Hitler. Stalin. Ivan the Terrible. We all love these guys. Which is to say, we hate them and everything they stand for, but we're secretly glad they existed. Otherwise we'd have to learn about the cultural and political tensions behind world history, as opposed to boiling it down to "there was a bad guy who made crap happen because he was evil."
But sometimes in our haste to find a villain in every situation, we wind up painting some people as cackling cartoon villains when they were really just random guys, or even pretty awesome. Here are a few names you might want to give a second chance:
You Know Him As:
Genghis Khan was a barely-coherent fount of animalistic violence, who tore across Asia with his horde of barbarians laying waste to every village in his path, killing the men, raping the women, eating the children, killing and raping the livestock, burning everything down then raping and eating the ashes, etc. Anything that fits under a modern white person's notion of "pillage," Khan did while laughing a guttural, jackal-like laugh.
But in Reality:
What would you think of a guy who brought all the gangs of South Central Los Angeles together into one happy community? Well, deepen the grudges by about a millennium and expand the whole thing to cover one and a half million square miles, and you've got the task Genghis Khan achieved before he was even famous.
Back in the day, Mongolia was just a bunch of scattered nomadic tribes who would wander around, kill each other, wander around some more and basically be laughably irrelevant on a global scale. Then Genghis came along and united the entire clusterfuck in a couple of decades.
And if you're wondering if his "peace talks" were conducted by a thousand burly men with clubs, sorry, Genghis was always more of a politician than a psychopath. He attracted the allegiance of other tribes by spreading the word that life under his rule was crazy awesome. He did away with the sacred Mongolian tradition of "Fuck the soldiers, just fuck 'em" by allowing defeated enemies to join, giving the men a share in the spoils of war and basing promotions on merit rather than politics. Soldiers had never been treated so well by a commander before, or if you think about it, since.
So once he'd turned Mongolia into one big happy family, his next job was to keep them that way. He figured if the people were left to their own devices they'd get antsy and just drift back into the wandering around and killing each other for lack of a better idea, so he arranged activities to keep them organized, like massive hunts or conquering all of mainland Asia. Seriously, that's a leading theory, that Genghis had his armies invade everything in sight as some kind of team-building exercise. Beats the shit out of softball.
You Know Him As:
Benedict Arnold fought for the British during the American Revolution. Even worse, he did it despite being American. Attempting to use his position as a general in the Continental Army to gain control of West Point then surrender it to the British, he was discovered, thwarted and his name has since become synonymous with "English muffins topped with bacon, poached eggs and hollandaise sauce." No, wait, "traitor," that's the one.
But in Reality:
Arnold actually did all that stuff. Switching sides, trying to surrender West Point, the whole shebang. But you know what? Considering the circumstances, it's hard to say we blame him.
This shameless display of unmitigated gall, however, is inexcusable.
When you look at pre-treachery Arnold, what you find is an almost comical beacon of good old-fashioned American virtue. After his mother died, he single-handedly supported his sister and suicidally alcoholic father; he enlisted to fight off a French invasion when he was 15; he grew up to be a successful capitalist and family man. If he'd fought a duel against somebody for using "Yankee" as an insult, he would've been the ultimate American. What, he did that? Never mind then.
Then there was his record during the revolution. He planned and led the famous siege of Fort Ticonderoga. Somewhere around here his wife died, but he soldiered on, masterminding the strategic invasion of Quebec, where he held position for weeks despite being cut off from the rest of the army and shot in the leg. He held back the British at Lake Champlain, he was instrumental in the Danbury raid, he was essential to the success of the Battle of Saratoga. If he fell off a bridge and died at this point, there would be a 50-foot tall statue of him in Connecticut, made of platinum and diamonds.
The army must have loved this guy, right? Surely by this stage he was being carried everywhere by a living throne of nubile young women. Wait, instead they repeatedly passed him over for promotion with younger, less experienced men? And other officers tried to take credit for his achievements? And he was investigated by congress on baseless accusations of corruption?
Basically, after all his bravery, sacrifice and bullet holes, America seemed to develop a great passion for kicking Arnold in the gut. It didn't help that at the same time they were creating an alliance with France, the bad guys from Arnold's teenage war adventures. Under those conditions, it's understandable that he'd quit the team.
People may have had more respect for him if, rather than being sneaky about it, he'd yelled "Fuck you all, I'm with England now" as he rode off giving everyone the rudest gesture of the times. It's the betrayal that irks people. But hey, America, you started it.
You Know Him As:
If you've seen Amadeus, you know who Salieri is. He was the personification of mediocrity's envy of genius, a crappy composer who obsessively used his connections to sabotage the career of that insanely talented punk, Mozart.
Finally he ran out of subtlety and just killed the guy, but Mozart got the upper hand in the end by going down in history as a great composer, while Salieri is only remembered as a jealous prick.
But in Reality:
Sure, Mozart and Salieri competed, for teaching posts and royal commissions and stuff. But that's normal. They were in the same business in the same place at the same time; it's inevitable that they'd sometimes be after the same gig. If you get beaten to a promotion by some other guy at the office, it doesn't mean he was plotting against you with all of his murderous hatred, as tempting as it is to think that he was.
No, Mozart and Salieri seem to have gotten along fine. They once collaborated on a cantata, and Salieri later revived Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. He also premiered a number of Mozart's major works and not only attended The Magic Flute but cheered like a loon--in fact, it gets to a point where you have to wonder what Mozart ever did for Salieri. Unless you count the cantata, which is kind of like Stephen Hawking "collaborating" with your first-grader on his homework.
Actually, the notion of Salieri as a hack is a lie too; he was highly respected, writing more than 40 operas, some of which are still performed today. He also taught such future composers as Liszt, Schubert, Beethoven, even Czerny. True, he wasn't as good as Mozart, but if you don't see a difference between "not as good as Mozart" and "a talentless bum," your standards might be a bit high.
As for killing Mozart, it hardly merits a response; it's a plain fact that Mozart died after several months severe illness. If you paid attention to your one-stop shop for Salieri myths, the play and movie Amadeus, you'll see that even it grudgingly hints at the true nature of Mozart's death, particularly in the part where Mozart spends half an hour getting sick and dying. It still tries to pin it on Salieri, because Salieri deliberately gave Mozart a nasty shock, which caused rheumatic fever in a perfectly logical turn of events.
If that were really how it happened, we have to say, it'd only help Salieri's case. If your idea for murdering your most hated enemy is "I'll scare him to death with a gho-o-o-ost, woooooo!" you're less a murderer than a writer for Scooby Doo.
You Know Him As:
The bad guy in the Robin Hood stories, "Prince" John, as he is more commonly known for some reason, was a cowardly usurper who tried to seize control of England while his brave and handsome and charming and wonderful and awesome brother, King Richard the Lionheart, was off fighting The Crusades.
He raised taxes like it was going out of fashion, and generally made life miserable for the peasants.
But in Reality:
For starters, if you still think King Richard was awesome, either you aren't aware that he honestly thought God wanted him to go to other people's countries and tear shit up until all the Muslims were dead, or you're a very scary person.
When it comes to John himself, it becomes important to clarify your definition of "bad king." John's reign is generally regarded as an epic disaster for England, but not because he was avaricious or cruel; simply because he was so retarded at being king that he probably wore his crown pointy-side down.
Just look at how disappointed the Pope is, back there.
Everything John touched turned to crap. His marriage led almost directly to him losing a heap of land in France. His military campaign to regain that land was a spectacular fuck-up that cost a fortune, forcing him to raise taxes and earning him a reputation for military incompetence that inspired the nickname "Softsword" (Freudian connotations surely deliberate). The tax hike was not dumped on the peasants as legend suggests, but on the nobility and the clergy, which meant everyone with money and power now hated him.
The sheer scale of his ineptitude gets to a point where it passes contempt and you have to start feeling sorry for the guy. He had a Charlie Brown-esque ability to find utter failure in the most surprising places; hell, his attempt to influence the appointment of an archbishop wound up getting England excommunicated. It's not as though he wasn't smart--he's regarded as one of the foremost legal minds of his day, and weirdly for such a military fuckwit he's credited with creating the Royal Navy--but he had zero charisma, and pretty much all of his kingly instincts were mind-blowingly wrong.
But in the end, we wouldn't have him any other way. Sure, he lost land, lost money, allowed the church to increase its stranglehold on Britain; but if he hadn't been so terrible, if he hadn't done almost everything within his power to make his barons detest him so thoroughly, they wouldn't have been in a position to force him to sign a document that gave them certain inalienable rights they could demand from the king. A little document they called the Magna Carta.
That's right; all of modern democracy, made possible because King John was such a miserable fuck-up. Aren't you glad Robin Hood didn't kill him now?
You Know Him As:
If you've read Mutiny on the Bounty, or seen one of the several movie adaptations (including the 1984 version featuring Mel Gibson, Anthony Hopkins and lots of titties) then you know Bligh as the evil, shitty captain they were mutinying against.
Bligh was a classist bully who did typical evil captain stuff like work his crew half to death on a scant ration of rancid food. If any of them stepped out of line, by voicing dissatisfaction or passing out from exhaustion or what have you, he would have them flogged within an inch of their life. Also, he looked like a giant warthog who'd just fallen down a few flights of stairs.
Eventually Bligh's handsome and dashing first mate (the Mel Gibson character) had had enough and led a mutiny against him, leaving him adrift in the ocean to die, which is OK because it turns out he didn't. Hooray for the common man!
But in Reality:
Bligh certainly wasn't loveable; he was known to constantly subject his men to a torrent of hurtful, hurtful words. But that's about as mean as he got.
Far from wearing his men to nothing, records show that Bligh was almost obsessive about building them up into godlike paragons of health and vigor. To that end he provided them with a strict exercise regimen which, OK, would've blown. But also he made sure they had a highly nutritious diet, and organized their shifts so that they got plenty of rest. Sure, there were floggings--pretty much the first rule the British navy gave their captains was "if your crew so much as sneezes, flog the living shit out of them"--but it's all about context. Bligh was considerably less flog-happy than his peers, preferring to give his men a stern talking-to and send them off to think about what they'd done.
So why did such a well-fed, well-rested, relatively unflogged crew go apeshit? There are two schools of thought:
1. Despite Bligh's efforts, life aboard the Bounty was still pretty miserable. The ship had been officially classed as a cutter, giving it a small crew and limited supplies, meaning that the men were still overworked and underfed and the whole "godlike paragon" plan was fucked. This wasn't anything to do with Bligh, of course, but when you're generally pissed off about everything and the nearest authority figure keeps shouting at you and has a face like a squashed cabbage, it's human nature to decide it's all his fault and toss the bastard to the sharks.
2. The second version is a lot simpler. The crew had just spent several weeks of leave on Tahiti, lazing in the sun, getting wasted and screwing licentious young natives. Faced with another few months of scrubbing decks and eating hard tack, they simply said "Fuck this shit," dumped Bligh and his cohorts overboard, and went steaming back for more sweet Tahitian booty.
At this point, in what is frequently regarded as the most brilliant piece of seamanship in history, Bligh navigated the crappy raft they set him adrift on nearly 4,000 miles back to civilization, battling illness, hunger and at one point even hostile natives. Considering he went through all this, and later was also innocently involved in the Spithead Mutiny and the Rum Rebellion, only to wind up being remembered as the bad guy, Bligh would also be at home on a list of People the Universe Just Plain Hated.
You Know Him As:
King Edward I was the evil king in Braveheart. You know, the foul-tempered English prick who marched into Scotland and let his soldiers just start kicking all the Scottish peasants around, until William Wallace finally came and... well, got killed, but he still managed to teach Longshanks a thing or two. Oh, and that son of his? What a total ponce.
But in Reality:
For starters, Longshanks didn't just storm into Scotland because he felt like taking over; he went in to mediate a matter which was on the verge of causing civil war. "So?" you may well ask, "Who asked him to butt into Scotland's business?"...um, Scotland. Scotland asked.
That's right, Scotland more or less begged Longshanks to come over and start meddling in their affairs. Here's a compressed version of how it all went down:
Scotland: Help us, Edward Longshanks, you're our only hope!
Longshanks: Sure, I'll be glad to help. But first, I'll be needing Scotland.
Scotland: You'll be needing Scotland to do what?
Longshanks: To belong to England. I'll be needing you to give me Scotland.
Scotland: Oh. Er. Hm. OK, you can have our country, as long as you give it back when you're done.
Longshanks: ...Sure. I'll give it back. (rolls eyes)
Scotland: Huzzah! I don't see how this could possibly go wrong!
Seriously, Scotland? Had you even met England before? Sure, Edward broke his word, but in the history of hostile takeovers, this one ranks just about highest in "They were fucking asking for it."
Anyway, the whole Scotland fiasco was just the very end bit of Edward's reign. He spent the first 20 years or so at home writing a crapload of laws that revolutionized England forever. Most of them are pretty abstract to the lay person, but for example, did you know he helped implement several statutes which essentially made up England's first constitution? Wow! Or that he eased debt with a series of stringent anti-usury laws? Holy balls!
Braveheart fans, consider this--which is the more noble sacrifice to make for your country: leading your people in battle against an unbeatable enemy, inevitably dying in a blaze of glory? Or being the fucking King of England, and using that insane godlike power to spend decades drafting complex legislation so that the people can enjoy stable governance after you're dead? Yeah, we thought so.
For more from the realm of bad guy retardedness, check out 7 Badass Cartoon Villains Who Lost to Retarded Heroes and The 6 Most Pointlessly Elaborate Movie Murder Plots.
And check out more from the villians to our good guys at Cracked.com's Top Picks.