Do you recall those times when you were supposed to do research for a school essay but you ended up watching all four seasons of Prison Break or when you were supposed to study for a big final exam bust the night before your best friend had the most amazing party you could had ever attended during your teen years, so you had to choose the party.
The adventures ended with you satisfied after watching a great TV series and perhaps with a slight hangover, but what was not exactly pleasant, was the fact that you wasted all your time designated for studying and the deadline is not only approaching, but it is actually just a few hours away.
So what did you do? Your history knowledge was never your strong asset, and despite you typing than a cheetah running, you just do not feel like reading hundreds of pages. And then it came to you…
Historical movies! Gorgeous 2 hour long movies saving your final grade while in high school. Instead of spending weeks, if not months, in the library snooping inside books older than your current mother in law or sniffing the ancient dust out of those books who were never opened before, you chose multitasking.
Not only did you save the time you pretty much ran out of because of your own fault, but you also played a nice game on your computer, ate some delicious popcorn and listened to Queen. In 2 hours, you got your information and had fun, too. Of course the next two you spent writing the essay or writing at the exam were not as pleasant, but you get the point.
A Two Faced Mirror
The thing we adore about historical movies is that, besides saving us when our laziness drags us down, they show a different side of history. Often, we are not exactly aware of some historical events, because they were simply not taught in school, yet they were very important and also interesting.
Through historical movies we get a glimpse at the society – including behavior, morals, clothing and appearance – of certain eras and peoples. While reading history books and attending boring courses, we get more information about political issues, mostly favorable to each person’s country and past.
But we are humans and we love gossiping and tabloids; therefore, watching historical movies also quenches our thirst for scandal, showing us some deep dark secrets hidden from the typical history books. Though, at the same time, historical movies tend to lack accuracy from time to time for various reasons.
Either there were not enough pieces of information and records on certain subjects or the Hollywood producers just wanted to make everything look more interesting. Let’s be honest! Would you have watched Titanic if there would not have been Jack and Rose’s romance? Perhaps, but then it would have been no different from any other documentary.
Therefore, from our experience and based on fans’ favourite screenings, we brought this list featuring the best historical movies.
10. Troy (2004)
Starring the gorgeous Brad Pitt as Achilles, Orlando Bloom as Paris, Eric Bana as Hector and Diane Kruger as Helen, Troy takes us on the James Horner’s music 3000 years into the past to the legendary Sparta. Upon discovering that his wife, Helen, has eloped with the Trojan prince Paris, king Menelaus gathers his army, leaded by the hero Achilles and sets to regain his wife and honour at the price of the Trojans’ lives.
As it is recalled in the many literary adaptations, the Spartans manage to defeat and burn down Troy only by infiltrating from the inside – with the army hidden inside an wooden horse presented as a gift to the peaceful naive Trojans.
Producing an historical movie is not easy, especially when the entire event is contested as being indeed true, so far being considered just an ancient literary legend. But Wolfgang Petersen succeeded in illustrating an ancient world.
Of course there were errors, hints about those societies being shown mostly in paintings on ceramics, which are not always of great help, so the costumes were not 100% correct, of course, there were no actual llamas in the Greek island, the war lasted more than 17 days (10 years actually), the coins were not invented back then and the heroes used spears, not swords, Achilles did not get to enjoy the conquest, because he died, so did Paris and of course, Menelaus got his wife back. But all in all, it is a good movie and it gives a good inside perspective on the Trojan War.
9. Braveheart (1995)
Mel Gibson teleports us back into the 13th century Scotland. If you know any basic history about the United Kingdom, then you know that the relationship between Scotland and England was always unpleasant. In BraveHeart, the hero is William Wallace, the survivor of King Edward “Longshanks” invasion of Scotland.
After years of being educated abroad, William returns to his homeland, but tragedy strikes him again as his new wife gets executed. After Wallace’s slaughter of the Englishmen, the king realises his power and a constant battle of powers occurs. While Wallace fails his mission, he does succeed in giving the Scots a righteous king, who brings them their freedom.
New Page, Old History
We often get to see movies or TV series about certain historical personalities, but when it comes to Scotland’s history, we barely know anything. So one thing we should be grateful to Mel Gibson is bringing the Scottish Knight Uilleam Uallas and this part of Scotland’s past on the big screen.
Of course there were changes from the actual Scottish hero and his fight and the movie we were shown. One thing would be Wallace’s family, which in the movie is poor, while in reality it is speculated to have been of noble blood.
Another one would be related to the appearance, in Braveheart the Scots being depicted wearing kilts and war paint on their faces, both being wrong. Yes, Scots did wear kilts, but not in the 1200s.
There was some drama added by inventing a relationship between William and the King’s daughter in law, while the knight’s death was pretty much… censored. But we all know it is a good movie and one of the few Scottish historical jewels.
8. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
In 1962 we got a movie directed by David Lean and produced by Sam Spiegel, following the life of the English archaeologist and diplomat T. E. Lawrence, more specific his life during World War I.
Starring Peter O’Toole as the main character, the movie, divided in 2 parts, starts with his death and memorial service, shifting then to his youth years, when he is sent to cross deserts and get involved in the divergences between the Arabic countries and the Turks, gaining the trust of the right people, until he is given the title of colonel and finishes him mission.
The Right Perspective
It is to be appreciated that when this movie was made, there was enough research done for the producers and creators to know exactly what to do and how to do it. The slight inexactness comes from the desire to creating something big and pompous – the scenes filmed in the desert were exaggerated, Lawrence was not praised for saving a man’s life, but mocked because of his recklessness and the quicksand scene was purely fictional and inserted just for drama.
Yet, ignoring these aspects, we must respect that the actors chosen resemble the real life personalities, Lawrence’s disparagement and frivolity were well represented as well as many other aspects found in his memoire.
7. Downfall (2004)
Downfall or Der Untergang is a film depicting the last days of the Nazi regime and of Adolf Hitler’s life. Beginning with the confessions of Hitler’s secretary and recall of the moment she was hired, the movie takes back the action to 1945, to Berlin getting attacked by the Red Army and Hitler (Bruno Ganz)refusing to give up the battle and his allies preparing for the inevitable end. Built like a documentary under the form of a memoire film, Der Untergang literally shows the downfall of regime.
Illustrating a sensible subject, Downfall is mostly a very accurate depiction of the 1945 realities. A few mistakes were done when introducing the fictional character of Tellermann, when creating the costumes and of course, minor details post World War II were added despite not existing or not being relevant to those times. But except those, a great thorough job was done producing it.
6. The Pianist (2002)
Another World War II related movie, The Pianist is the multi awarded masterpiece of Roman Polanski, based on the autobiography of Wladyslaw Szpilman, and starring Adrien Brody as the titular character. At the beginning of the infamous war, Wladyslaw Szpilman founds himself performing in a radio station when the place is bombarded, while the country is also invaded by the German troops.
Soon the attacks towards the Jewish community start and Wladyslaw is only saved by constantly running away and hiding, until he and his talent get noticed by a German officer, the pianist managing to save his life and live it until 2000.
Being based on the actual events lived by real the composer, when filming the movie, Roman Polanksi took care of every single detail. Unavoidable, there were some factual and continuity errors regarding worldwide events, social problems, costumes, the statuses of the German soldiers and weapons. Unless you are a history geek, you can easily watch the movie without noticing them.
5. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Another World War II film, this time from the American perspective, Saving Private Ryan by Steven Spielberg, follows the events from 1944. Captain John H. Miller is assigned to find the fourth missing son of a woman who has already lost three children in war.
Miller and his team not only get involved in mysterious, yet sad mission, but also still have to keep fighting the enemy. Saving Private Ryan is a mission about humanity during war time, about sacrifice. Starring in the main roles, we have Tom Hanks as Captain John H. Miller and Matt Damon as Private James Ryan.
A Tear for the Past
Focusing primary on the American war, Saving Private Ryan is a great foretaste on how World War II looked like for the American army. Starting with a 24 minutes depiction of the Battle of Normandy, this movie functions similarly to Titanic, using a touching fictional story to send a bigger message – showing the true horrors and tragedies of war.
Though, some factual inaccuracies got inserted due to the movie’s dramatic structure – soldiers were not that chatty and they were more precautious. Except this, we can understand why it is considered one of the best historical movies ever made.
4. The Last Samurai (2003)
This Academy Awards and Golden Globe Awards winner, starring Tom Cruise, makes a time jump back to the 19th century Japan, when the country is overwhelmed by westernization and the Satsuma Revolution.
Amidst all these events, we encounter former American Civil War and Indian War fighter, Captain Nathan Algren (Cruise) is hired by the Japanese Emperor to train his army and teach them new western ways of battle. While he is supposed to influence the others, Algren finds himself discovering an ancient tradition.
New Old Culture
When it comes to historical correctness, The Last Samurai managed to demonstrate the impact of the Western culture on a traditional country more than well. The entire concept was taken from reality and the movie gets deep into historical context.
Though, some slipups can be noticed, for example the implication of the Americans in trade relations, the character building of the Japanese Emperor, some details regarding the samurais and of course the costumes! It is always difficult not to add something dramatic, despite not having anything to do with the events or times.
3. Elizabeth (1998)
Starring Cate Blanchett as the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth is a biographical film about the last Tudor ruler, Elizabeth. Following the death of her sister, Queen “Bloody” Mary (Kathy Burke), Elizabeth is freed from prison and crowned.
Being alone and unmarried, Elizabeth becomes the target of various suitors seeking power and a way to ascend to the throne. At the same time her position and life are threatened by other nobles, Elizabeth finding herself obliged to take harsh measures and to choose England over any man.
The purpose of the creators was not to particularly make a truthful representation of the beginning of the Elizabethan era. Some events and decorations are not correctly dated, while the relationship between the characters and consequently the interactions between them are mostly exaggerated and added for a theatrical effect, as well as some characters’ (i.e. Duke of Norfolk) personalities and ages (i.e. Robert Cecil). But Cate Blanchett is such a great Elizabeth, that we can pretty much ignore all the errors and concentrate only one her. Thank all the saints for Elizabeth: The Golden Age, too.
2. The King’s Speech (2010)
It is the year of 1925 and Prince Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth) stammers while holding a speech heard by the entire nation. Seeing his speech imprediment as a potential reason to get mocked by the people, his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) arranges for Albert to meet the speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).
What starts as an attempt of curing a speaking problem becomes the preparation for taking the throne and announcing the beginning of another war.
Slight Distortion, Deep Message
When sketching the concept of this movie, there were no hesitation in making a mountain out of a molehill and distorting the reality, because that was what the creators were looking for. They wanted to the watchers to understand that a high status and money don’t save you from various issues, familial or health ones, while also giving another glimpse at the intrigues going on in royal families.
Not to forget that it also illustrates how important is for a monarch to be an orator. So maybe the therapist and the duke started working together earlier, Prince Albert’s stutter was not that bad and Churchill was not happy when King Edward VIII abdicated, but it is surely one of the best movies ever made.
1. Schindler’s List (1993)
Another World War II themed movie, the last one and the best, this Steven Spielberg adaptation of Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark tells the true story of Oskar Schindler, a greedy businessman.
Despite being part of the Nazi party, Schindler is deeply affected by the way Jewish people are treated. When the humanity in him surpasses his love for money and fortune, Schindler goes from exploiting Jewish people in labour to saving them from death.
Rarely do movies manage to be carbon copies of the source books. Schindler’s List is no difference, starting with the title, which takes away the Biblical reference, but also details and facts from the books, for various reasons such as wanting to make the movie more appealing and histrionic.
But all in all, it is considered to be the best historical movie, especially due to the fact that in discovering Oskar’s good deeds, the memories and confessions of Poldek Pfefferberg, who met Schindler and whose mother worked for him, were used.