What to Watch | The Best and Worst in Historical Movies

More Americans get their history from movies than from any other source, academic or popular (to the consternation of many history teachers). Speaking personally, I have on occasion been forced to correct inaccurate pictures of history with my students, and I am often met with looks of shock that Hollywood would present the past in anything but a factually-correct manner.

Movie studios change history for a variety of reasons: dramatic storytelling, the need to condense events, or even corporate or personal agendas. This week, Joe and I hope to inspire you to find some solid historical films in a variety of categories (and also warn you about some films that are less than accurate, or even downright lies). Each of us chose a movie in the various categories. Jon took the good ones, and I got stuck with the bad ones. So enjoy!

Military History

War is the most interesting and catastrophic of human endeavors, and it is often the center of popular films. Until the emergence of superhero films a decade ago, seven of the top ten worldwide box office spots were held by war movies (and even Marvel and DC superhero flicks showcase war, albeit of a different kind). War brings out the best and the worst in mankind, and these films showcase the best and the worst in movie making.

Vietnam War Movies

Pretty much every movie about Vietnam. Here are two examples.

Apocalypse Now (1979): When Francis Ford Coppola created this film, he did it give a modernday interpretation of Joseph’s Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to show how Americans perceived the war. Note the word, perceived. In no way was it intended to be factual, to represent the American solider and their motivations, or to illustrate how the war was conducted.

Unfortunately, I’ve had people cite this film as source of American atrocities and ineptitude. From the Air Cav attack on a village to the scene of Do Lung Bridge, where there was no CO, total chaos, and endless hell. Folks, this stuff just didn’t happen. Sorry, no one destroyed villages to surf and there was no Do Lung bridge. The bridge scene was meant to illustrate the perceived futility of the war, and the air attack was to show the Americanization of it. Again, both false. Good story, bad history.

Platoon (1986): No platoon experienced all these things. Yes, I know it was Oliver Stone’s way including all the atrocities that occurred in the war and showcasing them while withholding all the good things done by American soldiers, but unfortunately—like all films about Vietnam—the fake scenes with the fake battles with the fake soldiers and fake guns are cited as real and factual. Again, my apologies, but things just didn’t happen this way. While there are a few exceptions, movies about Vietnam are made protestors who care less about historical accuracy and more about their political motivations. Steer clear or proceed with caution.

Gettysburg (1993)

It’s difficult to make an exciting movie about soldiers lining up and firing at each other with single-shot weapons. And Gettysburg is not a particularly exciting movie. However, if you want exciting entertainment I would recommend the latest Marvel film (I hear it’s gonna be the best one yet!). Gettysburg portrays real history, not the fake drama on display for the masses thirsty for gore. Based on Michael Shaara’s incredible book The Killer Angels, Gettysburg is not a war movie in the traditional sense. Rather than invent characters and place them in historic events, Gettysburg recreates the largest battle of the American Civil War in near-perfect detail. You won’t find yourself thrilled by incredible CGI displays of bloodshed, but you might just walk away from Gettysburg with a better understanding and appreciation of the most devastating conflict our nation has ever witnessed.

Political History

According to the great German theorist Carl von Clausewitz, “War is a continuation of politics by other means.” The same is true of political films—they are similar to war movies in that they are often adapted and changed to suit the times and to tell exciting stories. While political films do not appeal to everyone, and they often anger one side of the political aisle or the other, they are usually entertaining—sometimes in a tragic sort of way.

JFK (1991)

Many of you will disagree with this selection given the cinematography for this film was superb, but we are going for historical accuracy, right? Oliver Stone isn’t known for his ability to portray American events in both politics and war, and this film is no different. The wild theories pared with long-run time make for a snooze-fest for all of us unbelievers. Additionally, part of the frustration with the film is since the entire premise is based on varying degrees of speculation those that may believe get more questions than answers. I don’t know about you, but I like movies that have endings, good or bad. So, what really happened that day? Let's just for a moment speculate, shall we? Just don’t look to this movie for help. Thumbs down.

Lincoln (2012)

Abraham Lincoln is a larger-than-life figure in American history, but in this film (the second, and I promise last about the Civil War era) humanizes the 16th president in a way not seen before on film. Daniel Day Lewis’ portrayal of President Lincoln captures his popular image while also revealing his character in very personal ways that were once confined to long and windy biographies. From his unique sense of humor and use of stories to explain his thinking, Lincoln comes alive on the screen. The film is set amidst the controversy of passing the Thirteenth Amendment, and viewers are treated not just to the high-and-mighty statesmen like Lincoln and Seward but to unscrupulous tricksters who bribed and threatened members of Congress to do the president’s bidding. Lincoln shows the audience that the abolition of slavery was not as easy as history class usually says. It was a difficult, and often shady, business of backroom dealings with questionable characters, and the film demonstrates the unshakeable strength of President Lincoln as he sought to end the saddest chapter in American history.

Social History

Americans are fascinated by how people lived in ages past, perhaps more than people in any other country. We imagine ourselves living in a world without the technology and convenience of modern life, and we wonder if we’d make it in those days. Social history is not technically a genre of film, but rather the term describes a movie set in the past which reveal the best and the worst of those who came before us. Some use the details of everyday life in the past to tell amazing stories, while others seek to shine a light on historic injustices as a way to inspire us to continue to progress as a society.

Australia (2008)

The name alone sends chills down the adventurer’s spine. The cast, score, and setting make you think that nothing could go wrong, but in the end, this film has one good scene. The rest of the scenes seem to be a hodgepodge of different plots mixed together with a love story that by the end, is a bit watered down. The infamous good scene is the effective halt of stampeding cattle which, because of past personal experience, I was happy to see. As said, everything was so fluid that viewers can barely grasp what life was like in the reformed prison colony of Australia, despite its overly-long runtime. Hugh Jackman is awesome. Nicole Kidman is awesome. The continent and history of Australia is awesome. With these facts, you’d think it would be a winner. You’d be wrong.

Apocalypto (2006)

Like many of his other films, Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto sparked some controversy when it was released. The movie presents the audience with a picture of the Mayan civilization of Central America just before its first contact with Europeans. While wildly inaccurate in some places—the Mayans were never as barbaric as to conduct widespread human sacrifice like their Aztec neighbors to the north—the film presents the most accurate picture of pre-Colombian Native American civilization ever seen on screen. Gibson’s message of a civilization’s downfall resonated with discerning audiences and caused them to examine their own cultures and look for evidence of rot and ruin which might lead to an eventual decline and fall.

Cultural History

Like social history, cultural history examines how a group of people in the past lived their lives. The distinction is while social history gives a broad picture of an entire society, cultural history focuses in on a specific group of people at a distinct time period. Once again, this excites the imagination of people who can not imagine life outside their own time and brings new understanding to the past and reflection on the present.

The Scarlet Letter (1995)

No one is king of the world in this movie. This loose interpretation of Hawthorne’s historically inaccurate tale represents the worst of revisionist history. Puritans are portrayed in film in one of two ways, as legalists or Satanists (one could argue that this is one in the same). This is a lie, and I’m tired of it. Most first, second, and third generation Puritans made their way in the wilderness with nothing but guile and deep-rooted faith in the sovereign will of their Creator.

Instead of providing a view into what this life was like, this film joins the countless false portrayals of Puritan life while including a forbidden love story which urges everyone watching to let go. Missing the mark on all counts, The Scarlett Letter illustrates that a woman’s heart is indeed a deep ocean of secrets but based on this movie, no should care.

Titanic (1997)

I can already hear you shouting at me. “OK, Jon, I’ve let you wonder about a Chinese America, question America’s foreign policy and wars for oil, and yammer on about the madman Sherman. But Titanic?! That’s a bridge too far.” (Which, incidentally, is another great movie.) Please hear me out. Titanic was the top-grossing film in history for twelve years, and it appealed to every demographic in society: rich and poor, young and old, male and female. Of course, watching Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslett fumble around together inside an old car is almost as painful as hearing Leo bloviate about global warming from his private jet, but Titanic is more than just a love story between two adults trying to pretend they’re teenagers. For students of history, Titanic showcased the twilight of the Victorian Age, of class distinctions, of the fantastically rich looking down upon the desperately poor. Characters in First Class ignore or disparage those in steerage even as the ship slips beneath the ocean. The world presented in Titanic is one which now offends all supporters of social progress. Sadly, it took the chaos and slaughter of the Great War, which began only two years after the sinking, to put an end to the Victorian Age and bring about a more egalitarian and democratic society in Europe.

Films that Shaped Filmmaking

Our final category references films that shifted the course of movie history, both in positive and negative ways. Like every other human activity, moviemaking follows trends which historians can observe and critique. By examining the world of movies before and after the films listed below, we can discern which movies are following these trends, and which blazed new trails which other directors would follow.

Blade Runner (1983)

Yeah so there are so many bad films out there. Where would I even start? Also, since I’ve been responsible for naming a slew of them for this episode, I decided to rebel a bit and cover a good one. Jon can curse me later with the One Ring. Blade Runner opened to divided audiences who either saw it as a flop or a cinematic masterpiece. Thankfully, history sided with the former, and the movie is widely regarded as one of the best sci-fi films ever made. Ridley Scott takes you to a world of shadow and light. In this film, you never quite see anything, and that’s the point. A 1940’s detective story made in the 1980’s set in the distant future of next year (2019), Blade Runner follows a cop named Deckard who is responsible for “retiring” replicants, which are humanoid creations akin to androids. The film follows Deckard through the moral implications of his job, questions the definition of life, and ends with one of the greatest adlibbed speeches of all time. Lines like, “Its too bad she won’t live, but then again who does?” are paired with settings that are somehow vast and claustrophobic at the same time. Many film makers cite this movie as their inspiration, especially in the way it uses light. I agree with them. And while we’re on the topic, Blade Runner 2049 is amazing as well.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003)

My personal favorite film—I regard all three as a single, ridiculously-long movie—is Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is a masterpiece on screen, filled with all the violence and bloodshed to appeal to this teenager who first watched it in the theater in December 2001, as well as the deep and meaningful themes which still resonate with me each Christmas when I sit down and watch them again. On a technical level, The Lord of the Rings revolutionized the movie industry even more than my runner-up, Star Wars. CGI battle scenes, motion-capture performances, and broad and sweeping cinematography existed before these three films, but it was The Lord of the Rings which brought these new techniques into the Hollywood mainstream. If you have never seen this trilogy, go and stream it right now—that’s your homework assignment for this week.

Conclusion

A picture is indeed worth a thousand words. Modern cinema has enabled viewers to take a literal front-row-seat in watching history unfold. Through movies we can watch the drama of events through the many historical figures who witnessed them first-hand. The list represented here is but a preview of some movies that we recommend and others we encourage you to ignore.

Unfortunately, modern movies have a tendency to fall prey to the cancer that is revisionist history, with directors, actors, and writers injecting their political, socio, and economical beliefs into historical storylines. Regardless of which side of the isle is responsible, the effect is devastating to viewers who often take what’s given to them as fact. So, if you feel so inclined, please listen to our words of warning when it comes to historical movies. Don’t take them at face value. If you’ve learned anything from us it’s that in this, the information age, you have the ability to research topics for yourself. And as we continue to teach you about history, we hope to help.

Honorable Mention

Here, Joe and I picked a personal favorite film which did not necessarily fit into the categories we had assigned for ourselves. While they may not be the most accurate depictions of history, they use events of the past to teach lessons which may be applied to the present.

Braveheart (1997)

Mel Gibson’s portrayal of the Scotsman William Wallace showed the horrors of medieval combat for the first time. The breathtaking terrain of the highlands mixed with the scale and score of the film brought that world to life. Its message of conviction, leadership, and freedom resounded with me and audiences all over the world.

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

Really, Jon? A Star Trek movie in a history podcast? First of all, Joe talked about Blade Runner, so I don’t want to hear anything about science fiction not being history. Star Trek: First Contact is not a historical movie (at least not yet), but it has an interesting sub-plot about a famous character revered in the 24th century. When the crew of the Enterprise meet him after time-traveling to a point about fifty years from our present day, they learn he is not the hero seen in the pages of history—he is a drunk, foul-mouthed buffoon. The film reminds us that historical figures are not larger-than-life; they are men and women as flawed as each of us, and it tells us that when called to high purposes, even the least of us can rise to the occasion.

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