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"Caligula was no Boy Scout; he did some things we can't even talk about."

Of course, we all know what an Historical Villain Upgrade is: that's when you take an Historical Domain Character who is generally notable for being not a nice person (or at the very least, 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.

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 Caligula as a lech with a god complex. No need to get into the squicky details of his life.

Basically, this trope occurs whenever an 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.

Compare Lighter and Softer, Politically-Correct History. Contrast Historical Villain Upgrade.

Examples of Historical Villain Downgrade include:


  • In the film Conspiracy, 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 – these were after all Nazis. 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 and mass murderer, and a ruthless careerist.
    • Part of this is because Lange is used to highlight the Nazi objection to the Einsatztruppen: it was deeply unsettling to execute large numbers of noncombatants with a gun. This is one of the reasons why the gas chambers were developed - to remove the killers from the consequences of their actions. Lange's objections are intended to reflect this - he doesn't give a damn about the fact that Jews have died, but doesn't like having to kill them. He is contemptuous of Heydrich, because Heydrich hasn't been there and overseen the killing himself. The fact that he is at least a source of irritation for Heydrich conspires to paint him in a better light than he actually is in the film.
  • The SS camp commander Amon Goeth in Schindler's List is a prime portrayal of a sadistic monster who loved murdering people during the Holocaust. In real life however, he 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, also shooting playing children with his sniper rifle, personally killing half a thousand people with his own hands, and more) that to an audience it simply wouldn't have been believable on screen - some had trouble even grasping that an actual person such as the one shown in the movie could actually exist.
  • Kingdom of Heaven has various Historical Upgrades and Downgrades abound. The films portrayal of Raynald de Chatillon, however, was if anything too mild. He's portrayed as Guy's dragon, whereas in real life the two men hated each other, and the film leaves out the fact that he led a Pirate fleet that threatened to burn down Mecca and that he flayed the Patriarch Of Antioch alive. This is one of the most common criticisms by critics, since these elements could've made it a much more interesting story.


  • Dracula may be pretty bad, but he is absolutely nothing compared to Vlad the Impaler, upon whom the character is based. (Though this is complicated by several Historical Villain Upgrades Vlad received from his enemies, particularly Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus).
  • Happens sometimes in 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.

Live Action TV

  • Sabrina the Teenage Witch's aunts met Caligula in one episode. No need to get bogged down in the whole "fetus-eating" thing.
  • Uday Hussein's sadistic nature is toned down quite a bit in the House of Saddam Miniseries for much the same reason as Amon Goeth in Schindler's List: the producers thought the audience would just have trouble accepting that a human being could be as wantonly cruel as he was in real life.
  • The Borgias depicts Juan Borgia 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 a 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.
  • 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.

Video Games

  • Two examples from the Command and Conquer Red Alert Series:
    • The Soviets after the first game. 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.
    • A bigger case is the Empire of the Rising Sun in RA 3, who 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 or use enemies who surrendered 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 RA 3 events, the Empire butchered a major Soviet city.

Web Comics

Western Animation


  • Pretty much any depiction of North Korea will tone their atrocities down significantly.
  • Any depiction of Imperial Japan will be toned down from their real life versions, especially if Japanese media made it. Despite being one of the most horrifying civilizations ever, with brutality that matched the Mongol hordes, they tend to seldom be depicted accurately. Most filmmakers instead choose to focus on the crimes of the Nazis, most likely because the Japanese public is still uncomfortable about acknowledging the actions of the Empire, unlike the Germans.
    • Japan is a good example. But so are the other Imperial powers. That means, America, Britain, France, Spain and many others often get toned down.
  • Various historical dictators will have their atrocities glazed over by the modern apologists, for political reasons.
  • This action figure of Sir John A. Macdonald comes with a brief biography (obviously written for children) in which it is stated that he and Louis Riel "did not get along very well." The fact of the matter is that Macdonald and Riel fought two wars against each other at the conclusion of which Riel was executed.
  • In media based on the New Testament of The Bible, Pontius Pilate is often portrayed as reluctant to sentence Jesus to execution. This is unlikely given that Pilate was recalled to Rome because the Romans though he was too brutal.
  • Gilles de Rais was one of Joan of Arc's companions, an all-around man's man, and a succesful soldier. That's the Theme Park Version anyway, the fact that he was also a serial rapist and killer of children tends not to be mentioned in kid's history books. For older readers, however...
  • The history books often leave out the fact that some African tribes profitted from the slave trade by capturing and selling rival tribes.
  • Mao Ze Dong and Josef Stalin- the two deadliest dictators in the history of humanity- are still loved and respected in their home countries. The same countries where they organized the deaths of dozens of millions of people.