The 10 best historical movies ever made

Understanding the past helps us better understand the present. The 10 historical movies on this list will help you do just that.

Winston Churchill famously stated: “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” By studying historical events, one can learn about humanity and have a deeper understanding of current events. A great way to be fully immersed in another time period and perspective is by watching historical movies.

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Films steeped in rich history engage their audiences and educate them about the clothes, language, setting, sounds, and tone of time period in question. They can help viewers understand a well-known figure’s inner life or tell an untold story that the history books might have missed. Historical films are unique in that they allow one to imagine what it would be like to live in another time and place. As an added bonus, you don’t have to feel guilty about spending too much time in front of the TV, because you’re actually learning something.

Here are the 10 best historical movies of all time, any of which you can dive into when you’re in the mood to travel back in time or simply learn something new about who we are and where we come from.

Apollo 13

This historical movie tells the story of the 1970 Apollo 13 lunar mission. This was America’s fifth crewed mission to the moon and was supposed to be the third to land. When an on-board explosion occurs and limits the crew’s oxygen and power, the mission’s objectives quickly change from scientific to survival for astronauts Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon), and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton). The Ron Howard-directed film also stars Ed Harris as Gene Kranz and Gary Sinise as Ken Mattingly Hamilton. It won Academy Awards for Best Sound and Best Editing and is available to rent on Amazon Prime.

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Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane is widely considered one of the best movies ever made. It centers around reporter Jerry Thompson, who gets the assignment to discover what ostentatiously rich newspaper publisher and businessman Charles Foster Kane’s last word “rosebud’ means. Through a series of interviews conducted by Thompson, we learn about Kane’s rise to power and financial success. Kane is a fictional character but is believed to be based on real life publisher and businessman William Randolph Hearst Sr. Similarities between Kane and Hearst include their attempts to help get the women in their lives secured in show business.

Kane tries to make his second wife, Susan Alexander, an opera star while Hearst tries to make his mistress, Marion Davies, a dramatic actress. Orson Welles not only stars as Charles Foster Kane but also directed, produced, and co-wrote the screenplay. In 1989, the Library of Congress chose Citizen Kane to be a part of the first group of films on the new National Film Registry, which was created to preserve “culturally, historically or esthetically significant” movies. It’s available to stream on HBO Max.

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12 Years A Slave

Steve McQueen’s 2013 film 12 Years A Slave is based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir of the same name. It tells the horrific and heartbreaking true story of when Northup’s life as a free African American man was stolen from him when he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. For 12 years, Northup lived as a slave named Platt in the South. The film is a difficult but important one to watch. It won multiple Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Writing – Adapted Screenplay, and Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role for Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey. Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Solomon Northup in this historical movie, which can be streamed on HBO Max. 

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Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima

These two historical films directed by Clint Eastwood tell the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima during World War II. Flags of Our Fathers tells the story from the perspective of the American soldiers while Letters from Iwo Jima tells it from the Japanese soldier’s side. Audiences will recognize Ryan Phillippe as John “Doc” Bradley in Flag of Our Fathers. In Letters from Iwo Jima, Ken Watanabe stars as General Kuribayashi. You can stream Flag of Our Fathers by renting it on Apple TV or Amazon. Letters from Iwo Jima is currently streaming for free on the Roku Channel.

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The Queen

Helen Mirren portrays Queen Elizabeth II in this 2006 historical drama. It tells the more contemporary history of the period of time after Princess Diana’s death in 1997. Partly because of Diana’s strained relationship with and status in the Royal family, they wished to mourn her death privately. The British public along with Prime Minister Tony Blair (played by Michael Sheen) disagreed with these wishes, wanting to share in their grief. Mirren won the Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for her portrayal. The Queen can currently be streamed on HBO Max.

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Malcolm X

Spike Lee’s biographical film tells the story of Nation of Islam leader and human and civil rights activist Malcolm X. Denzel Washington stars as the title character in this epic film, which follows Malcolm from his childhood in rural Michigan when he went by the name Malcolm Little all the way to his death by assassination in Harlem, New York. It’s based on Alex Haley’s 1965 book The Autobiography of Malcolm X and was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress in the National Film Registry in 2010. It can currently be streamed on HBO Max.

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This historical film directed by Sam Mendes was inspired by stories his grandfather, writer Alfred Mendes, told Sam about his service in World War I. With communications down, British soldiers Will Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are given orders by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to get a message to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) to call off a planned attack. The Germans only appear to be retreating but are in fact laying a trap for the British army. Cinematographer Roger Deakins and editor Lee Smith create the beautiful visual style of the movie being made to appear as two continuous shots. This film won 3 Academy Awards for Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, and Best Sound Mixing. It’s available for purchase on Apple TV and will be available to rent on April 30, 2022.

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Queen Elizabeth’s ascent to the throne and her early reign are the subjects of the 1998 film Elizabeth. When Catholic Queen Mary dies, her protestant half-sister Elizabeth becomes Queen. Religious tensions between Protestants and Catholics in England and the noble’s desires to see Elizabeth married create tension in her rule. Cate Blanchett stars in the title role and Shekhar Kapur directs. Blanchett’s work as Queen Elizabeth was critically acclaimed and helped her win widespread international recognition. Elizabeth won the Academy Award for Best Makeup and is available to stream on Netflix.

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Empire of the Sun

Empire of the Sun is a coming-of-age story set during World War II. It follows young Brit Jamie “Jim” Graham as he goes from a privileged wealthy kid in Shanghai to a prisoner of war at a Japanese internment camp. The film stars a thirteen-year-old Christian Bale as Jim in his astonishing breakout role. He’s truly a delight to watch. The screenplay was written by Tom Stoppard and was directed by Steven Spielberg. Empire of the Sun is available to stream on HBO Max.

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Schindler’s List

Schindler’s List is another important but hard to watch historical film. It has an all-star creative team including director Steven Speilberg, cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, and composer John Williams. It tells the story of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who originally moves to Poland to take advantage of cheap Jewish labor and make himself rich. Once there, he risks everything to save his Jewish workers from certain death in concentration camps through his munition factory during the Holocaust. Liam Neeson stars as Oskar Schindler, Ben Kingsley as Itzhak Stern, and Ralph Fiennes as Amon Göth. This historical Holocaust film won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing, and Best Cinematography. It’s available to rent on Amazon Prime and Apple TV.

See on Apple TV+ and Prime Video

Learning something new is always worthwhile, and watching the historical films on this list will help you do just that.

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Shannon Cudd
Shannon is a passionate writer and actor from sunny Southern California with a degree in Theater from Chapman University who believes in the power of storytelling to make this world a better place. Beyond being a freelance writer for WGTC her byline has appeared in the OC Register, KnockLA, LittleThings, Inside Hook, and more. Her love of all things nerdy is fueled by decaf Earl Gray Tea. Follow her on social media @MsShannonCudd or check out her website at www.ShannonCudd.com