The 50 Best Historical Films of the Last 50 Years | History Hit

The 50 Best Historical Films of the Last 50 Years

As chosen by our team and voted for by you.

History Hit

16 Dec 2022

At History Hit we obviously love all things history and that includes any film that’s based on history which, let’s face it, includes a lot of films. To celebrate the launch of our new Culture section, History Hit gave you the chance to vote for your favourite historical film.

Our team of editorial experts, passionate historians and enthusiasts spent hours assessing our favourite historical films from the last 50 years. We compiled an editorial selection of 50, then handed the final decision on the order of the top 20 over to you. After totting up your votes, the results are in!

Read on to find out which film has been crowned the winner of History Hit’s top historical film.

50. Pearl Harbor (2001)

As its title suggests, based on the surprise attack Japan made on Hawaii on 7 December, 1941, Pearl Harbor follows Rafe Mcawley (Ben Affleck), Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett) and Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale) during the events of World War Two. The two male protagonists are pilots who are at first separated by Affleck’s character going to get real combat experience in Kent fighting the Luftwaffe, whilst Josh Hartnett goes to Hawaii to train at Pearl Harbor. In the middle of the movie, they find each other again, and are also engaged in a love triangle with Kate Beckinsale. They are then assigned on the Doolittle raids to avenge the attacks made by the Japanese. 

With 1 Oscar win amongst 4 nominations for Best Sound Editing, the film uses some famous and reportedly true anecdotes to try to add a sense of truth to what is largely an action-packed, fantasy film. 

49. The Remains of the Day (1993)

This historical film is both a story about unfulfilled love and an examination of 1930s post-war appeasement and the lessening of old values. An adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 Booker Prize winning novel, the film stars Anthony Hopkins as the ageing butler of Darlington Hall, Stevens, and Emma Thompson as Miss Kenton. The pair brilliantly convey the challenges of a growing romance at work, and the maintenance of stuffy decorum and professionalism in a bygone era.

It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, but won none (it was competing against Schindler’s List, which swept the board). Anthony Hopkins won a BAFTA for Best Actor in a leading role, playing a tragi-comic character utterly unable to express his emotions – leading to a heartbreaking ending that tells of a life and love unfulfilled when work takes priority.

The Remains of the Day (1993)

Image Credit: Columbia Pictures / AJ Pics / Alamy Stock Photo

48. Howards End (1992)

James Ivory’s magnificent adaptation of E. M. Forster’s novel of the same name explores the intricacies of the changing landscape of early 20th century Britain via three families from three different classes. It is a valuable depiction of pre-war attitudes towards class, with snobbish attitudes clashing with the struggles of the emerging middle classes. 

Beneath its comments on class and society, however, is real passion, with strong performances from Emma Thompson, Antony Hopkins, Helena Bonham-Carter and Vanessa Redgrave adding to the powerful elixir of critical acclaim that the film still enjoys. It secured nine Oscar nominations, and won three, including best actress for Emma Thompson. After her adaptation of Sense and Sensibility three years later, she became, and remains, the only person to win Oscars for both writing and acting.

47. Gandhi (1982)

A co-production between India and the United Kingdom, Gandhi has been praised as a masterpiece of historical biography. Starring Ben Kingsley as Mahatma Gandhi, the film is epic in its scope and ambition. It opens with a transformative moment in 1893, when Gandhi was thrown off a South African train for being in a whites-only compartment. The following scenes – marked by epic cinematography – present a sensitive insight into Gandhi’s development, and how he grew to lead the nonviolent non-cooperative Indian independence movement against the British Empire. After 191 minutes, it draws to a dramatic end with Gandhi’s assassination and funeral in 1948. 

The film enjoyed vast critical acclaim. It won eight awards at the 55th Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and – for Ben Kingsley’s masterful performance – Best Actor.

Screenshot from ‘Gandhi’ (1982)

Image Credit: Fair use

46. Dunkirk (2017)

This film is perhaps most notable for its anxiety-inducing soundtrack from Hans Zimmer, and a surprising and very well acted cameo from One Direction star Harry Styles. In terms of building the tension of the Dunkirk evacuation, Christopher Nolan’s film is a remarkable piece of film making. However, the mixture of narratives between land, sea and air, and lack of clear protagonist, can make it a little difficult to follow.

Nonetheless, it was immensely popular amongst the public, and similarly did well at the Oscars, being nominated for 8 and winning three for Film Editing, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing.

45. The Pianist (2002)

Perhaps Roman Polanski’s greatest work, The Pianist is a tragic account of the horrors of World War Two. It was based on the autobiography of a Holocaust survivor, titled The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939-1945, which tells the story of the Polish-Jewish pianist and composer Władysław Szpilman.

The film opens in September 1939 during the Nazi German invasion of Poland. Szpilman is playing live on radio in Warsaw when the station is bombed. The scenes which follow create a harrowing account of the atrocities committed in the Warsaw Ghetto, including Szpilman’s separation from his family during Operation Reinhard. This was particularly pertinent for the director: as a child, Polanski had escaped from the Kraków Ghetto after the death of his mother.

Scene from ‘The Pianist’ (2002)

Image Credit: Maximum Film / Alamy Stock Photo

44. The Revenant (2015)

Loosely based on a true story of survival in nature, grit and vengeance, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s masterpiece follows frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) who sustains life-threatening injuries from a brutal bear attack and is left for dead by his own hunting team whilst exploring the uncharted wilderness in South Dakota, 1823. Nominated in twelve categories at the 88th Academy Awards, the combination of beautiful cinematography, incredible performances from DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, and a perfect score makes The Revenant one of the most iconic historical films ever made. Most notably, the first scene offers perhaps the most realistic depiction of a hostile encounter between indigenous tribes and fur-trapping frontiersmen in early-19th century America on film.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s long wait for an Oscar win finally came to an end as he received the Academy Award for Best Actor. Unsurprisingly, Alejandro González Iñárritu won Best Director and Emmanuel Lubezki won the award for Best Cinematography, however The Revenant was (somewhat controversially) pipped by Spotlight for Best Picture.

43. The Iron Lady (2011)

Phyllida Lloyd’s biographical drama offers a fascinating look into the longest serving British Prime Minister of the 20th century, Margaret Thatcher. The whole movie is dominated by a tour de force performance by Meryl Streep, who received her 17th Academy Award Nomination and third win for Best Actress, once again proving that she is the master of accents. Streep even received praise from then Prime Minister David Cameron.

The Iron Lady explores Thatcher in her prime but also her slow decline into dementia. The movie covers some of the biggest challenges she faced during her premiership, from the Falkland War to the ‘Poll Tax’ riots. 

42. Apocalypse Now (1979)

In Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola re-framed the American war of attrition in Vietnam as a psychotropic nightmare. In the creative struggle of his life, Coppola sought to rework Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s 1899 critique of imperialism, into a cinematic epic set during the Vietnam War. It depicts its narrator (Martin Sheen) completing a cruise up a river to confront the rogue soldier Kurtz (Marlon Brando). The production of the film itself was marred with disasters; nonetheless, Apocalypse Now performed well at the box office and went on to win Oscars for Best Cinematography and Best Sound.

Its depiction of the American war machine is most famously expressed by a helicopter assault on a Viet Cong Village set to Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries, cameras tracking explosions and hunched over the shoulders of gunners. The resulting sheer, wanton spectacle is enough to obliterate any irony and commentary on war and empire that Coppola may have intended.

Scene from ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979)

Image Credit: Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

41. The Killing Fields (1984)

This British biographical drama is based upon the real life experience of two journalists, one Cambodian, one American. The famously harrowing film depicts the Cambodian genocide under the Khmer Rough regime during its rule of the country between 1975 and 1979, immediately following the Cambodian Civil War (1970-1975). The film’s title, The Killing Fields, refers to a number of sites in Cambodia that go by the same name where collectively more than a million people were murdered and buried by the Khmer Rouge.

The profoundly moving film was praised highly by critics and wider audiences alike, garnering seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. It won three, including Best Supporting Actor for Haing S. Ngor, who had never acted previously. It also won eight BAFTAs, including Best Film and Best Actor in a Leading Role for Ngor. The film also frequently features in lists that highlight outstanding British films.

40. Amadeus (1984)

Adapted from the 1979 stage play of the same name, Amadeus is described by writer Peter Shaffer as a ‘fantasia on the theme of Mozart and Salieri’. Set in Vienna during the latter half of the 18th century, the richly-drawn narrative, which focuses on Mozart and Salieri’s rivalry at the court of Emperor Joseph II, naturally features well-placed music by the famed composer throughout. 

A box office and critical hit, the film was nominated for a total of 53 awards, eleven of which were Oscar nominations. Of the eleven, it won eight, including Best Picture. Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham’s performances as Mozart and Salieri respectively were both nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, and Abraham ultimately nabbed the win. In 2019, the film was chosen to be preserved in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress because it is deemed to be ‘culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.’

Amadeus (1984)

Image Credit: The Saul Zaentz Company / Allstar Picture Library Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

39. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty depicts the nearly decade-long international manhunt for Osama bin Laden and the crucial role of a dedicated female operative in catching him. It was released in 2012 to great commercial and critical acclaim. Jessica Chastain, who portrayed the CIA intelligence analyst Maya Harris, won a Golden Globe for her stellar performance.

The movie was listed on many critics’ top ten lists, cementing itself as one of the greatest films of the 2010s decade. Zero Dark Thirty was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning one for Best Sound Editing.

38. The Elephant Man (1980)

David Lynch’s The Elephant Man is based on the true story of John Merrick (John Hurt), a heavily deformed man from the East End slums of Victorian London. The film follows Merrick’s journey, from travelling as a fairground ‘freak show’ to being rescued by Doctor Treves (Anthony Hopkins) and living at the London Hospital where he is introduced to high society, yet effectively treated with the same perverse fascination. The film is shot in eerie black and white and Victorian London is portrayed as bleak and unsympathetic – a contrast to Merrick’s childlike gentleness and hopeful view of the world, no matter how sorely he experiences abuse. 

This compassionate and tender film was nominated for eight Academy Awards yet won none. After receiving widespread criticism for failing to honour the make-up effects, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was prompted to create the Academy Award for Best Makeup the following year. This powerfully moving film includes the heartbreaking scene in a station where Merrick utters the famous line, “I am not an animal. I am a human being”. It’s harrowing to watch, and a salutary reminder for the onlookers to catch themselves in what they’re doing – forcing audiences to do the same.

37. Mississippi Burning (1988)

This 1988 crime thriller is a fictionalised version of the events surrounding the Ku Klux Klan’s murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner (the ‘Freedom Summer murders’) in Philadelphia, Mississippi in June 1964 during the Civil Rights Movement. In Mississippi Burning, Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe star as two FBI agents investigating the disappearance of three young civil rights activists in fictional Jessup County. Met with hostility by the town’s residents, local police and the Ku Klux Klan, they must somehow find a way to bring those responsible to justice amidst a tangled web of intimidation and silence.

Named one of the Top 10 Films of 1988 by the US National Board of Review, the film went on to be nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture. However, it only won one, for Best Cinematography. It had been up against tough competition with Rain Man which won four awards, yet a campaign directed against its director for the alleged imbalance in the film’s treatment of racial issues (giving insufficient emphasis to the African Americans’ role in the civil rights movement) also played a part.

Mississippi Burning (1988)

Image Credit: Orion Pictures / AJ Pics / Alamy Stock Photo

36. The Color Purple (1985)

The story of a young African-American girl named Celie Harris captured American hearts and made Whoopi Goldberg into a bonafide movie star. Oprah Winfrey also delivered a strong performance, gaining a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Oscars. Spielberg’s movie is set in the early 20th century and deals with issues such as domestic violence, poverty and racism. The story was based on Alice Walker’s novel of the same name, which was released three years prior to the movie.

This period drama, directed by legendary Hollywood director Steven Spielberg, was a huge box office and critical success, gathering eleven Academy Award nominations in the process.

35. Chariots of Fire (1981)

Chariots of Fire is based on the true story of two British athletes in the 1924 Paris Olympics: Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian (the son of missionaries in China) who runs for the glory of God, and Harold Abrahams, an English Jew (whose father is from Lithuania) who runs to overcome prejudice. Each wrestle with issues of pride and conscience, using running as a means of asserting their dignity and proving themselves and their worth on the track. The film opens with a memorial service for Abrahams in 1979, then flashes back to his time at Cambridge University – showing how these once young, fast and strong men are now seen as figures from the past.

Chariots of Fire also highlights British class distinctions in the years following World War One in which the establishment was regrouping. The film’s spiritual and patriotic themes are reflected in its remarkable Academy Award-winning original soundtrack by Greek composer Vangelis Papathanassiou, particularly the iconic Chariots of Fire title theme. Overall the film was nominated for 7 Oscars, winning 4 including for Best Picture.

Chariots of Fire (1981)

Image Credit: Enigma Productions / Maximum Film / Alamy Stock Photo

34. The Young Victoria (2006)

A far cry from the unamused, mournful image many associate with Queen Victoria, Jean-Marc Vallée’s The Young Victoria breathes new life into the story of this famous monarch. Capturing Victoria’s early life in eye-opening detail, we follow a young girl suddenly thrust from her cloistered childhood home at Kensington onto the throne of Great Britain at the age of 18. Pushed and pulled between warring factions, we are reminded that before she was one of history’s most famous and long-ruling monarchs, Victoria too was a young woman learning the ropes.

From her strained relationship with her overbearing mother to her famously deep love for Prince Albert, Emily Blunt plays a convincing Victoria, growing from relative naivety to self-assurance. Though it has been criticised for its somewhat slow pace, it is an undeniably sumptuous watch and unsurprisingly was nominated for Best Art Direction, Best Makeup and Best Costume Design at the 2010 Academy Awards, winning the latter.

33. Hotel Rwanda (2004)

The drama film tells the story of hotelier Paul Rusesabagina and his wife Tatiana, who provided shelter to more than 1000 refugees fleeing the Rwandan genocide. Directed by Terry George, the film was praised by critics, calling it a sobering tale about the massacres that took place in the African nation. The movie explore genocide, political corruption and the repercussions of violence.

Don Cheadle’s and Sophie Okonedo performances as the hotel owning couple received high praise, securing both an Oscar nomination. Hotel Rwanda was additionally nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the 77th Academy Awards.

Hotel Rwanda (2004)

Image Credit: United Artists / Cinematic Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

32. Lincoln (2012)

One of Steven Spielberg’s masterpieces, Daniel Day-Lewis stars in this biopic of the 16th United States President, Abraham LincolnSet during some of the most turbulent years of US history, Day-Lewis delivers a witty, dignified portrait of Lincoln in the final months of his life. The film examines the aftermath of his re-election in 1864 as he attempts to pass the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, an alteration which would abolish slavery. It’s a remarkable window into the mind of a determined, skilled politician and his struggles to negotiate with the Confederacy, all while staying true to his principles.  

To complement the work of Spielberg and Day-Lewis, the score was composed by another movie legend, John Williams. With this stellar team, it’s no surprise Lincoln was nominated for seven Golden Globe Awards and twelve Oscars, and went on to gross over $275 million at the box office

31. Argo (2012)

Produced and led by Ben Afleck, Argo was adapted from the 1999 book of the same name written by Tony Mendez. Set in the midst of the Iranian revolution, many members of the US embassy are trapped inside their building as Iranian Islamists storm the American Embassy. The Islamists are reacting to the news that the US President, Jimmy Carter, has granted asylum to the Shah. There are sixty six hostages captured, but six survive. Inspired by watching a sci-fi film with his son, Afleck’s character comes up with an elaborate plan to save the six who have found refuge in the Canadian Embassy.

At the 85th Academy Awards, the film received seven nominations and won three, for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing.

30. Green Book (2018)

Nominated for five Academy Awards and winning Best Picture, Green Book is a biographical comedy-drama about African-American pianist Don Shirley and Italian-American bouncer and later actor Frank ‘Tony Lip’ Vallelonga. The story was inspired by Shirley’s real life 1962 concert tour of the American Deep South.

Green Book examines racial inequality and the mistreatment of African Americans, while also providing a positive, feel good ending. The name of the movie comes from the The Negro Motorist Green-Book which listed establishments that served black travellers in the segregated South. The movie was well received by audiences and critics alike, with Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of Don Shirley gaining him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. 

Scene from ‘Green Book’ (2018)

Image Credit: Lifestyle pictures / Alamy Stock Photo

29. Elizabeth (1998)

The movie that made Cate Blanchett a star, ‘Elizabeth’ is a rich and sumptuous biographical period drama about the last Tudor ruler of England. The story begins with the reign of Elizabeth’s sister Queen Mary and her persecution of Protestants. Throughout the movie we see the ‘Virgin Queen’s’ struggles and successes, though the timeframe of events has been considerably condensed and altered to fit the narrative of the film.

Elizabeth was well-received, though it did face criticism regarding historical inaccuracy. Nonetheless, the true standout is Cate Blanchett, who received her first Academy Award nomination for best actress for her role as Queen Elizabeth I. Interestingly she was not the first choice of director Shekhar Kapur, since Emily Watson was originally offered the role. 

28. The Hurt Locker (2008)

Sergeant First Class William James is the new team leader of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit in the Iraq War. He takes over from much-loved Sergeant Matthew Thompson who was killed by an explosive device. William James (played by Jeremy Renner) is a divisive character, whose maverick techniques often lead to tensions within his unit. Filled with multiple anxiety-inducing moments, the film captures the stress and tensions between American soldiers and members of the Iraqi public, as well as the everyday struggles of EOD units.

Released in 2008, the film won 6 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. It was, importantly but not surprisingly, the first Best Picture winner to be directed by a woman.

The Hurt Locker (2008)

Image Credit: Collection Christophel / Alamy Stock Photo

27. Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Kubrick’s insight into the Vietnam war in Full Metal Jacket conveys the true lunacy of the conflict, uniquely, through the eyes of a military journalist, who, as a conscripted soldier, wishes to come to some kind of understanding as to why the war is happening. From his coarsening training to his movements through US-occupied Vietnam, he witnesses the horrific dehumanisation of young US conscripts, and how this manifests itself into mindlessly violent treatment towards the Vietnamese civilians AND the enemy VC by the US troops.

Much like our main character, by the end of the film we too are left with no greater understanding as to why this war is taking place. No justification for the lives lost. No sense of reason for the monstrosities we witness. The Oscar nominated film accurately conveys many veterans’ reflection on the war they fought in.

26. War Horse (2011)

Based on Michael Morpurgo’s beloved 1982 novel of the same name, Steven Spielberg’s film War Horse captures the horrors of World War One through the eyes of Joey, a young horse raised in the Devon countryside by teenager Albert Naracott. To Albert’s despair, Joey is sold into the army at the outbreak of the conflict, throughout which we see the horse struggle against unimaginable hardship. As Joey’s journey intertwines with the stories of many others caught up in the often senseless violence, we follow the agonising path of the young Albert as he enlists in the British Army, intent on finding his beloved horse.

Enhanced by a stellar cast (Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, Emily Watson to name a few), War Horse was also the feature film debut of Jeremy Irvine, whose moving performance as Albert seems to capture the quintessential spirit of the young British Tommy. Nominated for a host of prestigious awards, including Best Picture at the 2011 Academy Awards, it was also named as one of the top films of the year by several critics.

Scene from ‘War Horse’ (2011)

Image Credit: Cinematic Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

25. 1917 (2019)

Director and Producer Sam Mendes’ epic war film was partly inspired by stories his grandfather told him about his service during World War One. The exhilarating story of two British soldiers (played with gravitas and urgency by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) trying to deliver a message to call off a doomed offensive manages to capture the sheer, bloody terror that soldiers felt while charging through the horrific wasteland of No Man’s Land.

In addition to the star-studded supporting cast including Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, Colin Firth and Claire Duburcq, the film was likely so well received because of its emotional poignancy, rather than relying upon action alone to bolster its popularity. Most strikingly, the film was stitched together to appear as if it had been shot in two continuous takes. It cleaned up at the Oscars, being nominated for ten, including best picture, and winning three for sound mixing, cinematography and visual effects. This one’s truly an epic if there ever was one.

24. JFK (1991)

Released under the subtitle The Story That Won’t Go Away, JFK is an American epic political thriller film that explores the events leading up to former US President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Crucial to the plot is also the examination of the alleged cover-up through the eyes of former New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison. Lee Harvey Oswald being found guilty by the Warren Commission is also depicted in detail. Interestingly – and controversially – writer and director Oliver Stone boldly described the film as a ‘counter-myth’ to the Warren Commission’s ‘fictional myth’.

In spite of the controversy, the film was critically well-received, and went on to do well at the box office. It was also nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture, and won for Best Cinematography and Best Editing.

23. Good Morning Vietnam (1987)

Written by Mitch Markowitz, directed by Barry Levinson and starring Robin Williams, this film is set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. Williams plays DJ Adrian Cronauer, whose  real life experiences are based on the film. Working for Armed Forces Radio, Cronauer’s show always starts with “Good Morning, Vietnam!”. His irreverent humour and mix of Rock n Roll are a constant source of annoyance to his superior. A friendship, love interest and a rebellious broadcast see Cronauer facing a variety of troubles. 

Robin Williams won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor.

Robin Williams in ‘Good Morning Vietnam’

Image Credit: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

22. Hidden Figures (2016)

Hidden Figures tells the true stories of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson (played by Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe respectively) – a trio of brilliant female African-American mathematicians who played a crucial role at NASA as the brains behind the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit and his safe return, helping turnaround the Space Race. The film celebrates the overlooked yet vital contribution these women made, and follows their rise through the NASA ranks as ‘human computers’ whilst crossing race, gender and professional lines with determination and perseverance to prove themselves.

Although containing a few historical inaccuracies (e.g. when boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) smashes the ‘Coloured Ladies Room’ sign – in real life Katherine Johnson refused to walk the extra distance to use the ‘colored bathroom’ and ‘just went to the white one’), the film exposes the everyday racism experienced by the women in a world where inequality was the norm. Despite 3 Oscar nominations, the film left empty-handed, yet its wider impact is of more value. Charities and institutions aiming to improve youth awareness in STEM fields organised free screenings to inspire others, and in 2017 the US Department of State launched an annual ‘Hidden No More’ exchange program, aiming to empower international women leaders in STEM.

Scene from ‘Hidden Figures’ (2016)

Image Credit: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

21. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

Shortly after he helped renew Hollywood’s appetite for historical epics with his performance as a revenging Roman general in Gladiator, Russell Crowe returned to historical film as Jack Aubrey, a Royal Navy captain at the helm of HMS Surprise. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World was a grand endeavour, with filming taking place at sea and on studio-based hulks. Its production designers went to town in pursuit of authenticity, constructing detailed nautical décor in which to wage Napoleonic-era naval combat, and reportedly used 2,000 hats and 1,900 pairs of shoes to outfit its actors.

Its lukewarm performance at the box office forestalled talk of a sequel. But in a year which saw The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King sweeping the Academy Awards, Master and Commander was nevertheless a critical success, winning Best Cinematography and Best Sound Editing. It remains the benchmark for gripping (and more-or-less historically sound) naval action in film.


And now for the top 20, in order, as voted by you…


20. Milk (2008)

Directed by Gus Van Sant and screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, Milk is an American biographical film based on gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk, the first openly homosexual person to be elected for public office in California. The 2008 movie showcases the issues LGBTQ+ people faced during Milk’s life with his assassination in 1978 being a truly heart-wrenching moment. The film was released to great critical acclaim, with Sean Penn receiving high praise for his performance as the title character.

During the 2009 Academy Awards, the movie received 8 nominations, including Best Picture. Dustin Lance Black won the award for Best Original Screenplay and Sean Penn took home the Best Actor statue. Many publications considered Milk to be one of the best movies of 2008.

19. American Sniper (2014)

Directed by Clint Eastwood, this film is a biographical war drama film starring Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle. The film is based on the real life memoirs of the protagonist. Texan born, Chris Kyle signs up to the US Army after the September 11 attacks and is shortly sent to Iraq, but not before marrying his wife, Taya Studebaker. Despite being visibly upset by his first kills (a woman and child attacking US Marine patrols), he goes on to earn the nickname ‘Legend’ for his eagle-eyed shooting and kill count.

The film then follows Kyle as he goes on to kill many famous al-Qaeda leaders, but struggles to come to terms with life back home. American Sniper received 6 Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor for Cooper, ultimately winning one award for Best Sound Editing.

18. The Queen (2006)

Stephen Frears’s biographical drama film is in many ways a perfect award season movie. It delves into one of the most turbulent times of the British Monarchy, exploring Queen Elizabeth II’s actions following Princess Diana’s death. Helen Mirren delivers a stellar performance as the reserved monarch, gaining an Academy Award for her performance in the process. Tony Blair’s character, portrayed by Michael Sheen, is another standout of the movie.

The Queen is considered to be one of the best movies of 2006, which is reflected in award recognition. The film was nominated for 6 Oscars, 10 BAFTAs and 4 Golden Globes.

Scene from ‘The Queen’ (2006)

Image Credit: inematic Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

17. Life is Beautiful (1997)

This Italian speaking film is best enjoyed with subtitles on. Set in 1939, it follows a young Italian Jewish couple who fall in love and have a child but are swept up by the occupation of Northern Italy. Guido, Dora and their child Giosue are taken to a concentration camp. They are separated due to their gender, meaning Giosue and Guido remain together whilst Dora goes elsewhere. Determined to stay connected to his wife, Guido pulls off various secretive stunts to communicate with Dora that he and their son are safe. To keep his son from being too scared, he tells him the camp is a game they must win. 

Treating a truly traumatic subject matter with comedy is no easy feat. However, the film managed to navigate it with beauty and grace. It was nominated for 7 Oscars, winning Best Actor, Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Dramatic Score.

16. The Right Stuff (1983)

Based on Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book, The Right Stuff tells the story of the US space program’s development, from the breaking of the sound barrier to the selection of the pioneering Mercury 7 astronauts – the first human spaceflight by America. It follows the US Navy and Air Force test pilots involved in aeronautical research at California’s Edwards Air Force Base (including intrepid test pilot Chuck Yeager – generally acknowledged as the best test pilot ever) with their more gung-ho approach than the program’s more cautious engineers would have preferred.

Written and directed by Philip Kaufman, at over 3 hours long, The Right Stuff is partly a grim reminder of the cost of sending humans into space, yet also chronicles the courage and sacrifice it took for the space race to transform from a secret military program into a public relations triumph for the US. The film was a surprising flop at the box office, yet despite this, received widespread critical acclaim. With a cast including Ed Harris, Barbara Hershey, Sam Shepard, Dennis Quaid and Fred War, the film won 4 Oscars, and in 2013, the film was selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

15. Titanic (1997)

Following scooping 11 Oscar wins in 1998, including Best Picture and Best Director, James Cameron’s triumphant cry during his speech that he was ‘the king of the world’, was perceived as either egoistical or defensible. Titanic had emerged triumphant from a production beleaguered by chaotic logistics, spiralling costs, and an often openly outraged cast and crew. It scooped the largest clutch of Academy Awards since Ben Hur and was the first film to make $1 billion dollars at the box office. The reason for the latter achievement is widely accepted to be the astonishing amount of repeat viewings, the author of this piece being amongst those who viewed the film at the cinema multiple (seven) times. 

It all begs the question: where did it all go right? From a purely technical perspective, Titanic is an incredible achievement (textbook Cameron), but over and above the visual spectacle, the film manages to empathetically tell the story of the real life disaster through two fantastically cast leads and an accomplished supporting cast. It’s an emotional triumph as much as it is a technical one, which honours the real life victims and (in the author’s humble opinion) deserves many more rewatches yet.

Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic

Image Credit: AJ Pics / Alamy Stock Photo

14. Dances with Wolves (1990)

Kevin Costner’s 1991 masterpiece about the end of the American frontier won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Costner, the latter whom also stars in the eponymous role. It is one of only three Western films to have won Best Picture, and is widely cited as having revitalised the genre. 

After initiating a near-suicidal action that leads to a Union victory in the American Civil War, Lieutenant Dunbar takes a posting as far away from the action as he can be – the Wild Western frontier. When no additional support arrives, he lives a hermit-like lifestyle until he begins communicating with a local Native American tribe. As he integrates himself into tribal society, he forgets his previous life as John Dunbar and takes the name of ‘Dances with Wolves’. The story has much to say on the human experience – and questions the morality of military and industrial-led expansion into the American wilderness. The landscape is beautifully shot and has a wonderful score – both of which led to further Oscar wins. 

13. Platoon (1986)

The year is 1967, and the Vietnam war has been raging for 12 years. Set in South Vietnam near the Cambodian border, 21-year-old Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) has enlisted in the US Army to fight in the Vietnam War after dropping out of college. It’s not long before Taylor and his comrades, including Sgt. Elias (Willem Defoe), Big Harold (Forest Whittaker) and Lerner (Johnny Depp), realise that moral compromises must be made to facilitate warfare.

Director Oliver Stone draws on his own experience as a veteran of the Vietnam war, which can be keenly felt throughout the film. The movie is less about providing a coherent plot with rising and falling action, and more about highlighting the chaotic pandemonium that is war, from the very bottom ranks to the highest in the platoon. It feels more like a memory than a message, and its story and characters are intentionally disoriented, meaning its audience is too. It was nominated for 8 Oscars and won 4, including Best Picture and Best Director.

12. Forrest Gump (1994)

This heartwarming and incredibly touching film encompasses multiple historical events including the presidencies of JFK and Johnson, the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal – all of which are narrated from Forrest Gump’s perspective as they unfold. It is through Gump’s personal story and agenda that the audience is captivated, in part because, as a man from Alabama with an IQ of 75, his perspective is frequently refreshingly innocent and empathetic. In addition, the historical events he innocently stumbles through are merely incidental accompaniments to his main desire to be reunited with his childhood sweetheart Jenny.

Tom Hanks captivates audiences in his transformative and dignified performance as Forrest Gump, with his delicate balancing act between comedy and sadness rightly winning him the 1994 Best Actor Oscar – just one year after winning the same award for his role in Philadelphia. The film won six Academy Awards in total, including for Best Picture, Best Director (Robert Zemeckis) and Best Visual Effects, with its ingenious placing of Gump in historic situations seemingly interacting with the actual people of the time. Alan Silvestri’s beautiful Oscar-nominated musical score adds even more charm to this touching and magical film that is sure to bring both laughter – and a tear – to your eye.

11. Braveheart (1995)

This 3 hour medieval epic tells of the insurrection of Scotland’s William Wallace against the English in the age of Edward I. It swept the Academy Awards in 1995, winning Best Picture and Best Director for Mel Gibson, who also stars as the hero. 

While the cinematography and (often gory) battle sequences have aged well, Braveheart is well known for playing quite footloose with the history. Wallace himself was a knight, rather than a commoner, and he certainly didn’t have an affair with Isabella of France. That said, it’s a brilliant piece of filmmaking, and really plays on the historical heartstrings through its raw emotion and an Oscar winning bagpipe soundtrack. FREEDOM!

Scene from ‘Braveheart’ (1995)

Image Credit: Maximum Film / Alamy Stock Photo

10. All the President’s Men (1976)

This intelligent political journalism thriller stars Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as the famous Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who, in the early 1970s, uncover the Watergate scandal – a conspiracy to cover up abuses of power leading all the way to the Oval Office and eventually to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. Hoffman and Redford are said to have visited The Washington Post‘s offices for months, attending news conferences and conducting research for their roles.

All the President’s Men won four Academy Awards from its eight nominations, including for Jason Robards as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, and Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium for screenwriter William Goldman who brilliantly adapted the bestselling exposé book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward themselves. Despite director Alan Pakula’s film losing out on the Best Picture award to Rocky, in 2010 it was selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being ‘culturally, historically or aesthetically significant’.

9. The Imitation Game (2014)

Along with The Theory of Everything, this was one of the most talked-about films of 2014, both because of its subject matter – cracking German World War Two intelligence messages at Bletchley Park – and its stellar leading performance from Benedict Cumberbatch as the brilliant but troubled cryptanalyst Alan Turing. The film’s title quotes the name of the game Turing proposed for answering the famous question, ‘Can machines think?’ in his significant 1950 paper ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’.

The film also delves into Turing’s personal life with a particular focus on his struggles with his homosexuality and hormone ‘therapy’ treatment he was subjected to a result. Supported by cast members such as Keira Knightley, Rory Kinnear, Charles Dance and Matthew Goode, the film became the highest grossing independent film of 2014, some $233 million, and garnered eight Oscar nominations, winning for Best Adapted Screenplay.

8. Darkest Hour (2017)

Gary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill in May 1940, when Britain was very much on the brink of defeat by Nazi Germany. Oldman, who won an Oscar for the role, is barely recognisable as the chaotic and eccentric war leader who drinks champagne at breakfast. However, as the plot moves on, it’s clear Churchill has the true grit to defeat Hitler, and his rousing emotive speech ‘We Will Fight Them on the Beaches’ comes right at the end. 

The film was both critically and commercially successful, garnering 6 Oscar nominations and winning 2.

Screenshot from ‘Darkest Hour’ (2017)

Image Credit: Fair use, Perfect World/Pictures Working Title Films

7. 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Difficult to watch a times, the sense of despair and feeling of anguish emoted in this biographical drama, based on the 1853 slave memoir Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, is testament to the genius of director Steve McQueen and the performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor along side an all-star cast. Northup, an African-American man who is kidnapped in Washington, D.C. in 1841 and subsequently sold into slavery, endures unspeakable cruelty at the hands of a malevolent plantation owner (Michael Fassbender) alongside unexpected kindness in his struggle not only to stay alive, but to retain his dignity.

Shocking, thought-provoking, educational and gripping, 12 Years A Slave depicts the horrific truth of slavery during the 19th century in a purposefully slow and brutal light. The film earned over $187 million on a production budget of $22 million and received nine Academy Award nominations, winning for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay for Ridley, and Best Supporting Actress. It was also awarded the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture as well as the BAFTA Awards for Best Film and Best Actor for Ejiofor.

6. The King’s Speech (2010)

Colin Firth won an Oscar for his portrayal of Prince Albert, the future King George VI who, to overcome his stammer, reluctantly seeks help from unconventional Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue. The men form an unlikely friendship as they work together, aware of the increasing importance of the wireless to the royal family combined with Bertie’s brother David’s increasing neglect of his responsibilities. Following his impromptu ascension to the throne in 1936 because of his brother’s abdication, and against the backdrop of looming war, King George VI relies on Logue to help him make his first wartime radio broadcast after Britain’s declaration of war on Germany in 1939.

Based on true events and featuring an all-star cast, Tom Hooper’s 2011 feel-good film was a major box office and critical success. It was nominated for 12 Oscars, winning 4 overall, including Best Director and the much-coveted Best Picture.

Colin Firth in the King’s Speech

Image Credit: AJ Pics / Alamy Stock Photo

5. Apollo 13 (1995)

This epic film tells the incredible true story of the 1970 Apollo 13 lunar mission. En-route to the moon, an on-board explosion deprives the spacecraft of much of its oxygen supply and electrical power, aborting the Moon landing mission. Uttering the immortal line, “Houston, we have a problem”, Commander Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) and his fellow astronauts Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) must then trust in the improvised scientific and mechanical solutions NASA’s flight controllers and astronauts create to try and help return Apollo 13 to Earth safely. It’s a remarkable insight into what America’s space program achieved with the technology it had available.

The film contains incredible special effects, and its zero-gravity scenes are extremely convincing – because they’re real. The film’s director, Ron Howard, convinced NASA to let him film scenes of weightlessness on its reduced-gravity aircraft, and also went to great lengths to ensure technical accuracy, gaining NASA’s assistance in astronaut and flight-controller training. Featuring an all-star cast that also includes Ed Harris as Flight Director Gene Kranz and Gary Sinise as astronaut Ken Mattingly, Apollo 13 was nominated for 9 Oscars, yet surprisingly won only 2 (for Best Film Editing and Best Sound). Nevertheless, and despite knowing the outcome, it’s a compelling watch.

4. Last of the Mohicans (1992)

Daniel Day-Lewis spent time living as an 18th Century indigenous American in preparation for his starring role in this epic drama set amidst the Seven Years War, or French Indian War. His meticulous preparation pays off as he delivers an astonishingly visceral performance as a frontiersman, adopted into a Mohican family, who is caught up in the savage fighting between Britain, France and indigenous groups, as they struggle for domination of the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes. 

The story of individuals making their way through the complicated mosaic of war and settlement is compelling, the action is balletic, but in many ways the star is the massive landscape, beautiful yet neutral, dwarfing the intense yet petty human drama that plays along its meadows, mountain paths and rivers. How multiple Academy Award winner Day-Lewis did not pick up another one for this movie remains a mystery. 

3. Gladiator (2000)

The film that made Russell Crowe into a superstar (and a Best Actor Oscar winner) has possibly the best revenge line in cinema history: ‘My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions and loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.’

Even if the evil Emperor Commodus did really exist, the plot borders on fantasy. However, the film opens with one of the finest ancient battles ever seen on film, and progresses with a series of spectacular and very violent gladiatorial contests amongst constant political intrigue. It’s a tear jerking epic of doggedly setting the world back to rights – one fight at a time. It was nominated for a staggering 12 Oscars, and won five, including Best Picture and a Best Actor win for Russell Crowe.

Russell Crowe played Maximus Decimus Meridius, A Hispano-Roman legatus forced into becoming a slave. Screenshot from the movie

Image Credit: Fair use, DreamWorks Pictures and Universal Pictures

2. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

An incredible D-Day opening sequence sees American troops landing to stiff resistance on Omaha Beach, which has been cited as one of the most terrifyingly realistic World War Two battle scenes in cinema. What follows is a mildly implausible plot of a group of men being sent to find one Private Ryan, whose brothers had died on D-Day. The film ends with a remarkable set piece battle amongst a ruined French town – including multiple tanks.

The film was a commercial and critical success, being nominated for 11 Oscars and winning 5, including Best Director for Steven Spielberg, and today is heralded as a classic.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Image Credit: Album / Alamy Stock Photo

1. Schindler’s List (1993)

1993’s Best Picture Academy Award winner – and the winner of History Hit’s best historical film of the last 50 years – tells the story of Oskar Schindler, an industrialist and war profiteer who staffs his Krakow factory with Jews, thus protecting more than 1,000 people from almost certain death in Auschwitz. By the middle of the film, Nazi oppression evolves into the horror of the Final Solution, with a central performance from Ralph Fiennes, who co-stars as the utterly inhuman SS Officer Amon Göth, being particularly notable.

Liam Neeson stars as Schindler himself, portraying him as a morally complex character, both charismatic and womanising. He was duly Oscar nominated for his performance. The film is shot in black and white, except for the famous red jacket of a little 3-year-old girl, which helped it nab a win for Best Cinematography at the Academy Awards. In addition, Steven Spielberg was awarded Best Director.

‘Schindler’s List’ (1993)

Image Credit: AJ Pics / Alamy Stock Photo

Explore more history through the arts in our Culture section


Contributors: James Carson, Celeste Neill, Lucy Davidson, Teet Odin, Alex Spencer, Kyle Hoekstra, Amy Irvine, Carly Clark, Elena Guthrie, Luke Tomes, Drew Sheldon, Lily Johnson, Annie Coloe, Dan Snow.

History Hit