The First 10 Biopics in Recorded History
1. Joan of Arc (1900)
The first of many biopics of Joan of Arc, this one begins in her home village of Domrémy, where she has visions of the Archangel Michael, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, and Margaret of Antioch. She’s shown minding a flock of sheep, which foreshadows her eventual leadership role in the French army.
The film then chronicles Joan traveling to Vaucouleurs, becoming a soldier, and leading a successful battle in Orléans. She’s then taken prisoner at the Siege of Compiègne and burned at the stake. The final scene shows her ascending to heaven and being greeted by the heavenly beings from her visions.
This was the first of Georges Méliès's films to exceed 200 meters in length. It was filmed on twelve sets, while Méliès's previous film, Cinderella (1899), was filmed on six. An advertisement claimed that 500 people were hired as extras for the Orléans parade scene, but this was just an illusion created by the extras walking around the studio.
Most of the filming was done with a stationary camera, viewing the action from far away. This was the standard practice of the time, as it simulated the viewpoint of an audience member in a theater. However, the Siege of Compiègne was filmed with the actors closer to the camera, which is looks surprisingly modern for its time.
2. The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906)
Considered the first full-length feature film ever made, The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) chronicles the exploits of Australian outlaw and bushranger Ned Kelly and his gang. During an era when plays about bushrangers were popular, this film brought the genre to the big screen for the first time.
The film was a success, making its budget back after only one week of trial screenings. In December of that year, it premiered in Melbourne at Athenaeum Hall and ran for five weeks to sold-out crowds. It was screened with live sound effects, which included blank cartridges as gunshots and coconut shells as the sound of horses’ hooves.
Despite this success, some Australian politicians claimed The Story of Ned Kelly glorified criminal acts, and it was subsequently banned in several regions in Victoria. But this did not affect the film's popularity, nor did it deter its international screenings.
Though it was the first narrative film to run over 60 minutes long, only 17 minutes have survived. The film was considered lost until portions of it were found in 1975, 1978, and 1980. In 2006, the National Film and Sound Archive restored, colorized, and released it on DVD.
3. Origin of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (1909)
Released in 1909 by the Edison Company, this film depicts one of the theories behind Ludwig Van Beethoven’s famous composition. Though many believe “Moonlight Sonata” was inspired by his unrequited love, Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, the company chose instead to adapt the tale of his friendship with a blind girl.
While out on an evening walk, Beethoven hears one of his songs being played through an open window. He enters the house and meets a blind girl sitting at a piano. As they play music together, Beethoven considers the fact that she’s never seen moonlight reflected on water. So he heads home and writes “Moonlight Sonata” to convey the image to her in song.
The film leaves out the fact that the composition wasn’t called “Moonlight Sonata” until after Beethoven’s death, and that he was uncomfortable with the piece’s popularity because, in his words, “Surely I have written better things.”
But seeing as the story of the blind girl may or may not be true, the filmmakers clearly didn’t concern themselves with accuracy.
4. Edgar Allan Poe (1909)
Before the release of his most well-known film, Birth of a Nation (1915), D.W. Griffith directed hundreds of short films. One of them was a seven-minute depiction of Edgar Allan Poe writing his most acclaimed poem, “The Raven.”
The first scene shows Poe sitting in a small apartment, writing at his desk while his sick wife Virginia lies shivering in bed. At some point he opens the cupboard to prepare a meal for her, only to find that they have no food.
After finishing the poem, Poe rushes out the door to a local publisher, who pays him ten dollars to publish it. He uses the money to buy food, medicine, and a quilt, only to return home and find that his wife has died.
Griffith had no issue taking creative liberties to maximize the drama. In real life, Poe’s wife died two years after “The Raven” was published. The subtitle for this film was "A Picture Story Founded on Events in His Career," which can be considered an early version of the phrase "Based on a True Story."
5. Life and Death of Pushkin (1910)
Famed poet, playwright, and novelist Alexander Pushkin is now considered the founder of modern Russian literature. He wrote in a wide range of genres and would go on to influence authors such as Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, and Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Over seventy years after Pushkin's death, Russian filmmaking pioneer Vasily Goncharov directed Life and Death of Pushkin (1910), a five-minute sequence of scenes from his life. These include a teenage Pushkin at military academy, an older Pushkin attending a ball, and in the end, Pushkin being mortally wounded in a duel, after which he's carried off to his death bed.
After that, there came the German film The Poet and the Czar (1927), followed by the Russian films Young Pushkin (1937) and Travel to Arzrum (1937). Pushkin then appeared as a supporting character in two biopics about Russian composer Mikhail Glinka.
Other films about Pushkin's life have included Pushkin: Poslednyaya duel (2006), which portrayed the duel that ended his life, and 1814 (2007), a historical thriller that takes place during his youth. The most recent film depicting Pushkin was a Russian comedy entitled Save Pushkin (2017), in which he time-travels to modern times.
6. Life and Death of Peter the Great (1910)
Peter the Great was the Tsar of all Russia from 1682 to 1721, and then Emperor and Autocrat of Russia from 1721 to 1725. Today he's known for his extensive social reforms, his establishment of the Governing Senate and Head Magistrate, and his expansion of the Russian Empire.
The first of many filmmakers to bring his story to the screen was Vasily Goncharov, along with his co-director, Kai Hansen. The film was Life and Death of Peter the Great (1910). No record of the film exists, save from its presence in Goncharov's filmography.
A German biopic, Peter the Great, was released in 1922, followed by a Russian film entitled Peter the First (1937). For a time, the musical film How Czar Peter the Great Married Off His Moor (1976) was the sixth most popular film in the Soviet Union.
Some years later, the NBC miniseries Peter the Great (1986) went on to win three Primetime Emmy Awards.
7. Sweet Nell of Old Drury (1911)
Eleanor Gwynne, nicknamed Nell, was an English comedic actress who became King Charles II’s favorite mistress in 1669. Having been born to an alcoholic mother and a father who died in prison, she grew up serving drinks in a brothel before making her theatrical debut when she was fourteen.
Gwynne quickly became popular among audiences for her wit, humor, and talent. These qualities caught Charles's attention, and by the time she was seventeen, she had her own luxurious house on castle grounds.
In 1900, her relationship with Charles was dramatized in a play called Sweet Nell of Old Drury. Australian actress Nellie Stewart took the lead role in 1902 and would play Gwynne on and off until her death in 1931. When the play became a film in 1911, Stewart was the obvious casting choice.
Stewart was beloved by Australian audiences, who dubbed her “Sweet Nell.” In 1936, the Nellie Stewart Garden of Memory was planted at the Botanic Gardens in Sydney, Australia. In 1989, the Australia Post issued a postage stamp honoring her.
8. Custer’s Last Fight (1912)
Francis Ford, brother of renowned director John Ford, directed the first biopic about General George Armstrong Custer, and also played Custer in the film. Shooting locations included Los Angeles, Pacific Palisades, and Santa Ynez Canyon, all in California.
Custer’s Last Fight (1912), which depicts the Battle of Little Bighorn in the Great Sioux War of 1876, had an original running time of 30 minutes. It was re-released in 1925 with more intertitles and longer battle scenes, some of which were only described in intertitles and not shown in the original version.
The next film about Custer was Colonel Custard's Last Stand (1914), a comedy starring Lloyd Hamilton. Most other portrayals of Custer in film feature him as a secondary or tertiary character, with exceptions such as They Died With Their Boots On (1941) and Custer of the West (1967). Both of those biopics were heavily fictionalized and criticized for inaccuracies.
9. Queen Elizabeth (1912)
Before Cate Blanchett starred in Elizabeth (1998), celebrated French actress Sarah Bernhardt was the first to bring the famous queen to life on screen. The film was an adaptation of the play Les Amours de la reine Élisabeth, which translates to The Loves of Queen Elizabeth, or simply Queen Elizabeth (1912).
This biopic was filmed in Paris and focused on Elizabeth I’s affair with the Earl of Essex. The Earl was played by Lou Tellegen, who was romantically involved with Bernhardt at the time. This was the second film they made together, the first being Camille (1912).
Queen Elizabeth contains one of the first musical scores ever composed for a film. The composer, Joseph Carl Breil, would later go on to score The Birth of a Nation (1915) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). The only-known film score from an earlier time was Camille Saint-Saëns’s composition for The Assassination of the Duke of Guise (1908).
10. Adrienne Lecouvreur (1913)
Adrienne Lecouvreur was considered the greatest French actress of the 18th century. By the time she was fourteen, she was touring with theatrical companies all throughout France. In her first year she gave 139 performances, an impressively high number for a beginner.
She was also known for her romance with Count Maurice of Saxony, and for her mysterious death. Many believed she was poisoned by her romantic rival, Duchess Maria Karolina Sobieska, though this was never proven. After her death, Lecouvreur became the subject of a play entitled Adrienne Lecouvreur (1849), which dramatized the ill-fated love affair.
The first film adaptation of the play was Adrienne Lecouvreur (1913), which starred Sarah Bernhardt as Lecouvreur and Max Maxudian as Maurice. Lou Tellegen also appeared briefly, making it the third film he and Bernhardt worked on together.
Joan Crawford played Lecouvreur in Dream of Love (1928), followed by Yvonne Printemps in the French-German film Adrienne Lecouvreur (1938).
Honorable Mention: The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895)
In 1895, the Edison Company hired Alfred Clark to direct The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895), the first film to ever contain historical subject matter. At eighteen seconds long, this was one of the first films to use trained actors, and one of the first to use editing for the purpose of special effects.
Mary was actually played by Robert Thomae, the secretary and treasurer of the Kinetoscope Company. In the first death scene in cinema history, Thomae was lain on the execution block and then replaced with a mannequin before the executioner swung his axe.
This camera trick was the first of its kind, and seemed so real that audiences believed they’d witnessed a real beheading. In real life, it took three axe swings to execute Mary.