Weekend Roundtable: Favorite Movies About American History

Did everyone enjoy the fireworks on the Fourth of July? With the spirit of patriotism still in our blood, let’s look at some of our favorite movies about American history in today’s Roundtable.

M. Enois Duarte

Although not historically accurate (what movie ever is?), Michael Mann’s ‘The Last of the Mohicans‘ is one of my most beloved films about early American history. Set during the French and Indian War, the story is somewhat simple and even a bit on the mawkish side. But in the hands of Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti, this adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel is transformed into an epic sweeping romance that celebrates the natural beauty of this country and the wonder of its wilderness. I love that filmmakers show the story as the seeds of independence from British rule. It was in the following decade after the end of this war that the people of the colonies united for the first time as Americans and fought for their sovereignty. With inspiring music by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman, and the excellent editing of Dov Hoenig and Arthur Schmidt, Mann’s ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ is one of my favorite films to watch during Fourth of July week.

Brian Hoss

The genre-crossing ‘Patton‘ is a once-and-future classic that deftly presents its title character as an extraordinary anachronistic military legend. ‘Patton’ is one of a handful of movies that I can catch a few seconds of on TV, and find myself completely captivated. By sticking to Patton’s involvement with the Second World War, the bio-pic remains as enthralling as any war film, while at the same time presenting a classroom-appropriate narrative. Finally, the way the film manages to objectively present all the good and the bad notions from these episodes of Patton’s life define it as a great American history film.

Mike Attebery

All the President’s Men‘ is my favorite American history movie. It’s also my favorite movie about journalists and government conspiracies. The fact that the film is still as exciting today, more than 36 years after its release, and even after we finally learned the true identity of Deep Throat, says much about the power of star presence, excellent writing, strong direction and a good story. This is a great movie.

Aaron Peck

I have to go with ‘Glory‘ here. Edward Zwick’s masterful Civil War epic is a celebration of the American spirit, but it achieves that goal by being a very realistic and even brutal depiction of a terrible time in America’s past. Much of the film’s success can be laid at the feet of its outstanding ensemble cast. Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington and Matthew Broderick all have extensive cinematic careers, but ‘Glory’ is still a highlight for each. Actually, I’m partial to just about anything Civil War-related. (‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’ comes in a close second.)

Tom Landy

As the resident Canadian here, I was planning to bend the rules this time around just a little by going with a historical Canadian film, since Canada Day was on July 1st. Unfortunately, my plan was foiled when I came to the realization that we really don’t have any movies that fit that profile – or at least any good ones, anyway. That’s pretty sad, so somebody needs to make one.

Josh Zyber

Ang Lee’s Civil War drama ‘Ride with the Devil‘ was not particularly popular at its time of release (1999) and has been largely forgotten since. I went into this movie with very low expectations (all of the publicity highlighted the presence of annoying folk singer Jewel in a small supporting role), but came out loving it. The film takes the rare approach of viewing the Civil War from the Southern perspective, as a pair of young kids who’ve barely entered manhood (Tobey Maguire and Skeet Ulrich, both far better here than usual) join a band of Bushwhackers to fight against the so-called Northern Aggression. As the war drags on, their disillusionment with their cause grows, and it becomes clear that they are less professional soldiers than a loose band of thieves and murderers. The most interesting character in the piece is a former slave (Jeffrey Wright) who fights for the South for complex reasons that aren’t initially clear. The story is a fascinating character drama that provides a unique look at race relations in the era.

Honorable mentions to ‘Gettysburg‘ for its valiant attempt at historical accuracy (minus those terrible fake beards) and ‘Gone with the Wind‘ for its wholly entertaining epic melodrama.

Give us your picks for best movies about American history in the Comments.


  1. Alex

    I love Thirteen Days (in spite of Costner’s accent). Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp are superb as the Kennedys and the whole movie nail-bitingly tense even though you know the world isn’t really going to blow up at the end. That’s what a great historical movie can do: bring out the intensity and drama from real events even though the ending is a foregone conclusion.

    I’m also a big fan of The Patriot. Not particularly historically accurate, but I dig Tom Wilkinson as General Cornwallis and it’s the only movie I’ve seen that gets the brutality of cannonball warfare correct.

  2. Gettysburg and Saving Private Ryan, nothing comes close to those two IMO, but of course I havent seen a few classics to compare (like Platoon, Glory and Apocalypse Now)

  3. Alex

    Does it seem peculiar that, excepting “All the President’s Men”, all of our favorite “history” movies are about war?

  4. EM

    I’m going to go with Good Night, and Good Luck, George Clooney’s retelling of Edward Murrow’s fight of words and ideas against Senator Joe McCarthy. The story serves as a cautionary tale for all generations; and it’s well told here, with crisp writing and excellent performances.

  5. Jason

    Buster Keaton’s The General. Growing up just outside of Kennesaw, Georgia and loving trains this comedy of the great train chase of the civil war has always been a favorite.

  6. Scott Hunvald

    I’m going to go with The Thin Red Line, such an amazing cast and how it focuses on the people involved in the war and how it affects them personally. And you can’t forget the cinematography on that film.

    • Yeah thats one of the most boring movies I’ve ever seen, fell asleep when I tried to watch it the first time, never came back to it, but to each their own 🙂

      • Ah, well, I fell asleep when I tried to watch “Back to the Future” the first time and it became my favourite movie ever after a second try. So do give “The Thin Red Line” another chance!

        • Will have to, i usually do, just hard to find time to go back and watch something I already didnt care for, someday I’ll get around to it 🙂

  7. I’ve said it before on these boards, but I consider “The Godfather” to be one of the best movies about (a small piece of) American history. True, it’s about ‘Italian’ Americans (“You’re an immigrant too” dixit Jack White), but you can’t deny the strong “land of possibilities”-nature it embraces, but not glorifies. “I believe in America”, that first line says it all. “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere” … if you have the strength, courage, perseverance and (sometimes) the talent. Extra points for the similarities with Coppola’s own career and struggles, be it in a different field of work.

  8. hurin

    Birth of a Nation. You don’t have to agree with its message to see it’s a brilliant movie.

  9. Shannon Nutt

    JFK is mostly faux-history, but it’s a hell of a well-made film. I agree with Alex about Thirteen Days – really, really underrated (probably deserved a few Oscar nods).

    And, of course, let’s not forget Spielberg’s fantastic Saving Private Ryan.

  10. lordbowler

    I have to say a favorite film of mine is:

    The Battle of The Bulge.

    Also (Honorable Mentions):
    The Longest Day.
    A Bridge Too Far

    And a new film that deserves some credit:
    Act of Valor.

  11. August Lehe

    Sorry to come late to the party, but I would have to pick Birth of a Nation, The General, All Quiet on the Western Front, Sergeant York, Yankee Doodle Dandy and Glory….Several of these I did not appreciate until the second or third viewing and a few extra years.