American History Film List: Good History Films

There was a time in the history of American films when a phenomenon existed known as the "Hollywood ending." It seemed that the good guys always won, the bad guys were punished, and whatever was supposed to happen, Hollywood drama trumped history every time. It began to change in 1954 with a film called "The Bridges at Toko-Ri." In that film about Korean War, the hero was downed behind enemy lines when his plane crashed. When the rescue helicopter arrived, you knew the day was saved, but alas, it was not; they all perished.

More recently, Hollywood (including the movie, cable and television industries) has begun making more realistic history films. Liberties are still taken, but history is not distorted. Viewers can be confident that they can learn from the films, especially if what they see on the screen creates interest in further reading or research. It is good ot keep in mind that filmmakers want to entertain—after all, if they didn't, who would want to watch?

Here is a list of film I have used in my classes. Some are old, many are newer. Links on some titles will take you to commentary.

American Society and Culture
Come See the Paradise. 1990. — Japanese Americans in the West during World War II. Dennis Quaid, Tamlyn Tomita.
Gentlemen's Agreement. 1947. — Investigating Anti-Semitism in America in 1949. Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire.
Mr. and Mrs. Loving. 1996. — An interracial couple in Virginia takes on the State of Virginia and winds up in the Supreme Court. Timothy Hutton, Lela Rochon.
Grand Canyon. 1991. — American society in the 1990s. Kevin Kline, Steve Martin, Danny Glover, Mary McDonnell, Alfre Woodard.
Inherit the Wind. 1960. — The Scopes (“Monkey”) Trial, 1925 Frederic March, Spencer Tracy, Gene Kelly
October Sky. 1999. The West Virginia coal-mining town “rocket boys” win the state science fair. Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, Laura Dern.
The Long Walk Home. 1991. — Civil Rights: Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1950s. Sissy Spacek, Whoopi Goldberg.
To Kill a Mockingbird. 1962. — Attorney Atticus Finch defends a Black man accused of raping a white woman in the 1930s South. Gregory Peck.
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. 1956. — American Values in the 1950s. Gregory Peck, Jennifer Jones.
A Beautiful Mind. 2002. The story of the eccentric John Nash whose theory of equilibrium won the Nobel Prize. Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connolly.
Grapes of Wrath. 1940. — The Great Depression. Henry Fonda.
The Right Stuff. 1983. — The story of the original seven Mercury astronauts. Sam Shepard, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn.
Sports, Games and Other Pursuits
The Rookie. 2002. A 34-year-old high school coach pursues a dream of playing in the “Bigs.” Dennis Quaid, Rachel Griffiths.
Remember the Titans. 2000. — The T.C. Williams High School football team gets integrated in 1971. Denzel Washington
Searching for Bobby Fischer. 1993. A young Josh Waitzkin and his father learn about competitive chess. Joe Montegna, Joan Allen

*61. 2002. — NY Yankees Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle go after Babe Ruth’s record during the 1961 season. Barry Pepper, Thomas Jane.

Eight Men Out. 1988. A John Sayles film about the Chicago “Black Sox” scandal in the 1919 World Series. John Cusack.

Soul of the Game. 1996. The “Negro Leagues” provide a training ground for the integration of major league baseball with stars like Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Roy Campanella and others. Blair Underwood, Delroy Lindo, Mykelti Williamson, Edward Herrmann.

Politics and Politicans: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Abe Lincoln in Illinois. 1939. – The Young Abraham Lincoln. Raymond Massey.

All the President's Men. 1976. — Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein help break the Watergate case. Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman.

Citizen Cohn. 1992. — McCarthyism in the 1950s. James Woods.

Truman. 1995. — Biography of the 33rd President of the United States based on David McCullough’s book. Gary Sinise, Diana Scarwid

Sunrise at Campobello. 1960. Ralph Bellamy. Greer Garson. Franklin D. Roosevelt battles the ravages of poliomyelitis and makes a political comeback.

Guilty by Suspicion. 1991. A 1950s film director finds his life turned upside down by the McCarthy Communist hearings. Robert DeNiro, Annette Bening. 

The World War II Era

The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell. 1955. — A courageous army officer sees the future of military aviation. Gary Cooper, Ralph Bellamy. Directed by Otto Preminger.

Patton. 1970. – The World War II general and his enemies, foreign and domestic. George C. Scott, Karl Malden.

Tora Tora Tora. 1970. — The Japanese attack Pearl Harbor. Martin Balsam, So Yamamura, James Whitmore, Joseph Cotton.

Command Decision. 1948. American Air Forces during World War II. Clark Gable, Walter Pidgeon, Van Johnson.

MacArthur. 1977. — World War II and the Korean War. Gregory Peck, Ed Flanders.

Nuremberg. 2000. — American Justice Robert Jackson presides over the war crimes trial of Nazi leaders. Alec Baldwin, Jill Hennessy, Max von Sydow.

Hiroshima. 1995. — A detailed account of Hiroshima and the end of the war from the American and Japanese perspectives. Large international cast.

Saving Private Ryan. D-Day, June 6, 1944 and after. Tom Hanks.
Twelve O’Clock High. 1949. World War II B-17 air crews in action. Gregory Peck.

Varian's War. 2001. A wealthy American helps rescue Jews from Vichy France during World War II. William Hurt.

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. 1994. — World War II —General Doolittle's 1942 Raid on Tokyo.  Spencer Tracy, Van Johnson.
The Tuskegee Airmen. 1996. — African American Fighter Pilots in WWII. Laurence Fishburne, Andre Braugher, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Courtnay Vance.

The American Working Class: Labor and Laborers

On the Waterfront. 1954. — U.S. Labor History (Longshoremen). Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger.

Hoffa. 1992. — History of the American Labor Leader of the Teamsters Union. Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito, Armand Assante.

Matewan. 1987. — The West Virginia Coal Field Wars, 1920s. Chris Cooper, Mary McDonnell, James Earl Jones. John Sayles, Director.

The Molly McGuires. 1970. — Pennsylvania Coal Mines, 1800s. Sean Connery, Richard Harris.

Post World War II

The Best Years of Our Lives. 1946. — Aftermath of World War II, the “Good War.” Harold Russell, Frederic March, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy.

The Bridges at Toko Ri. 1954. — The Korean War. Frederic March, William Holden, Grace Kelly.

We Were Soldiers. 2002. — The Vietnam War in 1965. Mel Gibson, Greg Kinnear, Sam Elliot, Madeleine Stowe.

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. 1956. — American Values in the 1950s. Gregory Peck, Jennifer Jones. (Note: Also in group 1—you may use for either but not both.)

Thirteen Days. 2000. The Cuban Missile crisis of 1962 is handled by JFK and his staff. Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, Steven Culp.

Path to War. 2003. Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War. Alec Baldwin, Donald Sutherland and Michael Gambon.

Bright Shining Lie. 1998. — John Paul Vann and the Vietnam War. Bill Paxton, Amy Madigan.

Early American History: The 18th & 19th Centuries

Glory. 1989. — The 54th Massachusetts in the Civil War. Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman.

Uncle Tom's Cabin. 1987. — History of Slavery. Based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel. Avery Brooks, Edward Woodward, Bruce Dern,

The Patriot. 2000. — American revolution in the South. Based loosely on Francis Marion, the "Swamp Fox." Mel Gibson, Chris Cooper.

Rough Riders. 1997 — Teddy Roosevelt and the Spanish American War. Tom Beringer, Sam Elliot.

Last of the Mohicans. 1992. — French and Indian War, 1757. Daniel Day Lewis, Madeleine Stowe.

Gettysburg. 1993. The Great Battle of the Civil War. Jeff Daniels, Martin Sheen.

Amistad. 1998. A cargo of slaves rebel against their crew. Anthony Hopkins, Matthew McConaughey, Morgan Freeman, Djimon Hounsou.
The American West & Native Americans
The Alamo.   2004.   Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patric.   Story of the Texas Revolution.
Broken Arrow. 1950. Apache Leader Cochise deals with white expansion into the Southwest. James Stewart, Jeff Chandler, Debra Paget.

Tombstone. 1993. The Legendary Lawman Wyatt Earp and his family. Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer.
Wyatt Earp. 1994. Another view of the legendary Wyatt Earp. Kevin Costner, Dennis Quaid 
— or—
My Darling Clementine. Henry Fonda. This film and the one below are two older versions of parts of the same story.
— or —
Gunfight at OK Corral. Burt Lancaster. Kirk Douglas.
(Select one only)

Texas. 1994. — The Texas Revolution of 1835-6 based on James Michener's book. Stacey Keach, Patrick Duffy, David Keith.
Geronimo. 1993. — The United States cavalry campaign to capture the Chiricahua Apache Chief. Wes Studi, Jason Patric, Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, Matt Damon.
Updated December 15, 2013 | Sage History Home  | Updated December 15, 2013