The Top Eight Historical Films

Hollywood’s dream factories have released many films that both entertain and sometimes educate.  The following movies are the selections I have made that come nearest to educating as well as entertaining.  I also admit that I have chosen these movies with a small measure of subjectivity.

1.       Schindler’s List (1993) Directed by Steven Spielberg

Schindler's grave
Schindler's grave (Photo credit: Seetheholyland.net)

Schindler’s list is a movie that holds you from the start and doesn’t let go.  The movie is a true story about Oscar Schindler, a factory owner who used his wealth and connections to save more than 1000 Jews during World War IISteven Speilberg shoots in black and white but uses color to make emotional points throughout the movie, the most memorable being the girl in the red coat walking on the street. Director Steven Spielberg uses his talents to show what evil is and what courage is throughout the film.  The film stays true to the original story as Liam Neeson gives a stellar performance as Oscar Schindler. Actor Ralph Fiennes personifies evil in the film and puts a face to the horror of the holocaust.

2.       Apollo 13 (1995) Directed by Ron Howard

Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 is the story of the shortened moon mission and how the NASA program found a way to bring the crew back home safely.  The film, from all accounts, is accurate to what actually happened.  The film took artistic liberties with arguments on the spacecraft between astronauts as well as combining all the engineering efforts of the NASA ground team into one character, Gary Sinise.  If NASA history captivates you the this film should satisfy your hunger games for all things that make astronauts modern-day heroes.

3.       Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) Directed by Richard Fleischer, American sequences.  Kinji Fukasaku and Toshio Masuda, Japanese sequences

The producers and directors of “Tora! Tora! Tora!”, meaning “Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!”, present a balanced view

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (C...
The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CVS-10) during the filming of "Tora! Tora! Tora!", her flight deck painted to resemble that of a World War II Imperial Japanese Navy carrier. Note the piston-engined aircraft on deck, often North American T-6 Texan resembling Japanese aircraft. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

of both sides of the Pearl Harbor attack.  It shows us the planning stages through the actual attack.  The producers elected to employ directors from America and Japan to present each point of view.  What the audience receives is a compelling straightforward presentation of Japan’s leaders planning for the attack and the America’s leaders trying to figure out when and if an attack would occur.  It outlines the view-point that Pearl Harbor’s military leaders received ambiguous orders while the political establishment ignored intercepted message to Japan’s diplomats stationed in the embassy in Washington, D.C.  If you want a clinical version of the events on December 7th without  political viewpoints or romance, watch this movie version of that horrific day.

4.    Glory (1989) Directed by Edward Zwick

Who can forget the preparation for the charge into confederate defenses at the end of the movie Glory starring Denzel Washington, Matthew Broderick, and Morgan Freeman? No one who has seen the movie, I tell you!  The story of the first all black volunteer unit, the 54th Regiment, during the civil war and their commander Col. Robert Gould Shaw, it presents a generally accurate account of the unit’s formation, training and battle history. The story shows how Col. Shaw overcame prejudices so that his unit could form, train and get into the fight.  It features a great music score and each of the cast members is terrific in their parts.  I used to work with an Army Colonel who played a clip of this film before his final after action review after a two-week long training exercise.  He really liked this film and so do I.

5.       The King’s Speech (2010) Directed by Tom Hooper

What is significant about this film is that it shows that no matter your status in life, there are still personal

Colin Firth walks the red carpet at the 83rd A...
Colin Firth walks the red carpet at the 83rd Academy Awards Feb. 27, in Hollywood, Calif. Firth would go on to win in the best actor category for his portrayal of King George VI in the film “The King’s Speech. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

issues to conquer.  For some, it means bearing them in a public forum.  King George the VI of Britain, played by Colin Firth, ascended to the throne under extreme circumstances.  His brother abdicated the crown due to his insistence on marrying a divorced American.  However, the film is about the King’s struggle with a speech impediment, a stammer or stutter, that revealed itself especially in front of audiences or when making public speeches.  Colin Firth does a skilful portraying of the King working to correct his speech challenge.  Geoffrey Rush as the speech coach does not cower to the challenge of being the taskmaster to a King.  Helena Bonham Carter is charming as the young Queen Mother Elizabeth.  King George the VI rates high on my royal list because he stayed in London with its citizens during World War II bombing raids when he and his family could have went elsewhere.

6.       The Last Emperor (1987) Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

This movie gives us a glimpse of the Forbidden City and the essential parts of the life of the last emperor of China, Puyi.  As the last emperor of the Qing dynasty, the movie presents Puyi, who ascended to the throne at 2 years, 10 months. He changes from a person isolated from society inside the Forbidden City, believing he is better than his subjects to someone who dies as a simple gardener.  The story runs through the stages of the Chinese revolution and how the Emperor tried to hold on to his status and finally his re-education.  The film is breathtaking visually because the filmmakers were permitted to shoot inside the Forbidden City.

7.       We Were Soldiers (2002) Directed by Randall Wallace

Based on the book by General Hal Moore and Joseph Galloway, the movie is relatively accurate depiction of the first major battle the American’s fought during the Viet Nam War.  What is honest about this film is the cost of war paid by soldiers and their family members, especially spouses.  The notices from the Pentagon being delivered back home to wives is a truly heart breaking scene.  The battle scenes are brutal to watch but it does a better job than most films of showing how the Air Cavalry integrated with the Infantry during a battle.  The music score and the choices as to where to use it during the film will give you chills.

8.       Gangs of New York (2002) Directed by Martin Scorcese

Bird's eye panorama of Manhattan & New York Ci...
Bird's eye panorama of Manhattan & New York City in 1873 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The director makes the Five Points in New York the as much of a character in the movie as Bill “The Butcher” Cutting and Amsterdam Vallon.   This movie gets a lot of things right about New York in the 1800’s, including how firemen fight for the right to put out fires and therefore get paid.  This movie is worth seeing just to watch Daniel Day-Lewis light up the screen as Bill “The Butcher”.

Honorable Mentions: The Aviator, Black Hawk Down, Longest Day, The Madness of King George, Reds, Elizabeth, Inherit the Wind, The Right Stuff, Ran, Kingdom of Heaven, 300, Midway, Enemy at the Gates, Stalingrad, Gandhi, and Alexander.  There are many more but I have to stop the list at some point.

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