What are your favorite American History Movies?

The above question was asked in a post by a contributor at Ricochet; no point in linking directly to the post, however, since it’s in the members-only section of the site.

Suggestions so far have included Johnny Tremain, The Crossing, The Alamo (both versions), Gettysburg, Band of Brothers, The Patriot, Last of the Mohicans, John Adams (miniseries), and the various Ken Burns miniseries. I suggested The Awakening Land (miniseries), to which I now add Far and Away and Once an Eagle.

Your thoughts?

45 thoughts on “What are your favorite American History Movies?”

  1. Last of the Mohicans is excellent because it is so accurate. I would add
    Lonesome Dove” for western history although it is fiction. Another good movie that I saw just recently was “30 seconds over Tokyo.” It is very well done and pretty free from the wartime hokum that so many movies of that era had. It is also pretty accurate and too many kids have seen phony versions, like “Pearl Harbor,” which is most useful as an emetic. I watched “The Longest Day” today and think it is also very accurate. I wanted to watch it again because we were there 6 years ago and spent a week visiting important sites. I wanted my daughter to see it, including the American cemetery above Omaha Beach. I have a photo of her eating lunch in Ouistreham, the small port taken by the French commandos on D-Day.

  2. You mentioned Gettysburg, David. I watched it – then read the book The Killer Angels then re watched it with a new appreciation. One wonders how history would have been without Chamberlain and Pickett’s charge.

    As Michael already mentioned I loved Lonesome Dove

    Bad musical aside (Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin singing?), but the movie Paint Your Wagon gave an accurate look at a California gold rush camp (Yes, we’ll forget the camp collapsing and the rampaging bull ;-) )

    Glory with Mathew Broderick.

    The last Memphis Belle produced by Katheryn Wyler, daughter of Wm, sure gave an accurate look at the (usually) short life of a bomber crewman in the 8th Army Air Force.

  3. I loved Ike – have wondered if people who know saw it as historically accurate? (The result of Selleck – who seemed awfully good and understated and contained as Ike always seemed – but who towered wasn’t all that accurate literal size wise, was it?)

  4. There was a pair of Swedish movies released circa 1971: The Emigrants, and its sequel The New Land…about a family moving to Minnesota from a very impoverished background in Sweden. Very well-done IIRC, doesn’t seem to be available on Netflix.

  5. Michael: Which Last of the Mohicans?

    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    The Last of the Mohicans is an adventure novel by James Fenimore Cooper. It may also refer to:

    Adaptations of the novel:

    The Last of the Mohicans (1911 film)
    The Last of the Mohicans (1920 American film)
    The Last of the Mohicans (1920 German film)
    The Last of the Mohicans (serial) (1932)
    The Last of the Mohicans (1936 film)
    Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans, an American television series
    The Last of the Mohicans (1968 film) (1968 Romanian film)
    The Last of the Mohicans (1971 series), a BBC television series starring Philip Madoc
    The Last of the Mohicans (1992 film)

    I am guessing the 1936, as I recall the 1992 as being a poerfectly dreadful bit of retro PC.

    Modern Hollywood is run by out and out communists. My guess is that all of the good American history movies are from before the 1960s, from when Hollywood was run by business men who kept the commies on short leashes.

  6. Immigrant experience – Kazan’s America, America
    Everyman – It’s a Wonderful Life
    For WWII – Since You Went Away
    WWI – Sergeant York
    Not historical but another subgenre:
    definer of American mythic hero: Shane, Casablanca, Ford’s westerns

  7. “I am guessing the 1936, as I recall the 1992 as being a poerfectly dreadful bit of retro PC.”

    The 1992 movie was based on the story from the 1936 version. JF Cooper would not have had a love story. The reason why I like it as accurate is that all the extras were reenactors. Even the Indians were all portrayed by American Indian extras. The guns and cannon were all correct and I once read an article about the guy who taught DD Lewis to reload his muzzle loader while running. You may object to the scenes with Dennis Banks but the history was all accurate. Even the tomahawk was authentic.

    One of the most PC movies made recently was “Saving Private Ryan.” There was no mention of why they were fighting and Hanks says “the only decent thing” that will result is saving the private. No concept of Nazi and Jews and saving Europe from a new dark age.

    Last of the Mohicans might be the last US movie that portrays history accurately.

    I would also suggest “Casablanca” as American history. The extras were all European exiles, many famous European actors who never recovered their prewar status. I like it better than Private Ryan.

  8. Gettysburg has been something of a 4th of July tradition for me. I am also fond of most of the others mentioned here.

    Tora! Tora! Tora! is an idiosyncratic 7 December tradition for me.

    I’d like to like Midway, but why couldn’t Charlton Heston have played an actual historical character? He sticks out like a sore thumb among all the historical characters. And the love story supbplot is worse than idiotic, particularly since Hawaii, unlike the West Coast, did not evacuate or incarcerate the great bulk of its Nisei.

  9. The Longest Day? Really? Full of inaccuracy and bravado and short shifts all the other nations involved (Yanks only had two of the five beaches).

    The Brits are given some screen time but Kenneth Moore as the Beach Master was silly; A Beach Master’s job ended when the unit commander landed. Beach Masters redirected landing craft to different beach sectors (to make use of battle plan changes) and commanded the rate at which landing craft came ashore to avoid pile ups at the water’s edge. They DID NOT stand around screaming at troops to get off the beach! The Yanks could have used Beach Masters.

    The movie doesn’t even mention Juno beach where the Canadian 3rd Division landed and made it the furthest inland of any allied marine landing force by the end of D-Day. That was due to using Duplex Drive tanks (as with the Brits) to get armour on shore ASAP. The Free French forces were insignificant in the invasion and with DeGualles’ psoturing were more of an impediment than as asset.

    The massive air assualt pounding the Normandy area was given little refernece when it was key to keeping German units from getting to the beaches in a timely manner. The one Allied pilot (played by Richard Burton) would have been too old (a Battle of Britain veteren and still only a Flt Lt?? Something is wrong with his flying plus after four plus years he would be a combat burnout).

    The Germans are portrayed as disorganized when in fact they did a first rate job at defending. They were overwhelmed by the numbers and the Allied air power and Naval bombardment.

  10. Barry Levinson’s 1990 release “Avalon”.

    I’m not Jewish, nor have I ever set foot in Baltimore. And I certainly wasn’t alive during the majority of the movie’s narrative of 1940’s-1960’s. Yet I feel I can relate much to this movie, particularly from my Father’s Hungarian side. Levinson admirably captures an immigrant family’s sacrifice, assimilation and ascent into the middle class.

    The scene with the Grandparents eating dinner alone in the kitchen, practically in mourning, while the younger generation eats silently while sitting in front of this brand new invention called television is heartbreaking.


    Also honorable mention for “Seabiscuit”, which wasn’t a movie just about horse racing. But also a movie about depression wrecked America’s response to this superb champion who learned to win, once it realized he was trained to fail.

  11. Norm – if I recall correctly there was a German General who felt that Calais was a ruse and wanted to send some (armored?) units to Normandy – Rommel was away if I recall – home for his wife’s birthday? – but I think they defended it best with what they had available.

    As an aside The Longest Day saved 20th Century Fox because Cleopatra was bleeding them dry.

    To me anyway Saving Private Ryan gave me a better feeling for what the average soldier went though on D-Day – the opening combat scene was horrific and was the most realistic movie combat scene I had ever seen.

  12. Command Decision with Clark Gable, a terrific movie, which is little known for some reason.

    Santa Fe Trail, with an outstanding Raymond Massey depiction of John Brown.

  13. I’ll plug Band of Brothers for the realistic feel and the commentary by the actual soldiers. Some moments are heartbreaking.

  14. “The Longest Day? Really? Full of inaccuracy and bravado and short shifts all the other nations involved (Yanks only had two of the five beaches).”

    Can’t agree. The movie would have to be five hours long to include all you want. I’d like some examples of inaccuracy. I’ve spent a week with a guide book going all over the beaches and the landing zones. Had lunch at the cafe by Pegasus Bridge. St Mere Eglise has the parachute hanging from the church tower as in the movie. The museum at St Mere Eglise is filling up with more exhibits as paratroopers from D-Day die and leave their memorabilia to the museum.

    The movie spends a lot more time on Omaha Beach because that’s where the biggest battle was and where the most casualties occurred.

    I detect a slight case of chauvinism.

  15. A couple ways to judge historical movies – one is by their accuracy – is it a legitimate history lesson? – and I would suggest very, very few are mostly because Hollywood has cast and time limits.

    Just as important is whether the movie inspires people to take an interest in the subject and learn more. In my case, it was a lot of wildly innacurate, hokey old movies that lit the fire of historical interest in me when I was a kid. How the West Was Won comes to mind, along with The Longest Day and many others mentioned here – barely a lick of fact to most of them but it doesn’t matter – they led me to dozens of books in the local library looking into all of the events they portrayed.

  16. Bill these days when I see a Hollywood movie “based on history” I always have to ask if it is accurate – there has always been artistic license but these days they really go off the edge.

    Now since the question involved American history I omitted Master & Commander – but I think that perfectly depicted the 18th century Royal Navy

  17. Re Michael Kennedy’s reference to the ’90s “Last of the Mohicans” movie; I was living in the mountains of NC not far from where many of the scenes from the movie were shot. My friends and I knew the mountain trails around there pretty well and we kept sneaking onto the sets to watch them at work. It was fascinating. Then somebody would notice we didn’t have our little lanyard with an ID & we would get kicked out. Then find another way in via a different trail, etc. etc.!

    Anyway, just watching what was going on in the costume / crew areas, listening to various people giving directions to extras, watching the scenes we got the sense that they were really going the extra mile in getting the fine details correct for period and place. I was impressed by all that & when I saw the finished product I was glad it was half decent, too boot.

  18. How about movies which are historical and in which WORK plays a prominent role? I’ve mentioned a couple that deal with settlement/farming…there are plenty about cowboys (surprised not more nominations in that area)….but American history encompassed the building of the railroads, the growth of industry, countless small businesses started and succeeding or failing…lots of cinematic possibilities in all that.


  19. An interesting question is what history film can convey appropriately. It is difficult to convey historical episodes like D-Day accurately simply because of their enormity. I haven’t seen Longest Day since it was released, but I don’t recall it as particularly educational in light of my later reading. And to appreciate D-Day, you have to know so much of what came before and was going on at the same time. Cinema does a much better job of emoting what life was like.

    So, I second Jason in his nomination of Avalon. Having lived in Baltimore at the time I can vouch for the accuracy of its portrayal. Other films that I would nominate:

    I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang
    To Kill a Mockingbird
    Wyatt Earp
    The Right Stuff
    Sullivan’s Travels

  20. But if you do want political/battle history, Victory at Sea, while not strictly a theater movie, stands alone in my mind.

  21. Like Tora Tora Tora, A Bridge Too Far was historically accurate but a commercial flop because it dragged on –

    Mrs Davis – I second The Right Stuff and Wyatt Earp

  22. A Bridge Too Far was about one of Montgomery’s screwups. The other was the Falaise Gap. Neither is particularly American history. Battle Ground was a pretty good movie about the Battle of the Bulge.

    A railroad movie would be “The Iron Horse,” which is silent.

    Sailing would be “Captains Courageous.” The schooner in the movie was an actual fishing schooner. I think the schooner they were racing back to port was the Bluenose, a famous Newfoundland fishing schooner and winner of the last schooner race.

    “Gone with the Wind” and “The Alamo” would also be examples with some questions about historical accuracy.

  23. David – I have been scratching my head trying to find movies on work – Blazing Saddles – building the railroad is out ;-) – there has to be some but I’m coming up blank

  24. Work hasn’t fared well in movies because they’re made by commies:

    <Modern Times It’s downhill from here.
    Union Pacific Barely
    Tucker Maybe the best
    Young Tom Edison Mickey Rooney? Seriously?
    Edison the Man Spencer Tracy. Getting closer.
    The Fountainhead Gary Cooper, Patricia Neal, Raymond Massey. Longest monologue in film history.
    The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit Work, War, Women. What more is there to life? Gregory Peck, Jennifer Jones, Frederick March, Lee J. Cobb. What’s not to like.


    Silver Streak
    Atlas Shrugged

    Take your pick.

  25. ..then there was the movie about the guy who invented the intermittent windshield wiper, then spent years suing Ford for patent infringement – but while that featured work i guess it wasn’t the focus of the movie

  26. I loved Gary Sinease in “Truman.”

    The scene where Truman goes to the White House upon the death of FDR and is told by Eleanor that she’s praying for Truman is very moving as is the one immediately following where he gathers his wife and daughter around him and they all pray for guidance together.

  27. American business? Tucker
    Actually I’ve always thought that Mildred Pierce‘s strength (well other than its chick flick soap opera side) was its picture of a gutsy small business woman who lost proportionality

  28. “American business? Tucker”

    I actually saw a Tucker on the street when I was a kid. Most of those built went to investors.

    BF’s Daughter was a film about business that I don’t remember but it doesn’t sound very pro-business. My favorite Marquand novel about business was “Sincerely, Willis Wayde” but it was never made into a movie. Marquand was a bit contemptuous about the businessmen he wrote about, sort of like F Scott Fitzgerald. Gatsby was a good book but the movie was only OK.

    I couldn’t watch the Aviator because I can’t stand DiCaprio. My in-laws knew Hughes quite well but I don’t know how honest the film was.

  29. Ginny…wasn’t aware of Mildred PIerce…looks interesting. Apparently there were two versions: a 1945 one starring Joan Crawford, and a recent made-for tv movie with Kate Winslet. I’m guessing the one you saw was the former one?

  30. Yes haven’t seen the other; be warned – it is a bit film noir but much more chick flick
    Work is almost always, it seems to me, a place where you sell your soul (The Power and the Glory, for instance) which is what is so refreshing about It’s a Wonderful Life – where it’s a place you build it.

  31. Ginny…”Work is almost always, it seems to me, a place where you sell your soul”

    Interesting insight. I wonder if this reflects the personal life experience of the screenwriters/producers/directors making these films.

  32. Gloryand Cold Mountain for the Civil War. I like both because they show the differences within communities that are usually shown as monolithic. Glory shows different perspectives among African Americans; Cold Mountain has as a major plot element the conflict between highland and lowland Southerners. The book of Cold Mountain was substantially better, though. If you’re going to steal your plot from Homer, don’t try to “improve” it.

    What I look for in historical fiction, film or book, is an awareness that people in other times saw the world differently than we do. The Patrick O’Brien books on the 18th century Royal Navy are good from that standpoint. Master and Commander was better than I expected, but still had some flaws. In the book, the disgruntled sailor is flogged for failing to salute a midshipman. In the film, he actually strikes him, presumably to make the scene more dramatic. Historically, striking an officer was a court-martial offense with hanging entirely possible.

    Another good depiction of premodern mentality was Blackrobe. I love the scene where the missionary shows the Indian chief (who is properly shown as an intelligent man successfully leading a complex community of thousands of people) how writing works by writing down a secret he tells them and having another missionary, who had been beyond hearing range, read it out loud. The chief does not have a gee-whiz reaction but rather is deeply disturbed by having one of his basic assumptions about how the universe works violated.

  33. James Bennett…”What I look for in historical fiction, film or book, is an awareness that people in other times saw the world differently than we do.”

    A very good point. And Blackrobe sounds interesting.

  34. Check out Cabeza de Vaca, if you can find it. (I think I watched it on Hulu years ago). He was an early 16th century conquistador cum anthropologist who spent some 9 years wandering amongst native Americans wandering in Florida, Mexico, Texas, Arizona? and New Mexico. A Mexican film with subtitles.

  35. I didn’t like the Cabeza de Vaca one – but I think it was partially because I had trouble following it – and it didn’t seem to catch his rather sweet persona. A movie I kept putting off seeing but turned out to be better than I’d dreaded was Terence Malick’s The New World.
    Malick did Badlands and liked that area along the Platte (how many directors say that?). But I figured it would be silly – sentimental or political – since it implies a relationship with Pocahontas and Smith. As it turned out, I suspect that wasn’t historical but the roughness of the life of the early colonies, the wonder with which the Indians looked at the sails as they came in, the difference between the restless adventurer (Smith – and that was accurate) to the more domesticated Rolfe (and that, too, appears to be accurate) were captured. Her last words were – after being presented to the English court and as she died – that it was enough that her child survived – that kind of thinking did seem to be part of the film. It is slow moving.

  36. Don’t know why I didn’t think of Patton – excellent move and one that stayed pretty much true to his character from what I know.

Comments are closed.