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20 Great Movies for America History Buffs

American cinema must always give us stories that reflect our culture. Especially the true stories that have actually happened within the boundaries of our nation. From wartime tales to period pieces that delve into romances, the historical feature film always finds a way to captivate audiences. Not all of these films need to be biopics. Some just need to have American history at the backdrop of it all to create the setting. Either way, as long as there is enough for any history buff to gaze at the screen and break down the accuracies and maybe even the inaccuracies, it will usually make someone of that nature engage with the film.



History buffs and cinephiles are one and the same. They are a certain breed of people who look back in order to move forward. They read up on topics they are passionate about and look to explore more of what they love. To love movies is to love history. So let’s see what films do a good job at blending the two.


20 Black Hawk Down (2001)

Black Hawk Down takes place in 1993 and follows a special forces team that is sent to Somalia to assist with bettering the difficult situations within the country. The soldiers are brought in on Black Hawk helicopters, but when two of them are shot down, the surviving soldiers must regain their balance as they are in a brutal, long shootout with Somalian forces who open heavy, relentless gunfire on them.

Why Does Black Hawk Down Make the List?

With an all-star cast and under tremendous direction from Ridley Scott, Black Hawk Down fires on all cylinders as a brutal spectacle of American soldiers facing unbelievable obstacles that could have guaranteed certain death. Those from the 1990s who remember seeing this event unfold can easily be brought back to the fear we all had for these men. A great thing about historical movies, no matter the topic, is that they give the audience a front-row seat to what may have really happened. You are very much in the trenches in Black Hawk Down, and it never lets up until the final frame. It’s a film that gets a bit divisive with today’s audiences for its accuracy and inclusiveness, but one point is made clear in it: war is hell.

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19 The Witch (2015)

The Witch

The Witch

Release Date
January 27, 2015

Director
Robert Eggers

Runtime
92

Robert Eggers would make quite a debut with his historical horror tale, The Witch, about a family in 1630 New England who move out to the countryside and experience the horrors of isolation as there may be an evil force in the nearby woods, and it takes one of their own. Now the family, one by one, begins to tear each other apart as paranoia begins to set in and signs of the devil at work become apparent.

An Accurate Look at the Times of Witches

Before America really got to be America, there was this era of fear in the 1600s in New England. The Witch is so masterful in its details, from the wardrobe to the dialogue of the early settlers of the land. The fear and paranoia created feel so real. It’s not necessarily based on a true story per se, but there’s no doubt this film perfectly encapsulates the early days of America and what kind of horrors came with it.

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Related: How Robert Eggers Showed His Incredible Talent for World-Building in His First Three Films

18 Bonnie & Clyde (1967)

Bonnie and Clyde is the famous biopic that starred Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as the two lovers who started out as petty thieves and then became all-star bank robbers who would reach celebrity status during the Great Depression. The story of their rise and fall has become one of the most studied stories in American history.

A Piece of American Folklore

Forget the film for a second. Bonnie and Clyde as people and their stories are a piece of American folklore that defined a very difficult generation for many people. The Great Depression created a new look at what crime was in America going forward, and Bonnie and Clyde were at the forefront of what that looked like. There’s a backdrop to what this country was at the time all of their notorious robberies were taking place. Bonnie and Clyde went on a 21-month stretch of deadly robberies that didn’t happen in major regions of the country. This was all taking place in the southwest and other areas, where many were struggling financially.

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17 Milk (2008)

Milk

Milk

Release Date
November 5, 2008

Runtime
127

Milk is the biopic of activist Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay man ever elected to public office. With his rise in the political world, he became a voice for gay rights in San Francisco in the late 1970s as he openly spoke about equal rights for all Americans. This was something that got a lot of pushbacks from the conservative party during his time in office.

Milk is a Study of Changing Times in U.S. Politics

Milk is a study of a man who just wanted to find equality for everyone, but what it does so brilliantly is show you how difficult American politics can become and how, if things can be pushed too far, who knows what kind of tragedy can be looming around the corner from political disagreements? Sean Penn would go on to win an Academy Award for playing the title role. His portrayal of Harvey Milk shows us the cultural impact his persona and policies had in cities like San Francisco. It’s a story that perfectly soaks up the 1970s in that city. Gus Van Sant’s direction in the film makes it feel almost like a documentary of sorts. It’s one of the best biopics of the last 20 years.

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16 Forrest Gump (1994)

Forrest Gump

Forrest Gump

Release Date
July 6, 1994

Director
Robert Zemeckis

Runtime
142

Spanning decades across American history, we follow the story of a slow-witted Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks), who shares his stories from a bus stop bench with unsuspecting strangers and how his journeys have tied him to many different historical events. All the while, he is in search of his long-lost love, who has a bombshell of information to drop on him.

Gump Throughout History

Forrest Gump is a film that devotes itself to American history throughout the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, all the way up until the present day of the film. Gump finds his way in the middle of many historical moments; he meets presidents, fights wars, becomes a shrimp boat captain that makes him millions, and even helps with some famous bumper sticker taglines. All of this happening via great post-production technology at the time of the film’s production puts him in a room with John F. Kennedy. It’s a great look at the last half-century of America through the eyes of a simple man.

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15 Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

Born on the Fourth of July, takes place in the mid-1960s in New York, Tom Cruise plays Ron Kovic, a teenager who has his sights set on serving America as he enlists in the Marines to go fight in Vietnam. After an accident on his second tour that leaves him paralyzed, Kovic returns home to no love or respect from either side of the political party in terms of the war effort.

Oliver Stone’s Underrated Look at the Loss of Innocence

Oliver Stone may be known for directing another Vietnam drama from a few years prior, 1986’s Platoon, but Born on the Fourth of July deserves its flowers. It’s a tragic story about a loss of innocence during what some may view as an innocent time in America. The era of white picket fences, fresh-cut grass, and women in the kitchen cooking for their families was brought to a halt with the war in Vietnam and other social issues of the late 1960s. It’s a movie that contrasts the Norman Rockwell appearance of America at that time and the horrors of fighting in a war almost all too well.

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14 All the President’s Men (1976)

All the Presidents Men chronicles one of the biggest scandals in American political history, the Watergate scandal. A movie about two up-and-coming rival reporters at the Washington Post who uncover the mystery behind the fumbled burglary at the Democratic Party Headquarters. As it all starts to unravel, they get sources within the White House who tell them this politically charged attack goes all the way to the Oval Office.

Nixon and Watergate

To this day, Richard Nixon’s presidency is one of the most polarizing political runs in the history of the country. When it all came crashing down on him, it made for one of the most thought-provoking moments in America. Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford deliver some of the best performances of this era of movies as they play the famous journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. In an era when truth gets mixed and twisted with lies and conspiracies, All the President’s Men is a nice message to the American people about how we deserve to know the truth when our leaders are lying.

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Related: The Best Movies About Politics from the 20th Century, Ranked

13 The Patriot (2000)

Roland Emmerich directed The Patriot, a story of a widowed farmer who used to be in the military, and he’s got a bit of a rough past in that sense. He declines to join the Revolutionary War, but his son joins and gets captured by the British. He then decides he must go into battle and rescue him, and forms a regiment that makes a big effort in the war.

A Blockbuster with the Revolutionary War as the Backdrop

With Mel Gibson in the lead and Heath Ledger playing his son, this film has a formula for a lot of success. Yes, The Patriot has a summer blockbuster quality to it at times. That’s what you get when you hire Roland Emmerich to direct your film. However, there are not many films that have a setting that takes place during the Revolutionary War without having some mundane storytelling. The Patriot does thrive in its backdrop and character arcs, which make one think that this could have actually been someone’s life in the 1770s.

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12 Amistad (1997)

Amistad

Amistad

Release Date
December 10, 1997

Runtime
155

Steven Spielberg makes his first appearance on this list. He directed the film Amistad, a story about the true events of a slave ship in 1839 that had an uprising between slaves and the ship’s captain and crew. Once on land, they are held in prison in Connecticut, but a case is made to release them of any wrongdoing by freed lave Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman) and a lawyer by the name of Roger Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey).

Why Amistad Makes the List?

Part courtroom drama, part historical drama that predates the Civil War. Amistad takes a look at the era of slavery and shows the very minimal few who were willing to stand up for men who were being treated less than humans and wanted to give them their human rights back. The trailer alone speaks volumes of the message being carried out in it, with some text on the screen that reads: Freedom is not given; it is our right at birth. Anthony Hopkins plays John Quincy Adams in the film, the president who becomes an ally to the cause of freeing the men captured, but it is Djimon Hounsou who steals the film as Cinque, the leader of the uprising on the ship.

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11 The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

1940’s The Grapes of Wrath is an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel about the Joad family, who are in search of a better life in California. As the leader of the clan, Tom Joad (Henry Fonda), hits the road with his family, meeting other people on the move out west as well, he soon learns that the slice of paradise is not all it seems to be.

The Dust Bowl and The Great Depression

The Grapes of Wrath is a story that is the product of two events in American history: the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Many don’t know of the latter, but it was a time when the prairie lands of the Midwest and Southwest caused farming families to up and leave their lives behind and move further out west due to constant wind and dust storms taking place. It was a time of drought that made it harder for more and more families in this region. The Grapes of Wrath is a story that seems to be rehashed by generation after generation as families migrate around the country and we as a society become dehumanized due to the capitalism that we are governed under.

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10 Gangs of New York (2002)

Gangs of New York is Marin Scorsese’s epic about an Irish immigrant (Leonardo DiCaprio) who gets released from prison and returns to New York City’s five-points section to seek revenge against the man who killed his father, William Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), a man who leads an anti-immigration group. He must bide his time with his attack, as one must be calculated in 1860’s New York.

You Can’t Read About This in Textbooks

Leave it to Martin Scorsese to tell us a story we can’t just discover in a simple American textbook. Instead, the director had to dig a little deeper. He came across a novel in 1970 called The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld. A story written in 1927 about the vicious rivalries on the streets of New York City throughout the 1800s. There are so many little tidbits of information in it that any history buff can catch, like immigrants getting off the boat and immediately having to sign up for the Civil War or people fighting in the streets during an election. If you break down Gangs of New York, you can’t help but wonder how far we’ve really come.

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9 Apollo 13 (1995)

Apollo 13

Apollo 13

Release Date
June 30, 1995

Runtime
140

Apollo 13 is a tense, nail-biting true story of the NASA lunar mission that could have nearly ended tragically. An oxygen tank explodes, leading the crew of the mission to encounter numerous technical issues that could leave them drifting away into space. Directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, and Ed Harris. Apollo 13 took home nine Academy Award nominations, including best picture that year.

There’s a feeling through Apollo 13‘s first act of how amazing it was to witness men flying into space and landing on the moon, and then the horror of all of that almost ending in tragedy. It’s a film that captures that essence that was in the zeitgeist of the time of the lunar mission. Everything looks and feels like the late 1960s to early 1970s aesthetic of the times. Anyone who grew up at this time can still get nostalgic about it all. History buffs can have a field day with Apollo 13 because of the world it takes us back to and the feelings of utter dread watching this event unfold on television.

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8 Lincoln (2012)

Lincoln

Lincoln

Release Date
November 9, 2012

Runtime
120

Steven Spielberg directed the biopic of one of the more memorable presidents in American history. Lincoln stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, who, in the face of tense times during the Civil War, was able to push his policies into the forefront of many Americans and show us the greater good for all mankind.

Accuracy of a Complex Man

Lincoln is arguably one of the most studied presidents in the history of this country. Leave it to Spielberg to take a man so well known in the text books of American students and bring to life the world he was a part of. Then, have one of the best actors of our time, Daniel Day-Lewis, bring to life someone we’ve only seen in paintings and show us all his complexities that made him one of the greatest leaders of our time. You can just see all the dedication, care and research that went into this project right there on the screen.

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7 Glory (1989)

Glory

Glory

Release Date
December 15, 1989

Runtime
122

To stay on the topic of the Civil War for a moment, Glory may be one of the most definitive tales of life in wartime during the 1860s. Glory follows the first African American regiment during that time, the 54th Volunteer Infantry. The movie shows their beginnings of doing mundane military tasks and finding themselves at the forefront of battle in the movie’s third act.

The First Black Regiment

No offense to Matthew Broderick and Cary Elwes, but this movie belongs to Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman for their portrayals of an escaped slave and a gravedigger who joins a regiment to fight in the Civil War. Glory was one of the first historical films that made you realize that there were still some gray areas in terms of race and slavery, even in the North. There are politics involved, rather than “North is good, and the South is bad.” It’s still a landmark film in the genre of war movies and films about social issues in America, and maybe one of Denzel Washington’s best performances in the first act of his career.

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6 The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

The Last of the Mohicans follows the last few members of a dying tribe that live peacefully alongside British colonists. However, when a pair of daughters of a British colonel are kidnapped by a tribe that is out to do harm, the last few members of the Mohicans must go on a rescue mission. This takes them to the front lines of the French and Indian War.

The French and Indian War

There are certain elements of The Last of the Mohicans that are pulled from the truth, but the overall plot of this Michael Mann film is fiction. Still, the vast landscape of the setting, the dialogue, the structure of the story, and sitting at the backdrop of an American war that doesn’t get talked about enough makes any history buff want to dive in and decipher between fact and fiction. Mohicans has reigned supreme as one of the most gripping war dramas of the last 30 years. With an ending that lives with you long after it’s over.

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5 Patton (1970)

Patton

Patton

Release Date
January 25, 1970

Director
Franklin J. Schaffner

Cast
George C. Scott , Karl Malden , Stephen Young , Michael Strong , Carey Loftin , Albert Dumortier

Runtime
170

The biography of controversial U.S. General George S. Patton, played iconically by George C. Scott, makes this list. Patton follows the military leader through his achievements in World War II and the North African campaign all the way to post-war life, where he showed a lot of displeasure with the post-World War II strategy by the military.

The Iconic Intro

To this day, Patton has one of the best introductions in any movie. A scene that has been gimmicked in anything from teen comedies to superhero movies over the years. Patton is still George C. Scott’s best performance to date. Many say he’s a character presented as he really was in the film. For a big-budget Hollywood biopic, there really isn’t much to rip apart about this film. It’s a biopic that does what biopics are supposed to do well. Show us a fair examination of his genius while not ignoring the subject’s flaws.

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4 12 Years a Slave (2013)

12 Years a Slave is the true story from the memoirs of Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in the film. Northup was a free black man in upstate New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South prior to the Civil War. He spends 12 years in the ordeal until he meets a Canadian abolitionist by chance.

The Human Spirit

Director Steve McQueen gives us one of the more recent and gripping true stories of slavery in America. However, 12 Years a Slave may provide some very hard scenes to sit through, but it does give us a protagonist that is a massive study in the human spirit not being able to break despite their circumstances. Many films these days that still tackle this historical period can give us superficial themes, but 12 Years a Slave goes the extra mile in telling us the later effects of a horrendous experience like what Solomon Northup and many others went through.

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3 Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Saving Private Ryan takes many historical moments from World War II and adds them to the fictional plot of a platoon who set out through Nazi-occupied France looking for a soldier whose brothers had all been killed in battle. Each man in the platoon faces death on a regular basis on the battlefield, but through this mission, they all find some form of self-discovery through the trenches of war.

Omaha Beach, June 6th, 1944

Many have labeled Saving Private Ryan as the most realistic depiction of war. Which helps boost its credentials with history and movie buffs. Many of the violent battle scenes in the film feel like they are pulled from old photos of the era and war footage. None more than the opening sequence on Omaha Beach on D-Day. The gunfire, the explosions, the soldiers searching for missing limbs—all mixed in with an incredible sound design that, unfortunately, could trigger any soldier’s PTSD. It’s a tough scene to sit through, but it has earned its respect as what some say is the most realistic depiction of the battlefield.

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2 JFK (1991)

JFK

JFK

Release Date
December 20, 1991

Cast
Sally Kirkland , Anthony Ramirez , Ray LePere , Steve Reed , Jodie Farber , Columbia Dubose

Runtime
189

In JFK, Oliver Stone gives us a look at the investigation of President John F. Kennedy through the evidence provided by New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner). Garrison begins to doubt the conventional idea that someone just wanted to shoot the president after he reopens the case and uncovers an underbelly of American politics that may have had it out to kill the president.

Oliver Stone’s Quest for Truth

JFK is a perfect example of how a filmmaker can gather information about a topic, channel it into a film, and never make it feel like he’s getting on a soapbox to prove a point. Some say Oliver Stone is a bit of a conspiracy theorist; others buy into what he’s doing. Either way, JFK questions authority and what is labeled as truth. The JFK assassination has to be one of the most well-documented tragedies in American history, and, of course, something is going to get twisted in the narrative of something like that. There’s a lot of information in the film—enough to make any historian do research on their own. It’s a movie that questions those in power, which is as American as it gets.

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1 The Godfather Part II (1974)

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II follows up on his classic from a few years prior. The film’s contrast between father and son, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro), is on full display as we see Michael moving the family business out west and all the complications that happen from it. Then, through flashbacks, we see the challenges his father had to face as an up-and-coming crime boss in New York at the turn of the century.

The Most American Story Ever Made

The Godfather saga, as a whole, may be the most American story ever made. In Part II, we see that on full display in the flashbacks of Vito, an Italian immigrant in New York City. Every frame of those flashback scenes looks like a faded photo from the early 1900s, and the set design is so on point that it makes any viewer feel like they were dropped in Hell’s Kitchen in that era. It’s a film ripped out of history books in terms of the topic of immigration and what it looked like in America.

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