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When Hollywood Makes History

May 2024
10min read

No less a fan than President Wilson said “The Birth of a Nation” was “like writing history with Lightning.” Movies have taught everybody else history too.

When the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty failed to enchant local audiences, a distributor begged MGM to make “no more pictures where they write with feathers.”

Nevertheless, people have been writing with feathers since the dawn of the industry: as soon as movies began to tell coherent stories, they found subjects in the past.

For good or ill, movies have played an enormous part in giving us a sense of our history. For instance, they invented an American West for all of us, and if its inhabitants sometimes went about their business with the stylized inevitability of the Japanese Noh theater, they nonetheless reflected something we wanted to believe about the conflicts that formed our country. To protest that it is not true is to miss the point.

With the help of Michael R. Pitts, a film historian, we take a Hollywood tour through the American past, running from colonial days to Watergate and, in Hollywood time, from the silents to the talkies to Technicolor. However cynically readers may approach these glimpses of our history, they are sure to come across a few frames that ring absolutely true to both historical and emotional fact.

“See them brave young men? Some from the farm. Some from the city. Some indentured. Now they’re free. Every man jack of them’s a hero come to the aid of his country.” — Sergeant Jones, REVOLUTION


PLYMOUTH ADVENTURE (1952) The stem Mayflower captain Christopher Jones (Spencer Tracy) is confronted by Dorothy Bradford (Gene Tierney) over his harsh treatment of the Pilgrims. This saga of the Pilgrims’ voyage to the New World was more big-budget gloss than actual history. Mayflower: The Pilgrims’ Adventure (1979) covered the same ground.


THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1936) More than a dozen films have been made from James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, about pioneer life in upper New York State. This Edward Small production is an adequate retelling of the saga.


JOHN PAUL JONES (1959) Well-staged naval battles and fine cameo performances by Charles Coburn as Benjamin Franklin and Bette Davis as Catherine the Great were not enough to save this stiff, reverent, lifeless biography. Robert Stack plays the great sailor.


COLUMBUS (1949) Fredric March, in the title role, sights land in the distance in a film biography that, despite its historical accuracy and finely re-created period settings, was too dull to be entertaining.


NORTHWEST PASSAGE (1940) Spencer Tracy plays Maj. Robert Rogers, whose 1759 expedition to defeat the Abnaki Indians in Quebec broke the French control of the area. Especially realistic in its depiction of the horrors of war on the frontier, this movie ranks among the best historical films ever made.


REVOLUTION (1985) Though handsomely mounted, this Warner Brothers effort suffered from a ponderous script and unbelievable acting. The movie tells the story of a trader (Al Pachto) who is drawn into the American Revolution against his will, and a patriot (Nastassja Kinski) who opposes her Tory family.


DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK (1939) Centered on the fighting between settlers and British and Indian troops in the Mohawk Valley in New York during the Revolution, this John Ford epic is a first-rate historical drama.


WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? (1945) While working for the USO during World War II, the 4-F Bill Morgan (Fred MacMurray) finds a genie in an old lamp and is offered three wishes. One wish is granted when he meets George Washington (Alan Mowbray). He also gets to discover America with Columbus and buy Manhattan from an Indian chief.


JOHNNY TREMAIN (1957) The beginnings of the American Revolution, as seen through the eyes of the fictional title character (played by Hal Stalmaster), provided the setting for this solid Walt Disney production. Here the Sons of Liberty dump tea into Boston Harbor.


THE PRESIDENT’S LADY (1953) Andrew Jackson (Charlton Heston) progresses from Tennessee backwoods lawyer to the hero of New Orleans to President in this adequate historical melodrama. The plot revolves around his love for Rachel Donelson (Susan Hayward) and the turmoil surrounding their matrimony.

“Take a good look, my dear. It’s a historical moment. You can tell your grandchildren how you watched the Old South disappear one night.” — Rhett Butler, GONE WITH THE WIND


THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE (1951) John Huston’s version of Stephen Crane’s famous novel was not successful, in part because of production problems that left the completed film in a truncated version. Two World War II veterans—Bill Mauldin and Audie Murphy—played soldiers caught up in the conflict.


THE GENERAL (1927) This silent classic starring Buster Keaton is still funny and often quite beautiful. The story is based on an actual event—an attempt by the Union spy James J. Andrews and his raiders to steal a Confederate locomotive, The General.


THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) D. W. Griffith’s Civil War epic impressively re-created a number of historical incidents, including Lee’s (Howard Gaye) surrender to Grant (Donald Crisp) at Appomattox. But it is basically a paean to white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan.


GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) Margaret Mitchell’s saga of the Civil War became one of the most successful movies of all time. While the film centered on Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), the scene of Confederate casualties is one of the strongest statements about the reality of war ever put on film.


TENNESSEE JOHNSON (1942) In perhaps the most satisfactory adaptation of the life of a U.S. President, Van Heflin played Andrew Johnson as he rose from backwoods bond servant to President.


YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (1939) The story of Abraham Lincoln before he entered politics, this John Ford film did well re-creating the frontier life of the time. Henry Fonda made an appealing Lincoln.


ABRAHAM LINCOLN (1924) This popular silent film followed Abraham Lincoln’s life from boyhood through his assassination. Here the President (George A. Billings) consults General Grant (Walter Rogers). In 1930 D. W. Griffith made his much-better-known Abraham Lincoln , starring Walter Huston.


HEARTS IN BONDAGE (1936) The actor Lew Ayres directed this drama about lovers (James Dunn and Mae Clarke) on opposite sides during the conflict. Frank McGlynn, Sr., who was noted for his portrayals of Abraham Lincoln, did the part again; Irving Pichel played Gideon Weites.


ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS (1940) Issued the year after Young Mr. Lincoln, this production was not as successful. Robert E. Sherwood co-wrote the movie, based on his play.

“We had a council at Broken Bow. Red Cloud says the Indians will lay off the railroad, if the whites will lay off the Indians.” —Jeff Butler, UNION PACIFIC


THE GUN FIGHTER (1917) The silent film Westerns of William Hart presented a gritty, realistic look at a frontier life that had disappeared not so very long before. This feature was no exception: it eschews the traditional happy ending and has Hart die saving the heroine (Margery Wilson). Here is “the Killer” (Hart) ready to fight his rivals for the gold in Desert Pass.


IN OLD CHICAGO (1938) In a climactic twenty-minute sequence, the 1871 fire that destroyed Chicago was impressively re-created in an otherwise puerile movie.


THE ALAMO (1960) John Wayne produced, directed, and starred as Davy Crockett in this opulent, all but endless tribute to the 1836 siege.


UNION PACIFIC (1939) The rivalry between the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific during the construction of the first transcontinental railroad was the subject of this sprawling Cecil B. DeMille production. It’s an all-American story: you’d never know that thousands of Chinese laborers helped lay the tracks.


THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON (1941) Director Raoul Walsh’s biographical account of the life of Gen. George Armstrong Ouster, portrayed by Errol Flynn, is lively and utterly preposterous.


THE EMIGRANTS (1972) The Swedish director Jan Troell filmed this handsome pictorial drama about a couple (Liv Ullmann, Max von Sydow) who leave their farm in Sweden and bring their family to America; the family’s life on the Minnesota frontier is detailed in The New Land, the sequel of the same year.


THE GOLD RUSH (1925) One of Charlie Chaplin’s most famous comedies, it presented the Little Tramp as a prospector in the Yukon who is oppressed by the elements and a bully (Mack Swain).


CALAMITY JANE (1953) A musical-comedy look at the romance between Calamity Jane (Doris Day) and Wild Bill Hickok (Howard Keel). The lush fantasy is a long way from the Westerns of William Hart.


THE IRON HORSE (1924) A regiment of U.S. cavalry and some eight hundred Indians served as extras for this John Ford classic about the building of the first transcontinental railroad. The scenes are authentic enough that today stills occasionally crop up identified as 1869 photos of the real thing.


THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903) George S. Barnes firing his gun at the audience at the finale of this historic onereeler is one of the most famous scenes in cinema history. Not only did the film initiate the Western film genre, it was so accurate in detail that in the 1960s CBS News used it to show what happened in the famous British train robbery.

“I’m a Yankee Doodle dandy A Yankee Doodle do or die A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam’s Born on the Fourth of July.” — George M. Cohan, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY


YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942) One of the greatest of all screen musicals begins with George M. Cohan receiving a medal from Franklin Roosevelt but spends most of its time on the vaudeville stages of the century’s turn. James Cagney won an Academy Award for his energetic portrayal of Cohan.


THE FIRST AUTO (1927) The great Barney Oldfield played himself in this comedy-drama about an old fogy (Russell Simpson) who doesn’t want his son (Charles Emmett Mack) to become a race driver. Oldfield first appeared on screen in 1912 in Mack Sennett’s Barney Oldfield’s Race for Life.


EDISON THE MAN (1940) As Thomas Alva Edison, who is shown on screen inventing the Universal printer, the phonograph, and the incandescent lamp, Spencer Tracy gave a strong performance. The same year, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer also issued Young Tom Edison with Mickey Rooney as the youthful inventor.


THE STORY OF ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL (1939) The film was so effective that for years people joked that Don Ameche had invented the telephone, and for a while even said things such as, “You’re wanted on the Ameche.”


RAGTIME (1981) Promenaders walk along the beach in a film that—though full of such pretty turn-of-the-century scenes—was basically overblown and empty.


AMERICA, AMERICA (1963) Ela Kazan directed and wrote this saga, based on his 1962 novel, about a Greek youth (Stathis Giallelis) who flees Turkish oppression to come to America in 1896.

“Folks back home used to say I could shoot a rifle before I was weaned, but they was exaggerating some.” —Alvin York, SERGEANT YORK


SERGEANT YORK (1941) Looking for patriotic themes on the eve of World War II, Hollywood lit on the story of Alvin C. York’s single-handed capture of 132 Germans in the Argonne in 1918. The movie starred Gary Cooper.


WINGS (1927) The first movie to win an Academy Award, William Wellman’s feature contained harrowing air and ground battle sequences and a tedious friendship between two Air Corps pals (Buddy Rogers, Richard Arten) who fall for the same girl (Clara Bow).


THE FIGHTING 69TH (1940) The story of New York’s famous Irish regiment was a vehicle for the redoubtable Warner Brothers stable: James Cagney is a punk who turns war hero at the eleventh hour; Pat O’Brien is the priest who helps him.


THE BIG PARADE (1925) King Vidor directed this silent drama about American soldiers in World War I. It featured vast battle scenes and the romance between a doughboy (John Gilbert) and a French girl (Renée Adorée). It was considered a triumph when it appeared.


WHAT PRICE GLORY? (1926) Sanitized from the famously profane, immensely successful play, the movie veered between the rivalry of the soldiers Flagg (Victor McLaglen) and Quirk (Edmund Lowe) for Charmaine (Dolores Del Rio) and the business of war.

“Rich fellas come up, an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good, an’ they die out. But we keep a-comin’…. And we’ll go forever, Pa, ‘cause we’re the people.” — Ma Joad, THE GRAPES OF WRATH


THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940) The director John Ford turned Steinbeck’s powerful novel about the plight of the Okies into an equally powerful movie.


THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939) Frank McHugh and James Cagney in a faded, mechanical attempt by Warner Brothers to recapture the success of their stinging gangster movies of the early 1930s.


CITIZEN KANE (1941) Many people consider this thinly veiled cinematic biography of William Randolph Hearst the greatest American film ever made, and it is certainly the most enjoyable of the great films. The very young Orson Weites co-wrote, produced, directed, and starred.


THE GREAT GATSBY (1974) F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age novel, filmed previously in 1926 and 1949, was made into an opulent, empty feature about the romance between the gangster Jay Gatsby (Robert Redford) and the socialite Daisy Buchanan.


THE UNTOUCHABLES (1987) A popular television series came to the big screen in director Brian De Raima’s lavish film about the government agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) bloodily coping with Al Capone (Robert De Niro).


BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967) The glamorized exploits of the Depression-era killers Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) struck a chord with audiences of the 1960s. The film was at its best in recapturing the aura of the 1930s.

“Be seated. Now, I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” — George Patton, PATTON


BATAAN (1943) America’s defeat in the Philippines provided the background for a stirring tribute to the doomed defenders of Bataan.


SWING SHIFT (1984) The role of women on the home front is studied in this well-mounted, atmospheric account of several housewives who become factory workers during World War II.


PATTON (1970) George C. Scott won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., in a highly popular tribute to the theatrical general. Scott again played the military man in the television movie The Last Days of Patton (1986).


TORA! TORA! TORA! (1970) Filmed on location in Japan and Hawaii, this drama about Pearl Harbor, which tried to give both countries’ viewpoints, is better than its sour reviews suggested.


WAKE ISLAND (1942) Brian Donlevy, Robert Preston, Albert Dekker, and Walter Abel played four of the American soldiers who fought to hold Wake Island in the first days of the Pacific war.

“You’re about to write a story that says that the former Attorney General—the man who represented law in America—is a crook. Just be right, huh?” — Ben Bradlee, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN


ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976) The Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) set off on the trail of new leads in their investigation of the Watergate scandal. The film shows the reporters building their story day by day and makes use of news footage of people involved in the scandal.


THE RIGHT STUFF (1983) Based on Tom Wolfe’s book about test pilots and the early days of the space program, the movie offers highly realistic space-flight re-creations but makes the very curious and artistically inept choice of mocking the NASA scientists who made these flights possible. Dennis Quaid is pictured as one of the space pioneers.


APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) Francis Ford Coppola’s costly study of the Vietnam conflict was initially derided as pretentious and overwrought, but the movie’s reputation has been gaining in recent years.


THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT (1970) Campus unrest surrounding the Vietnam War was the topic of this production, which showed a coed (Kim Darby) changing a noncommitted student (Bruce Davison) into a radical.


MEDIUM COOL (1969) Haskell Wexler wrote, directed, photographed, and co-produced this semidocumentary feature about the riots outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The movie combines scenes of the actors at the convention site with news footage of the actual riots.


PLATOON (1986) The horrors of the Vietnam War, as seen through the eyes of an American soldier (Charlie Sheen). Based on the experiences of the film’s writer-director, Oliver Stone, the movie won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Editor, and Sound, but its plot is often hazy and hard to follow.

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