question of the day: Which historical figures should we plunder as action heroes (and who should play them)?

Someone it had escaped my notice that a bunch of historical figures are in the process of getting rebooted as movie action heroes, often with supernatural elements tossed. Seen at Cinematical last week:

In an age where we lack action heroes and recognition factor is key for franchiseability (a new made-up word), Hollywood is turning to history for new characters. In addition to all the King Arthur stories that are brewing, Leonardo DaVinci, Marco Polo, and Harry Houdini are quickly being reworked into the 21st century’s Indiana Jones or Sherlock Holmes.

As Eugene Novikov reported earlier today, Warner Bros is looking at making the actual Leonardo DaVinci into the star of his own DaVinci Code type of movie. Last week, Variety reported that they’ve also hired Francis Lawrence to develop an action movie starring 13th century adventurer Marco Polo.

At first glance, this is all the height of silliness and desperation. Is Hollywood so desperate for ideas, so eager for name recognition that they’ll pillage dusty shelves and do a bit of graverobbing in order to concoct a hero for a new age? Why can’t anyone write a new Indiana Jones without basing him on Leonardo DaVinci? Isn’t it insulting to the real figures and their accomplishments to re-imagine them as pulp heroes?

The answer may be yes to all those questions. But it might also be not really. In all honesty, civilization has a long history of reworking history and mythology in the name of entertainment. The Greeks loved spinning myths into new stories and poems; playwrites took stories of the Trojan War cycle and reworked them into epic, terrifying works that could stand alone of Homer and myth.

Fair enough. Which historical figures should we plunder as action heroes (and who should play them)? Feel free to riff on the casting possibilities of Marco Polo and Leonardo Da Vinci, too…

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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Mon, Mar 15, 2010 11:23am

Aelfred the Great, played by Clive Owen (because there’s no such thing as too much Clive Owen).

Llewellyn the Great, played by Ioan Gruffudd (because I think he’s very talented but haven’t seen a lot of him lately).

Mon, Mar 15, 2010 11:27am

This isn’t new stuff. Re-hashing has been going on since ancient times, if not before!

How historical do they have to be? Off the top of my head, I offer some more “obscured by history” figures who might be interesting:

Amanishabheto (Of the Kushites, she lead an army against the romans. In fact, if my memory serves, there were quite a few female leaders in Kush/Nubia. Might be a good place to plunder, ignored for too long! Lots of interesting stories from that part of the world…and not just with women at the center.) to be played by Queen Latifa.

Boudicca to be played by Nicole Kidman (she’s the one natural red head I could think of who might be the right age to play a queen…can’t have some ingenue.)

Joan of Arc (think of all the supernatural possibilities!) to be played by … I don’t know. Needs someone really young but compelling and powerful. Don’t want someone who plays the martyr side of Joan without playing the charasmatic leader.

A spy series with the Princess Anastasia. Yes, yes, we now know she was killed with all the rest of the Tsar’s family. But, who cares? Movies change things all the time. Hmmm…Mila Kunis? She could get the accent! She’s played a russian spy before! Easy to get the hollywood backing when they don’t have to do too much imagining! (I’m cynical.)

Issac Newton…scientific detective! Or Goethe another scientist who, handily, has lots of great quotes! Paul McGann for Issac Newton? Christopher Waltz for Goethe? He’s probably too tall…but the magic of movies can work around that.

Mon, Mar 15, 2010 12:04pm

Wikipedia tells me that there was a 2003 UK TV film of Boudica (apparently called Warrior Queen) starring Alex Kingston. It also says that there is a film (‘Boudicca’) due for release this year produced by Mel Gibson (!?!) and starring Sian Phillips…

Mon, Mar 15, 2010 12:09pm

Ooooh… I’ve got it! I’ve really got it!
David Tennant is Joseph Bazalgette and John Simms is Dr John Snow in…..The Big Stink.

It’s got everything: filth, disease, mortal peril, Queen Victoria (played by, say, Lesley Sharp) ordering a rail line through the new sewer (QV really did, you know) leading to confrontations with horrific dung monsters. Also plenty of opportunities for toilet humour. It’ll make millions…

Mon, Mar 15, 2010 12:11pm

The Boudica film with Alex Kingston was on Masterpiece Theatre, by the way, Isobel. It was called Warrior Queen.

Karen L
Karen L
Mon, Mar 15, 2010 12:18pm

There are plenty of actual action heros. About eight or ten years ago, Gerard Butler played Atilla the Hun as a not such a bad guy, after all, version of Atilla, but there was plenty of horse riding and sword swinging.

Liked him better then than now with all the crappy rom coms.

Mon, Mar 15, 2010 12:34pm

Christopher Meloni as Franklin Delano Roosevelt in “Wheels of the Presidency”.

Mon, Mar 15, 2010 12:50pm

David Tennant is Joseph Bazalgette and John Simms is Dr John Snow in…..The Big Stink.

This must be made.
I can just about see the trailer: -slow push in- “It’s not in the air. It’s under our very feet!”. *dunn dunnn*
Soho beset by crazed “infected”. And of course he has to tear the pump from the ground and smite the sewer monster at the end.

Mon, Mar 15, 2010 1:22pm

Joseph Bazalgette

Cool! A civil engineer as hero! And wastewater treatment! (I’m always waxing lyrical on the beauty of sewers and WWTP. Couldn’t have NYC without them!)

Tonio Kruger
Mon, Mar 15, 2010 2:38pm

Benicio del Toro as Elfego Baca. Nuff said…

Mon, Mar 15, 2010 4:34pm

I linked to the da Vinci movie, as well as “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” on this thread–where MAJ also speculated about J.D. Salinger as vampire hunter. I was thinking maybe Robert Downey Jr. as Salinger–Downey can kinda look like Salinger’s photo on Wikipedia if you squint–but not sure who might play Lincoln or da Vinci. Liam Neeson as Lincoln? He’s certainly tall enough, I think, and has the gravitas to pull it off.

My vote goes to Hypatia, of the Library of Alexandria. There’s already a movie on her life–Agora starring Rachel Weisz–that I’d love to see if it ever comes to the US, but it probably isn’t a swashbuckling departure from reality. I see possibilities of her being a crime-solver of the ancient world, using the Library as her HQ and bringing all its wisdom to bear on her case…

Or, how about Amelia Earhart? She could have staged her death and assumed other identities, perhaps as a spy on various missions during WWII. (Her Wiki article includes some urban legends that could serve as starting points for a story.)

Issac Newton…scientific detective!

That would be very cool. Maybe the ideas he comes across on his adventures help inspire his great theories.

I’ve read at least one fantasy–The Wild Road by Gabriel King–where Newton shows up as the cat-killing alchemist villain…

Hank Graham
Hank Graham
Mon, Mar 15, 2010 5:37pm

Isambard Kingdom Brunel–scientific detective, and head of a secret order of warrior-poet-monks who fight reactionary forces standing in the way of progress. Sherlock Holmes and Lord Kelvin would be other members of the order.

Mon, Mar 15, 2010 6:05pm

Tyra Banks as Harriet Tubman: Night Walker. She gas the power of persuasion and sometimes invisibility. And she can really walk.

Mon, Mar 15, 2010 6:09pm

Summer Glau is Hellen Keller, fighting through life in The Eternal Darkness.

Mon, Mar 15, 2010 6:11pm

I think this is a great idea — minus the addition of supernatural elements. Point a spotlight on lesser-known (but badass) real historical figures, and maybe inspire a few people to check out the real deal… B)

Mon, Mar 15, 2010 6:42pm

How about when in the middle of a Crusade Saint Francis walked unarmed into a Muslim camp and started preaching Christianity? They gave him a dinner and a military escort back. True story.

Or, if we must insist, we could make Saint Francis a happy John Constantine, casting out demons.

Tonio Kruger
Mon, Mar 15, 2010 9:24pm

Phryne: Attorney-at-Law. If that’s not too off-topic. After all, there is a lot of talk about how she won her famous case…

If not:

Rousseau and Voltaire: the story of two not-so-modern-day Robin Hoods journeying through Europe to make things safe for the Enlightenment. Couldn’t be any worse than The Brothers Grimm

Victor Plenty
Victor Plenty
Mon, Mar 15, 2010 9:51pm

Part of me sees this trend as yet another sign of cultural illiteracy and decline.

And part of me sees this trend as potentially a hell of a lot of fun. But then, I’m still hopeful that something worth watching might arise from the film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

So. Near the top of my list for action movie goodness based on historical personages would be something from the fascinating career of Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden from 1617 until he was killed in battle in 1632. Or so everyone thought… until now.

Hasimir Fenring
Mon, Mar 15, 2010 10:22pm

Poor Genghis Khan deserves a better fate than being remembered as John Wayne with a bad Fu Manchu. Can’t somebody bring Yul Brynner back from the dead?

Ken Watanabe would do in a pinch, or Chen Daoming.

Mon, Mar 15, 2010 11:24pm

I’d go for President Andrew Jackson played by Tim Robbins.

Jackson goes to the future to duel gang members in South Central L.A. during the early 90s. Cheesy one liners would be a must and add a little buddy comedy with Nick Nolte as Vice President John C. Calhoun.

Tue, Mar 16, 2010 4:50am

I would be up for a Dick Turpin movie with possibly Clive Owen taking the lead or at a long shot Liam Neeson.