10 Movies That American History Buffs Love

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January 27th, 2011

Plenty of individuals who don’t necessarily study history still nurture a love of the subject, with many focusing mainly on that of the United States. In spite of its relative youth when compared to its myriad predecessors, the country boasts a rich, multicultural past packed with triumph, tragedy, victory and some world-shatteringly egregious mistakes. Creative types from all mediums flock to the field, finding inspiration in the millions of interconnected narratives available for consideration. After all, many movies crop up every year boasting their "based on a true story" status.

Most films, even those hewing closely to real events and people, still end up dramatizing stories to some degree. This list does not pretend to hold the following movies up as completely accurate depictions. They’re not, but that doesn’t mean they have nothing to offer. And please take no offense to any inclusions or exclusions. It’s just an internet list, meant for a bit of fun. Nothing to be taken so seriously a massive debate ensues.

  1. Sergeant York (1941): This highly regarded film by Howards Hawks and starring Gary Cooper tells the story of the very real Sgt. Alvin York. In spite of his pacifist viewpoints, the rural Tennessean still ends up drafted to fight in World War I, eventually becoming the most highly-decorated American soldier of the conflict. His Christianity and politics greatly conflict with his astonishing skills with firearms, and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive challenges him to follow orders while simultaneously killing as few Germans as possible. The Sergeant himself even offered up his diary for adaptation after much badgering from the staff, but some inaccuracies still slipped through, especially in regards to his religion and family life. All the same, though, the film still landed two Academy Awards (for Best Actor and Best Film Editing), nine nominations in other categories and entered into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2008.

  2. To Hell and Back (1955): Although Major Audie Murphy insisted on casting Tony Curtis, he still ended up playing himself in the cinematic adaptation of his own (ghostwritten by David McClure) bestselling autobiography. During World War II, he felt compelled to enlist in the Army in spite of his slender stature. Promotions and a Medal of Honor followed his extensive service on the Western Front. The film itself, directed by Jesse Hibbs, runs from Murphy’s early, failed attempts to join either the Marines or the Army as a paratrooper all the way to his Medal of Honor ceremony. In between, he forges some deep friendships with his fellow soldiers and proves himself a fighter of great strength, fortitude and a willingness to risk everything (including death) for the sake of victory.

  3. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969): Like most adaptations of real events and people, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid played very loosely with the source material. Unlike countless others, though, this classic by director George Roy Hill, legendary screenwriter William Goldman and stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford actually spins an incredibly compelling, enjoyable, artistic yarn. The film landed plenty of awards and considerable acclaim from critics and audiences alike for its humor and engaging action. And for the American history buffs out there, still offered them plenty of interesting content for discussion. After all, it takes place during one of the nation’s most turbulent eras, where industrialization and imperialism characterized its westward swelling. Those responsible for the fantastic film allowed the setting to grow into a viable character itself.

  4. Patton (1970): Even those who never saw Frank McCarthy’s Patton, with George C. Scott as the eponymous general, still recognize its oft-parodied, oft-referenced opening speech. It landed a plethora of honors (including the Academy Award for Best Picture) for its heavy portrayal of incredibly dark moments in World War II. Patton stood at the forefront of some of America’s more successful battles, but still garnered some controversy for his rather gruff — if not outright cruel — treatment of soldiers. Because his family understandably did not wish to fork over his private correspondence and diaries, screenwriters Edmund H. North and Francis Ford Coppola turned towards a few of his more notable biographies to piece the story together.

  5. The Right Stuff (1983): Writer Tom Wolfe penned The Right Stuff in 1979, relating the exciting true story of astronauts training for NASA’s very first manned spaceflight. Though it unsurprisingly took some creative liberties with the original story, audiences and critics embraced the film’s portrayal of a truly exciting moment in science, technology and American history. Director Philip Kaufman even inserted actual archival footage of the era’s most notable names — including Ed Sullivan, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Nikita Khrushchev — for added context and verisimilitude. Viewers are transported to Edwards Air Force Base to watch dramatizations of such household names as John Glenn and Alan Shepard prepare themselves for the life-threatening, yet amazing, voyage into a (then) completely new frontier.

  6. Glory (1989): Civil War aficionados know that the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was one of the very first fully African-American units in the United States. Edward Zwick’s Glory adapts their historic tale, slowly allowing the narrative to unfold and reflect the political and social climate at the time. Under the tutelage of Captain Robert Gould Shaw, the company grew in spite of many criticisms both within and without the military. The film builds towards the regiment’s failed attempt at capturing Fort Wagner, which actually led to a pivotal moment for the Union Army. Inspired by the sacrifice of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, thousands of African-American men enlisted, providing the North with enough soldiers to propel them towards eventual victory.

  7. Goodfellas (1990): Goodfellas is rightfully considered a cinematic classic, but most viewers not up on their American or film history don’t realize it’s actually based on a true story. Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguys formed the core of this multiple award-winner, and he even co-wrote the screenplay with director Martin Scorsese. Covering a span of over thirty years, the quintessential gangster film takes viewers deep into the queasy inner workings of the Mafia. Sicily’s infamous international organized crime syndicate grew to impact the United States, particularly during and after Prohibition. It’s become an inescapable component of history, economics and politics alike, and anyone studying America in the 20th Century would do well to try and understand how La Cosa Nostra perpetuated its stranglehold.

  8. Amistad (1997): In 1839, the slaves forced onto the America-bound ship La Amistad mutinied against their captors in protest. A legal firestorm ensued, escalating all the way up to the Supreme Court and garnering the attention of John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren. Historians’ reactions to Stephen Spielberg’s film were mixed, but it did attract plenty of awards and kudos from audiences and critics. In spite of the inaccuracies and liberties taken with time, however, it’s still a fascinating peek into the attitudes regarding one of the United States’ most ethically questionable eras.

  9. Good Night, and Good Luck (2005): Much like The Right Stuff, George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck incorporated actual footage of historical figures in order to reflect the people and philosophies that characterized an era. In this case, real video of Joseph McCarthy were spliced seamlessly into interviews. Test audiences unaware of this little device actually complained that his statements were too extreme and asked that the acting and dialogue tone themselves down a bit! The central narrative, however, centers on CBS journalist and host of See It Now Edward R. Murrow, stunningly portrayed by David Strathairn. Amidst the panic and paranoia of the Red Scare, he pleaded for sanity and education at the risk of losing both his career and his reputation. Thanks to the archival inclusion of the infamous Wisconsin Senator, American history buffs have one more conduit to explore the influence he held while the Cold War was only just beginning.

  10. Frost/Nixon (2008): Director Ron Howard and playwright and scriptwriter Peter Morgan freely admit that some dramatic licenses were taken with the original drama and screenplay. Even then, though, history fans greatly enjoyed this take on David Frost’s series of interviews with disgraced President Richard Nixon. Taking place after the Watergate scandal, but prior to his resignation, these discussions brought to light many of the leader’s philosophies that led him to shock and offend an entire nation. In spite of its inaccuracies, it does serve as a nice supplement to lessons in mid-20th Century American history.

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