Top 10 Best Historical Films

by Kali Tuttle
Historical Films

I’ll admit it: I’m a history nerd. I love anything to do with history — especially political history. Consequentially, I’m majoring in political science and minoring in history. So, when I hear of historical films, I immediately pounce on them.

But I know I’m not the only one who loves to see history’s greatest events put up on the big screen. Some of the most successful films of all-time are historically based: Glory (1989), Gone with the Wind (1939), and Braveheart (1995), just to name a few. People love reliving the past, especially if they weren’t there to see it. Some are based on true stories, some are just a director’s take on what could have happened. Either way, still a fascinating from into the past.

This list will consist of just a few of my favorite historical films, as there are so many out there. Feel free to list your favorites in the comments!

Honorable Mentions

Life Is Beautiful (1997)

Gone with the Wind (1939)

42 (2013)

The Patriot (2000)

Cinderella Man (2005)

Dances with Wolves (1990)

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Dunkirk (2017)

The Aviator (2004)

#10: Miracle (2004)

Miracle isn’t the fastest-paced sports film I’ve ever seen, but it is one that fills me with an embarrassingly high amount of patriotism. Kurt Russell is Herb Brooks, the coach of the young American hockey team during the 1980 Olympics. Through compelling acting and a breakout performance from Eddie Cahill, we get a look at the grueling hard work it took for these young men to beat a hardened team of professional Soviet hockey players. Though an unabashedly American film, one never quite feels like they’re hit in the face with the flag. Instead, the film takes you on the familiar journey that all sports films do: through losses, wins, failures, tragedies, and triumphs. Miracle takes the number ten spot for the glorious and triumphant feeling it builds throughout the movie, leaving the viewer satisfied when the credits start to roll.

Historically-Based Films

Image via Above the Line

#9: Glory (1989)

I always thought that Glory had some odd casting, but it works nonetheless. Matthew Broderick of Ferris Bueller fame is Robert Gould Shaw, the leader of the first all-black volunteer company of the Civil War. To round out our oddball cast, we have Cary Elwes, Denzel Washington, and Morgan Freeman. Yet, this is one of the most startlingly real depictions of this war I’ve ever seen. From the first shot, the audience is reminded of the absolute brutality of the war and the lives lost in the bloody fighting (seriously, look up the unedited first scene of Glory). Though rife with inconsistencies (my favorite is the visible 20th century watch in one of the scenes), Glory tells a story of racism, prejudice, and sacrifice through the eyes of the men who experienced it all.

Historically-Based Films

Image via The Ace Black Blog

#8: Hidden Figures (2016)

Hidden Figures is a fairly new film but it doesn’t detract from its historical significance and deserves to be on this list. The film stars three of Hollywood’s greatest actresses — Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, and Janelle Monáe — as three of NASA’s greatest scientists in the 1960s; working together and using their astonishing intellect, they help to get the first American man in space. While there are moments of fun and laughter, Hidden Figures also makes sure to emphasize its sobering main point: that women, African-Americans, and African-American women can do whatever they put their minds to. Also, Kevin Costner gives a fantastic performance as Al Harrison and rounds out a particularly moving film with a bit of a rough-around-the-edges character.

Historically-Based Films

Image via CNET

#7: Thirteen Days (2000)

Kevin Costner has a way with historical figures that I greatly admire (if you weren’t convinced, he’s on this list four different times). In Thirteen Dayshe stars as Kenny O’Donnell, an adviser to President John F. Kennedy (played by Bruce Greenwood) during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Thirteen Days combines my love of politics and history to create a dramatic retelling of one of the most intense moments in American history that no one even knew about. Though the Boston accents leave something to be desired, the conviction behind the words holds true and creates a compelling mood to push the intense story forward. Of course, the film can be as slow-paced as actual politics, but once you get into all the meat of the action you won’t be able to tear your eyes from the screen.

Historically-Based Films

Image via Movie List Mania

#6: The Post (2017)

The Post was a bit of a box-office flop (a title it does not deserve), mainly for a long run-time and slow pacing, but its content resonated with the audiences that chose to see it (such as me). Starring film powerhouses Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, the film examined the relationship between the press and the U.S. government at a time when the facade of Washington was beginning to fade. Steven Spielberg’s prowess shines through in a story that is dense but absolutely fascinating. Streep and Hanks complement each other’s abilities well and know exactly what to do to create believable characters. As Spielberg almost always does, he creates an entertaining film that gives us a bit of a history lesson as well.

Historically-Based Films

Image via Variety

#5: The Help (2011)

The 1960s was a time of great upheaval. In the United States, African-Americans were still fighting for their rights. Tate Taylor’s movie adaptation of the novel of the same name gives us a glimpse into the lives of the African-American maids — “the help” — in the deep South at this time. Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, and Allison Janney round out a female-dominant cast that encompasses both the good and evil of humankind. While we get to see a day-to-day of what these ladies’ lives were like, we also get to see who they truly are behind the aprons. The Help is a history lesson with a human side, something you probably didn’t get in your high school U.S. history class. With a brilliant color scheme and beautiful Southern scenery, The Help takes us all back in time to remind us to never forget where we came from.

Historically-Based Films

Image via Hollywood Reporter

#4: Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Before I saw Hacksaw Ridge, I was so sure that Hollywood had given up creating good war films. Nothing had quite lived up to Saving Private Ryan (1998) or Platoon (1986) since Jarhead (2005). But then I saw Hacksaw Ridge — and I was blown away. Director Mel Gibson brilliantly tells the story of Desmond T. Doss, a conscientious objector during World War II. Doss, played by Andrew Garfield, is a wholesome character that we can all relate to and sympathize with. The violence is realistic, gritty, and in-your-face at all times; Hacksaw Ridge will never let you forget it’s a war film. However, there was something weird about this film that I didn’t realize until the end — not a single f-bomb. Strange for an R-rated film, it was even stranger for a war film. Yet, I love the decision to do this, as it truly adds to the innocence of Doss and creates a beautiful dynamic surrounding the violence.

Historically-Based Films

Image via The Atlantic

#3: Schindler’s List (1993)

Schindler’s List is one of the few movies that have ever made me cry. In fact, I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t cry after seeing Steven Spielberg’s depressing Holocaust film. The story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is a captivating example of the best and the worst side of humanity. Of course, the first thing anyone notices about this film is the decision to film in black-and-white, a wonderfully artistic decision to display one of the bleakest events in human history. The cinematography is steady enough for one to witness the horrors and shaky enough to demonstrate urgency and fear. Ralph Fiennes gives a wonderful performance as the sadistic German officer. Schindler’s List is intense, heartbreaking, and basically every strong emotion thrown at you at once. If I can say one thing about Spielberg, it’s that he knows how to manipulate emotions.

Historically-Based Films

Image via LA Times

#2: JFK (1991)

You guessed it folks — another Kevin Costner movie. Oliver Stone’s JFK tells the story of district attorney Jim Garrison (Costner), who is determined to figure out exactly what happened with the Kennedy assassination. Whether you’re one for conspiracy theories or not, you’ll be immediately engaged in the dialogue and fast-paced exposition. Politics, spying, murder, and cover-ups abound throughout the film, barely giving the audience time to recover from one bombshell to the next. Though a bit of a long film, you won’t really notice; the entire film is engrossing and keeps you guessing. Also, Donald Sutherland gives a magnificent performance as the mysterious Mr. X with his absolutely riveting monologue.

Historically-Based Films

Image via Time

#1: Lincoln (2012)

When it comes to history, Steven Spielberg knows his stuff. In Lincoln, we are exposed to a whole new side of the historical figure that so many of us admire. Daniel Day-Lewis portrays the American giant as soft-spoken, yet willing to do whatever it took to get what he needed done. Sally Field is an elegant Mary Todd Lincoln, full of all the emotion and passion required (side note: Sally Field is really good at playing mentally ill people). Tommy Lee Jones also has an especially notable performance as Thaddeus Stevens, an influential representative in passing the slavery amendments. The set design and lighting in this film are perfect and portray the gloom and harsh reality of the times very well. Spielberg truly is one of the greatest directors — if not the greatest — of all-time.

Historically-Based Films

Image via The DMT

Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on the Top 10 Best Historical Films? Comment down below!

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Marsha Stapleton April 8, 2019 - 3:43 pm

Gene Hackman. Mississippi Burning. Nuff said.

Kali Tuttle April 10, 2019 - 12:05 pm

Ooooooh nice!

The Animation Commendation April 4, 2019 - 10:05 am

HUGE fan of history, historical films, and politically historical films so I’m loving this post!

Miracle is my #1 fave sports movie!

Glad to see Thirteen Days on here which I think is a wonderful portrayal of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

If I may suggest a miniseries, the 2014 ’37 Days’ starring Ian McDiarmid is a gripping and interesting look at the 37 days between the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the UK declaring war on Germany starting WWI and the talks and steps that led to it. It’s really great!

Kali Tuttle April 5, 2019 - 1:38 pm

Glad you enjoyed the list! I’ll have to check out that miniseries!

Ken Dowell April 3, 2019 - 11:26 pm

My vote for #1 would go to a Hidden Figures. Also enjoyed Darkest Hour.

Kali Tuttle April 5, 2019 - 1:37 pm

I really enjoyed Hidden Figures! But I have to be honest: I fell asleep during Darkest Hour. My parents enjoyed it though! Haha I need to watch it again.

The Arcane Nibbler April 3, 2019 - 4:33 pm

Nice list. I would add ‘All the Presidents Men’ and ‘Patton’.

Kali Tuttle April 5, 2019 - 1:34 pm

Oooo definitely good additions!

pajamapopcorn April 3, 2019 - 4:19 pm

This is a great list! I love historical films as well. Here are a few of my favorites: A League of Their Own (because what young girl didn’t feel empowered after seeing that they once had women’s baseball as a kid?), Iron Jawed Angels (HBO film about the women’s suffrage movement in the 1910s) and The Secret Life of Bees (because I love this entire cast). Remember the Titans comes to mind as well as Spotlight, which I saw on TV the other night. It’s recent history, but still counts. :)

Kali Tuttle April 5, 2019 - 1:36 pm

All great films! Thanks for sharing!

Writergurlny April 3, 2019 - 6:02 am

It’s nice to see that someone appreciates The Post.

Kali Tuttle April 5, 2019 - 1:35 pm

I loved it! I could see why people didn’t love it but I thought it was still an interesting story and I loved Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep!

Nick Kush April 2, 2019 - 9:30 pm

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