Dictator Hagiographies: Air-Brushed Totalitarianism On-Screen

Armando Iannucci’s comedy Death of Stalin (2017) depicted a farcical version of the final days of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, born Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili (you can guess why he changed his name):


The Death of Stalin Trailer #1 (2018) | Movieclips Trailers


This is hardly the first time ‘Uncle Joe’ (as he once was affectionately known to some in the West) been depicted on film/tv, previous portrayals include the awful (Michael Caine in When Lions Roar, 1994), mediocre (Robert Duvall in an Elvis wig in Stalin, 1992) and the magnificent (Colin Blakely in the 1983 black comedy Red Monarch, which itself looks to have influenced Iannucci’s movie -and IMO was superior).


THEN THERE WERE GIANTS (1994) | Official Trailer

Stalin (1992) (trailer)

Red Monarch (1983)


How about the blustering Italian strong man Mussolini? London’s own Bob Hoskins (who also starred as Churchill in When Lions Roar), also George C Scott and Rod Steiger.



Like Caine, the in-real-life heavily accented Cockney Hoskins had a surprisingly varied career in playing historical figures – including Stalin’s henchmen Beria (The Inner Circle), and Krushchev (Enemy at The Gates) Churchill (When Lions Roared), J Edgar Hoover (Nixon), Pope John XIII (The Good Pope) and another dictator in the unlikely shape of the pineapple-faced Manuel Noreiga (God’s Favourite).



Hitler – far too many to go into, but some stand-outs in he role include Anthony Hopkins, Alec Guinness, Robert Carlyle, Ken Stott, Frank Finlay, Derek Jacobi, David Bamber, Bruno Ganz, Taika Waititi  and Dick Shawn’s spaced-out hippie version in the original Producers (1967).


Dick Shawn in "The Producers" 1967



Uganda’s Idi Amin – Forest Whittaker (Last King of Scotland), Yaphet Kotto (Raid on Entebbe) and Julius Harris (Victory at Entebbe).


Fun Fact – Kotto and Harris played Mr Big and Tee Hee in Live & Let Die.


Not forgetting the current ‘dictator de jure’ Kim Jong-Un, himself mercilessly spoofed in The Interview (2014, played by Randall Park), apparently the reason for the Sony hack. 10 years previously his father Kin Jong-Il was given the South Park treatment in Team America: World Police (voiced by Trey Parker).


Some of the more bizarre casting decisions, include Omar Sharif and John Wayne (!) as Genghis Khan and a very Caucasian Gerry (300/Angel Has Fallen) Butler as Attila The Hun. 


The Conqueror (1956) John Wayne, Agnes Moorehead (Scene) .

And of course Colin Farrell as an Irish Alexander O’ The Great.


If you want to go further back to Ancient Rome, you can experience such OTT performances as Malcolm McDowell and John Hurt as Caligula, Peter Ustinov (Quo Vadis), Charles Laughton (The Sign of The Cross) and a truly unhinged Michael Sheen as Nero (Ancient Rome: Rise & Fall of an Empire).


The largely forgotten Jay Robinson essayed a very memorable (albeit OTT) Caligula in The Robe and its sequel Demetrius & The Gladiators:


Jay Robinson as Caligula, Part I


Screen Hagiographies

Some screen hagiographies of recent years now seem somewhat premature – including Luc Beeson’s Aung Sang Su Kyi 2011 biopic The Lady (starring Michelle Yeoh) and the Fifa-funded Sepp Blatter (Tim Roth) love-in United Passions.




Roth hated the movie:

Tim Roth on Blatter movie The Jonathan Ross Show 27 February 2016


Myanmar leader Aung Sang Su Kyi is no longer the exemplar of peaceful resistance that she once was, given events in her country over recent years.


The Lady (2012) - Official Trailer [HD]


Oliver Stone’s Snowden is also felt to be rather uncritical (to say the least), likewise Obama flicks Barry and Southside with You.


2001’s A Beautiful Mind was believed to have whitewashed some of the more distasteful aspects of the late mathematician John Nash’s life and personality.


Compare and contrast to contemporary biopics such as The Social Network, Steve Jobs and The Fifth Estate, where Zuckerberg, Jobs and Assange were justifiably depicted as deeply flawed people.


The Fifth Estate Official Trailer #1 (2013) - Benedict Cumberbatch Movie HD


Freddie Mercury (Bohemian Rhapsody) and Elton John (Rocket Man) weren’t totally unvarnished, but kudos to EJ as producer in allowing the biopic to depict his darker side.


Is the world yet ready for a Bill Cosby screen biography?


Eddie Murphy - Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor

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Stephen Arnell

Culture Comment Content Provider. Portrait courtesy of artist Darren Coffield. 'Non satis me tempo'