Throughout history, all-powerful leaders and tyrants have shaped the world and its many empires. There have been many works of film and literature depicting life of the common man during these leaders’ reign and the suffering of the people. Less common is a film that directly addresses the lives of these dictators and their exploits on a close, personal level.
These films convey many aspects of the power, drive and, often, the cruelty of the leaders as they rise and fall from their positions. This type of film is very intriguing as it brings the viewer much closer to an undesirable subject than we would usually like to get.
The intimacy that they show with these legendary figures can be somewhat disconcerting as they portray both the brutality and relatable humanity of the dictators, shattering their larger-than-life image.
The films on this list show the lives of dictators from all across the globe and from all time periods. Reaching back in time to the stories of the immaculate emperors of Rome all the way to the Middle Eastern despots of the late 20th century, this list covers the history of human civilization though the tyrannical reign of several powerful figures.
Although the settings are different, all the films portray the egotistical barbarism of the leaders and the fear and respect they command from their followers. While most of the films are viewed from a historical and fact based stand point, some are quite biased in defense of the tyrants, like Triumph of the Will. These films are equally valuable in that they provide insight into why so many people followed these leaders.
The ten films on this list, including one documentary, one mini-series and one fictional biopic, show the role of dictators throughout history as well as their own personal struggles.
10. Quo Vadis (Mervyn LeRoy, 1951)
Of the many historical epic of classic Hollywood, Quo Vadis was one of the largest scaled and most elaborately produced. It was both a huge commercial and critical success, grossing the most of any film that year and being nominated for 8 Academy Awards.
The film is set in ancient Rome during the end of the Julio-Claudian empire under the reign of Nero. The main plot follows Robert Taylor as a general who falls in love with a Christian captive, played by Deborah Kerr, causing a conflict in his ideologies.
The background plot revolving around Nero, played by Peter Ustinov, also involves this theme of Christianity as Nero grows increasingly insane trying to blame all of his problems on the religion. When the two main characters cross Nero, a revolution starts to overthrow the emperor’s control.
While Taylor and Kerr are the main actors, Ustinov steals the show as the conceited and brutal ruler of Roman empire who makes his subjects refer to him as “his divinity”. His god-like persona leads to preposterous acts, most notably the burning of Rome in order to place blame on the Christians.
Ustinov’s performance is thoroughly convincing and scary, conveying the infamous emperor’s outlandish personality and barbaric actions. While the over-dramatized style of historical epics like Quo Vadis have not aged as well as other films of that era, the effective portrayal of Nero is one of the most vivid and memorable of any Roman emperor in film history.
9. The Devil’s Double (Lee Tamahori, 2011)
Based on the claims and stories of Latif Yahia, this film portrays Yahia’s supposed exploits as the body double for Uday Hussein, the son of Iraqi president and dictator Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and 90s. Dominic Cooper stars in his best performance to date as both Uday and Yahia.
The two roles are drastically different, with Yahia being a reluctant and scared prisoner and Uday being a sadistic and spoiled playboy. Eventually Yahia becomes overwhelmed by Uday’s cruelty and decides to try and escape leading to violent and bloody conflict.
The identical appearances of the two lead characters brings out the striking differences in their personalities and morals. Uday represents what Yahia could have become had he been raised in a position of great power and wealth. His lack of sympathy for others and self-involvement is at times quite terrifying such as when he kidnaps random girls he finds on the street that he finds attractive.
While not technically the ruler of the country, Uday shows how ultimate power leads to a persons moral degradation. His father Saddam, while not playing as prominent a role, is shown to be similarly cruel and womanizing, although he shows a bit more maturity than Uday. Towards the end, the film ventures more into the action genre, it still holds strong as a historical depiction of a psychopath.
While Yahia has been criticized for having no proof of his involvement with the Hussein family, the film still acts an effective portrayal of a modern tyrannical force.
The more recent setting, compared to other films on the list, also allow it to become more relatable and accessible to audiences who were probably alive during Hussein’s reign. Historical inaccuracies aside, The Devil’s Double is an exciting and powerful film about a fascinating piece of modern history.
8. Mongol (Sergei Bodrov, 2007)
This Russian film tells the origin story of the great Asian tyrant Genghis Khan from his childhood to his rise as a military leader. Originally named Temujin, his story is told through a series of flashbacks that note significant moments in his path to power. These includes his father’s early death, frequent double crossings and other formative events that solidified his Mongol values.
After an important spiritual revelation and self-discovery, Temujin forms an army in order to spread his philosophical values and crush his enemies who had previously harmed him, which would continue throughout his life, eventually leading to his control of nearly all of Asia.
Genghis Khan’s rule over his empire was far less controlling and restrictive than the other rulers on this list due to lack of government and infrastructure as well as the different motives behind the leadership. He was instead a strictly imperial dictator, destroying and claiming every village and piece of land that he could find.
While he killed more than almost any other dictator, this film shows that Genghis Khan’s motives were not psychotic and evil, but principled and calculated.
Mongol is a beautifully shot and acted historical epic capturing life on the Mongolian plains a millennium ago. Filled with thrilling and brutal violence, the life of the Mongol warlord is shown as a gritty but exciting existence that led to Genghis Khan’s glorious reign. Mongol is a fascinating objective glimpse into the rise of one of the world’s most powerful and famous dictators.
7. The Last King of Scotland (Kevin Macdonald, 2006)
The Last King of Scotland tells the story of the ruthless 20th century Ugandan dictator Idi Amin through the eyes of his personal physician Dr. Nicholas Garrigan. Based on Giles Foden’s partly historical novel, the film stars Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in one of the greatest performances of the decade and James McAvoy as Garrigan.
Originally joining Amin’s forces due to actual belief in the leader, Garrigan soon learns that his actions are much more malicious than they initially seemed. Things are complicated further when Garrigan begins an affair with one of Amin’s wives, played by Kerry Washington. When he discovers that Amin will not permit him to leave the country, Garrigan begins to turn on the leader and must escape.
Whitaker’s startling and vicious performance as the sadistic and murderous despot is the main focus of the film. The accuracy of his portrayal as the infamous figure is scarily good, earning him an Academy Award among many other accolades. The film is very graphic in its depictions of the violence that Amin’s regime inflicts upon the people of Uganda showing the realistic brutality of the situation.
The character of Garrigan, although fictional, plays the role of the naive and idealistic professional, and by focalizing the events through him, the shock of the many horrors of Amin are amplified. The Last King of Scotland, despite not being based on a true story, effectively conveys the terrible nature of Amin’s reign, highlighted by Whitaker’s unparalleled, savage performance.
6. Napoleon (Abel Gance, 1927)
Master of silent film Abel Gance directed this epic historical tale of the great French leader’s rise to power. At almost 4 hours long, Napoleon was one of the most ambitious and revolutionary films of the silent age.
The story follows Napoleon Bonaparte from a very young age on the schoolyard where he first discovers the wonders of war in a snowball fight, already showing his military cunning and prowess. It then continues into his young adult life as he rises in the ranks of the French forces, earning his reputation from his brilliance and professionalism on the battlefield.
After facing much jealousy and contempt from other leaders, Napoleon gains military charge as the leader of the French Army in Italy. The film ends before Napoleon leads his forces into Italy, beginning his many successful conquests of Europe.
Napoleon is an example of a film about a dictator that, instead of villainizing the subject, shows him almost solely from positive perspectives as a calculated, fair and genius general. The film was planned as the first of six to document the leader’s life but the others were scrapped to the high costs of the original.
Although the film does not cover the portion of Napoleon’s life when he would be considered a dictator, it does his motivations of change and leadership that he continued throughout his life, showing how he evolved into one of the most powerful rulers in history.
The main reason that this film is remembered still is due to its groundbreaking new film techniques that it employed. Major editing advances were made such as superimposition, fast cuts and extensive hand held sequences.
The film also featured underwater camerawork and, most notably, a triptych sequence which required three side-by-side cameras in order to capture the widescreen effect that Gance wanted. Napoleon is a masterpiece of the silent era, providing not only an exciting and massive portrait of the great French emperor but also giving innovative new contributions to filmmaking.