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History in the (Movie) Making – Eight Movies that Are Based in American History

I can see it now—the middle school history teacher wheels in the big, clunky TV-on-a-cart, turns the lights off and starts a film about the Civil War. Because this time, we’re not reading about the Battle of Gettysburg, the Emancipation Proclamation or Abraham Lincoln; we’re watching history unfold on the screen.

Granted, a history book will probably give you a more accurate depiction of American history. But sometimes, a movie can be a fun way to give ourselves a visual understanding of the events that shaped this country. And let’s be honest: History books aren’t always the most captivating of storytellers.

At the very least, it seems our society still has a fascination with history—provided the subject matter can be broken down into a movie that’s less than three hours long and embellishes the facts just enough to keep the plot engaging. We’d rather watch Alexander Hamilton sing about his extensive writings than read them (to be fair, some of those documents might take longer to read than it takes to watch the musical). We’d rather our movies be “based on a true story” than follow the story exactly, since real life usually doesn’t have such bow-tied conclusions.

Movies take what feels like distant history and present it in an easy-to-understand way. So, even though they can’t present events perfectly, such films may be interesting enough to convince the viewer to look up the actual history behind them. And given that the Fourth of July is around the corner, many of us are thinking about our nation’s place in history a little more deeply right about now.

With that in mind, we’ve compiled eight films that just may spark an interest in further learning and studying about some important (both good and bad) moments in American history.

Of course, covering every important event would leave us with a list of films longer than the entire Federalist Papers collection, so this list is by no means exhaustive. And because history itself can be violent and bloody and downright disturbing, some movies that land on the list are not what you’d call family friendly. What we have done is made sure that Plugged In has reviewed each movie on this list, so make sure to check out our reviews on these films to make sure they’re right for your family.

And when you’re done, let us know what your favorite era of United States history is! What historically based movies would you recommend for others to watch?

The Revolutionary War – The Patriot – R, 2000

All right, we recognize that The Patriot falls far deeper into historical fiction than fact. It’s also got quite a bit of blood and gore, so we also have to warn against that. But if we’re being honest, the options for Revolutionary War films are slim, so we don’t have many films to choose from that dive into the Revolutionary period. But we cannot ignore this time period when talking about American history, as it ushered in not only formative ideas for our new country but also inspired change and ideas in other parts of the world, too—ideas that still impact our world today.

In The Patriot, Benjamin Martin, a veteran of the French and Indian War, longs for a peaceful life as a farmer. But when the tumultuous relationship between the colonies and the British begins to affect his family, he decides to take up arms with the Continental Army hoping to protect all those he cares for.

(The Patriot may be streamed on Tubi for free or rented from a variety of outlets.)

Slavery in America – 12 Years a Slave – R, 2013

It’s easy to see the central justification the 13 colonies used when Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence: They felt that their God-given rights had been abused and ignored by England.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Earlier, it was expressed that the people of the colonies desired to “assume…the separate and equal station to which…God entitle[s] them.

It is a tragedy that such a monumentous document about the inherent rights of men did not also immediately eradicate slavery in the United States forever. As such, that horrific irony remains a painful reminder of our past, a red-stained hypocrisy against a nation that so deeply valued God’s inherent value in men.

And few films show that stain in as poignant a manner as 12 Years a Slave. It’s the most difficult watch on this list, bar none. It tells the story of Solomon Northup, a Black man who, in 1841, is kidnapped and sold into slavery for 12 years. And as Solomon experiences the worst of humanity, the camera doesn’t look away, showing viewers the total depravity of man. This is a film you should approach with the upmost caution: What you see on screen is brutal. But it just might cause the viewer to mourn that such atrocities are on the screen because they were first in the United States.

(12 Years a Slave is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video with a subscription.)

Civil War – Lincoln – PG-13, 2012

It was perhaps inevitable that the Civil War would break out in the United States. The issue of slavery had been the country’s biggest moral debate since its inception. Many in the South, given that its economy was heavily dependent on slavery, were willing to fight to the death for it. And when Abraham Lincoln, whom South Carolina perceived as a threat to the institution, was elected president, it was the straw that broke the now-Confederate States’ back.

By the time we get to 1865, the year Lincoln is set, the deadliest American war still rages. Abraham Lincoln is at an impasse, because he desperately wants the Civil War to end—something that a weary South wants, too. The only stipulation the South has is that slavery remains legal, and that’s something that Lincoln, who’s looking to pass the 13th Amendment to officially do away with the horrible practice forever, cannot abide.

“It’s either the Amendment or this Confederate peace,” William Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, tells him. “You cannot have both.” Lincoln, for which star Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar, is a moving depiction of arguably America’s greatest president at the nation’s greatest crossroads.

(Lincoln can be viewed on Hulu.)

The Great Depression – Cinderella Man – PG-13, 2005

And now, let’s take a sizable jump from the 1860s to the 1930s. We’ve just passed 1918 and what was then called the Great War (let’s hope there’s not another!), a war whose movies are mostly told from the perspective of the British or the Germans. We’ve soared past the Roaring 20s and straight into the Dirty 30s—where economic depression and the Dust Bowl ravaged the country.

One such man who is struggling is Cinderella Man’s Jim Braddock, a man who lived the good life as a boxer in the 1920s before being forced into retirement due to an injury near the start of the country’s worst economic disaster. Now, he and countless other Americans are struggling to afford even the basic necessities. And that’s when Jim gets a lucky break that just might reignite his boxing career—so long as he can get his wife, Mae, behind it too.

Jim and Mae remain steadfast parents who teach their children that right and wrong don’t change just because times get tougher. The film’s tough times, however, do include some violence and quite a bit of swearing, so families will want to consider those issues before looking into this one.

(Cinderella Man may be rented or purchased from a variety of different outlets.)

World War II – Greyhound – PG-13, 2020

It took just over two decades for the world to descend back into yet another worldwide conflict following Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. But it wasn’t until Dec. 7, 1941, that the United States joined the war following Japan’s surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor. That sets the stage for Greyhound, the decidedly less violent World War II film to the obvious choices of Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge.

In 1942, Captain Ernest Krause leads a small pack of destroyers across the Atlantic Ocean, looking to deliver supplies to the Allies in the European conflict. Standing (or rather, floating) in his way are a pack of deadly German U-Boats—submarines hoping to sink any ship that even thinks about assisting the Allies. And though each U-Boat sunk might just be a boon to the Allies, to the God-fearing Ernest, it’s also a somber understanding of the many men on that U-Boat who may be dying in their sins.

Greyhound may not be the first World War II film that pops into your head. It’s certainly violent, as viewers should expect any war movie to be. But its positive themes and emphasis on Christianity might just make it worth a watch.

(Greyhound can be viewed on Apple TV+.)

The Civil Rights Movement – Selma – PG-13, 2014

Sure, Lincoln may have depicted the passage of the 13th Amendment, officially making slavery illegal in the United States. But just because the physical chains were broken doesn’t mean that the societal ones were. In the 1960s, racial segregation and discrimination remains—because apparently, people still can’t understand that whole “made in the image of God” thing. And so though African Americans may have the right to vote, they’ll have a tough time convincing racists to not exploit loopholes that’ll deny them the ability to do so.

A case study of this lands us in Dallas County, Alabama, where less than 1% of its Black citizens are registered to vote despite making up 57% of the county. And in the town of Selma, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. arrives with his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, hoping to spark the change to which the county’s been so resistant. They’ll march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama’s capital—no matter how violent the resistance gets—in what will later become known as one of the most pivotal moments in the Civil Rights movement.

(Selma is available on Amazon Prime Video, Paramount+ and the Roku Channel.)

The Cold War – Bridge of Spies – PG-13, 2015

Sure, the Soviet Union and the United States may have fought against Germany together in World War II, but that doesn’t mean they thought the same. In fact, their respective ideologies were so different that the defeat of the Axis powers only opened the door for the two countries to enter into the Cold War, a period of tension in which many felt it was only a matter of time before the war turned hot—and potentially nuclear.

The thick tension is deeply felt in Bridge of Spies. In it, the lawyer James Donovan is tapped to represent Rudolf Abel, a man who stands trial for being a Soviet spy. And though James doesn’t particularly think himself appropriate for the case, he’s also of the mindset that everyone deserves a fair trial and a defense. It’s difficult for James. It’s awkward, and it’ll get him threats from those who suspect his fair defense of the man to be evidence of his own political leanings. Despite its profane moments, that’s what makes Bridge of Spies a strong pick to represent this era.

(Bridge of Spies may be watched on Hulu or Paramount+ with the Showtime addition.)

The Moon Landing – First Man – PG-13, 2018

But let’s back up in history a bit, since we’ll need some context to understand our 1969 moon landing. After World War II and throughout the Cold War, the United States was likewise engaged in a “space race” with the Soviet Union, each hoping to outdo the other as the countries began to explore the final frontier. It was ultimately the United States, however, that first succeeded at putting a man on the moon—Neil Armstrong, who gave his famous quote “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

In First Man, we’ll see all that led up to Armstrong’s lunar expedition; the successes, the failures, the fatalities. The whole venture is such a crazy prospect that it may not even be possible—after all, the Wright brothers only figured out the airplane just over half a century earlier, and now we’re trying to shoot for the moon? Well, history shows that such a leap and a bound was possible—and Armstrong’s footprints are still there to prove it.

(First Man is available to stream on Hulu.)

Kennedy Unthank

Kennedy Unthank studied journalism at the University of Missouri. He knew he wanted to write for a living when he won a contest for “best fantasy story” while in the 4th grade. What he didn’t know at the time, however, was that he was the only person to submit a story. Regardless, the seed was planted. Kennedy collects and plays board games in his free time, and he loves to talk about biblical apologetics. He thinks the ending of Lost “wasn’t that bad.”

4 Responses

  1. -Here’s another great suggestion: “Hacksaw Ridge”, starring Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss, a medic during WW2.

    1. -That’s a fantastic movie that I never want to see again because of the level of gore. I absolutely think it should have been rated NC-17 (and I could make an argument for The Passion as well), but it was an excellent movie. Pfc. Desmond Doss, Medal of Honor recipient and conscientious objector, is an incredible person from what I know of him.

  2. -“This is not a film you should approach with the upmost caution”

    I think that might be a typo.

    “This is a film you should approach with the utmost caution.”