Each year, as I teach my courses, I find myself recommending various movies to my students. Why not do the same here? This is the first installment in a list of historical movies that I think are worthwhile—that do not do too much violence to history and are otherwise good viewing. I have made no attempt to be systematic; these are simply films I remember; but I will give them in approximately chronological order. Given my interests and training, most of these films are about war or European politics.
I’m probably more tolerant than many people of historical error or exaggeration in films. I am not pedantic. I know that any treatment of a historical topic has to compress and simplify. I do not get upset if there are too few buttons on a uniform or a Highlander wears the wrong plaid. On the other hand, I do get upset with falsehood and blatant distortion.
1) Cleopatra. This extravaganza almost bankrupted Fox and is perhaps best remembered today for the love affair between two of its stars, Taylor and Burton. But in fact the writers paid attention to history and tried to be accurate about Caesar, Antony, and the Serpent of the Nile. The sets are awesome. The two-hour special that comes with the film is very interesting, too.
2) El Cid. Another spectacular, and one that certainly simplifies the life of Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar—there is no reference to his many years of work as a mercenary for the Moors, for instance. But there is a nobility about the central character and his actions that is inspiring, and the last part of the film perhaps has more relevance today than it did, say, fifteen years ago…
3) Joan of Arc. The 1948 film with Ingrid Bergman and Jose Ferrer. Ms. Bergman does a remarkable job in conveying the purity and nobility of la Pucelle. Very moving.
4) The Taking of Power By Louis XIV. An awkward title and a film that is far more talk than action; but Roberto Rossellini does a fine job of describing how and why the young Louis acted to control the nobles and make himself effective absolute king. The scenes (towards the end) of the king at dinner and at court are quite marvelously done. French with subtitles.
5) The Alamo. The 2004 film directed by J.L. Hancock. Although the interpretation of Santa Anna by Emilio Echevarria seems to me a bit over the top, the film tries to remain faithful to people and events in describing this heroic incident, the American Thermopylae.
6) The Charge of the Light Brigade. Not the Errol Flynn historical fiction opus but the 1968 film with Sir John Gielgud and David Hemmings. Aside from an inexplicable and completely dispensable theme involving Vanessa Redgrave as an unfaithful wife, this is a very good film about the early Victorian military and the famous mistaken attack.
7) Gettysburg. Just magnificent. The film wisely concentrates on three events in detail—the first day’s fighting, the defense of Little Round Top by the 20th Maine (yay!), and of course Pickett’s Charge—rather than trying to cover everything. Yes, I know that Gen. Longstreet’s beard looks wrong and that the first Confederate soldier you see is too fat, but don’t get hung up on trivia. This is an excellent film.
8) Gone With The Wind. Of course this is fiction, based on a novel; but it certainly captures the life of the antebellum South (as lived by the tiny number of really wealthy planters), the horror of the war on the home front, and some of the difficulties of Reconstruction.
9) Breaker Morant. A great film about three Australians accused of atrocities during the dirty end-phase of the Boer War. It makes you think.
10) Nicholas and Alexandra. This is an outstanding piece of history, compressing many of the problems of Romanov Russia in its last days and the personalities of the last tsar and tsarina into a couple of hours. And you’ll remember Rasputin. Academy Award for costumes.
11) Gandhi. Undoubtedly the personality of the title character is presented overly simply and hagiographically, but the basic history is there and the sense of being in India is overwhelming (at least for viewers who, like me, have never been in India.)
12) Zulu. The personalities and relationship of Lts. Chard and Bromhead are fictionalized but the story as a whole is true and exciting. And there will never be a better British RSM (in this case at company level) that Colour-Sergeant Bourne.
13) A Night To Remember. This is the Titanic film everyone should see, even if it is in black & white. No mawkish love story gets in the way of the real story. The Criterion Collection edition has very good commentary by two authorities on the ship.
14) The Last Emperor. A masterpiece. What a portrayal of an entirely different society than ours! See it.
15) Lawrence Of Arabia. I hardly have to recommend this, do I? While hazy on chronology —I wish someone mentioned a few dates—it certainly captures the legendary essence of its eccentric subject.
16) Oh What A Lovely War. This musical is a good commentary on the War to End War.
17) Tora, Tora, Tora. This is almost a documentary study of the events leading to Pearl Harbor. A very fine film.
18) Patton. You’ve seen this. It’s not really a war film—the battle scenes are its weakest part—but a psychological study of a complex, remarkable man.
19) Valkyrie. I did not think that modern Hollywood would do so good a job with the July 20 plot. But Tom Cruise did very well indeed. (I do not in the least mind the American accents.)
20) Is Paris Burning? This vast film has been largely forgotten. It’s a fair and balanced study of its theme from both the French and German viewpoints. Gert Frobe (Goldfinger) plays Gen. Choltitz, the Paris commandant. Black and white, unfortunately.
21) A Bridge Too Far. An hour too long, I think, and I have trouble accepting Elliott Gould as a colonel of infantry, but this epic captures the spirit and facts of Operation Market-Garden, especially the massive airborne drops and Col. Frost’s heroic defense of the key bridge.
22) Downfall. Wow. This film is the last word on “Hitler in the bunker.” No further film treatment is ever necessary. Not a study only of the by-then-demented dictator, but of all the inmates of the bunker. A tremendous film. German, with subtitles.
23) Soldiers of the Pope. Bet you never heard of this one. A documentary, the only one, on the Swiss Guard (in 2005). Interviews with Guardsmen, some history, drill and ceremonies. The “sets” includes some of the grandest interiors in Europe. The oath-taking ceremony is moving. 50 mins.