History mixed with a touch of fantasy makes for a fantastic movie! In these days of lightning-fast internet searches, the attention span of a social media generation is too short for engaging with the nuances and complexities of history. So the answer is an entertaining film, steeped in visual detail, revealing the thrilling dramas of ancient or unfamiliar places.
I’ll admit, because of the problem above my quality threshold is pretty low on this sort of film, I find myself far more critical of an SF film with implausible science (I am Legend), than a historical fantasy with a twisted sequence of events (Alexander). I love history, anything to do with civilisation, mythology, clashes of culture, on a micro or cosmic scale and I’ll be first in line
To make the top 10 these films must:
- Illuminate a period of history, not just create a tired description, but bring it to life.
- The history is likely to be ancient, or distant, so giving the audience an objective viewpoint on the drama, and allowing for an element of fantasy or supernatural. Our modern world provides so many explanations its easy to forget that humanity survived with a slow burn of technology over several millennia. This rules out some fine moves such as Amistad and Hacksaw Ridge, even, at the moment, the incredible The Favourite, with its looking-glass-eyed view on a particular monarchy.
- The above rules out some fine biopics (Lincoln) and period dramas such as Duchess. I’m not being particularly rational about this, but I need to narrow the field to a create a cohesive list.
Finally, some of the best of these movies tell a great story within a clear historical landscape (Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven). Does this require utter historical accuracy critical? Up to a point I suppose, but the films are not documentary, and they tell a powerful drama, within the visual language of a two to three hour movie theatre event, rather than a 400 page book. So, this list is a celebration of 10 great movies that deliver history in a brilliant and entertaining form.
This squeaked in, perhaps defiantly so. It has mixed reviews and tackles a notoriously polarizing subject: the motivations and actions of the Crusaders. For me the film successfully walks the tightrope between the ideals of faith, and the hypocrital actions of those who follow it to the extreme, or become corrupted by the power of victory and assumption of righteousness. And this is down to Bloom (as Balian de Ibelin) and Scott who bring hard action nuanced by subtle emotional undercurrents. The victories are de Ibelin’s own, personal triumphs of a decent man, not the Crusaders as a whole, who butchered of Christians and Moslems alike.
I’ve written about this elsewhere. I know it’s been criticized for accuracy, but IT’S A FILM! I like the hardcore graphic novel vibe, the heroic absurdity of the ascetic Spartans, and the powerful retelling of a disputed event in ancient history when the Persian Empire swept across the known world. Set in 480 BCE this is the period of The Buddha and Jainism, the first inklings of Roman influence, the plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus, with the Celtics swarming across Europe and the great Babylonian civilisation being overwhelmed by the Persians. In this bleak landscape where mighty armies vied for land and power, pride was fuelled by supernatural fears and the courage of 300 Spartan soldiers who stood against the tidal wave of the Persian invasion still strikes a chord today.
At just over 3 hours this is a marathon of a movie, but it’s worth every second. The powerful synthesis of several differing stories of the rebellion of the slave Spartacus is told with a panache and sincerity rarely matched today. I suppose the only reason its not higher up on the its is that occasionally its hard to forget the heavily mannered acting and measured pacing. The story of Spartacus has become an inspiration to many generations of the repressed, from the slaves of deep South America, to Karl Marx and Ronnie Reagan. Once more, it the story of one individual that grabs us, whatever we think is going on around him.
Director: Peter Glenville. Featuring Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud.
Oh this could have appeared anywhere in the top 10. The magnetic performances of Burton and O’Toole draw us in to the psycho-drama of two friends who find themselves on opposite sides, only this time one is the King of England in 1170 AD, the other is the head of the Church, placed there by his friend, the King. With themes that resonate today (the power of the church, hypocrisy and power hungry leaders) this is based on the brilliant play by Jean Anouilh and retains much of its power.
With a screenplay by Robert Bolt ( Doctor Zhivago and A Man for All Seasons), the atmospheric direction of David Lean and introducing the scintillating screen presences of Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif this is a magnificent film. Although it covers modern period than the ancient history of others on this list , it deals with the conflict of civilizations and the human condition that brings home the impact of the War that was supposed to end all wars, the First World War. Still powerful inspite of its now antiquated cinematography it rewards repeated viewingsNUMBER 5
Director: Oliver Stone. Featuring Colin Farrell, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie.
Set 130 or so years after the 300 movie Alexander revels in the story of the world’s greatest military commander. Flawed, singled -minded and utterly charismatic he fell victim to his own propaganda but achieved a god-like status in his lifetime. The movie is much maligned but often for the reasons I love it: sprawling, chaotic with endless detail and some painful emotional moments for a 25 year old young man conquering the world from Greece throughout the Middle East until he had gone too far and stretched his own credibility once at the forests and rivers of India
Realsed in the same year as the more jaunty Shakespeare in Love (which covers a slightly later period), Elizabeth offers an enthralling insight into the Renaissance world of the 16th century with its conflicts between catholics and protestants, the machinations of court politics and the panEuropean manoeverings of papal kingdoms of Spain, France, Portugal and England. The darkness, the steely grit of Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth and Geoffrey Rush’s Wallsingham bring this brutal, crucial period of history into brilliant relief.
A massive, engrossing film that lays bare the petty, testorone fuelled wars of the ancient world. Set in roughly 1200 BCE, the very early days of ancient Greece the story of Helen and Troy is a celebrated love story. The movie creates a grand spectacle and, Brad Pitt’s slightly absurd 21st Century fighting skills aside, offers insights into the minds of the ancient world, packed with supernatural misgivings, drunken decisions of loyal, all-powerful men and the brutal savagery of a landscape dominated by fear of the Gods, war and power.
Set in the 2nd century AD, Gladiator is loosely based on themes of the time, but attempts to show the violence, corruption and chaos at the heart of a Roman Empire that’s threatened from all sides. The paranoia of the ruling elite, with its echoes in the war torn parts of today’s world, is everywhere, but the character of the Gladiator manages to blend Ben Hur with Spartacus to provide a thrilling story, offering the unusual twist of Maximus, revered commander of a Roman army being emasculated, renamed and reduced to fighting for his life in gladiatorial arenas. The resonances are picked up even today, with parallels to 12 years a Slave where a respectable man is thrown in to a system that traps him into salvery because of his colour and perceived origins. With an exquisite performance by Oliver Reed (in his final role), Russell Crowe steals the show with his gruff, uber masculine presence, but Joaquin Phoenix delivers a marvellous portrait of an insecure, spiteful and petty ruler.
This movie still reduces me to tears. With its tragic mix of romance, melancholia and teeth grinding battles for survival The Last of the Mohicans stirs brilliant performances from the cast, who work a tight, economical script. Caught between the juggernaut of warring European empires (The English and the French) fighting for land in the new America of the mid 1700s we can feel the slide of an ancient, indigenous people drifting into the glorious sunset, their intimate relationship with the landscape to be lost forever. The Last of the Mohicans is a requiem to the end of a culture of humanity that is lost to us all, now that technology has enhanced the deadly impact of greed. As an adventure, based on the Fenimore Cooper novel its pacy hunt through the narrative offers that rare example of a movie that improves on the original book
Some of these nearly made it into the top 10, Ben Hur (the original, not the modern remake) in particular, but here are the movie posters for the some other fascinating films, based or inspired by historical events. List, credits and links (mainly to big review sites) are below.
- Apocalypto, 2006. Director: Mel Gibson. Featuring Gerardo Taracena, Raoul Trujillo, Dalia Hernández.
- Ben Hur, 1959. Director: William Wyler. Featuring Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd.
- Braveheart, 1995. Director: Mel Gibson. Featuring Mel Gibson, Sophie Marceau, Patrick McGoohan.
- Camelot, 1967. Starring: Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero. Director, Joshua Logan; written by Alan J Lerner based on W.H. White’s book.
- Centurian, 2010. Director: Neil Marshall. Featuring Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko.
- Clash of Titans, 2010. Director Louis Leterrier. Featuring Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes. I liked this. Not many did!
- The Eagle, 2011. Director Kevin Macdonald. Featuring Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland.
- Excalibur, 1981 . Director: John Boorman. Featuring Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren, Nicholas Clay. Elliptical storytelling with an emphasis on the weird. Still love it.
- King Arthur, 2004. Director: Antoine Fuqua. Featuring Clive Owen, Stephen Dillane, Keira Knightley. it’s a good try but not as good as it thinks it is.
- Immortals, 2011. Director: Tarsem Singh Dhandwar. Featuring Henry Cavill, Mickey Rourke, John Hurt
- Ironclad, 2011. Director: Jonathan English. Featuring Paul Giamatti, Jason Flemyng, Brian Cox.
- The Last Emperor, 1987. Director: Bernardo Bertolucci. Featuring John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O’Toole.
- The Last Legion, 2007. Director: Doug Lefler. Starring Colin Firth, Ben Kingsley, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan.
- Mongol, 2007. Director: Sergey Bodrov. Featuring Tadanobu Asano, Amadu Mamadakov, Khulan Chuluun.
- The Scorpion King, 2002. Director: Chuck Russell. Featuring Dwayne Johnson, Steven Brand, Michael Clarke Duncan.
- 1492: Conquest of Paradise, 1992. Director: Ridley Scott. Starring Gérard Depardieu, Armand Assante, Sigourney Weaver, Loren Dean.
- Aguirre, the Wrath of God, 1972. Director: Werner Herzog. Featuring Klaus Kinski, Ruy Guerra, Helena Rojo, Del Negro.
A small bonus to sign off…
Dragon Blade, 2015. Director: Daniel Lee, Starring Jackie Chan, John Cusack and Adrien Brody. Critically panned but such great fun. A large scale revisit of the Silk Road in Western China of 20 AD, during the Han Dynasty, where the legend of a lost Roman legion still lurks, and their resistance of the Chinese against the Romans, the greatest Empire in the world in the West.
Please take a moment to look at these science fiction and fantasy movies :