Back to One: Historical Films, pt 1

The Good, The Bad, The Inaccurate

When I started writing this post – I had an idea to encompass all historical fiction films. But, as I was thinking about all of the options out there – I realized that maybe I should break it down into the really good ones and bad ones. The really good ones educate you and take you back in time for a couple of hours to relive some significant moment that shaped our past. The bad ones can still be super entertaining but rewrite history in a way that is essentially a lie.

I think most of you know that I worked on Titanic. At the time, I was a set person, not part of the creative team. I will say that Jim Cameron was a stickler for everything being as accurate to the period and the event as possible. One time, he called one of the men’s costumers to set to scream at him about the fact that an able bodied seaman did not have his hat on in the lifeboat when he was obviously wearing it in one of the actual photos from the rescue. Of course, he also took a hat off of Kate Winslet that she was to wear in a tea scene just because he didn’t like it. He actually threw the hat off the ship set into the water and screamed that he never wanted to see it again. So, there Rose sat at tea – the only lady with no hat on. Yes, her character was rebellious and might not wear a hat, but our etiquette advisor wasn’t happy about it none the less.

Anyway, I digress, these are a couple of what I think are the best historic films.

Das Boot(1981) – although it’s quite a long film, it’s really one of the best at depicting the tedium and anxiety of war. It’s a German film about a German submarine during WW2. There are no American movie stars saving the day – so it feels almost like a documentary. It’s based on a book by war correspondent, Lothar-Gunther Buchheim about his time on U-96 documenting everyday life on the sub.

Spotlight(2015) – This film about the Spotlight division from The Boston Globe breaking the news about child sexual abuse by Catholic priests was the critical darling and won multiple awards for the year it was released. Set more recently in the early 2000’s, the story is sensational enough that the film doesn’t need to be bogged down with a lot of character fluff and ironic scenery porn. It feels authentic and real and pretty much sticks close to the facts of the story. The cast includes a lot of heavy hitters including Michael Keaton, Stanley Tucci, Jason Robards, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo. If you haven’t seen it yet – I highly recommend it.

So, Deadsplintalorians – what are some really good historical films you would recommend? Next week – we’ll be delving into bad and inaccurate movies you love to hate. As always, thanks for your support!

The answer to last week’s poll is B) One Tree Hill – those kids were so awful I only lasted a couple of seasons out of nine. And, yes the showrunner ended up being a creepy sexual harasser – but truthfully that had nothing to do with how entitled and crappy most of the main actors were. Sophia Bush was really the only one that didn’t turn into a dick.

This week’s poll:

Which actor always smelled like he'd been on an all night bender?
20 votes · 20 answers


  1. It was kind of gimmicky but I admit that “1917” had me spellbound when I watched it. 

    A few that immediately come to mind: “Apollo 13” “Dunkirk” and “Schindler’s List.”

    I love “Gladiator” and “Master and Commander” but I’m not sure those count necessarily? 

    • I cannot believe I did not say “All The President’s Men” because THAT movie hits basically all of my buttons.

      • I almost added ATP to the post – that movie is so good. Apparently, they left out some of the key players to condense the story.

        • Being a former journalist who like many went through an obsessive phase over Watergate: The answer is not everything made the movie.

          But IMO, that’s fine! I can’t stand the people who get sniffy over historical fiction that isn’t precisely accurate. It’s a movie! It should be entertaining and well-crafted. If there were 3 people who all played minor roles who either need to be worked into one character or left on the cutting-room floor, so be it. 

          Don’t try to sell me on a “true story” that’s total bunk, but Woodward and Bernstein spent months uncovering Watergate; there’s just gonna be some stuff that doesn’t make it in a 2-hour movie.

  2. did someone say das boot?

    anyways…cant say i watch too much in the way of historical movies… im a sucker for old ww2 movies like the dam busters and battle of brittain or the occasional ww1 movie…if its about the aviators…like aces high (tho the more recent fly boys was a pretty good watch too)

  3. I read William Goldman’s account of the making of A Bridge Too Far, which led me watch the movie, which led me to read the source book about the failed Allied attack during WW2.
    The movie does a pretty good job of conveying what was going on, although I think Goldman was right in suggesting the scope of the whole operation was too much for a single movie. Some of the scenes are great, others feel wasted. Some of the performances are great, like Anthony Hopkins and Michael Caine, but then Gene Hackman as a Polish general is woefully miscast and Elliot Gould can’t shake his MASH association.
    But I give it a lot of credit for getting across some great lessons about how not to think about big operations, including completely peaceful ones. I wish more people would watch it, and I really wish more read the book, which is fantastic. All kinds of great explorations of the risks of wishful thinking, single track plans, refusing to budge from fixed ideas, and what happens to everyday people when leaders chase unicorns.

    • Monty didn’t exactly cover himself in glory.  Admired the guy for El Alamein (although it was planned by his predecessor), but he really let his ego get the better of him.

    • My friends father was Cornelius Ryan – who wrote the book. 

  4. Have you ever read Erik Larson’s Dead Wake? It’s fascinating, as all of his books are, and I’ve read every one. Ostensibly it’s about the last voyage of the Lusitania, and tons of historical documentation and ephemera survived, much more than from the Titanic, which went down three years earlier. But the chapters alternate, with half taking place aboard the U-Boot that sunk the ship. Details abound.

    For the poll I went with Heath Ledger, because of the circumstances around his untimely demise. In a very New York-ish way I sat next to Patrick Dempsey for a while. We were at the theater (the thee-ay-tuh) and I had specifically requested an aisle seat, but when we arrived, that seat was blocked, so we had to move down one so I was second seat in. The seat was taken by Patrick Dempsey. He smelled fine but I had no idea who he was. He beat a hasty retreat upon the show’s conclusion. A woman seated right behind me rudely tapped on my shoulder and hissed, “Do you know who that was?” “No.” “DR. MCDREAMY!”

    Like many theater-goers she was on the older side so I assumed her meds were off. 


    “I’m sorry, I have no idea what you’re talking about–“

    It was true. I had never, and have never, seen Grey’s Anatomy. I’m sure Pat must have appreciated my ignorance and total avoidance of him. 

    It was a fairly brief production, I wish I could remember what it was, it was slightly off-Broadway, and there was no intermission. When my group left someone asked me what the woman who banged me on the shoulder said. “Something about how I was sitting next to Dr. Mc-something from Grey’s Anatomy–“

    “Holy shit! That was Patrick Dempsey?”

    “Am I the last person in Manhattan to have never heard of this person?” Seems like I was.

    • I wouldn’t have cared either.  I know of Grey’s Anatomy but do not care about it.

    • I love Erik Larson, but I haven’t read Dead Wake. I have it on my list, but haven’t gotten to it yet.

  5. My father was a history buff so I grew up watching a lot of historical movies on TV – Becket, A Man For All Seasons, Ann of a Thousand Days. And later was lucky enough to catch a few in the theater that ran classics. I particularly liked Lawrence of Arabia and The Lion In Winter.


    More recently Persepolis had a strong impact on me. 





    • Haven’t seen Persepolis yet- but it looks good. I love The Lion in Winter – it’s so good. Anthony Hopkins looks so young in it. I got to work with Katherine Hepburn on one of her last movies. She shook really badly from Parkinson’s and had to read her lines off cue cards. – but the minute they yelled action. – she was on – no shaking and you couldn’t tell she was reading off cue cards. It was amazing what a pro she was.

  6. Honestly, I’m hesitant to recommend an historical film because I have this sneaking suspicion anything I say is likely to turn out to vulnerable to an argument that it isn’t all that historically accurate. 
    But on the topic of Spotlight, I immensely enjoyed it for being a film that showed people quietly (yet doggedly) going about their often thankless work, that it was a champion of shoe leather investigative reporting both set in and released in times when independent journalism is gravely endangered. [No wonder it was critically acclaimed by members of the press who saw their onscreen ilk doing important work.] And, apart from Mark Ruffalo’s clip-bait scene, it was largely free of histrionics and other such clichés. (The biggest laugh moment was when an AOL billboard outside the Globe offices casually reminded you how long ago/not-so long ago this was). Personally, I felt Stanley Tucci deserved an Oscar nomination over Ruffalo. He performed with the understatement and hidden depth that the film’s narration often employed. 
    Additional shout outs to Michael Keaton, Brian D’arcy James, and Billy Crudup. 

    • Yep – it really highlighted how important investigative journalist are and what they can do with the right resources. 

    • I would like to VERY respectfully argue, that this is Tucci in damn near EVERY movie he decides to act in!😉
      Even when the movie is… not a great one but merely a “fun” one (i.e. Burlesque!), Tucci is often one of the main reasons the film IS watchable/ likeable💖

      • (*With regards to that “understatement & hidden depth” comment💖)

      • Yes, very much so. I had to check my bias in deeming Tucci’s role the unsung gem of the film, but it holds even after I filter away my baseline admiration for him. Nice that the internet also knows he’s a gem who knows how to cook up a storm and mix a mean cocktail. 

  7. Tora!Tora!Tora! was always a favorite growing up. 

    • I think it’s good to show realistic versions of both sides except maybe Nazi’s – there’s really no nuance to what the did.

  8. Midway 1976 – I loved as a kid, but it was wrong about a few things.  The fictional Charleton Heston character was annoying as well as his son.
    Midway 2019 is actually more accurate even though it is made by Roland Emmerich.  The character of dive bomber squadron leader Richard Best is real.  He actually did sink two carriers by himself and got tuberculosis out of the deal.  Later on he let Daniel Ellsberg copy the Pentagon Papers out of the RAND library (he was the head librarian) without ratting him out.
    Spartacus… kind of.  It’s more “real” than Gladiator was.  The ending really did bum me out.
    The Bridges of Toko-Ri.  It’s a fictionalized account of an actual bombing mission.  The loss of Forney, Nestor and Brubaker was felt to be real by the author Mischner as a rescue mission gone wrong, but in actuality they were POWs.  Same with Spartacus.  It taught 11 year old me that war wasn’t easy Star Wars, but where you found yourself dying in a shit filled rice paddy surrounded by people who wanted to kill you for not the best of reasons.
    We Were Soldiers the book is a very honest look at the mistakes of the war.  Ia Drang was not some glorious battle that was won by the 7th Cav as depicted in the Mel Gibson film.  It was bloody deadly fight that taught the US high command all the wrong lessons of the war.  That’s what you get when you get the team of Braveheart.  However, the only thing they got really right was that Hal Moore was a skilled experienced tactician and leader of soldiers who did his best to save his men from a deadly ambush.
    Hidden Figures (more of a dramatization) but a decent movie of the black female mathematicians who helped solve the orbital dynamics problems of the early space missions.

    • I was saving Braveheart for next week’s inaccurate historical movies. I pretty much love any war movies – but for some reason I haven’t seen When We We’re Soldiers. And if it weren’t for Hidden Figures – I would never have known about those ladies. Most of what I know about that era is from The Right Stuff  -which I absolutely love.

  9. One that I love, because it’s a GREAT costume-drama, and because it has a good storyline about a real person, is Dangerous Beauty.
    Admittedly, I haven’t read the book… so I’m not sure exactly sure how true it stayed to the storyline….
    But the cast is AWESOME and really seemed to dig in to their roles. They work well together as an ensemble…
    And THE COSTUMES!!! (They’re completely FABULOUS and the whole movie’s just basically eye-candy, costume-wise😉)
    Two others I grew up watching, and love for nostalgia’s sake–which are *also* based at least partially on books/true stories are The Great Escape, and The Dirty Dozen
    BOTH movies take TONS of liberties, and aren’t necessarily *that* accurate (i.e.,the REAL “Dirty Thirteen” were not convicts)!!!
    But with both of those, it’s the ensembles that made up the Casts, which makes me like them. 
    Bronson in both movies, Borgnine being *himself*, Telly Savalas playing *so* the opposite of his Kojak character as Maggot in TDD, and just everyone in both of those movies–so many of them actual WW2 veterans, make the movies favorites for me.

    • Lee Marvin thought a lot of the movie was stupid.  Especially the scene where he shoots the rope to get one of the Dozen to move his ass.
      One, that’s some serious marksmanship.  Two, a submachine gun isn’t the most accurate weapon to shoot at a rope.  Three, in reality you’d probably have a guy falling off the rope with a .45 slug in his ass and broken back (at the least.)

    • Dangerous Beauty is a really good movie but I don’t think the vaguely ambiguous title does it any favors.

      • TOTALLY agree, on that title!!!
        honestly? I NEVER would have known about it, were I not MADE to watch it, by another (now former) costume-junkie friend…. who was made to watch it by *her* costume-junkie friend😉
        Of course–as is the duty with that movie, and costume geeks–i then *forced* another two of MY friends to watch it,so that *slowly* the film WILL become the classic Costume Drama that it is destined to be😉💖

  10. /smacks head/
    Forgot Patton.  Written Francis Ford Coppola. A look at the genius of war (US Amercian).  The one thing they got wrong, but impossible to correct due to the casting was that Patton actually had a high pitched voice, not George C Scott’s gravelly one.  Also they cut out most of the profanity in Patton’s speeches.
    One thing I have learned to hate about this movie is how every fucking narcissist fuckwit and dipshit watches this movie (see Trump) and thinks this is how you should act as a leader.  They got all the preening clown shit about Patton, but none of the actual learning, experience and studying he actually did to become the general he was.

  11. He was a great writer. The subject was really complicated, it took a ton of research, there were a bunch of different things happening at once, but he managed to get it all organized and accessible in an understandable way.

  12. Lots of stuff already mentioned above, but I’ll go with The Right Stuff, Hacksaw Ridge, and The King’s Speech (although I’m betting that last one had some liberties taken).

    • The Right Stuff is great!

    • I think The Right Stuff is pretty much a perfect movie.

  13. Selma did a really solid job, except for the Hoover-Johnson subplot. To be fair, that was a relatively minor part of the movie and the depiction of events swirling around Selma were very well done.
    The Death of Stalin is another recent one I really like. There are definitely liberties taken with the timeline — things happen a lot more quickly than in real life. But it’s true to the overall way things went down. And it’s not surprising Iannucci was effective in capturing the madness of the Soviets in a way no living conservative ever could. They like brutal authoritarians too much.

    • Death of Stalin was/is/perhaps forever will be the best movie about the Trump era and I will die on that hill.

  14. Not a film, but I absolutely loved the AMC series Hell on Wheels.

  15. The Mummy.

    It’s an amazing movie with incredibly wonderful dynamics between Evie and Rick and Evie and her brother. 

    I don’t even care about the bad Egyptian history in it. Which says a lot, because I have an art history degree and things like that normally piss me off. 

  16. The closest thing to historical I can think of would be “Frida” or “The Radium Girls.” It isn’t my preferred film genre (I’d rather read my history). 

  17. …as much of the above comments make clear historical movies are not confined to the war movie genre…although off the top of my head most of the ones that come to mind seem to be?

    …so I’d put in an honorable mention for “war machine” in which brad pitt’s turn as a general who thinks he knows what to do in afghanistan was perhaps closer to the mark than I for one was hoping when I first saw that

    …& because if nothing else the “two sides of the story” aspect was interesting the pair of movies clint eastwood directed about the assault at iwo jima

    …but I guess I’m more comfortable with the probably-not-so-accurate stuff…I generally put on a movie when I’m hoping for entertainment more than I am to necessarily learn much…so I’d also give a little shout out to the two red cliff films…it’s a somewhat mythologized period in chinese history & some of what the likes of guan yu or lu bu are supposed to have been capable of is more or less into superhuman territory…but there’s at least a grain of truth involved & it’s a pretty epic story…so hopefully it won’t turn out that I should have saved those for next week?

  18. I’ve never heard of War Machine – I’ll have to check it out.
    and, as far as this week and next week’s themes go – it’s all fluid

    • …war machine would be this one

      …which it turns out was a 2017 movie…apparently pitt’s character was based on this guy

      …who was in post around ’09-’10…so I figured it was on the “true” side of the fiction line…not sure where the red cliff films would land on that spectrum…& they’re long…but I guess they ticked a lot of boxes for me so I threw them in

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