorcing his wife for a younger woman; a barmaid Baby Doe MCourt. Welles’ Kane destroys his political career with a public affair with a younger woman.
Famously, Tabor wasted his money building an elaborate Grand Opera House in Downtown Denver. In Citizen Kane, Charles Foster Kane builds an elaborate opera house to advance his second wife’s musical career. However, the second wife cannot sing and her career falls apart.
In a foreword to The Times We Had: Life with William Randolph Hearst;an autobiography of Hearst’s long-time lover Marion Davies, Welles admits another man and not Hearst inspired the opera house sequence. However, Welles does not mention Tabor.
They built the Tabor Center shopping mall on the site of the Tabor Opera House. The iconic clock tower on Denver’s 16th Street Mall was part of the Tabor Opera House. However, Tabor lost his money when silver prices collapsed in 1893 and died poor.
In real life, Hearst’s long time-mistress Marion Davies was a talented actress and a successful movie star. Hearst poured millions into a historical epic called When Knighthood was in Flower to establish Davies as a serious actress. Strangely, that movie made money and Davies delivered a good performance. Some movie historians believe Davies could have a better career without Hearst’s help.
Oddly, Citizen Kane is part of Hearst’s legend and history. Hearst and his allies in Hollywood tried to destroy the movie when it premiered in 1941.
Welles’ depiction of a character based on Davies as a drunken floozy upset Hearst. They failed to suppress Citizen Kane, but kept the movie from a mass audience in its initial release.
However, repeated TV showings made Citizen Kane into one of the most imitated and admired classics in movie history. Citizen Kane’s fans reputedly include President Donald J. Trump (R-Florida).
Ironically, Howard Hughes later bought RKO; the movie studio that made and released Citizen Kane. In Hollywood, art and history intersect in strange and wonderful ways.