Oftentimes, the stories of our past eclipse anything imagined by the most brilliant filmmakers in Hollywood. Not just in terms of scope, but in terms of substance and the lasting impact that history has on us as a civilization. Arguably, historical events and figures are the basis of all fictional storytelling, as we draw inspiration through osmosis and the consumption of history itself. Through war, death, innovation, activism, music, art, and so much more, there are hundreds of stories that have been told through the lens of a film camera, and countless more that deserve to be spotlighted.
When the term “historical film” is uttered, minds quickly jump to war epics or the violent struggles of marginalized people. While these stories are important, they are not the only stories that create a cinematic spectacle. Gather around the table because it’s time for history class. More specifically, an examination of twenty excellent and admirable non-violent historical films.
20 Salt of the Earth (1954)
You may not be familiar with the 1954 film Salt of the Earth, or its director, Herbert Biberman, but both have a rightful place in cinema history. The story of the film focuses on the employee strike against the Empire Zinc Company in New Mexico during the early 1950s. In addition to professional actors, the film features real-life miners and their families. The film was made by Biberman following his imprisonment after evidence was presented citing him as a member of the communist party. Biberman was famously part of The Hollywood Ten, a group of filmmakers that were blacklisted due to their communist associations in the ’40s and ’50s.
Historical Film Makes History Itself
Not only is Salt of the Earth a member of the esteemed National Film Registry. It also has the distinct honor of being one of the first films to advance feminist voices and causes. The exploration of these themes along with Mexican-American life in America during the ’50s has earned Salt of the Earth the long-lasting credit it deserves and has a great deal of history both surrounding its subject and the behind-the-scenes production of the film itself.
19 Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
Judgment at Nuremberg is a fictionalized yet harrowing retelling of the Judge’s Trial of 1947 that took place in Nuremberg, Germany. The particular trial was the third of twelve trials that were held against those who were accused of committing war crimes during World War II. Made just 14 years after the real-life trial, the film is a stark reminder of the consequences and fallout of the Nazi reign over Europe during the war, as seen by audiences who lived through the aftermath.
Directed by multi-time Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Stanley Kramer and features an ensemble cast of heavy hitters including Maximilian Schell, Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, and Judy Garland. The film would be nominated for 11 Academy Awards, with Maximilian Schell taking home the statue for Best Actor. Over 60 years later, Judgment at Nuremberg is a poignant slice of cinematic history that tells one of the most important stories the world has ever seen.
18 The Lion in Winter (1968)
Featuring Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, as well as the first major film roles for Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton, The Lion in Winter tells the Christmas-themed tale of Henry II of England and his quest to establish an heir to his throne during the holiday season of 1183. The film is based on a stage play of the same name, one that was a commercial and critical flop. Screenwriter James Goldman was brought on to pen the script, a script that would earn him an Academy Award.
Old Generation Meets New Generation
The Lion in Winter would become critically acclaimed upon its release for its strong story and the top-tier performances from seasoned veteran actors like O’Toole and Hepburn, as well as newcomers Hopkins and Dalton. Hepburn’s role in particular would earn her an Oscar for Best Actress, an award she co-won with Barbra Streisand that year for her role in Funny Girl. The Academy Film Archive would preserve the film in 2000, ensuring its longevity.
17 All the President’s Men (1976)
Director Alan Pakula’s political drama All the President’s Men set out to tell the story of Washington Post journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward as they uncover details related to the break-in at the Watergate Hotel that ultimately took down Richard Nixon’s presidency. Coming out just two years after Nixon resigned from office, the film presented the specifics of the Watergate scandal in a concise and entertaining fashion, as the public could now view the true scope of the history they were living through.
Icons at Work
Both Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford were well-established actors when the film came out, but it is their performances in it that would make it one of the most recognizable and remembered roles for both men. The story is both a snapshot of the early 1970s and an example of our collective lack of learning from history. The film continues to resonate as the state of American politics is as divided and seemingly questionable as ever.
16 Gandhi (1982)
- Release Date
- November 30, 1982
Gandhi was a joint production between India and the United Kingdom and chronicles the life of Mahatma Gandhi, a fixture of the Indian independence movement. Directed by Richard Attenborough, Sir Ben Kingsley, of both English and Indian backgrounds, takes on the titular role of the pacifist. The film’s poster dubbed it “A World Event” and introduced the western world to the historical figures, some for the first time ever.
History in the Making
While some critics claimed the film took too many liberties with Gandhi’s story, the overall reviews for the film were positive. Gandhi is without a doubt dramatized to a degree in this biopic. I ask you, which historical movie does not amp up the drama? Gandhi would have an impressive showing at that year’s Academy Awards, taking in eight statues and cementing itself as one of the best films of 1982.
15 Amadeus (1984)
- Release Date
- September 19, 1984
Speaking of the dramatization of historical events and figures, Amadeus is unapologetic in its fantastical approach to telling the story of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The film primarily focuses on a fictional rivalry between Mozart, played by Tom Hulce, and an Italian composer, Antonio Salieri, played by F. Murray Abraham. In a stroke of “Almost Was” casting, Mark Hamill was considered early on for the role of Mozart, with director Miloš Forman ultimately rejecting this idea.
Rock Me Amadeus
Despite some of its historical inaccuracies, Amadeus would clean up at the Academy Awards in 1985, winning eight out of the 11 categories it was nominated for. The chemistry between Abraham and Hulce is electric throughout the film, and Forman’s direction is praised both for the shots he takes and how gracefully he makes them. Amadeus takes a subject that could potentially be dull to the average moviegoer, and injects it with an exuberance not often seen in historical films.
14 Malcolm X (1992)
Spike Lee’s powerful biographical drama about the life of Malcolm X stars Denzel Washington in the titual role. The film is heavily based on the Alex Haley-written book The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The initial production of the film was met with pushback by some due to controversial things said by X, but a surge in public interest in the activist’s autobiography led Warner Bros. to agree to make the film.
An Early Career Defining Role
Before Washington was the powerhouse actor we know today, Malcolm X was a defining role early on in his career, which catapulted him into superstardom. Covering the span of his life, the film is a deep dive into the events that shaped one of the most influential African American activists in history. Washington would earn his first of eight Academy Award nominations in his career, and Malcolm X would go on to be one of Spike Lee’s most successful films of the 1990s.
13 Apollo 13 (1995)
Based on the book Lost Moon by Astronauts Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger, Ron Howard’s film adaptation, Apollo 13, tells the story of the aborted Apollo mission to the moon in 1970 and the evasive measures taken to return them safely home. The Ron Howard-directed film features some truly epic and, oftentimes, claustrophobic moments, showcasing the gravity of the situation the astronauts find themselves in.
Led by a quartet of heavy-hitting actors; Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, and Gary Sinise. Apollo 13 uses real-life transcripts to replicate dialogue between the astronauts and ground control, adding a layer of authenticity to the otherwise fictional retelling of the events. The film would be well represented at the Academy Awards in 1995, as it would be nominated for nine awards, winning two of them.
12 Frida (2002)
- Release Date
- August 29, 2002
Renowned artist Frida Kahlo is one of the most recognizable and important people in the history of Mexican arts and culture. The 2002 film Frida tells the life story of the iconic figure played by Salma Hayek, who fought for the role, having been interested in Kahlo. Directed by Julie Taymor, Hayek was cast and, as they say, the rest is history.
Art Come to Life
Frida is a complete celebration of both the artist and the art. Chronicling her professional and often traumatic personal life, Julie Taymor also pays tribute to Kahlo’s paintings, depicting several of them as characters throughout the film. Artists remain one of the more underrepresented groups in historical filmmaking. An Oscar-nominated role for Hayek, Frida remains one of the best biographical films in cinema history.
11 Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)
American television news in the communist-fearing 1950s is retold by director George Clooney in Good Night, and Good Luck. The film tells the story of CBS News anchor Edward R. Murrow and his clash with U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy. The late Senator was the chief organizer of the communist witch hunts of the 1950s.
Speaking Truth to Power
While the emphasis of the film is on Murrow and his fight against McCarthy, it was ultimately an effort of both the media and politicians in Washington that brought down the controversial Senator. Overall, Good Night and Good Luck, paints a vivid picture of the red scare in the 1950s in America.
10 The Queen (2006)
Interest in the British Royal Family has always been potent throughout American society, as an often-idealized obsession with kings, queens, and princesses. None more so than the captivating Princess Diana. There has been no shortage of film and television projects chronicling the British monarch, but perhaps none are better than 2006’s The Queen. The Stephen Frears-directed picture tells the story of Diana’s death and the Royal family’s reaction and handling of the aftermath.
Similar to more recent interpretations of the Royal family like The Crown, The Queen does rely heavily on circumstantial rumors and re-tellings through those close to the very private Windsor family. It is nevertheless a vivid look into the family during one of the most tumultuous times in their history. Helen Mirren delivers a captivating and Oscar-winning performance as Queen Elizabeth II, and the movie received rave reviews from critics and remains one of the highest-rated films depicting the monarch.
9 Milk (2008)
- Release Date
- November 5, 2008
Aside from an ill-advised remake of the Alfred Hitchcock classic Psycho, director Gus Van Sant has an incredible track record of highly successful and acclaimed films. His 2008 film, Milk, tells the life story of gay rights activist Harvey Milk up to and including his assassination on the same day as former San Francisco mayor George Moscone in 1978. The film can track its initial concept all the way back to the early 1990s, when Oliver Stone was set to produce a film about Milk and several high-profile actors were considered for the leading role before Sean Penn ultimately signed on.
The depiction of gay rights and the activists involved had often been an underrepresented subject in Hollywood for decades. Milk remains one of the most important LGBTQ+ films ever made, celebrating the life and sacrifice of the activist and the man behind the activism. The effort behind his performance would ultimately win Sean Penn an Oscar for his portrayal of Milk in one of the actor’s best movies. The film continues to be a beacon for learning more and understanding the struggles that certain segments of society continue to go through.
8 Frost/Nixon (2008)
Few television interviews with US Presidents, until perhaps more recently, garnered more attention than British reporter David Frost’s 1974 interview with disgraced former President Richard Nixon. Frost/Nixon takes audiences on the tumultuous journey of Frost in a verbal tit-for-tat with Nixon and the journalists’ ability to speak truth to power in his final of three recording sessions with Nixon. A final session that paints the already questionable former leader in an even more controversial light.
A Slow Burn Glows Bright
Frost/Nixon is a dialogue-heavy, slow-burn drama. Not often a great recipe for a captivating film. However, the performances of Michael Sheen as David Frost and Frank Langella as Richard Nixon are so perfectly played that the political drama will have you on the edge of your seat as Frost traverses the bumpy road that is interviewing the boisterous former President. Director Ron Howard leads a highly entertaining effort in retelling one of the less salacious yet still vitally important aspects related to the fallout of the Watergate scandal that rocked American politics in the 1970s.
7 The King’s Speech (2010)
It is oftentimes the smallest of details occurring during or leading up to a historical event that are the most compelling. Director Tom Hooper’s 2008 film The King’s Speech is one of those examples, focusing on the future King of England, George VI, and his attempts to overcome a stammer with Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue. Their important work culminates in King George VI’s wartime address as Britain declares war on Germany in 1939.
All Hail the King
While a handful of prominent events in the film were confirmed to have never actually taken place, the heart and spirit of King George VI and his handling of his brother’s abdication of the throne and the start of World War II are mostly in line with history. Colin Firth’s Oscar-winning performance as the King shows that even mythical figures in history may often have to overcome obstacles that ordinary people go through on a daily basis.
6 Lincoln (2012)
- Release Date
- November 9, 2012
Abraham Lincoln is one of the most revered figures in American history and a true legend among men. Lincoln, The Steven Spielberg-directed film is loosely based on the biography, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, written by Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. While Daniel Day-Lewis was Spielberg’s first choice to play the president, he initially passed on the role, and Liam Neeson was cast in his place. Following his departure from the film and after a little convincing by Neeson and Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis signed onto the film.
Deep Dive Into Lincoln
Known for immersing himself in his roles, Daniel Day-Lewis ate, drank, and slept Lincoln during production of the film. Even having co-stars refer to him as Lincoln when the cameras were not rolling. This dedication shined through to his performance on screen, depicting Lincoln as so many have imagined him to be. His presidency is one of the most important in the history of America as he tried to hold the country together during the Civil War, and Spielberg’s film does an excellent job of showcasing the man behind the myth.
5 The Big Short (2015)
The Big Short focuses on more recent history, as it explores the 2007-2008 financial crisis that plunged the United States economy into chaos. Rather than focusing on the political side of the crisis, the film instead tells the stories of the people and companies that caused the bubble to burst in the early 2000s. The film also marks the beginning of Adam McKay’s dive into skewering other American societal and political events. Films that included Vice and Don’t Look Up.
McKay does an excellent job of taking material that could overwhelm and confuse a standard audience and presenting it in a clear and digestible manner. Even using celebrity cameos to explain overly complicated terms and events. The film was also deemed to be exceptionally accurate to real-life events, with the percentage being somewhere in the low 90s. Writers Adam McKay and Charles Randolph would take home an Oscar for their efforts in writing the film.
4 Spotlight (2015)
The harrowing tale of The Boston Globe’s journalistic efforts in the early 2000s to uncover sexual abuse in Boston by priests in the Catholic Church during the 1990s. The film is told through the lens of Tom McCarthy’s film Spotlight. Focusing on the “Spotlight” team at the globe, who were tasked with investigating the abuses in the Boston area and the shocking and horrific information uncovered during their efforts. The film features an all-star ensemble cast, including Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, and Stanley Tucci.
A Voice for the Voiceless
Spotlight provides a further platform for victims of abuse at the hands of Catholic Priests and showcases how the power of the press can provide a voice for those who feel like they cannot speak up. It tells the history of an incredibly tumultuous time for the Catholic Church and does not pull any punches when addressing the church’s reaction and response to the scandal. Spotlight is by no means a joyful watch for audiences, but an important one nevertheless.
3 Hidden Figures (2016)
Countless names and faces helped contribute to the 20th-century space race between the United States and Russia. Hidden Figures is the under-told story of three Black female mathematicians, and the work they did at NASA as the United States shot for the stars. The film explores the struggles that the three faced as both women and Black Americans in the 1950s and ’60s. Through determination and the will to accept nothing less than what they deserve, the three women remain a vital piece of American history.
It unfortunately took until the mid-2010s for the women to receive all the due credit for their work, but the impact they left is undeniable. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe bring Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson to life like never before. Upon its release, the film was used to help raise awareness for young learners to get involved in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Showing that the work of the three hidden figures in American history is timeless and remains inspirational to this day.
2 Ford v Ferrari (2019)
Ford v Ferrari is a slice of automotive history both in America and abroad, as the film focuses on the efforts of engineers and designers to craft a vehicle for the Ford Motor Company capable of taking down the Scuderia Ferrari racing team at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans race that takes place near Le Mans, France. Directed by James Mangold, Matt Damon, and Christian Bale anchor the film as the American car designer Richard Shelby and his British racing friend Ken Miles.
Racing to Success
Full of heart-pumping action as well as deep character interactions, this historical film has the power to appeal to any viewer. James Mangold does an excellent job of presenting a film that can entertain and inform both fans of cars and racing and your everyday moviegoer, who may not be. One critic described the film as “a blast from the past,” showing that historical films can contain just as much entertainment value as they can educational value.
1 Oppenheimer (2022)
Oppenheimer is an absolutely sprawling biographical epic from Christopher Nolan about the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer and his contributions to the development of the world’s first nuclear bomb, ushering in an atomic age and warfare. Frequent Nolan collaborator Cillian Murphy would be cast as the theoretical physicist, joined by an ensemble cast of heavy Hollywood hitters. The three-hour film was part of the phenomenon known as Barbenheimer in the summer of 2023, releasing in theaters the same day as Greta Gerwig’s Barbie.
The World Stands Still
Once in a generation, a movie comes along that becomes the talk of the town and defines an era of epic cinema. Oppenheimer is the current “it” film, and deservedly so. While the bomb created by Oppenheimer contributed to an immense loss of life, the film itself does not depict violence in this way and focuses deeply on the moral conflict Oppenheimer faces both during the construction of the bomb and the aftermath of its destruction. The lasting impact of his work and the world it helped create is one that will live on long after anyone can remember Barbenheimer.
Stream on Peacock as of Feb. 16, 2024
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