From wartime epics to period romances, any true history lover needs to add the best historical movies ever made to their watch list.
The Best Historical Movies:
12 Years A Slave
Based on the 1853 memoir of the same name, 12 Years A Slave tells the story of Solomon Northup, a black American who was born free in New York before being abducted by kidnappers who sold him into slavery in the Deep South, after which he spent 12 years in bondage before eventually gaining his freedom via the legal system. Fox Searchlight
Set during the Holocaust, Schindler's List tells the story of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who used his connections to save 1,200 Jews from Nazi concentration camps. Universal Pictures
A haunting look at a fictional Holocaust survivor, Sophie's Choice recounts the tale of a woman trying to move on with her life after being forced to choose which of her two children would live and which would die at the Nazis' Auschwitz concentration camp.Universal Pictures
Braveheart tells the story of William Wallace, a Scottish knight who became one of the main leaders during the Wars of Scottish Independence. Though the movie has been criticized for its many historical inaccuracies, it does include many factual elements, no matter how unbelievably brutal they may seem, including a scene showing the practice of defenestration, a real Medieval punishment.
Saving Private Ryan
Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan consistently ranks as one of the greatest historical movies and is widely considered the best war movie. The story follows a group of U.S. World War II servicemen who land on Normandy beach and must then rescue Private Ryan, a paratrooper whose three brothers have already died in the war, causing authorities to mandate his return home. DreamWorks Pictures
Rather than attempt to tell his entire story,
Lincoln focuses on the final four months of the life of President Abraham Lincoln, including his efforts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment in order to abolish slavery.20th Century Fox
The French film Joyeux Noel depicts the World War I Christmas truce through the eyes of French, British, and German soldiers. The film shows how on Christmas Day, 1914, opposing troops along the Western front were able to create informal truces where they left their trenches to interact with enemy soldiers for one peaceful day amidst the madness of war. Sony Pictures Classics
All The President's Men
This political thriller tells the true story of journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, reporters working at The Washington Post who helped break the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon in the mid-1970s. Warner Bros.
Bonnie And Clyde
This 1967 film recounts the lives of iconic 1930s gangsters Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker who, as a couple, traveled the central United States during the Great Depression, robbing people and killing when cornered or confronted, until they were shot to death in a standoff with police.Warner Bros.-Seven Arts
This revealing biopic depicts both the personal and creative struggles and triumphs of celebrated Mexican surrealist painter Frida Kahlo.Miramax Films
Glory recounts the history of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the first African-American regiment organized in the Northern states during the American Civil War. The film is based on the correspondence of Robert Gould Shaw, a White officer who led the unit, and follows the regiment’s numerous wartime victories. TriStar Pictures
This film tells the story of NASA's Apollo 13 mission in 1970, which sought to land men on the moon. But when an oxygen tank exploded two days into the journey, crew members had to forget about the moon and instead figure out a way to survive and make it back home.Universal Pictures
Gangs Of New York
Set in New York City in 1863, Gangs Of New York follows the fictional Amsterdam Vallon, the son of the fictional Priest Vallon, leader of the actual Irish Catholic “Dead Rabbits” gang, in his journey to avenge his father’s death at the hands of a fictionalized version of William "Bill the Butcher" Poole, the leader of an actual Nativist gang. Miramax
Based on the early years of the titular English queen's reign, Elizabeth presents the story of the famed monarch's rise to power and her defense of her country from threats both foreign and domestic.Gramercy Pictures
In 1839, a group of African slaves successfully staged a revolt aboard their transport ship La Amistad. This film follows the court case during which, after this vessel landed on American soil, those who'd staged the revolt had to defend themselves from charges of piracy and argue to be recognized as free men.DreamWorks Pictures
Gladiator tells the story of the fictional Roman general Maximus Decimus Meridius, who is enslaved and made to fight as a gladiator thanks to the murderous treachery of the real Roman emperor Commodus. Meridius must then work his way up the ranks of the gladiators to eventually take revenge on Commodus.DreamWorks Pictures
This film explores the life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in his struggle against the British colonial rule of his home country, India. Gandhi tells virtually the man's entire story, from the defining moment when he was thrown off of a South African train for being in a whites-only compartment in 1893, to his assassination in 1948. Columbia Pictures
The Great Debaters
This film is based on the true story of the debate team led by Melvin B. Tolson at the historically Black Wiley College that, in the 1930s, challenged, and beat, the largest and most prominent White colleges’ debate teams during the height of Jim Crow. The Weinstein Company
The classic 1959 blockbuster epic Ben-Hur tells the story of the fictional Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince who becomes a chariot racer when he is enslaved by the Romans. Ben-Hur’s tale of betrayal, conviction, and redemption is set alongside the story of the biblical Jesus, and the two even meet at a critical juncture in the film. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Patton tells the story of larger-than-life U.S. General George S. Patton, who made his mark on history with his leadership during World War II.20th Century Fox
Featuring a combination of both fictional characters and fictionalized versions of real people, Suffragette lays bare the struggle that several brave activists endured in their quest to win British women the right to vote in the 1910s.Pathé
Black Hawk Down
Black Hawk Down chronicles the events of a 1993 raid in war-torn Mogadishu, Somalia by the U.S. Military that intended to capture armed militia faction leader Mohamed Farrah Aidid.Columbia Pictures
Born On The Fourth Of July
This film tells the true story of Ron Kovic’s time serving as a soldier in the Vietnam War, as well as his tumultuous return to American society afterward.Universal Pictures
Set during the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, this film tells the true story of hotelier Paul Rusesabagina who hid and protected 1,268 Hutu and Tutsi refugees from violent militias.United Artists/Lionsgate
The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford
This modern Western, set in the late 1800s, details the relationship between Robert Ford and Jesse James. Ford, who's idolized Jesse James, a famed Missouri outlaw, since childhood, tries hard to join James’ reformed gang, but gradually becomes resentful of the bandit leader. Warner Bros.
JFK tells the story of real New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, who filed charges alleging that New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw was behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Through this court case, the film delves into the mysteries surrounding the assassination. Warner Bros.
Lawrence Of Arabia
This classic epic tells the tale of T. E. Lawrence, a British military officer and diplomat stationed across the Middle East, in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, during World War I. Lawrence helped create the Arab National Council, a group of Arab tribes that banded together to successfully rebel against the Ottoman Empire, who had ruled their lands for more than 400 years. Columbia Pictures
Letters From Iwo Jima
This joint Japanese and American film shows the Battle of Iwo Jima from the perspective of the members of the Imperial Japanese Army who fought the American military there during WWII. The film is a companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers, another film depicting the battle from the American perspective.Warner Bros.
Milk tells the story of Harvey Milk, a politician who became the first openly gay elected official in the history of California when he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The movie follows the life of this iconic figure of
LGBT history.Focus Features
Focusing on the days after her husband's assassination in 1963, this film shows how former first lady Jackie Kennedy managed to move on in the wake of such an historic tragedy.Fox Searchlight
This crime thriller tells a fictionalized version of the FBI’s investigation into the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, three Civil Rights activists who were killed in Neshoba County, Mississippi in 1964. In their investigation, the police must contend with hostility and a backlash from the town's residents, local police and the Ku Klux Klan.Orion Pictures
After a Palestinian terrorist group killed 11 Israeli athletes during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany, the Israeli government launched a covert operation to retaliate against those who perpetrated the attacks. This films tells that harrowing story.Universal Pictures
This film tells the fictional story of Jack and Rose, two star-crossed lovers who meet aboard the historical vessel the RMS Titanic before its demise after hitting an iceberg in 1912.Paramount Pictures
Spartacus tells the story of the historical titular figure, a Thracian gladiator who led a group of slave-gladiators to rebel against their masters in the Third Servile War, the last in a series of major slave rebellions in Ancient Rome. Universal International
Kingdom Of Heaven
This movie portrays a fictionalized version of the life of Balian of Ibelin, a noble from the Western-occupied Crusader nation, the Kingdom of Jerusalem. When the Ayyubid Sultanate, led by the Sultan Saladin, sought to retake Jerusalem through a siege, Balian led the occupying force to hold out for three days before ultimately surrendering. 20th Century Fox
The King’s Speech
This British film recounts the efforts of King George VI, working with a speech therapist, to rectify his stutter when he became king in 1936 after his brother, Edward VIII, abdicated the throne following his proposal to a divorced woman. This allows George VI to deliver rousing radio addresses during WWII, which broke out a few years after his coronation. Momentum Pictures
The Iron Lady
An unflinching portrayal of the life and career of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, The Iron Lady traces the controversial ruler's rise to power and her struggles at the top.The Weinstein Company
In The Patriot, fictional farmer Benjamin Martin is driven to lead the Colonial Militia during the American Revolution when a sadistic British officer murders his son. The film then follows Martin’s wartime career, eventually culminating in his pivotal role in winning the actual Battle of Cowpens in South Carolina. Columbia Pictures
The award-winning German film Das Boot delves into the claustrophobic world of life aboard a World
War 2 German U-boat, exploring the boredom, filth, and sheer terror experienced by its crew. Neue Constantin Film
Set during the American Civil War, this film follows the fictional W. P. Inman, a wounded deserter from the Confederate Army near the end of the war who walks for months to return to Ada Monroe, the love of his life, in North Carolina. Miramax Films
Master And Commander
Set during the Napoleonic Wars, this film focuses on the fictional Jack Aubrey, a brash British captain who pushes his ship and crew to their limits in pursuit of a formidable French war vessel around South America.20th Century Fox
Adapted from a popular play, Amadeus is a film about the purported rivalry between Italian composer Antonio Salieri and his younger nemesis,
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.Orion Pictures
The Last Of The Mohicans
Set during the French and Indian War in Colonial America, this film tells the story of three trappers, one British, one a white man adopted by the Native American Mohican tribe, and the last a Mohican, who must protect a British colonel's daughter and bring her to her father in the Adirondack Mountains.20th Century Fox
While documentaries may be the most accurate way to understand history through film, often the best way to capture the true emotional weight of historical events is to portray them dramatically.
For millennia, humans have been setting their dramas in the past in order to show people how past events shape their lives in the present. And, from the dramas of Shakespeare to the best historical movies of the modern era, most of us feel truly connected to the past by immersing ourselves in fictionalized stories more so than straightforward factual reports.
Today, many of the greatest history movies become major blockbusters and/or critics' favorites. Whether they depict real historical figures and events or present fictional stories set against the backdrop of certain historical moments, these movies speak to audiences the world over like few others.
From war movies to biopics and beyond, you'll find some of the best historical movies ever made in the gallery above.
After this look at the best historical movies, check out these fantastic behind-the-scenes photos from some of the world's most iconic films and learn the true story of Wladyslaw Szpilman and The Pianist.