Great Historical Films


Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca


In our fourth Moment in History article, titled the "Humble Beginnings," we delved into the initial experimental use of film by such historical figures as the renowned inventor Thomas Edison. Over the past 120 years film has gone from a mere demonstration of scientific prowess to a medium that is not only a significant entertainment technology, but a crucial artistic representation of some of humanities most defining moments. In this Moment In History article we will give a list of what we feel to be some of the best historical films, not only for their educational value, but also due to their ability to portray the raw emotional power of the moment.





All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

A war movie deemed to be one of the best, if not the best, ever filmed. Adapted from the Erich Maria Remarque novel of the same name, this movie is a realistic portrayal of the horrors of WWI. A group of German school boys join the ranks to fight with the German's at the front lines. But once there they find it is nothing like they were led to believe through the patriotic discussions from their idealistic teacher. This movie has aged well and still has tones that are applicable to today's world.
Stars: Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim, Russell Gleason, John Wray

Gone With the Wind (1939)

Perhaps the finest production to ever come out of Hollywood, Gone With the Wind is a tour de force of storytelling. Again this is actually a movie more fiction than fact, but it is so well written and produced that the watcher thoroughly believes they are in the American Civil War period. Other than softening up racial overtones this film is a faithful adaption from novel that relates the times of the American Civil War from a southern (particularily white) perspective. Frankly Scarlett we DO give a damn!!
Stars: Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Howard

Casablanca (1942)

What list of great films would be complete without Casablanca? Set in the city of Casablanca, Morocco during World War 2, the film follows Rick Blaine, an American who is involved in some less than reputable dealings. When his old girl friend arrives with her husband seeking help Blaine must decide what to do with the old love that he still holds for her.
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains

From Here To Eternity (1953)

A dramatic telling of the days leading up to and including the bombing of Pearl Harbour and based on James Jones novel of the same name. Although much of the movie was toned down in relation to the novel, it is still famous for the beach scene between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr.
Stars: Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, Frank Sinatra

Bridge On the River Kwai (1957)

This was a WWII movie filmed in 1957 centering around the construction of a bridge in Burma that is, well, over the River Kwai. It is built by British POWs who are being held by the Japanese. Even as they are building it, certain members of the group are plotting how to blow it up. The film is climaxed by one of the most intense finales ever filmed where a full-sized bridge was blown up and a full-sized train run off it, no models at all were used.
Stars: Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa, Jack Hawkins, William Holden.

Ben-Hur (1959)

Perhaps Charlton Heston's most famous epic role, this movie chronicles the life of fictional character Ben-Hur. Why is this movie included in this list then? Because the rendering of the times of Christ is exquisite, as is the struggle with Roman rule, not to mention the movie captured 11 Oscars. It also showcases a pretty good naval battle scene as well as the famous chariot race sequence that lasts over 20 minutes. Spend a Sunday watching this movie back to back with "The Ten Commandments". If you have lots of goodies to munch on, you won't regret the 7 hours between the two.
Stars: Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Martha Scott

Spartacus (1960)

Still another excellent movie depicting conflict with Roman rulers is Spartacus. Kirk Douglas stars as the rebellious slave who starts an uprising against Roman oppressors to gain freedom. The movie has a breathtaking score and some of the most staggering battle scenes committed to celluloid.
Stars: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Tony Curtis, Peter Ustinov

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

This epic film documents the WWI experiences of T.E. Lawrence and is considered one of the greatest films ever to be made. Peter O'Toole debuted his film career in the title role, beautifully portraying Lawrence and his personal and emotional conflicts with war, nature and internal struggle.
Stars: Peter O'Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif

Ghandi (1982)

Starring Ben Kingsley, this award winning film explores the life of activist Mohandas 'Mahatma' Ghandi. This movie is very powerful and is a definite must see for people of all ages. This film is for the most part historically accurate, making it also a good educational video.
Stars: Ben Kingsley, Rohini Hattangadi, Candice Bergen, Martin Sheen

Amadeus (1984)

The great Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's music is divine, Antonio Salieri recognizes that, but cannot understand why god has blessed Mozart with such talent while passing over him. The movie chronicles Salieri as he watches Mozart with amazement, jealousy, and disdain.
Stars: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge, Roy Dotrice

Platoon (1986)

Oliver Stone's breakthrough movie is widely regarded as one of the best war movies ever filmed, especially by those from the lower ranks. It is a brutal look at the moralities, both good and bad, that the soldiers in the thick of a combat zone exhibit. The main character played by Charlie Sheen quickly finds that in the Vietnam war, as perhaps in all war, death, terror, betrayal and loss can not only come from the enemy you are actually fighting, but from within your own camp as well.
Stars: Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe

Glory (1989)

Considered by many critics as one of the best historical dramas ever filmed, this movie stars Matthew Broderick as a young inexperienced officer given the task of commanding America's first unit of all-black soldiers (apart from the white officers). The movie is an emotional and astonishing portrayal of Colonel Robert Shaw (Broderick's character) and the other characters brought to life from that difficult time in American history.
Stars: Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freedom

Last of the Mohicans (1992)

This movie stars Daniel Day-Lewis, that should be reason enough to see the movie. If that doesn't convince you, the movie takes place during the 18th century French-Indian War, where Day-Lewis, a white man who was raised by the Mohawk, falls in love with the daughter of a British colonel.
Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Russell Means, Eric Schweig

Schindler's List (1993)

Taking place in Poland during World War 2, Schindler's List presents the tale of Oskar Schindler, an entrepreneurial businessman who seeks fortune from the exploitation of cheap Jewish labour. As the film progresses Schindler transforms his factory into a haven for over a thousand Jews who are otherwise destined to meet death in concentration camps.
Stars: Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Caroline Goodall

Braveheart (1995)

This may not be the most historically accurate movie, but Mel Gibson sure knows how to kick some English butt! After William Wallace's wife is killed by the British Wallace decides that the oppression of Scotland by the English has gone on long enough.
Stars: Mel Gibson, Sean Lawlor, Sandy Nelson, James Cosmo

Titanic (1997)

Profiling the tragic first voyage of the Titanic, the film watches as Rose and Jack fall in love against all odds only to have that love destroyed by the depths of the ocean.
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

One of the best war movies of the modern film era, this Steven Spielberg movie opens with a stirring scene of an old soldier visiting the grave of one of his comrades from WWII in Normandy then moves on to what must be the most intense 20 minutes of battle sequence ever filmed. For those of us who were not actually in the D-Day invasion, this is as close to understanding we will ever come to what it was actually like. Lest we forget...
Stars: Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Jeremy Davies, Edward Burns, Matt Damon

Gladiator (2000)

The winner of 5 Academy Awards, Gladiator follows ex-general Maximus as he fights in the gladiatorial games in Rome's historic Coliseum. Although director Ridley Scott's film is more fiction than fact, in many respects it is definitely worth watching for its wonderfully compelling characters and gory action sequences.
Stars: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed

The Patriot (2000)

Just as with Gladiator, the Patriot is largely fictional, although the American Revolutionary War upon which it was based was clearly quite real. The movie surrounds the life of Benjamin Martin as he fights alongside his son against the British for freedom from colonial rule.
Stars: Mel Gibson, Jason Isaacs, Heath Ledger.

Thirteen Days (2000)

Even though you will know the ending of this movie before you start watching it, you will still be gripping the edge of you seat with anxiety as John F. Kennedy fights the Soviet Union in a high-stakes game of diplomacy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This movie is clearly slanted with American patriotism, but that doesn't make it any less watchable or historically valuable.
Stars: Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, Steven Culp

Black Hawk Down (2001)

Set in Somalia in 1993, the film records the failed mission to capture two warlords in the lawless country. The constant action and gore in this movie are not only exciting, but they are representative of a disastrous mission that led to the complete abandonment of Somalia by the United States.
Stars: Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Eric Bana

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