The biographical film, or biopic, also has a long and distinguished history in world cinema, with several works attaining high status for their critical as well as their commercial success. For example, The Private Life of Henry VIII (Alexander Korda, 1933) was the British
cinema's first international success; Charles Laughton (1899–1962) won a Best Actor Oscar ® for his portrayal of the monarch. The French film Napoléon (Abel Gance, 1927) brought a similar sense of national pride to a country whose film industry had been devastated by World War I. Still regarded as one of the most outstanding achievements in the history of the cinema, Napoléon was seen as the culmination of the French cinema's rise from near annihilation in 1914. The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987), which won nine Academy Awards ® , was the first film to be shot on location in Beijing's Forbidden City, heralding a more open era in Chinese–Western cultural relations.
The biopic emerged as a recognizable subgenre in the 1930s. The first biopic is generally considered to be the George Arliss (1868–1946) vehicle Disraeli (1929), marketed as a Warner Bros. prestige production. Arliss also starred in Alexander Hamilton (1931) for Warner Bros. and in Voltaire (1933). The commercial and critical accomplishment of these works paved the way for several later Warner Bros. films directed by William Dieterle (1893–1972), including The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935), for which Paul Muni (1895–1967) won the Oscar ® for Best Actor; The White Angel (1936), the story of Florence Nightingale; and The Life of Emile Zola (1937) and Juarez (1939), both also starring Muni.
Biographical films are often driven by a national, myth-making impulse. Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), starring Henry Fonda (1905–1982) in his first film with John Ford (1894–1973), and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), starring Raymond Massey (1896–1983), were not so much historical as mythological exercises, as neither film was particularly accurate with regard to the actual events of Lincoln's life nor to his character. Nevertheless, Young Mr. Lincoln , in particular, succeeded in elevating Lincoln's early years to the level of national myth.
Eisenstein's Ivan Groznyy I ( Ivan the Terrible, Part One , 1944) focused on an individual protagonist, rather than the collective protagonist of his earlier films, in part to rally the Russian people during World War II by giving them a historical hero who had unified Russia, fought off treachery, and defeated external enemies in the sixteenth century. Unlike his earlier Aleksandr Nevskiy
( Alexander Nevsky , co-directed by Dmitri Vasilyev, 1938), however, which focused on the story of a thirteenth-century prince who defeated an invading Teutonic army, Ivan the Terrible, Part One is less a symbol of the Russian people than a portrait of a fully rounded character, complex and beset by internal conflicts. Although Ivan the Terrible, Part One received the Stalin Prize, Ivan Groznyy II ( Ivan the Terrible, Part Two , co-directed by M. Filimonova, 1958) was condemned by Stalin and suppressed. Ivan the Terrible, Part One has long been considered one of the most important and original films in world cinema in terms of its formal design; the two parts taken together may also be the first biographical film to explore the darker side of its main character.
As the biopic matured as a form, its subjects became more complex. Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962), starring Peter O'Toole, for example, paints an arresting portrait of its main character that shows him as both heroic and fatally flawed. Patton (Franklin Schaffner, 1970) took a similar approach, with George C. Scott (1927–1999) depicting the main character as both a noble warrior and vainglorious egomaniac. The complex and subtle shadings of character that distinguish films such as Lawrence of Arabia and Patton are also found in later examples of the form. Works such as Bertolucci's The Last Emperor and Stone's Nixon are distinguished examples of films that take a complicated view of the link between the individual subject and the historical process, refusing to see the individual agent as simply the crystallized expression of historical forces. Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992) and Gandhi (Richard Attenborough, 1982) as well as Schindler's List , consider the question that is at the heart of the biographical film: the relationship between the currents and forces of history and the charismatic individual who strives to shape those forces.