How does one choose a list of great historical films? Is the emphasis on great or historical? And how far should one be willing to compromise with either? Fortunately, Hollywood has simplified the task by producing few films that can reasonably be called great or historically accurate. For instance, whatever the merits of John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, it would much more easily fit into the category of folklore than history, while a more recent entry about an American President, Oliver Stone’s Nixon, might well be classified under the heading “historical psychobabble.” And let’s avoid entirely any discussion of Stone’s JFK.
If we agree to settle for a combination of “good film” and “good history,” we should consider the following 10 movies. The Right Stuff (1983). Arguably the greatest combination of artistic inspiration and historical fidelity in American cinema, The Right Stuff, based on Tom Wolfe’s best-selling account of the early space program, was years ahead of not only its audience but of many critics as well. Its impact on other filmmakers, though, has been enormous. Directed by America’s most underrated director, Philip Kaufman, the film, in Quentin Tarantino’s words, “created a new genre, the hip epic.” And one, he might have added, that other directors have aspired to but not equaled. Ron Howard explored the same territory in Apollo 13 but ended up giving in to the lure of old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama. Part of Kaufman’s genius was in juxtaposing the story of the first astronauts and that of the test pilots who paved their way. A score of actors have never looked better. They include Dennis Quaid as Gordon Cooper, Pamela Reed as his loyal but skeptical wife, Fred Ward as the starcrossed Gus Grissom, and Donald Moffat as LBJ. Ed Harris is an inspired choice as the young John Glenn, and perhaps most memorable is Sam Shepard as the jet-age cowboy test pilot Chuck Yeager. (The film’s final scene, with Yeager trudging across the desert, his burning ship in the background, has been imitated may times, most notably by Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith at the end of Independence Day.)
No other film has succeeded so brilliantly at exposing the myth and hype behind the historical reality while displaying such unabashed admiration for the men who created the myth.
All the President’s Men (1976)
The best and most popular of all White House political thrillers, directed by Alan J. Pakula, is also the one most closely based on historical fact. It still crackles with excitement today, largely because the script is a model of clarity and the cast, from Robert Redford and Dustin Huffman as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to Jason Robards and Hal Holbrook as Ben Bradlee and Deep Throat, seem inspired by the material.
As Newsday ’s Gene Seymour once remarked, “ Patton might not be a great film or even a good film, but it wouldn’t be possible to know that unless we could see it made with anyone else but George C. Scott in the title role.” After Scott’s performance, which reveals Patton as military genius, religious mystic, and reactionary lunatic, it’s doubtful that any other actor would even attempt the role. Franklin J. Schaffner’s 170-minute epic, adapted largely from Ladislas Farago’s book Patton: Ordeal and Triumph, features Scott in nearly every scene—it’s possible that no other epic film ever owed so much to its leading man—and he dwarfs nearly every other character in the movie, including Michael Bates’s Bernard Montgomery, Karl Maiden’s Omar Bradley, and Karl Michael Vogler’s Erwin Rommel.
The finest film yet made on the Civil War and the only one to treat the vital subject of blacks who volunteered for the Union Army. Edward Zwick’s pedestrian direction is buoyed by a combination of great acting (particularly by Matthew Broderick as Colonel Shaw, Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher, and Denzel Washington, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as a recalcitrant former slave turned soldier), a great score (James Horner’s finest work, featuring the Harlem Boys Choir), and a brilliant script by Kevin Jarre, which drew judiciously on the letters of Col. Robert Gould Shaw, first commander of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, and Peter Burchard’s history of the regiment, One Gallant Rush.