Having both studied and taught the subject I think it’s fair to say that I love history. In fact it was my favourite subject at school, thanks to one particularly animated teacher. And whilst history and film – another big love of mine – have not always got on well (there are many notable examples of flagrant historical inaccuracies in films) I believe that films based on historical events should be made as film has the unique power to make mass audiences aware of periods in history they would not otherwise know about. Film also brings an event or period in time from the past to life.
Perhaps quite controversially, I also contend that they don’t necessarily have to be 100% accurate to be useful. Whilst substantial alterations to the content can be misleading, allowances should be made for a certain degree of artistic licence, for instance: if the real life events are too convoluted to be recounted entirely in a two hour film. Films, after all are not documentaries and should not be confused as such. Both are types of sources and both will be inevitably tinged with some sort of bias however they are portrayed. From the beliefs and background of the directors, producers and backers to those on screen, films – and to a degree documentaries – will ultimately present a ‘version’ of events; their interpretation of the historical ‘truth’. In some ways it can be useful for films to have certain – more obvious- historical inaccuracies as it reminds the viewer to take what they are seeing with a pinch of salt and question the motivations behind what they see. Hopefully, however the portrayal, film should ultimately spark an interest in the audience so they go away and research for themselves in more detail the ‘real’ events and come to their own conclusions.
So, without further ado, here are 14 historical films you should definitely see:
1. Schlinder’s List (1993)
History you’ll learn about: The Holocaust
Spielberg’s powerful black and white film on the horrors of the Holocaust and the efforts of one man – German industrialist Oskar Schindler – to save an estimated 1,200 Jews in Poland during World War II is one of the best known examples of an historical film that is deeply flawed but also hugely well known and therefore significant.
Liam Nieson plays the film’s eponymous character – a greedy, womanising businessman who initially profits off cheap labour and his membership with the ruling Nazi Party but after seeing first hand the true horrors of the Nazi persecution uses his connections (and wealth) to prevent the deportation of over a thousand Jews to concentration camps by employing them in his enamelware and ammunition factories.
An adaption of Thomas Keneally’s 1982 historical novel, Schlinder’s Ark, the film is essentially based around real life events. However, whilst it won Oscars for its artistic cinematography (ironically the work of Janusz Kaminski – a gentile Pole) – Schlinder’s List has been heavily criticised in historical circles for its one-sided and immensely unflattering portrayal of gentile Poles as anti-Semitic Nazi collaborators. Moreover, many have decried the depictions of Jews in the film as helpless cardboard cutouts and argued that Schindler’s List “is not about the Holocaust or the Jews at all, but a biopic of Schindler and his conversion from ambivalent antihero to righteous gentile”. It has also be derided for its sentimentalised and rather soppy ending in which Schlinder – on seeing the numbers of people he saved from execution – sobs “I could have saved more”.
In reality Schlinder wasn’t the great, selfless humanitarian he is portrayed as towards the end of the film and the story was not as black and white as it is – quite literally- depicted in the film. There are also countless other examples of gentiles saving Jews and heroic Jewish acts throughout the war which are not as well known, but that just goes to show the power of film (and influential backers). The truth of the matter is that however flawed the representation, Schlinder’s List has served as at least a basis on which to educate mass audiences on a subject they may not previously known about. And whilst its depiction may have angered some it is useful to remember that in history sources – such as film- are an interpretation of events and can still be analysed and investigated for their usefulness the same as any other source should. Ultimately, as controversial as it remains, Schlinder’s List is still worth a viewing, not least for it’s emotive violin score written by John Williams.
2. The Imitation Game (2014)
History you’ll learn about: Code-breakers at Bletchely during WW2.
Another biopic that has caused controversy (again another film which I suspect the Poles don’t like so much) is the 2014 film The Imitation Game based on the real life story of legendary cryptanalyst Alan Turing. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing the film portrays the nail-biting race against time by Turing and his brilliant team of code-breakers at Britain’s top-secret Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park to break the German Enigma code, during the darkest days of World War II. The film is a triumph in highlighting the vital yet monumentally secretive and as such previously relatively unknown work of the men and women working at Bletchley Park during the war. It’s also a celebration of Turing’s life and genius and a long overdue mass recognition of his achievements, which in some way attempt to make amends for the horrendous treatment he received after the war. Turing, a known homosexual was forced to undergo chemical castration and prosecuted for his homosexuality; something which many believed contributed to his untimely death aged just 41.
However, whilst the film sheds light on the work of Turing and his fellow code-breakers at Bletchely, it overlooks the remarkable work of French and Polish intelligence agents and code-breakers, whose contribution in obtaining an Enigma machine, providing details of its workings and making breakthroughs which would eventually lead to Turing’s team’s eventful victory in breaking the code. An event to mark the important breakthrough made in Warsaw just before the outbreak of World War Two was held in Poland last year but it seems another film is needed for the names of Jerzy Rozycki, Henryk Zygalski and Marian Rejewski to be rightly recognised alongside Turing and his team.
In spite of its oversights, The Imitation Game is still well worth a watch, not least for the performances of Cumberbatch and Kiera Knightley, who plays his ill-fated love interest, fellow mathematician and friend, Joan Clarke.
3. Pride (2014)
History you’ll learn about: The Miners strike in the 1980’s and the efforts of a Gay and Lesbian Group to support it.
The 2014 British film Pride has to be up there as one of my favourites. Upbeat, funny and poignant, the film is the unlikely true story of the collaboration between a group of gay activists and a Welsh mining village during their lengthy strike in the summer of 1984. With stand out performances from Ben Schnetzer as the utterly believable and enthralling Northern Irish activist Mark Ashton – founder of the ultra catchy-titled group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM), Jessica Gunning as Sian James, a spirited housewife from the Welsh mining community who becomes involved in the family support networks during the strike and later forged a career as a Labour Party politician; and stellar turns from Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy, Dominic West, Andrew Scott, George MacKay among others, the film is an acting tour de force.
And whilst the fashion, music and political goings on at the time might provide a trip down memory lane for some, for others the film highlights a period of history that may be relatively unknown to them and a subject matter that is quite probably new to even those who lived through it. Not only does the film through the improbable union between two politically persecuted groups at the time highlight the value of diversity and the strength in unity, it also exemplifies the best in human strength, courage and friendship. The film in giving a real insight into the struggles of both sets of groups at the time, the discrimination they faced and setbacks and triumphs they experienced, provides a real sense of hope, encouragement and most of all pride in the achievements of those involved and the steps forward they brought about.
Ultimately it is as one Imdb reviewer termed it, Pride is “victory of human relationships over and above the overwhelming power of political ideology in partnership with business” – which is something that no matter what your background or beliefs you should be able to get behind and be proud of.
4. Rabbit Proof Fence (2002)
History you’ll learn about: The mistreatment of the Aborigines in Australia in the 1930’s.
Something to be less proud of – particularly if you’re British or Australian – be of no less value and importance to watch is the 2002 film Rabbit Proof Fence which tells the story of three aboriginal girls who escape after being plucked from their homes to be trained as domestic staff and set off on a trek across the Outback in search of their mothers. The film is based on real life events in Western Australia in the 1930’s during a time in which – following on from policies incited by the British- the Australian government forcibly removed all half-caste Aborigines from their families “for their own good” and sent them a thousand miles away to be raised as servants, converted to Christianity, and eventually assimilated into white society. It is the account of the real life escape of three Aboriginal girls, 14-year old Molly Kelley, her 8-year old sister Daisy, and their 10-year old cousin Gracie and is based on the book, “Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence” written by Doris Pilkington Garimara (Molly Kelly’s daughter). It is a simple story of indomitable courage in the face of brutal racism and great injustice, told honestly by amateur child actors Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury and Laura Monaghan with Kenneth Branagh as Mr. A. O. Neville, the Chief Protector of Aborigines, brought in under a new Aborigines Act to be the legal guardian of every Aborigine in the State of Western Australia. The awe-inspiring Australian landscape – as captured beautifully by Christopher Doyle will make you yearn to travel to Australia and the haunting score by Peter Gabriel will remind you of the long journey Aboriginals have come on to overcome discrimination and journey that still lies ahead of them to achieve true equality.
5. Invictus (2009)
History you’ll learn about: Racial tensions in South Africa when Mandela came to power and the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
Another film which brings to life an event in history that may be less known, particularly to a younger generation, is Clint Eastwood’s biographical sports drama, Invictus starring everyone’s version of God, or failing that, close second Nelson Mandela, Morgan Freeman and the Hollywood actor with the most satisfying name to say courtesy of Team America, Matt Damon. Based on John Carlin‘s book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation it is the story of how an unlikely bond between South Africa’s first black President and Francois Pienaar the captain of South Africa’s predominately white rugby union team brought the nation together at a time when sport in the country was very much drawn along racial lines, with football the domain of the black majority, and rugby seen largely as an elitist white man’s sport. Sensing an opportunity to unite a divided nation in the wake of apartheid, newly elected President Mandela attempts to bring his people together through the universal language of sport by enlisting the help of South Africa’s rugby team – The Springboks – including Captain Pienaar and Chester Williams, the only non-white player in the team at the time, as they make their historic run in the 1995 Rugby World Cup; held in South Africa. During their preparations the the Springbok team reach out to the local black communities by going to the slums and teaching kids how to play and visit Mandela’s prison cell on Robben Island to understand the man’s courage. Although predictable and somewhat historically inaccurate in places, the film still manages to convey the general historical story (The Guardian gave it a B+ for historical accuracy but was less favourable of the American’s rendering of rugby) and show how the union helped Mandela to rally the people of South Africa into something of a community after so many decades of division. An important step in the healing process, and an educational catalyst judging by the forums entitled ‘What was apartheid?‘ (and amusingly) What is rugby? (maybe asked by Mr Eastwood himself) on IMDB, Invictus, for all it’s flaws, is still worth a watch.
6. The Lives of Others (2006) ‘Das Leben der Anderen’ (original title)
History you’ll learn about: Life in East Germany with the secret police.
Although not specifically based on any particular characters from history, as far as I’m aware, the German film, The Lives of Others, is an intelligent and important account of East German history five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall at a time when people’s ordinary lives were scrutinised under a system of control and observation by the Stasi (secret police). The film tells the story of an agent of the secret police played by Ulrich Mühe who becomes increasingly absorbed by their lives of the two people on whom he is conducting surveillance. It has been commended by many former East-Germans and experts on GDR history for its accurate portrayal of the system as it used to be and its depiction of the whole topic of GDR history. As an outsider, you certainly get a chilling insight into the suspicion and heightened sense of paranoia and mistrust which must have been felt at that time. A must see, particularly for students of German/ German History.
7. Hotel Rwanda (2004)
History you’ll learn about: The Rwandan Genocide.
During the 2006 World Cup, I spent time in Rwanda and had the pleasant but quite surreal experience of watching the one of the semi-finals in the The Hotel des Mille Collines – the place 1,268 people took refuge during the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. Having previously watched Hotel Rwanda – a 2004 film based on the real-life actions of Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel’s manager at the time, I was keenly aware of the events that had gone on there, and despite the fact that the actual hotel does not appear in the film itself, it was nonetheless still a spine-tingling experience. Rusesabagina, played by Oscar nominee Don Cheadle, supported by his wife Tatiana, played by fellow Oscar nominee Sophie Okonedo does all in his power to protect the thousand plus Tutsi hiding out in his hotel, including bribing member of the ruthless Interahamwe militia with money and alcohol to prevent them from storming the hotel and massacring its inhabitants.
Again, another film that will not sit well when you think of the International Community’s response to the atrocities – including the reticence of those controlling the peacekeepers to get involved and the evacuation of predominately white westerners in the face of growing security risks and the threat of danger to the local population. However, films like this are important to watch, not least for the fact that they highlight the strength and courage of those who stayed and put their own lives at risk to help others, particularly the strength of Rwandans themselves to save and help one another and the lessons learned about the failings of the International Community and ultimately how events like that should never be allowed to happen again. For that is precisely what the International Community/ the UN did: they allowed it to happen. Get angry, get emotional, get inspired, but whatever you do, get watching it.
8. Made in Dagenham (2010)
History you’ll learn about: Protests against sexual discrimination and for equal pay in the 1960’s.
Similar to Pride, Made in Dagenham, is a film about a discriminated group who struggle to achieve their equal rights, in this instance it’s the case of a group load of women working at a Ford Car Factory Plant in Dagenham who strike for equal pay during the 1960’s. Sally Hawkins plays Rita O’Grady (a fictional character inspired by real women) – a factory worker who leads the 1968 Ford sewing machinists strike and the fight for equal pay in an all-star cast including Bob Hoskins, Miranda Richardson, Geraldine James, Rosamund Pike, Andrea Riseborough, Jaime Winstone, Daniel Mays and Richard Schiff. The film, which has subsequently been adapted into a stage production, highlights the struggle of an unlikely group of activists who achieve a remarkable victory in pushing for what eventually leads to the Equal Pay Act 1970. Bizarrely, and rather misleadingly, in Germany and Italy the film is translated as ‘We want sex’ – perhaps a cynical attempt to get more punters in; it probably refers to one of the more lighthearted points in the film where the women go to protest in London and initially only unfurl part of their banner (‘we want sex equality’).
Although mostly lighthearted and peppered with bee-hived and bobbed 1960’s cliched characters, who are somewhat sexier than their real-life counterparts, the film’s real saving grace is the way the film depicts the real cost, in terms of both emotional and financial strain, of changing social norms and fighting for civil rights. It also touches on an issue which is still relevant today. With it’s strong female-led cast and emphasis on their worker’s struggle it also passes the Bechdel test: a short test used as a way “to call attention to gender inequality”, which typically necessitates a conversation between two named female characters which is not about a man. Pleasingly, the involvement of men in the struggle for wage equality as represented by Bob Hoskins’ character Albert – the floor manager – and to a lesser degree by O’Grady’s husband Eddie (Daniel Mays) who travels to the Union’s Conference to support his wife towards the end of the film, highlights the fact that struggle for equal pay isn’t exclusively a gender issue and, similar to the message of Pride that united we are stronger and achieve more. Ultimately, the film helps us to understand that equal pay is a human rights issue and an economic concern that would ultimately benefit both men and women equally, and that by working together, the unlikeliest of groups can achieve the improbable.
9. Life is Beautiful (1997) “La vita è bella” (original title)
History you’ll learn about: Fate of Italian Jews during WW2.
Possibly my favourite foreign film, Roberto Benigni‘s 1997 surprise Oscar hit, Life is Beautiful, is the wonderful story of a gregarious and open-minded Jewish librarian who does all in his power to protect his son from the dangers around them in a concentration camp after they become victims of the Holocaust. Using a perfect mixture of will, humour and imagination Benigni’s character Guido invents a fictitious game for his son and him to play during their imprisonment in a Jewish internment camp. Based in part from Benigni’s own family history; his father survived three years of internment at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp before Roberto’s birth, the film sheds light on the plight of Italian Jews during the Second World War – something that is rarely portrayed on film.
Life is Beautiful manages to deftly tread the fine line between humour, fantasy, and tragedy. In contrast to many of the films critics who argue the films makes light of a very serious situation, I would argue that the way you are hit with sudden tragedy after such lighthearted tomfoolery perfectly represents how life can suddenly switch between delight and disaster, triumph and tragedy, love and loss in a matter of seconds. In spite of its comedic elements the film manages to very powerfully communicate the tremendous sacrifices made and abject loss suffered in the Nazi concentration camps and is all the more clever for delicately weaving this into a tapestry of life, love and laughter, which if anything, more closely represents the lives of those who sadly perished in spite of their indomitable spirits, great humour and collective strength.
Ps. Also, far from being a nuisance, the film’s subtitles and lively performances from the principle characters will inspire you to want to learn the Italian language (less so German :p).
10. Goodbye Lenin (2003)
History you’ll learn about: Changes in East Germany after the Fall of the Berlin Wall.
Although not based on a true story as such, the 2003 German film Goodbye Lenin does provide a useful insight into the situation in East Germany just before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. To protect his fragile mother from a fatal shock after a long coma, a young man, played by my favourite actor Daniel Brühl (the famous snipe in Inglorious Basterds), decides to keep up the pretense that her beloved nation of East Germany has not in fact changed. In spite of substantial changes in the world outside, Bruhl’s character Alex goes to great lengths to convince his mother that the DDR (East German government) still exists including fabricating old packaging for his mother’s favourite food, blocking out any references to modern reunified Germany and even inventing and recording his own fabricated news stories. It’s a heart-warming story and another must see for German students. (I’d also recommend seeing The Edukators (2004) – also with Bruhl).
11. Black Hawk Down (2001)
History you’ll learn about: Disastrous U.S mission to Somalia in 1993 which many sight as the reason for subsequent non intervention in international crises.
Based on a best-selling book detailing the real-life events of a near-disastrous mission in Somalia on October 3, 1993, Black Hawk Down is most useful for helping to explain U.S/ International reluctance to become involved in subsequent international crises – including the Rwandan Genocide. Even today the events of October 3, 1993 are used as a warning argument against intervention. On this date nearly 100 U.S. Army Rangers, commanded by Capt. Mike Steele (played by Jason Isaacs), were dropped by helicopter deep into the capital city of Mogadishu to capture two top lieutenants of a Somali warlord. However things did not go to plan and in the insuring drawn-out firefight between the Rangers and hundreds of Somali gunmen, two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters were downed and destroyed and members of their crew brutally killed. The film revolves around the efforts of various Rangers to get to and rescue surviving members of the downed black hawks. Although a sensationalised and heavily American version of events, the film is at least useful in helping to form a general picture of what went on and also for comprehending the lawlessness and chaos of militia-based warfare, which was so unfamiliar to the organised U.S armed forces, but which they had to contend with in Mogadishu and still have to contend with in various parts of the world today. It is also useful in terms of understanding propaganda and the effect the media can have on foreign affairs.
12. Munich (2005)
History you’ll learn about: Assassination of Israeli athletes at 1972 Olympics and the measures taken to exact revenge.
During the summer Olympics of 1972 held in Munich, Germany, 11 members of the Israeli team were taken hostage and subsequently killed alongside a German police officer by a Palestinian group known as Black September. After the assassination Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir okays a black-box operation to hunt down and kill all involved. Mossad – the Israeli intelligent agency- responded with Operation “Spring of Youth” and Operation “Wrath of God”, systematically tracking down and killing Palestinians suspected of involvement in the massacre. The film is useful for understanding the paranoia that permeates the world of spies and assassins and for understanding that killing only begets killing and ultimately leads nowhere.
13. 12 Year a Slave (2013)
History you’ll learn about: Slavery in the U.S
One of the most powerful films about slavery, 12 Years a Slave tells the story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York, who is abducted and sold into slavery. A rightful Oscar winner Steve McQueen‘s film is a triumph of the human spirit and fight to survive and a shocking reminder of the brutality, injustice and inhumanity inflicted on so many. It is powerful in the fact that, perhaps quite unusually, it tells the story of an eloquent, intelligent and refined free man already living in the States, rather than a recent captive arrival to the country. It is a useful reminder of whoever we are, wherever we live, that freedom that we all love and cherish might be ripped away from us all of a sudden. The best review of it I’ve seen states: “It is a film that stimulates at both an emotional level and an intellectual one”. It should move you, shame you and make you think. For all of those reasons, it’s a must watch.
14. Motorcycle Diaries (2004) “Diarios de motocicleta” (original title)
History you’ll learn about: Formative years of the revolutionary ‘Che’ Guevara.
The dramatisation of the motorcycle road trip Che Guevara undertook in his youth which influenced his beliefs and showed him his life’s calling, Motorcycle Diaries, is a handy little film showing the human side to the man many people wear on a t-shirt, but know relatively little about. The film focuses on Che – or Ernesto as he was simply known as back then- before he became famous as a revolutionary. He and his friend, Alberto Granado, embark on a epic 8,000 mile adventure around South America that will just make you yearn to go visit the colourful continent yourself.
Guevara remains both a revered and reviled historical figure who polarises opinion, loved and loathed in equal measures. While the film doesn’t sit on the fence, with its sympathetic portrayal, it is useful to see a representation which is far removed from the American political mindset. Humorous and heartfelt in Motorcycle Diaries, you’ll certainly see a different side to the man the C.I.A and Bolivian President René Barrientos deemed so dangerous that he needed to be executed with nine bullets a few days after his capture in a hut in the Bolivian countryside.
Well there is my list of must see historical movies – there are others for sure and many that I’ve missed off. If you’ve got a suggestion, jot it down in the comments section below.