Historical Movies

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John Sayles wrote and directed this stirring and largely accurate fictional account of the 1920 West Virginia coal strike and its violent climax, the Matewan Massacre (mercifully made less bloody in the film, leaving the viewer with a greater impression of the film’s characters and politics than of the action). Taking his historical base from David Corbin’s 1981 book Life, Work, and Rebellion in the Coal Fields: The Southern West Virginia Miners, 1880–1922, Sayles’s screenplay is an interesting mix of historical characters, including the pro-union chief of police Sid Hatfield (David Strathairn) and fictional composites, such as a United Mine Workers organizer played by Chris Cooper. One of the half-dozen best films about American labor.

The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955)

Because it was one of Gary Cooper’s last films and possibly also because it ran so counter to the lurid popular melodramas that the director Otto Preminger was best known for, this account of Mitchell’s struggles to drag a reluctant U.S. military into the twentieth century remains all too little seen. More than passably accurate (most of the movie’s assertions are backed up by Burke Davis’s definitive book The Billy Mitchell Affair), the film suffers from just one basic flaw: Gary Cooper’s dignified, reasonable Mitchell doesn’t quite jibe with the historical account of the contentious, hot-tempered father of American air power.

Quiz Show (1994)

If Quiz Show isn’t about history as such, it’s at least about social history, and who would deny that a history of television isn’t an important part of any study of the fifties? Robert Redford’s sober and sobering film chronicles the downfall of the first great hero of American reality TV, Charles Van Doren, son of the poet Mark Van Doren, played by Ralph Fiennes. Van Doren fell from grace with an adoring public when it was proved that he had been supplied the answers to questions on the popular “Twenty-One.” John Turturro gives a frightened performance as the vengeful Herb Stempel, the schlemiel with the genius IQ who was pushed aside by the quiz show’s producers for the WASP idol Van Doren. Historically, the film is fairly faithful to the facts presented by Prime Time and Misdemeanors: Investigating the 1950s TV Quiz Show Scandal, by Joseph Stone and Tim Yohn, though it exaggerates the role of the investigator Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow) at the expense of at least three others who helped break the story.

Casualties of War (1989)

Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Born on the Fourth of July were far more discussed, but years from now, when historians want to examine the psychic scar that the Vietnam War left on American soldiers, they’ll come to this film. The director Brian De Palma’s movie was adapted from Daniel Lang’s 1969 New Yorker article about the trial of a squad of American soldiers for the abduction, rape, and murder of a Vietnamese girl (Scan Penn is the group’s sergeant; Michael J. Fox the private who tries to save the girl). The New Yorker ’s David Denby, who called it “one of the finest Vietnam movies,” cautioned that the film is “in some ways not faithful to the original,” but it is an emotionally and artistically valid rendition of what was widely considered to be, because of the Rashomon -like nature of the court testimony involved, an inadaptable source.

The Insider (1999)

Michael Mann’s 157-minute film might best fit in the category of “secret history,” the kind of history that affects millions of Americans who never know the true story. Russell Crowe came to stardom as Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, the man who blew the whistle on Brown & Williamson tobacco malpractices, and Al Pacino, in perhaps his finest screen performance, plays Lowell Bergman, the “Sixty Minutes” producer who battled to bring the story to the public. The Insider is a small story with an epic feel.

Thirteen Days (2000)

Maybe the most underrated film so far this century, the director Roger Donaldson’s account of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis is such a crackling good thriller that the viewer may not notice that it’s also fairly good history. Bruce Greenwood’s JFK was perhaps the most underappreciated performance of that year. The only embarrassing historical inaccuracy is the accent assumed by Kevin Costner (as the presidential assistant Kenny O’Donnell), which is stuck somewhere between Boston and Malibu.