In Depth

The ten best historical movies

From Battleship Potemkin to Lawrence of Arabia, The Week takes a look at some of the highlights of historical cinema

A balancing act of factual accuracy and genuine entertainment, historical films often bring out the best in filmmakers across the world, pushed to their limits to create great cinema while still doing justice to the real-life stories and people that make up their subject matter.

Here are ten of the best historical films of all time.

Lawrence of Arabia, 1962

Maurice Jarre’s iconic theme, David Lean’s breathtaking vision of the desert and Peter O’Toole’s masculine yet vulnerable performance, Lawrence of Arabia has all the ingredients to make it a timeless staple of epic cinema.

The film depicts British military officer Lawrence's experiences in the Arabian Peninsula during World War I, during which he was appointed a British liaison tasked with helping coordinate the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire.

Although the film’s runtime is an immodest three hours and 42 minutes, its staggering scope and ambition make it an undeniable classic - in 1999, the British Film Institute named it the third greatest British film of all time.

The Battle of Algiers, 1966

A more obscure offering, The Battle of Algiers (La battaglia di Algeri) is an Italian-Algerian retelling of the war between the French government and Algerian independence fighters in North Africa.

“It neither demonizes nor lionizes either side of the conflict, aiming for just-the-ugly facts objectivity,” writes Mike D'Angelo of AV Club. “Nobody who sees it is likely to feel comforted, or even vindicated. The emotion it most frequently and fervently inspires is sorrow.”

This hyper-realistic film - shot in the style of a newsreel - currently occupies 48th place on the Top 250 Films of All Tme in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll of filmmakers and critics.

Schindler’s List, 1993

An agonisingly difficult watch in parts, Steven Spielberg’s 1993 masterpiece Schindler’s List is widely considered one of the greatest movies ever made.

Set in Nazi-occupied Poland during the Second World War, the film tells the story of German industrialist - and Nazi party member - Oskar Schindler’s efforts to save more than 1,000 Jews from certain death by employing them in his factories during the Holocaust, thereby preventing their deportation to death camps.

A film so intensely powerful that Time magazine called it “a movie that escapes the bounds of conventional criticism”, Schindler’s List remains essential viewing not just as a work of art, but as an important historical demonstration of mankind’s potential for self-destruction when pushed to extremes.

12 Years a Slave, 2012

“Every scene of 12 Years a Slave, and almost every shot, conveys some penetrating truth about America's original sin,” writes Chris Vognar of the Dallas Morning News.

Met with unanimous critical acclaim, 12 Years a Slave is a brutal, gruesome look at slavery in 19th-century United States through the eyes of a Solomon Northup, a free, wealthy African American man who was kidnapped in Washington DC in 1841 and sold into slavery in Louisiana. 

Both directed by and starring Brits - Steve McQueen and Chiwetel Ejiofor respectively - the film racked up a slew of Oscars, including Best Picture, at the 2013 Academy Awards.

“This is not a movie to be enjoyed but endured. But there lies its disturbing genius,” the Times of India reports.

The Deer Hunter, 1978

Another disturbing but necessary entry is 1978’s hit The Deer Hunter, a Vietnam War epic that recounts the journey of two men from their homes in Pennsylvania to psychological torture by the Viet Cong.

Tense, ambitious and deeply harrowing, the film was well-received upon its release, but drew some controversy for its depiction of torture techniques used by the North Vietnamese, both for their near-unwatchable cruelty and their historical innacuracy.

Nevertheless, the film has been consistently considered a classic of Vietnam War cinema, with famed critic Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times calling it “one of the most emotionally shattering films ever made”.

All the President’s Men, 1976

Rarely are films about writing news considered “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. But in 2010, 1976 newsroom classic All the President’s Men was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for those exact reasons.

A film with uncomfortably timely parallels to current affairs, All the President’s Men sees Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford play Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the two real-life Washington Post journalists who uncovered the Watergate Scandal that brought down the Nixon government in the early 1970s.

“Despite the twists, turns and exceptionally complex detail of the Watergate scandal, All the President’s Men manages to make it both comprehensible and watchable,” The Guardian says.


A beguiling mix of gravity-defying fantasy and surprisingly dense history, 2002’s Hero (英雄) is the Magnum Opus of acclaimed wuxia director Zhang Yimou.

Action star Jet Li takes centre stage in this epic charting the history of China through its Warring States period and later reunification, with much of the screentime split between dramatic battle scenes and complex musing over the moral - and political - implications of a planned assassination attempt on the emperor.

A dazzling epic that packs an emotional punch, the film “is not so much a historical epic as a kind of highly determined ballet”, writes Anthony Lane in The New Yorker, “dreamy with bloodless violence, relying less on shades of character than on magnificence of gesture”.

Battleship Potemkin, 1925

The first silent entry on the list is Battleship Potemkin, a 1925 Soviet film centred on the rebellion of staff on the Imperial Russian Navy battleship Potemkin in 1905, now regarded as one of the key catalysts leading to the overthrow of the country’s Tsarist government 12 years later.

As MTV points out, there were no Oscars to win when it was released, but at the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels, Potemkin was named the greatest film of all time and “continues to rank high in lists of the best and most important movies.

Potemkin is a vital viewing experience that transcends its landmark/milestone status,” says The Observer.

Gandhi, 1982

Gandhi tells the story of Indian revolutionary Mahatma Gandhi from his time as a local statesman to a global icon.

Anchored by a stunning central performance by British actor Ben Kingsley (who is of Gujarati descent like Gandhi himself), the film was also critically acclaimed, with Variety saying: “Once in a long while a motion picture so eloquently expressive and technically exquisite comes along that one is tempted to hail it as being near perfect.”

Chariots of Fire, 1981

A life-affirming, moving and thoroughly British film with a relatively small budget, 1981’s Chariots of Fire became a surprise hit, usurping a number of Hollywood heavyweights at the Academy Awards the same year.

The film tells the real-life story of Olympic runners Eric Liddell, a Scottish Christian who runs for the glory of God, and Harold Abrahams, a Jewish Englishman who runs to overcome prejudice, and their journey to the 1924 Olympics in France.

“From the opening scene of pale young men racing barefoot along the beach, full of hope and elation, backed by Vangelis's now famous anthem, the film is utterly compelling,” writes The Times’s Kate Muir.


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