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10 best historical movies ever, ranked

Robert Downey Jr. and Cillian Murphy as Lewis Strauss and Robert J. Oppenheimer shaking hands in black-and-white in Oppenheimer.
Image via Universal Pictures

History might not be everyone’s favorite subject; in fact, many probably hated it back in school. However, a good historical movie can make history seem fascinating and enthralling. Unlike period pieces, which are set in the past, but usually tell fictional stories, historical movies are retellings of famous events in world history through a cinematic lens.

A great historical movie is the perfect marriage between reality and fiction, offering a compelling narrative set within a distinctive historical background. Sure, they might not exactly be accurate because fiction still needs to be entertaining. However, these movies are still enthralling and outright stunning visual spectacles that, quite literally, make history come alive. From classics set in the distant past to more modern takes on 20th-century events, these are the best historical movies in cinematic history.

10. Empire of the Sun (1987)

Christian Bale as Jamie Graham amidst a crowd backing away from something in Empire of the Sun,
Warner Bros.

Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun stars a then-13-year-old Christian Bale opposite John Malkovich and Miranda Richardson. Based on J. G. Ballard’s eponymous semiautobiographical novel, the film follows Jamie “Jim” Graham, a wealthy young British boy whose tranquil life in Shanghai drastically changes as World War II rocks the nation. After the Japanese invade, Jim becomes a prisoner of war and bonds with an American sailor while trying to stay alive.

One of the best Steven Spielberg movies, Empire of the Sun is somewhat underrated in the director’s prolific filmography. Like most of his efforts, Empire is ambitious, grand, and emotionally resonant, grounded in a firm, humane core provided by an outstanding Bale. Although less streamlined than other Spielberg epics, Empire of the Sun finds beauty and strength in the mess, resulting in a potent tale of war and human resilience that rises on the strength of its director’s notoriously warmhearted approach.

Empire of the Sun is available to rent or purchase on Amazon and other digital vendors.

9. Reds (1981)

Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, and Warren Beatty in a promo image for the film Reds.
Paramount Pictures

Warren Beatty’s directorial efforts are pretty uneven, but the 1981 historical epic Reds is among the most solid and impressive. Based on the life of journalist John Reed, the film depicts his time chronicling the Russian Revolution and how it changed his politics and ideals. Returning home, he forms a connection with staunch feminist Louise Bryant and learns that bridging his new ideals with the reality of his country might be more challenging than anticipated.

Challenging yet rewarding, Reds succeeds largely because of Beatty’s passion for the project, which can be felt in every shot and line. The cast is impressive, especially a scene-stealing Jack Nicholson as Eugene O’Neill. However, the film’s true strength lies in its exploration of potentially thorny subjects through a surprisingly earnest approach. Beatty never denies the inherent politics of Reds, but avoids glamorizing it. Instead, the film showcases the strength of revolutionary ideals and the great impact they can have on those living through the conflict.

Reds is available to stream on Pluto TV.

8. Oppenheimer (2023)

A man looks away in Oppenheimer.
Universal

Despite its relative novelty, Oppenheimer has all but cemented its place as a modern cinematic classic in a short period of time. Christopher Nolan’s biographical thriller stars his frequent collaborator Cillian Murphy in an Oscar-winning performance as J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Father of the Atomic Bomb. Intertwining past and present, the film follows his creation of the deadly device and his emotional and psychological struggle in the aftermath.

Oppenheimer is Nolan’s magnum opus, a modern masterpiece that’s dazzling in both scope and execution. Taking the classic themes and sensibilities of a classic biopic and presenting them in the style of a classic thriller, Oppenheimer makes the character’s story seem riveting. It beomes a classic espionage tale that happens to have world-threatening repercussions. The film is a staggering technical achievement, firing on all cylinders to create an engaging, compelling, and outright explosive visual experience unlike anything else in 21st-century entertainment.

Oppenheimer is available to stream on Peacock.

7. The Lion in Winter (1968)

Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II of England talking in The Lion in Winter.
Studiocanal

Katharine Hepburn won the third of her four Best Actress Oscars for her biting portrayal of Eleanor of Aquitaine in Anthony Harvey’s 1968 historical drama The Lion in Winter. Peter O’Toole stars as Henry II of England, whose attempts to secure his line of succession during Christmas 1183 result in unrest among his family, including his estranged wife and his equally antagonistic sons, all of whom want a piece of the pie.

Although far more theatrical than one would want from a historical drama, The Lion in Winter still crafts a remarkable depiction of the High Middle Ages that few other films have been able to match. Movie lovers will delight in the verbal sparring between O’Toole and Hepburn, with the revered thespians spitting venom at each other with such poise that it might as well be honey. Unlike other historical pictures, The Lion in Winter is more of an intimate drama that explores the dysfunctional dynamic of a family without ever forgetting the complex political angle that warranted its existence in the first place.

The Lion in Winter is available to stream on The Roku Channel.

6. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey looking to the distance in Master and Commander.
20th Century Studios

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is among those historical movies that tell a fictional story within the context of a very real historical event. Set during the Napoleonic Wars, the film follows Jack Aubrey, captain of the H.M.S. Surprise, who is tasked with capturing a French vessel off the South American coast. Accompanied by his intrepid crew, “Lucky Jack” does whatever it takes to complete his mission.

Guided by Peter Weir’s confident hand behind the camera, Master and Commander is a modern classic brimming with precise and impressive attention to detail. The film brings the early 19th century to life with painstaking accuracy — or at least as much as one can demand from a big-budget Hollywood production based on a series of fictional novels. Master and Commander does a great job setting its action within the Napoleonic conflict, providing enough context without overwhelming audiences with information.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is available to rent or purchase on Amazon and other digital vendors.

5. Spartacus (1960)

Kirk Douglas in "Spartacus" (1960).
Universal International

Spartacus might not be the first movie that comes to mind when one thinks of Stanley Kubrick. However, this epic historical drama starring Kirk Douglas is among his most daring efforts, a massive enterprise that vividly brings to life one of history’s most crucial conflicts. The film follows the titular character, a slave who leads a revolt against his masters, launching the third and last of the Roman Servile Wars.

Historical epics have always been a favorite of Hollywood, and Spartacus is perhaps the greatest. The perfect marriage between action, thematic depth, and historical drama, Spartacus is a movie lover’s and history buff’s dream. Everything about this picture is impressive, from the acting to the screenplay, staging, direction, and score. Spartacus‘ recreation of ancient Rome is enveloping and lush, a throwback to the grand productions of classic Hollywood that did justice to the decaying glory of the Roman Empire. Spartacus is among Kubrick’s best movies, a timeless tale of rebellion and the human spirit that set the standard for the modern historical genre.

Spartacus is available to rent or purchase on Amazon and other digital vendors.

4. Titanic (1997)

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as Jack and Rose posing on the ship's bow in Titanic.
Paramount Pictures

They say one should never bet against James Cameron, and they’re probably right. The trailblazing director has continuously raised the bar for cinematic entertainment, with his 1997 film Titanic acting as a defining entry in the epic, historical, disaster, and romantic drama genres. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet take on the star-making roles of Jack and Rose, two young lovers who meet aboard the RMS Titanic, which is doomed to sink during its maiden voyage in 1912.

Although centered around fictional characters, Titanic is a truly spectacular dramatization of the Titanic’s voyage that recreates its tragic sinking with as much accuracy as a motion picture possibly can. The performances and classic love story are already affecting, but the film’s production values, most notably its jaw-dropping depiction of the ship’s final hours, are Titanic‘s greatest achievement. Despite the years, Titanic remains evergreen, the epitome of what a true cinematic experience should be and Cameron’s crown jewel.

Titanic is available to stream on Paramount+.

3. Amadeus (1984)

Tom Hulce as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart conducting in front of a large crowd in Amadeus.
Orion Pictures

No matter how accurate, biopics will never fully capture the essence of a person and their story; how can they? Thus, many of the best historical movies opt for a decidedly dramatized approach, using real-life figures and settings to tell a fictionalized story that is no less revealing. Such is the case for Miloš Forman’s Amadeus, which was inspired by Alexander Pushkin’s 1930 play Mozart and Salieri, which is described as a “fantasia on the theme of Mozart and Salieri.”

Tom Hulce and a magnificent F. Murray Abraham shine in the roles of Mozart and Salieri, respectively, with the film exploring themes of envy, pride, longing, desire, and the idea of innate talent through their infamously adversarial relationship. Amadeus breathes life into a time and place, recreating Vienna in the late 18th century with vivid gusto. Historical in spirit, if not necessarily in execution, Amadeus is a postcard of classical Vienna and a character study of two geniuses whose stories have become irrevocably tied by the sands of time.

Amadeus is available to stream on Netflix.

2. Schindler’s List (1993)

Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler walking through a crowd in Schindler's List.
Universal Pictures

Quite possibly the most renowned and revered World War II movie ever, Schindler’s List is mandatory viewing for any self-respecting cinephile. Steven Spielberg’s historical epic drama stars Oscar-nominee Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who uses his factories to employ thousands of Polish-Jewish refugees, thus saving them from extermination in the concentration camps.

By now, Schindler’s List fame is well-documented and irrefutable. Spielberg’s trademark sensibilities are put to the test in a devastating, haunting story set amid the horrors of the Holocaust; alas, the director remains committed to depicting the events with distressing, yet necessary accuracy. The result is a heart-wrenching, yet profoundly stirring and touching drama that feels personal despite its massive scope. Few movies have captured the true horrors of war with such striking honesty, ensuring Schindler’s List‘s place as a once-in-a-lifetime cinematic triumph.

Schindler’s List is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

1. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Peter O'Toole and Alec Guinness in Lawrence of Arabia.
Columbia Pictures

Simply put, no historical film will ever compare to the brilliance of Lawrence of Arabia. David Lean’s epic biographical historical drama stars Peter O’Toole in the performance of his career as T. E. Lawrence, a British lieutenant sent to Arabia to act as a liaison between the Arabs and the British in their ongoing war against the Turks.

Lawrence of Arabia‘s sheer scope is nothing short of mesmerizing. The film is the expression “history comes to life” realized, a grandiose production that is vast, thrilling, and engaging. Like most other historical movies, Lawrence of Arabia is quite fictionalized, particularly concerning the timeline of the events. Yet, it still successfully shines a light on a pivotal and elusive figure of early 20th-century history, portraying the complex situation of the Ottoman Empire’s last years through a fierce and majestic lens that few, if any, historical films have been able to match, let alone surpass.

Lawrence of Arabia is available to rent or purchase on Amazon and other digital vendors.

Editors' Recommendations

David Caballero
David is a Mexican freelance writer with a deep appreciation for words. After three years in the cold world of Marketing…
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