I’m a sucker for a good film about people who really lived. Fictional films can’t always generate the emotion or the raw humanity of a movie which presents a historical figure; be they a despot, a genius, or an ordinary person caught up in extraordinary situations, the words “a true story” can be both misleading and truthful. A brave filmmaker, tackling even the most awful of historical figures, can entertain, enlighten, or move you; the fact that these people existed allows a certain expectation of reality from the audience. We’ve attempted to cull the best-of-the-best of historical films, from all periods of time, from all genres, and from all of cinema history. We’ve tried to keep it to films focusing on a single person (although, as if often the case, these films do have fairly large ensemble casts to work with) and although there’s one exception to this rule, we think we’ve got things pretty spot on.
Here is our list of the 10 best films about historical figures.
Searing, soul-destroying account of the butchery in Rwanda during the period of ethnic cleansing which took place there during the mid-90’s. Don Cheadle delivers one of his best performances (in my opinion) as a hotelier doing his best Schindler’s List impression, trying to save as many lives as he can by offering sanctuary within his establishment. Only a corpse would fail to be moved by this story.
Jamie Foxx’s Oscar-winning role sees him playing the legendary Ray Charles, the blind rhythm and blues musician, as the film tracks through his life. Elegantly told, with Foxx and the rest of the cast in dynamite form, Ray is the modern Amadeus, giving us both light and shade to a complex, often not-quite-a-saint individual, and providing a broader context to the showman we saw on the screen.
Whether you’re a believer or not, there’s no denying Mel Gibson’s passion (heh!) for bringing the final days of Christ’s life to the big screen was fraught with controversy. Violent, poetic, beautifully shot, and masterfully scored by composer John Debney, Passion Of The Christ is the truest account thus far on one of history’s most famous figures.
Ben Kingsley’s masterwork performance, and Richard Attenborough’s Oscar winning film, Gandhi is a one-of-a-kind look at the life of one of history’s most cherished and revered men. In showing his non-violent methods of protest against the British occupation of India, Gandhi set the benchmark for epic historical films in a post-Star Wars age.
Spielberg’s Oscar-winning Holocaust film is essential viewing for… well, everyone. This is the reason films were invented – to move, to entertain, to horrify, and to educate. Liam Neeson, a far cry from his Taken action chops, plays the Nazi war profiteer who saved the lives of some 1000+ Jews from the gas chambers of Hitler’s Third Reich. Ben Kingsley aides Neeson as his “voice of reason” in Stern, in an equally memorable role. Shot in black and white, Schindler’s List is the very definition of “this should be shown in every classroom” film-making.
The last days of life inside Hitler’s Fuhrerbunker, at the close of the European theater of WWII, Bruno Gans’ magnetic, hypnotic portrayal of one of history’s most reviled figures paints him as a melancholy, almost pathetic human figure in light of all he hoped to (and did, I guess) accomplish. Powerful performances surround Gans, as Downfall’s grisly, desperately sad finale plays out – the murder of the Goebbels children, in particular, will bring a tear to the eye of any parent – never before has the sadness and futility of war been so fully realized from the perspective of the Nazi command structure as it is here. Like Schindler’s List, Downfall is essential viewing for everyone.
Littered with historical inaccuracies, Mel Gibson’s salute to Scottish warrior-poet William Wallace snagged the Best Picture Oscar back in 1994; while it might rewrite history a little bit (or a lot), there’s no denying the power it had to transport viewers back in time to the world of a repressed Scotland. Featuring breathless battle sequences (which, viewed in HD some twenty years later, can be picked apart with ease) and postcard-beautiful Scottish landscapes, Mel Gibson’s wayward accent can’t even prevent viewers from finding this one of the more entertaining historical films to grace our screens.
Blistering WWII film about a group of POW’s attempting to tunnel out of a German prison camp, The Great Escape features one of cinema’s most astonishing cast rosters, as well as one of its most tense and memorable sequences. The tunnel construction, and subsequent collapse, as well as the constant fear of discovery by the Nazi soldiers, backlit by names like Richard Attenborough, Steve McQueen, Donald Pleasance and James Coburn all playing real-life people (or composite’s of real life people), ensure The Great Escape remains one of the great historical films of all time.
Milos Foreman’s opus to the talent, life and desolation of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is riveting from beginning to end. Told from the perspective of Mozart’s contemporary opponent, Salieri (played by F Murray Abraham) and mostly in flashback, Amadeus is a triumph of casting and production design – and if you have ever heard the soundtrack in 5.1, you’ll appreciate that as well – and also the winner of numerous Oscars, including Best Picture. Tom Hulce’s performance as Mozart might seem annoying and look-at-me twee, but I think it’s a gem of a portrayal of a complex, misunderstood genius.
If not the greatest film ever made, then certainly in the top 3. Peter O’Toole is terrific in his debut film role as TE Lawrence, a British soldier who united the disparate Arab nations against the Turkish forces during World War I. David Lean’s direction, Maurice Jarre’s evocative score, Freddie Young’s dazzling and Oscar winning cinematography, to the fantastic casting and you-can’t-buy-this-stuff location filming, there’s not a single element to Lawrence Of Arabia that falls over with the passing of time. Steven Spielberg once described this film as “a miracle”, and it’s hard to see how this statement isn’t one of the best single line reviews of a film ever. If you have never seen it, you owe yourself a few hours of glorious, 70mm brilliance.