Balancing factual precision and authentic entertainment, historical films often bring out the best of filmmakers around the world, pushed to their limits to create great cinema while doing justice to the real stories and the people who make up their subject matter.
Here are ten of the best historical films of all time.
Lawrence of Arabia, 1962
The iconic theme of Maurice Jarre, the breathtaking vision of the desert by David Lean and the masculine but vulnerable performance of Peter O’Toole, Laurence of Arabia has all the ingredients to make it a timeless staple of epic cinema.
The film depicts the experiences of British military officer Lawrence in the Arabian Peninsula during World War I, during which he was appointed British liaison officer tasked with helping coordinate the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire.
Although the film’s length of shameless three hours and 42 minutes, its staggering scope and ambition make it an undeniable classic – in 1999 the British Film Institute named it the third greatest British film of all time.
The Battle of Algiers, 1966
A more obscure offering, The battle of Algiers (The battaglia di Algeri) is an Italian-Algerian account of the war between the French government and Algerian independence fighters in North Africa.
“He doesn’t demonize or glorify either side of the conflict, aiming for the objectivity of the ugliest facts,” writes Mike D’Angelo of AV Club. âNo one who sees him is likely to feel comforted, or even justified. The emotion he most frequently and fervently inspires is grief.
This hyperrealistic film – shot like a newsreel – currently ranks 48th in the Top 250 Films of All Tme in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll of filmmakers and critics.
Schindler’s List, 1993
An extremely difficult watch in several parts, the masterpiece of Steven Spielberg in 1993 Schindler’s list is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever to be made.
Set in Nazi-occupied Poland during WWII, the film tells the story of German industrialist – and Nazi Party member – Oskar Schindler to save more than 1,000 Jews from certain death by employing them in its factories during the Holocaust, thus preventing their deportation to the death camps.
A film so intensely powerful that Time magazine called it “a film that escapes the bounds of conventional criticism”, Schindler’s list remains an essential vision not only as a work of art, but as an important historical demonstration of humanity’s potential for self-destruction when taken to extremes.
12 years of slave, 2012
“Every scene of 12 years of slavery, and almost every shot, conveys a penetrating truth about America’s original sin, âwrites Chris Vognar of the Dallas Morning News.
Critically acclaimed unanimously, 12 years of slavery is a brutal and horrific look at 19th century slavery in the United States through the eyes of a Solomon Northup, a free and wealthy African American man who was kidnapped in Washington DC in 1841 and sold as a slave in Louisiana .
Both directed by and performed by Brits – Steve McQueen and Chiwetel Ejiofor respectively – the film has won numerous Oscars, including Best Picture, at the 2013 Oscars.
“This is not a film to be enjoyed but to be endured. But therein lies its disturbing genius,” reports The Times of India.
The deer hunter, 1978
Another disturbing but necessary entry is the 1978 hit The deer hunter, a Vietnam War epic that chronicles the journey of two men from their homes in Pennsylvania to psychological torture by the Viet Cong.
Tense, ambitious and deeply heartbreaking, the film was well received upon its release, but sparked some controversy for its depiction of the torture techniques used by the North Vietnamese, both for their almost unobservable cruelty and historical inaccuracy.
Nonetheless, the film has always been considered a classic of Vietnam War cinema, with acclaimed Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert calling it “one of the most shocking films ever made.”
All the President’s Men, 1976
Films about news writing are seldom considered “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”. But in 2010, 1976, an editorial classic All the president’s men was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for these exact reasons.
A film with uncomfortably timely parallels to current events, All the president’s men sees Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford play Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the two real Washington Post journalists who uncovered the Watergate scandal that toppled the Nixon government in the early 1970s.
âDespite the twists and turns and unusually complex details of the Watergate scandal, All the president’s men manages to make it both understandable and watchable, âsays The Guardian.
An alluring blend of gravity-defying whimsy and surprisingly dense history, the 2002s hero (è±é) is the Magnum Opus of famous wuxia director Zhang Yimou.
Action star Jet Li takes center stage in this epic tracing Chinese history through its Warring States period and subsequent reunification, with much of the screen time divided between scenes from dramatic battle and complex reflections on the moral – and political – implications of a planned assassination attempt on the emperor.
A dazzling epic charged with emotion, the film “is not so much a historical epic as a kind of very determined ballet”, writes Anthony Lane in The New Yorker, “dreamer of bloodless violence, relying less on nuances of character than on the magnificence of the gesture â.
Battleship Potemkin, 1925
The first silent entry in the list is Battleship Potemkin, a 1925 Soviet film centered on the rebellion of the Imperial Russian Navy Battleship Potemkin’s staff in 1905, now considered one of the main catalysts leading to the overthrow of the country’s Tsarist government 12 years later.
As MTV points out, there was no Oscar to be won when it was released, but at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, Potemkin was named the greatest movie of all time and “continues to feature high on the lists of best and most important movies.”
“Potemkin is a vital visual experience that transcends its status as a landmark / milestone, âexplains The Observer.
Gandhi tells the story of Indian revolutionary Mahatma Gandhi, from his time as a local statesman to a global icon.
Anchored by a stunning central performance by British actor Ben Kingsley (who is of Gujarati descent like Gandhi himself), the film was also critically acclaimed, Variety declaring: this one is tempted to hail it as being almost perfect.
Chariots of Fire, 1981
A lively, moving and deeply British film on a relatively small budget from the 1981s Chariots of fire became a surprise hit, usurping a number of Hollywood heavyweights at the Oscars that same year.
The film tells the real story of Olympic runners Eric Liddell, a Scottish Christian who runs for the glory of God, and Harold Abrahams, an English Jew who runs to overcome prejudice, and their journey to the 1924 Olympics in France.
“From the opening scene of pale young men running barefoot along the beach, full of hope and exhilaration, supported by the now famous Vangelis hymn, the film is utterly compelling,” writes Kate Muir. of the Times.