Movies for American and World History

Aug 9, 2001 (Updated Aug 11, 2001)

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The Bottom Line These may not be the very best in film art, but they are movies that I'd seriously consider if teaching a history class.

Having team taught a class in American Studies for a number of years at the high school level with a history teacher (with me as the English teacher), finding movies with some artistic and historical value is a real life practical experience. There’s only so far any historical text can go if the student hasn’t traveled much or experienced the outside world. One wonderful element about films is that it allows the viewer to gain a virtual “experience” that brings life into what would otherwise become meaningless text.

Of course, a drawback can become that students will rely on the film version only to gain their historical knowledge; however, I am convinced that certain quality films will teach far more history in a compressed time than mere reading. It helps if the film is well constructed and if follow up reading and discussion accompanies the film.

There are far too many great films with historical content to include here. History seems too broad a category, especially since wars are often cited as the primary historical highlights for any country. Biographies take in a plethora of other worthy candidates as well. While I am not avoiding the war films entirely, I am attempting to cite films that help give visual images for certain historical eras. Thus, I have decided to list two top ten lists that I would strongly consider if I was teaching history: one for U.S. history and another for World history.

U.S. History

Before 1800

The Crucible (1996)

This underrated film based on Arthur Miller’s play explores the Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1632. Miller actually did quite a bit of research for his play, using trial records as he created the dialogue. Although we’ll never know definitively what caused the mass hysteria at Salem, Miller’s psychological and sociological study gives as much insight as the historical records. With Miller himself acting as a consultant during the filming, the play remains very true to the spirit that he intended when he penned it in the 1950’s as a thinly disguised criticism of McCarthyism. With an excellent cast and location filming on the Massachusetts coast, The Crucible captures the Puritan colonial period better than any other film to date.

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

Daniel Day Lewis must be type cast as the American colonial guy (he also stars in The Crucible). But here he heroically represents the idealized American frontiersman in Michael Mann’s excellent adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s immortal novel, set during the French and Indian War in upstate New York.

Michael Mann’s lyrical adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel actually presents a good picture of what the French and Indian War was like, and foreshadows the coming American Revolution. Mann’s cinematic landscapes are always pretty to look at, and the battle scenes here are choreographed brutally and as realistically as the romanticized Cooper work can allow.

1800 – 1900

Gone with the Wind (1939)

To portray the thinking of the South during the Civil War period, this Clark Gable/Vivian Leigh classic has to be on anyone’s historical film list. Give the film credit for holding up over the years—it still packs people into theaters whenever it gets re-released to the big screen (especially in the South). Sure it’s smaltzy in parts by today’s standards, but Gone with the Wind remains a lot of fun. For historical purposes, the first half of the film stands up much better than the second half, which mostly emphasizes the love story. To give some balance to the Union forces, you could justify showing Glory as well.

Little Big Man (1970)

Arthur Penn creates a humorous account of the Indian Wars on the Great Plains of 19th century America, but with a serious undertone. Dustin Hofmann’s character serves as a narrator who knows the ways of both the Indians and settlers, but the brutal re-creation of the Sand Creek massacre and a later bloody slaughter of women and children confirms who the true human beings are.

Who can forget Old Lodge Skin’s observation? “. . . But the white man, they believe EVERYTHING is dead. Stone, earth, animals. And people! Even their own people! If things keep trying to live, white man will rub them out. That is the difference.”

A surprising choice perhaps, but I really do enjoy Arthur Penn's humorous treatment of the old West here. It's one of the first sensitive treatments of Native Americans that I can recall, at least in a major release. Chief Dan George is priceless as a wise and very human elder. Despite the liberties that the film takes with history, this film did open my eyes more to the injustices suffered by the native people, and inspired me to read more background about that historical period, which led me to live on the Navajo reservation for over 20 years.

1900 – 2000

Grapes of Wrath (1940)

John Ford’s classic rendition of Steinbeck’s novel captures the spirit of the Great Depression and the plight of poor folks of that time better than any film I can think of. The film portrays the courageous Joad family in pursuit of the American dream in the face of adversity—two especially memorable moments occur with Tom’s farewell and Ma Joad’s “we are the people” speech.
Some of the camera shots even look like the published photos coming out of the Dust Bowl from the 1930’s.

Patton (1970)

George C. Scott becomes George S. Patton in this epic war film. You can learn a lot of WWII history through the film (at least the U.S. involvement on the European front), but even better – you can gain insights into the complex and controversial poet warrior himself. For people who wonder whether the film is for hawks or doves, the answer is “yes.” Above all, Patton remains a character study.

The Right Stuff (1983)

There are a number of films that you can use to show the Cold War and demonstrate the paranoia of the 1950’s, but why not focus on one of the seminal events of the period—the launch of sputnik, which triggered the Space Race. This film is great for watching whenever you need a lift about what is right and good about the American spirit. It’s an incredibly well written and edited film about a turning point in our history when we began to earnestly reach for the stars.

Woodstock (1970)

The 1960’s are a turbulent turning point in American history that must be represented by film. Even though works like Easy Rider and The Graduate capture the spirit of the period, Woodstock has to rank as a singular film to represent the era. This documentary is a well-done film that captures the overall flavor of the 1969 festival, complete with local townspeople reactions and skinny-dipping. There are a number remarkable concert performances preserved forever in our memories-Richie Havens, Joan Baez in the night rain, Santana, Sly and the Family Stone. Just the footage of Hendrix would be worth the price of the video!

Woodstock truly IS a piece of history that defines a moment. Sure, there were a half a million people who attended the rain soaked, muddy event for three days of Peace and Music in upstate New York, but Woodstock enabled the event to live on afterwards and grow into legendary status. What could have been a small footnote in history has been expanded to mark the event with more significance than it may have originally had, and this is largely due to this documentary.

Apocalypse Now! (1979)

Francis Ford Coppola has constructed the definitive Vietnam movie even though Apocalypse Now isn’t just about the war. Coppola’s film explores the dark regions of the heart and soul in a well-conceived metaphorical rendition of Conrad’s novel that we see through Captain Willard’s eyes as he pursues Kurtz and to “terminate” his command “with extreme prejudice!”

There are so many memorable scenes here — skiing on the river, surfing in the midst of chaotic shelling, the massacre in the boat, the bridge scene at night, the Wagnerian operatic huey attack on the village, and others. Who will ever forget Robert Duvall’s statement, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning . . . Smelled like. . . victory.”

While other films about the Vietnam War will become film footnotes in history, Apocalypse Now is destined to be viewed and re-examined for many decades to come. Vietnam may provide the subject matter, but this landmark film reaches far beyond its Southeast Asian boundaries into the universal.

Note: For a more straight-forward accounting for the Vietnam War you may prefer Oliver Stone's autobiographical Platoon, but Stone cannot resist preaching to us in any of his films.

All the President’s Men (1976)

Why cover Watergate when there are so many other choices available? For one thing, Watergate must be regarded as an important turning point in American history—never again will Americans naively regard their political leaders as highly. So, the scandal in a sense destroyed much of our innocence, and pointed out the value of freedom of the press. Another reason is that Pakula’s film is an intelligent and finely crafted work. Students will need to take notes to keep up with all the Watergate figures—but so did those of us who attempted to follow the situation as it was happening. Never before did we become as familiar with the White House staff.

World History

The Ten Commandments (1956)

It’s hard to leave out original sources like Cecil B. DeMille classic epic when considering world history. Much of western civilization traces its history to the events of this period. I realize that the acting performances are statuesque – none more so than wooden lead actor Charlton Heston, and the dialogue sometimes gets downright sappy. Who can forget Nefretire’s classic line: “Oh Moses, Moses, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!”

But what a grand spectacle this is with the plagues, the huge exodus from Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, and Moses descending from Mt. Sinai with the tablets. This epic is probably more familiar to the English speaking world than the actual book of "Exodus" from the Old Testament. In fact, a friend of mine once told me that her favorite Biblical character is Charlton Heston!

Spartacus (1960)

If you’re looking for a good film to portray the period of the Roman Empire, check out Stanley Kubrick’s one Hollywood produced film, Spartacus. Although Spartacus doesn’t rank among Kubrick’s best films, it is and worth watching 10 times before giving the far inferior Gladiator a look. The story patterns itself after the great epics of the 1950’s when television studios felt they had to bring wider vistas to audiences to compete with television. It is based on the true story of a gladiator who lead a slave revolt in 73-71 BC. Beginning with a small band of escaped gladiators, Spartacus would increase his ranks to nearly 100,000 as they marched on Rome, only to be killed near Rhegium. Kubrick stages an epic scale battle scene, and the subsequent “I am Spartacus” scene is a true classic.

The Vikings (1958)

This Kirk Douglas spectacle (also starring another Spartacus star with Tony Curtis) still entertains and reminds us about the difficulties the Vikings faced when navigating to the New World. Don’t expect a great deal of historical accuracy, but the Vikings are often overlooked, as is this film.

Braveheart (1995)

This film has done more for creating interest in Scottish history and for increasing attendance at various Highland games venues ever since its release. Mel Gibson had a real passion for the project, and the filmmakers actually did a great deal of research in putting it together. Of course, dramatic license is taken, but the film depicts William Wallace and the stubborn freedom seeking Scots effectively.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

I was far too young to understand this great film when it was first released, as the WWI history went right over my head. I just remembered the glorious desert landscape, and the feeling that it was something extraordinary. So when the re-mastered print returned to the big screen in the early 90’s, I saw it again in a Times Square theater and became thoroughly engrossed in the history and in Lawrence’s character.

Just the cinematography alone makes this great film stand above other war films. Never before have the moods of the desert been captured so well, and the large-scale travel scenes and battle scenes grant epic stature to the film. The cinematographer has fashioned my all-time favorite transition scene in the movies—the scene that transfers us from Lawrence’s Cairo office to sunrise on the Arabian Desert via a blown out match.

Lawrence of Arabia ranks as the definitive epic, but there is also a smaller film that lies within that holds our interest. Against the grand scale of WWI history also lies an intimate story about T.E. Lawrence. The fact that David Lean’s film also qualifies as a great work of art is an added bonus.

Reds (1981)

The Russian Revolution should be represented somewhere on history lists, and this film explains the Socialist philosophy and shows the political reality much more effectively than other commonly available films in the United States. Sergei Eisenstein’s Oktober (Ten Days that Shook the World) should also be on your list, but Warren Beatty’s Reds is much more likely to be available in your local video store.

Gandhi (1982)

An over-rated film, Richard Attenborough’s straightforward account of Mahatma Gandhi’s life does convey the historical period well. If you’re attempting to cover the entire planet, India and its culture should not be overlooked—this epic film will do the job. Ben Kingsley does his best work and becomes Gandhi.

The Last Emporer (1987)

The fact that this is the first film ever shot in the Forbidden City makes this an automatic choice for a world history class. Besides the mind-boggling location setting, Bernardo Bertolucci's film is remarkably accurate with the costumes and culture. The film also explores the history of a region that few Americans are familiar with. With the current difficulties between the Chinese and U.S. governments, it would help more westerners to watch this significant film about China’s uneasy transition into the 20th century.

Night and Fog (1955)

Night and Fog is a short 30-minute documentary about the Holocaust that begs to be viewed. Once seen—the images (coupled with the provocative narration) will haunt for a lifetime. Night and Fog begins very peacefully—lyrically surveying a pastoral countryside nearly ten years after the end of WWII. But this is no ordinary countryside—we are in Poland following the railroad tracks that lead directly into Auschwitz. But soon the bucolic greens and blues will give way to shades of brutal black and white German archives that communicate the horror of the concentration camps with images that forever ask “Who is responsible?”

Note: another film that should be strongly considered is Triumph of the Will as primary source material. Hitler hired filmmaker Leni Reifenstahl to create a propaganda film to show Nazism in the best light, and she does so magnificently with beautiful photography.

Tora, Tora, Tora (1970)

With the 2001 summer release of Pearl Harbor a danger exists that people will look to Michael Bay’s lame excuse for a romantic backdrop for the history lesson about the Japanese attack on the American base and for their perspective on the WWII Pacific front. That would be a huge mistake. Tora, Tora, Tora is a much better choice.

Historical accuracy stands as the biggest strength of Tora, Tora, Tora. Copious research went into the writing, and the ambitious project used two separate film crews to give both the American and the Japanese points of view for Pearl Harbor. If you suspect certain lines of dialogue don’t sound theatrical, there’s a good chance that those lines are kept in because they are historically accurate. In fact, when Martin Balsam balked at the “death wish” line his Admiral Kimmel character makes, director Richard Fleischer informed him that the dialogue would remain intact because the Admiral actually did describe a spent bullet by saying “Would have been merciful had it killed me.”

While there are some intriguing characters, this film focuses on presenting historical drama in an even-handed way, even switching us back and forth between the American and Japanese perspectives. Sometimes the facts are fascinating enough to fashion an interesting film, so when you find the soap suds story of Bay’s Pearl Harbor doesn’t satisfy, this solid 1970 film about that Day of Infamy still stands, rock solid.

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