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.
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.