10 Historical Figures That Deserve Their Own Movies (And Who We … – MovieWeb

Some things in life are all but certain: death, taxes, and Hollywood-produced biopics of celebrities and historical figures.
There are three things in life that are all but certain: death, taxes, and Hollywood-produced biopics of celebrities and historical figures. In 2022 alone, Hollywood pumped out biographies of Elvis Presley, Whitney Houston, Jesse Brown, Mamie Till, and – to some extent – Steven Spielberg, Weird Al Yankovic, and Marilyn Monroe. And this doesn’t even begin to cover half of them.
It’s easy to see why Hollywood loves these types of movies: these characters are larger-than-life. They’ve faced and overcame obstacles, and changed the world as we know it (to varying degrees, of course). And actors love to play these roles; they're often once-in-a-lifetime parts that could earn them praise from their peers and – if they can pull it off – a coveted golden statue.
Though biopics seem to be everywhere, there are still hundreds of historical figures that haven’t been explored in film. Let's comb through the annals of history and find ten other larger-than-life people that deserve their own movie.
Witold Pilecki was a Polish soldier and resistance fighter during World War II who had co-founded the Secret Polish Army, one of Poland’s first underground resistance movements. Their goal was simple; help Jewish families and gather as much intel against German forces as possible. But the lengths to which Witold Pilecki would eventually go to secure that intel is the reason why a movie deserves to be made about him.
In 1940, Pilecki voluntarily allowed himself to be captured by Nazi forces in a bid to infiltrate Auschwitz and gather intel that could be used to topple their German occupiers. Upon reaching the extermination camp, Pilecki set up another resistance cell and spent the next two years collecting and transmitting data on a home-made transistor radio; aiding in escapes; boosting morale through distribution of extra food and clothes; and training prisoners to overthrow the camp in the event of an outside attack.
When the Gestapo discovered his web of spies, they began executing everyone suspected of being a member. Fearing for his life and the safety of others, Pilecki destroyed his transistor radio and made a plan to break out. A few nights later, he successfully – albeit narrowly – escaped Auschwitz and returned to Warsaw. He attempted to organize a rescue mission, but his plans never came to fruition.
Best Actor for the Role: Cillian Murphy's amazing turn in Anthropoid is proof that he'd be the perfect choice to play Witold Pilecki.
RELATED: 8 Haunting Films About the Holocaust
Alternatively known as “Madame Queen” or “the Numbers Queen of Harlem,” Stephanie St. Claire was a larger-than-life fashion icon and civil rights advocate during the 1920s and 30s. But above all, St. Claire was a gangster – and a successful one at that.
According to the Smithsonian Magazine, St. Claire earned her nickname from the numerous illicit lotteries (known as numbers rackets) that she ran across Harlem. The success of her illegal industry gave her the money and reputation to be a voice for the city’s many African Americans. She was outspoken, independent, and never displayed an ounce of fear when threatened by crooked cops or envious mob bosses. It was rumored that she was making close to $12,000 a day at the height of her success, which equates to approximately $205,000 today when adjusting for inflation.
When the Great Depression began, famed Bronx-bootlegger Dutch Schultz set his sights on Madame Queen’s racket. With a number of corrupt officials in his pocket, Schultz had the power to be as ruthless as he needed to get what he wanted. What followed was a brutal battle over St. Claire’s territory. Though not by her own hand, Schultz was eventually gunned down and Harlem’s most successful rackets remained firmly in St. Claire’s possession.
Best Actor for the Role: Not only does Zoe Saldana resemble the Numbers Queen of Harlem, but she also has the charm.
Robert Smalls was a former slave who would go on to become an author, politician, and businessman in Reconstruction-era America. But to many, Smalls was also a war hero.
When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Smalls was enslaved on a Confederate transport ship operating out of Charleston, South Carolina. On the night of May 12, 1862, while his captors left the ship to drink on shore, Smalls and his fellow slaves commandeered the boat and sailed it down the coast, where his wife, Hannah Jones, and the families of the other slaves were waiting. Having worked around boats for a few years, Smalls was able to disguise himself as the captain and safely steer the stolen boat past rebel-occupied forts to freedom.
Upon handing the ship over to the Union Navy, Smalls provided invaluable intel regarding Confederate operations along the Carolinian coast. His bravery inspired Abraham Lincoln to allow African-Americans to fight in the army. And Smalls did; he served as a pilot on a number of vessels for the remainder of the war. And the cherry on top? After the war, Smalls returned to his hometown of Beaufort, South Carolina. There he was able to purchase the mansion of Henry McKee, a man to whom Smalls was once enslaved.
Best Actor for the Role: Anthony Mackie would be the perfect choice to play this Civil War hero.
Hernan Cortes was an infamous Spanish conquistador whose invasion and eventual conquest of Mexico led to the swift and brutal downfall of the Aztec Empire.
Cortes may not “deserve” to have a movie made about him; he was, by all accounts, a monster. He viewed himself and the Spanish crown as superior and thus deserving of control over the Aztecs and their wealth. He killed any native that he couldn’t take advantage of for his own gain, and spread diseases that led to the death of hundreds of thousands of Natives. To many, this was nothing short of genocide.
But Cortes’s antagonistic relationship with the Aztec king Montezuma II, who ruled over the empire’s capital (and rumored city of gold) Tenochtitlan, is practically begging to be made into a film or mini-series. There’s political intrigue, back-stabbing, culture clashes, and even a bit of mysticism: it’s like Game of Thrones, but real.
Hollywood has long tried to get a Cortes movie off the ground. Most recently, Steven Spielberg attempted to get a mini-series made at Amazon. Written by famed screenwriter Steve Zaillian and set to star Javier Bardem as Hernan Cortes, the project was ultimately scrapped due to COVID and the logistics of bringing such a massive saga to life.
Best Actor for the Role: Steven Spielberg was right on the money; Javier Bardem is definitely the best choice to play the infamous conquistador.
Elizabeth Cochran Seaman – better known by her pen name Nellie Bly – was a pioneering investigative journalist working out of New York City in 1887. This in and of itself was a major accomplishment considering the time period and her gender, but her real claim to fame was an exposé she published detailing the horrendous conditions of the infamous Blackwell Island mental institution.
In order to get into the asylum, she feigned insanity by checking herself into a boarding home for women, staying up all night (to make herself appear disheveled and properly discombobulated), and harassing the other boarders until police were contacted. Once examined by a judge and doctor, she was found to be insane and whisked off to Blackwell Island.
There she remained for ten days, until she was eventually released after The World – the publication she worked for – had her removed. She experienced the truly horrendous conditions first-hand, and published those findings in a six-part series for The World. Her report made her a sensation, and forced Blackwell – and other similar institutions across the country – to implement wide-reaching reforms.
Best Actor for the Role: When Bly was admitted into Blackwell, she was only in her early twenties. Millie Bobby Brown is a little younger than Bly, but has the emotional range to really pull off what will most definitely be a challenging role.
Edith Bolling Galt Wilson led quite an interesting life. After her husband of twelve years died unexpectedly and suddenly, she found herself in the company of President Woodrow Wilson, who at the time of their meeting was also mourning the death of his first wife. The two instantly bonded and wed in 1915, and Edith found herself the First Lady of the United States. She was her husband’s right-hand woman through most of his presidency, keeping him sane while he navigated the horrors of the First World War.
However, President Wilson suffered a serious stroke in 1919, leaving him bedridden, partially paralyzed, and unable to carry out his presidential responsibilities. Edith, along with Wilson’s closest advisors, took over many of her ill husband's duties and routines and hid the extent of the president’s condition from the public. She selected which matters should be brought to Wilson’s attention, and let everything else be handled by the heads of departments. Though she was never in direct control of the Executive Branch, she was – in a sense – the acting president for the remainder of Wilson’s term, making her the country’s first unofficial female president.
Best Actor for the Role: Meryl Streepwould really light up the screen as the former First Lady.
RELATED: Best LGBTQ+ Movies Based on Real-Life Historical Figures
Much like Cortes, H.H. Holmes doesn’t deserve to have a movie made about him. But it sure would make for a horrifying flick.
Holmes was one of America’s first – and most infamous – serial killers. At the time of his execution, Holmes had confessed to at least 27 murders, which all took place in his so-called “Murder Castle.” The building was meticulously designed and constructed over multiple years and contained secret passages, sound-proofed torture rooms, and a series of chutes and elevators that allowed Holmes to transport bodies throughout the building. After years of terror, he was finally captured and hanged for his crimes.
Holmes has always been well-known to those interested in the dark side of America’s history, but he really came to the forefront of popular culture with the release of Erik Larson’s non-fiction book Devil in the White City in 2003, which detailed Holmes’s obsessive and predatory nature against the backdrop of the 1893 World Fair.
Leonardo Dicaprio bought the film rights to Larson’s book in 2010 with the intention of starring in it. Martin Scorsese was on board to direct, but as is often the case with projects in Hollywood, it never came to fruition. Hulu has been actively working to develop a TV show based on the book, with Keanu Reeves starring and Todd Fields – fresh off the success ofTár – directing the first two episodes. However, both parties left the project in October 2022, leaving the series in limbo once more.
Best Actor for the Role: Leonardo DiCaprio as a turn-of-the-century serial killer? What could be better than that?
Although the legitimacy of Mata Hari’s escapades of espionage during World War I have come under recent scrutiny, there is no doubt that she led a life ripe for a film adaptation.
Born Margaretha Zelle in the Netherlands circa 1876, Zelle migrated to Paris in 1902 and started working as an exotic dancer under the stage name Mata Hari. Thanks to her charm and ability to speak several different languages, she became a very popular French courtesan, seducing wealthy and powerful officials from multiple nations.
When World War I broke out, her Dutch heritage allowed her to cross borders relatively easily (the Netherlands remained neutral during WWI). Her opulent and salacious lifestyle raised a lot of eyebrows, and her proximity to a number of German and French officials led many to assume she was working as a spy for either the Allies or Central Powers. But the real kicker? Nobody knew who she was actually working for.
One of her lovers, a high-ranking German military official named Arnold Kalle, suspected her of stealing secrets and selling them to the French. Her Parisian counterparts, on the other hand, thought she was trading secrets with the Germans.
To get rid of her, Kalle sent a falsified message alluding to Hari’s allegiance to Germany. When the French intercepted the message and caught wind of her alleged treason, she was immediately arrested and sentenced to execution. The French claimed (without proof) that her treason cost France 50,000 soldiers. It’s believed now that France was looking for a scapegoat; someone to blame their recent battlefield failings on. Hari was the perfect cover.
After months of unjust imprisonment, she was executed by firing squad. She didn’t put up a fight, and apparently even taunted her executioners. Whatever secrets she may have had died with her that day.
Best Actress for the Role: Noomi Rapace would knock this role out of the park.
Though she may not be many people’s first choice for a Hollywood biopic, Margaret Howe Lovatt was an essential part of one of the strangest scientific studies ever funded by NASA.
Lovatt worked under Dr. John Lilley, a neuroscientist who had been obsessed with the intellectual capabilities of sea mammals, mainly bottlenose dolphins. He was convinced that humans could actually communicate with these creatures, given the dolphin’s ability to make human-like sounds with their blowholes. He studied their brains, mapped out their cerebral cortices, and hoped to one day actually teach a dolphin how to speak. NASA, intrigued by the prospect of not just communicating with dolphins but also other intelligent species – both terrestrial and extraterrestrial – agreed to provide funding for the experiment.
Margaret proposed a radical idea; she wanted to live with the dolphins 24/7. Lilly agreed, and over the next year waterproofed the lab and made it fully hospitable not just for Margaret, but for her dolphin companion Peter, with whom she would be spending the most time with. Over the next three months, Margaret tried to teach Peter English, and also attempted to learn “dolphinese.”
The two became very close, especially Peter, who developed a love for Margaret that boarded on sexual. This isn't unusual in the animal kingdom, but it certainly led to a number of very awkward encounters. Things started getting even weirder when Lilly decided to give the dolphins LSD in the hopes that it would aid communication efforts. As you might expect, nothing came of these experiments.
Eventually, the experiment's ongoing costs and lack of success forced Lilly and Lovatt to shut things down. The lab was shuttered and the dolphins were moved to smaller tanks with little to no sunlight as they awaited transfer. Peter, who had developed a genuine emotional connection with Lovatt (and vice versa), was incredibly distraught by the sudden separation from his longtime caretaker and fell into a deep depression. The dolphin would eventually commit suicide, which Lovatt believes was due to his broken heart.
Best Actor for the Role: Mackenzie Davis would bring a lot of heart to this very unusual but ultimately heart-wrenching story.
Zheng Yi Sao – better known as Ching Shih – was a Chinese prostitute who would later become one of the most fearsome and successful pirates of all time.
In the early 18th Century, Sao would marry Cheng I, a fierce pirate operating in the South China Sea. When he died, Sao inherited his fleet of over 1,800 ships and 80,000 men and quickly took control of every aspect of his nautical operation. For the sake of comparison, the famed Blackbeard had only commanded four ships, and oversaw a measly 300 pirates.
In order to control this positively massive fleet of ne’er-do-wells, Shih instituted a strict code of law, which essentially boiled down to: betray me and lose your head. It worked, as Shih spent three years in control of the biggest pirate fleet known to man before peacefully retiring.
Though characters inspired by Shih have shown up in films before (most notably Mistress Ching in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End), she has never received a proper biography. It’s high-time that changes.
Best Actor for the Role: Not only can Michelle Yeoh act, but her extensive background in stunt work and martial arts makes her perfect for the role of history's greatest pirate.


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