Article Thumbnail

Why Do We Keep Making Shows and Movies With Sexy, Young Versions of Historical Figures?

Netflix’s ‘Freud’ is just the latest in a long tradition of sexing up the past

Close your eyes and think of Queen Victoria. Chances are most of you reading this will land on a similar image: that of a stout, stern, unsmiling woman immortalized in photographs taken in the latter half the 19th century, in the later decades of her nearly 64-year reign as the Queen of Great Britain. Or maybe you’re thinking of a painting from those years, one made after the back-to-back deaths of Victoria’s mother and husband in 1861, losses that sent her into mourning and prompted her to wear black for the rest of her life. Chances are, you’re not thinking of a woman who looks anything like the star of Edge of Tomorrow or A Quiet Place, even though Emily Blunt brought Victoria to life in The Young Victoria, an arthouse hit in 2009.

And chances are the names Che Guevara and Henry VIII summon up iconic images that look nothing like Gael Garcia Bernal or Jonathan Rhys Myers who played them, respectively, in The Motorcycle Diaries and The Tudors. If you think of a movie Abraham Lincoln, you’re more likely to think of Daniel Day Lewis than Henry Fonda, and not only because Lewis’ depiction is more recent. The urge to tell stories about famed historical figures when they were younger, less experienced and frequently (to mince no words) hotter than the people we tend to meet in history books, documentaries or biopics focusing on their most famous years has been with movies and television for decades and looks likely to continue. The new Austrian-produced Netflix series Freud — which debuted earlier this week and imagines the young Freud as an attractive crime solver — suggests it won’t be going away any time soon either.

So what’s the lingering appeal of such projects? The first answer is obvious and superficial, but also undeniable: The camera loves glamour and there’s a lot more sex appeal to watching Myers as Henry VIII than an actor who, well, looks like the Hans Holbein painting of Henry VIII hanging in Britain’s National Portrait Gallery. Myers’ casting wasn’t even that historically accurate in the series’ early seasons: Upon ascending the throne at 17, Henry was a handsome, athletic man and remained that way until health problems inhibited his activities. His biggest problems stemmed from a jousting accident at the age of 33 and another at 45, plus an ongoing issue with ulcers in his legs. (Here’s how the Tudor Society describes the latter: “They were kept open and weeping, and were therefore constantly susceptible to infection, which could cause the ulcers to become very, very smelly.”) 

The Tudors doesn’t skip past all this, but it also keeps Myers’ Henry looking bangable for much of its run, as befitted a cable drama determined to earn its TV-MA rating each week. A little sex — or just the presence of attractive actors — can make the history lesson go down more easily. But stories of famous historical figures as young people serve other purposes, as well. Circling back to The Young Victoria, they can help cast figures from history in a new light by considering their lives before their identities were frozen in place by history books. 

John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln isn’t the first example, but it’s among the best. In the 1939 film, Henry Ford plays Lincoln as an intelligent young man given direction by a love of the law and the loss of a young love, who makes his name with his spectacular defense of some brothers accused of murder. As history, it’s pretty suspect, but as a bit of psychological biography that depicts Lincoln’s admirable qualities as being the result of hard work, personal suffering and acts of will rather than innate gifts, it’s brilliant.

Much of the appeal of depicting the lives of the unformed famous comes from seeing the events that shaped them into the people we now know they’d become, but also in the moments before their personalities had set into place. It’s become such an established form that even the titles can look the same. You could put together a pretty robust film festival just from Young ____ biopics, from 1940’s Young Tom Edison (starring Mickey Rooney) to 2017’s The Young Karl Marx (starring A Hidden Life’s August Diehl). These aren’t the old, accomplished, responsible versions of world-reshaping men and women: They’re the cool, stay-out-all-night, flush with ideas and passion versions. The sadness and stolidness of Queen Victoria’s later life remain years in the future in The Young Victoria. In Blunt’s depiction she’s spirited, flirtatious, even sensual. It’s Victoria before she became Victoria.

That’s the other appeal of such projects: They function as often earthier prequels to the stories we already know. In some ways, that’s an illusion: Victoria was famous from the time she was born. And though they’re no doubt crafted to flatter their subject, paintings of the actual young Victoria capture a woman of striking beauty, images that defined the public’s perception of the Queen before the older version overwrote them. 

But while some famous lives are forever defined by their early years — rock musicians, stars of Disney Channel shows — many aren’t. Winston Churchill had a long life before he became the jowly guy who got Britain through World War II, but it’s the jowl years that will forever cement his image. Cate Blanchett was in her late 20s when she first memorably played Queen Elizabeth in Elizabeth, a film that takes factual liberties with her story but accurately depicts her as being in the thick of history at a young age. It still, though, feels like the film shows us the secret history of the older, statelier woman who stares back at us from paintings.

Maybe, then, the ultimate appeal of depicting historical figures as young hotties isn’t all that complicated. It’s a peak behind the veil of history that reveals world-shaking men and women to be, well, just men and women after all, creatures of whims and desire who didn’t always know what they were doing before they came into their own. There’s intrigue and excitement in seeing history coming into shape alongside the personalities of those who defined it. 

But there’s a bit of poignancy, too. Before they remade the world in their own image, they were hot-blooded, inexperienced, beautiful and youthful, just like we were. Unlike us, however, they had no idea what the rest of their lives would look like.