Although you might be the kind of person who watches every new movie that comes out, no matter the genre, there’s just something about historical films. Knowing that a story actually happened — or is at least loosely based on something that happened — somehow makes it so much more intriguing and powerful. Whether you’re into the opulent life of the English monarchy, courageous stories of soldiers during World War II, or accounts from everyday folks who witnessed major historical moments, movies based on history can offer a lot — romance, comedy, action, horror and sometimes a little bit of all four.
Whether you’re looking for a history-based movie to watch with the kids or are just looking for something you haven’t seen yet, our list of the best historical movies offers well-reviewed picks that cover everything from the reign of the ever-extravagant Marie Antoinette to The Boston Globe newspaper team who broke the Catholic Church abuse scandal. Some of these movies are definitely more serious than light-hearted, so make sure to take that into account if you’re watching with young teens or children.
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Dunkirk tells the true story of a group of World War II British soldiers who got stranded during a German ambush for six weeks alongside Belgian and French soldiers. In the film, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a British private, must work together with soldiers Alex (Harry Styles) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) to stay alive until British forces are able to rescue them. You can expect to see some additional familiar faces like Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine and Jack Lowden.
A deeply moving and inspiring biographical film that tells the story of Harriet Tubman, an enslaved activist who freed herself and then helped hundreds of others escape from the South in the 1850s. Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet, with a supporting cast including Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn and Janelle Monáe.
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When Roman General Maximus (Russell Crowe) is betrayed by the corrupt son of the emperor (Joaquin Phoenix), he becomes a gladiator and fights through the ranks to ultimately avenge the murders of his family. This action-packed film, inspired loosely by real events that occurred within the Roman Empire back in the 2nd century, is full of epic fights and themes of love, dedication, perseverance and family loyalty.
Apollo 13 tells the story of Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) — the three astronauts who commanded the Apollo 13 mission to land on the moon in 1970. When the spacecraft suffered an explosion during takeoff, the astronauts were forced to figure out a way to land safely in their return back to Earth. It’s a knuckle-clenching film that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
The Sound of Music (1965)
In one of her most memorable roles, Julie Andrews stars as Maria, a not-so-typical nun in Austria. When Maria is sent to work as a nanny for a family of eight, led by retired naval officer and widower Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), what ensues is a musical adventure and romantic love story, all happening during the harrowing Nazi invasion in World War II.
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A fur trapper (Leonardo DiCaprio) is in the fight of his life after being mauled by a bear while on a hunting expedition. Although surviving the attack, he now must try to stay alive and find his way back to his traveling companions with only the help of Mother Nature’s resources. Based on real-life frontiersman Hugh Glass, there’s a reason Leonardo won his first Oscar with this role. The cast also includes Tom Hardy, Will Poulter and Domnhall Gleeson.
On the Basis of Sex (2018)
Before she was a Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a first-year law student. Felicity Jones plays a young RBG in this movie where we see the sexism she faced and how hard she fought to change not only the preconceived notions of what certain genders could do, but also change the laws to reflect that. Starring alongside Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston and Kathy Bates, this movie perfectly encapsulates the lasting legacy of RBG long after her death.
RELATED: 15 of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Most Iconic Quotes
Based on the 1982 non-fiction novel Schindler’s Ark, this heartbreaking film follows Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a German factory owner who saved over a thousand Jewish refugees during the Holocaust by hiring them as workers in his factory. The movie also stars Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley, Embeth Davidtz and even the real-life wife of Oskar, Emilie Schindler.
Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe play NASA mathematicians and engineers in this film based on the real lives of Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, three women who helped NASA win the “Space Race” in a time when sexism and racism kept them segregated from the rest of the team.
U.S. CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) is put in charge of rescuing six Americans who escape being taken hostage during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979. This film tells the true story of how Tony posed as a movie producer and used a fictional film to get the six out of Iran. In addition to Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman and Tate Donovan star in the film.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008)
Set during World War II, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas shares the stark experiences of two young boys living in Berlin: Bruno (Asa Butterfield), the son of a German SS officer (David Thewlis), and Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a young Jewish boy sent to Auschwitz concentration camp. The film shares a heartbreaking story of friendship, love and loss, as both boys are ultimately forced to face the realities of living in Nazi Germany.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013)
The Butler is loosely based on the real life Eugene Allen (Forest Whitakers), a man who served as a White House butler for over 30 years and for eight different presidents. Starring Oprah Winfrey, John Cusack, Alan Rickman, Robin Williams and many other big stars, this biographical story is an emotional and thought-provoking film like no other.
After marrying the Dauphin of France (Jason Schwartzman) at age 14, Marie-Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) is introduced to a life of luxury, indulgence and excess which plays out in contrast to the poverty-stricken French people and their growing outrage. Throw in secret romances, opulent wealth and some other major stars like Rose Byrne, Molly Shannon, Jamie Dornan and Tom Hardy and you’ve got a movie you won’t be able to stop watching.
This award-winning film tells the powerful story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a New York-born Black man who was kidnapped from the North and enslaved in 1841. Ejiofor stars alongside a talented cast, including Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt.
When people hear the name Tonya Harding, they immediately have strong opinions and remember the real-life figure skater who was linked to an attack on fellow American skater Nancy Kerrigan at the 1994 Winter Olympics. Starring Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan and Allison Janney, this biographical sports mockumentary touches on that momentous event while also diving into Tonya’s past and her skating career before the Olympics.
With a talented cast including Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, Jeremy Strong and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lincoln focuses on the last four months of President Abraham Lincoln’s life, especially focusing on his role during the end of the Civil War, the abolishment of slavery and his assassination.
Based on the international best seller of the same name, this 2013 movie is narrated by “Death,” who tells the story of Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) during World War II in Germany. In order to cope with the daily horrors she is witnessing, she begins to steal books that local politicians are trying to destroy while also authoring her very own book.
This action-packed movie has a memorable cast with faces like Mandy Moore, Woody Harrelson, Ed Skrein, Luke Evans, Patrick Wilson and Dennis Quaid. In this movie, we see the Battle of Midway, a battle that is known as a major turning point of World War II which took place six months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
A film that is inspiring, emotional and shockingly true, Unbroken shares the story of American Olympian and Army officer Louis “Louie” Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) who, after competing in the 1936 Summer Olympics in the 5,000 meter race, returned to war where his plane was shot down. While he survived stranded at sea for 47 days, he was then captured and held as a prisoner of war for two years.
This movie has everything — romance, drama and history. Audiences are introduced to Richard and Mildred Loving, a real-life couple who fought state laws prohibiting interracial marriage back in the late ’60s. After Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) were arrested for marrying, their love for one another launched a major legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court.
The Young Victoria (2009)
When American combat medic Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is sent to war in Okinawa during World War II, he stands out greatly from his comrades as a pacifist who refuses to use a weapon of any kind. Starring Sam Worthington, Teresa Palmer, Luke Bracey and Vince Vaughn, Hacksaw Ridge is an awe-inspiring story of one man whose bravery stood out in the face of danger.
Keira Knightley, Jude Law and Aaron Taylor-Johnson star in this deeply romantic yet tragic drama, with Matthew Macfayden and Alicia Vikander in supporting roles. In this movie based on Leo Tolstoy’s novel of the same name, we see the story of married socialite Anna Karenina (Knightley) and her scandalous affair with a military officer (Taylor-Johnson). Although none of the characters are based on real people, the story accurately depicts Imperial Russian society with additional themes of religion, family and love.
Behind Enemy Lines (2001)
This harrowing war movie is truly one of the best performances from Owen Wilson. Loosely based on the experiences of U.S. Air Force Captain Scott O’Grady, Behind Enemy Lines follows fighter navigator Chris Burnett (Wilson) who, after being shot down in the enemy territory of Bosnia, discovers some deadly secrets about the 1995 Bosnian war. Burnett must fight to stay alive long enough to be rescued as the enemy tracks him down.
After ascending to the throne when his brother Edward VIII abdicates, George VI (Colin Farrell) is thrown into the spotlight as the new reigning king. Now expected to make public speeches and announcements, the new king must learn how to cope with his very challenging stammer as he fulfills his new role.
Before we had Queen Elizabeth II, we had Queen Elizabeth I. After the death of her half-sister Queen Mary I (Kathy Burke), Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) takes the throne and is crowned Queen of England. The movie goes on to show Elizabeth dealing with everything from the crumbling infrastructure of the city to her secret love affair (Joseph Fiennes) all while trying to establish herself as a serious ruler.
RELATED: The Best Royal Movies to Help You Truly Understand the Monarchy
Spotlight, named after The Boston Globe investigative journalism team who broke the story on the Catholic church abuse scandal, tackles the lengthy journey eight journalists took to uncover massive coverups. Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo shine in their roles as two of the journalists alongside a cast with Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci, John Slattery, Liev Schreiber and Billy Crudup.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)
A group of anti-Vietnam War protestors are put on trial for conspiracy and “crossing states line” with the intention to incite riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch and Alex Sharp are major actors in this riveting movie where corruption, injustice and secrecy play major roles.
Mary Queen of Scots (2018)
This exciting and emotional sports story gives audience members an insight into the life of the great Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), the first Black athlete to play in Major League Baseball after signing to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. This decision is not only heralded as the end of racial segregation in professional baseball, since Black players were forced to play in separate leagues before this, but shows Jackie’s influence and contributions to the ongoing civil rights movement.
Meryl Streep stars as Katharine Graham, the owner and publisher of The Washington Post in 1971, and shows her and her staff working to publish the Pentagon papers, government documents that showed President Nixon lied about the Vietnam War. Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, Matthew Rhys and many other big names star alongside Streep in this deeply intense movie that tackles the issue of freedom of the press.
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