There’s an endless selection of films available at our fingertips these days. And if you’re a fan of history, there’s nothing better than seeing your favourite historical scenes and figures brought to life.
While precise details often need to be taken with a pinch of salt, history films are not only entertaining – they’re also a way of connecting with your favourite history topics and personalities.
With this in mind, we’ve put together a list of 15 history films that are worth seeing. Whether you’re into medieval history, Tudor scandals, world wars, or simply seek adventure – hopefully something will catch your eye.
After a plane crash in the Pacific Ocean during World War II, former Olympian and veteran Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) manages to survive on a raft for 47 days – only to be captured by the Japanese navy.
Sent to a Prisoner of War camp, Louis becomes the target of a particularly hostile prison commander. Suffering extreme hardship and brutality, Unbroken is an inspiring story of survival, forgiveness, and redemption.
2. The Favourite (2019)
In the early 18th century, frail and ageing Queen Anne of England (Olivia Coleman) finds herself at war with France. As her close friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) steps up to govern the country in her stead, she must balance tending to Anne’s deteriorating health and tricky temper.
However, things take a turn when a new servant, Abigail (Emma Stone), charms Sarah and works to become a court favourite and return to her aristocratic roots.
This is an easy, fun, and dramatic film, dubbed ‘one of the funniest movies of 2019’ by The Insider.
3. Hidden Figures (2016)
Set in 1961 at NASA Langley Research Center, Hidden Figures exposes the racial segregation that occurred during the famous launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit. Three talented African-American women, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), work as the brains behind the operation.
Hidden Figures depicts their struggle as they start their careers in segregation-era America, and face discrimination at home, school, and work.
4. The Trial of Chicago 7 (2020)
What was meant to be a peaceful demonstration at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago resulted in charges of conspiracy, crossing state lines, and intending to incite riots against seven anti-Vietnam war protesters.
Politically motivated, the trial of the protesters partly intends to destabilise the 1960s counter-cultural movement by jailing its figureheads and leaders. It was a trial that gripped the nation and sparked conversation around issues of police brutality and racial injustice that are still present in America today.
5. The Duchess (2008)
In 18th century England, Georgiana Spencer (Keira Knightley) is married off at a young age by her mother to William Cavendish – the fifth Duke of Devonshire.
Valued only for her breeding ability and treated like property by her husband, Georgiana is faced with many personal conflicts while trapped in her failed marriage.
An outspoken liberal, supporter of the French and American revolutions, and campaigner for Whig prime minister Charles Fox, The Duchess is an amazing story of a woman way ahead of her time – a powerful testament to women’s history.
6. Schindler’s List (1993)
This epic historical drama from Steven Speilberg is based on the 1982 fiction novel Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally. It follows the story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) – a German industrialist who managed to save more than a thousand Jewish refugees from the Holocaust during World War II by employing them in his factories.
Schindler’s List is an incredibly moving and important watch about a period of history that should never be forgotten.
7. Gandhi (1982)
Mahatma Gandhi (Ben Kingsley) was an Indian lawyer who led the non-violent independence movement against British rule in India. He also advocated for Indian civil rights in South Africa.
Though initially dismissed by English officials, Gandhi’s leadership of passive protests helped India to finally reach independence.
Gandhi is an epic masterpiece that remains just as relevant today as it was in 1982.
8. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
12 Years A Slave is based on the incredible true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) – a free black man from New York – who, in the lead up to the American Civil War, was kidnapped and sold as a slave in the South.
Under his ruthless owner (Michael Fassbender), Solomon experiences extreme suffering and struggles to survive. However, when he unexpectedly meets an abolitionist from Canada, his life changes forever.
12 Years A Slave is not an easy watch – but nor should it be. It’s a powerful eye-opener into this dark period of American history, and as stated by The Guardian, should be seen by anyone with an interest in cinema, art, economics, politics, drama, literature, or history.
9. The Iron Lady (2011)
In the later years of her life, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) reflects on her life and career while preparing to dispose of her late husband Denis’ (Jim Broadbent) belongings.
As the daughter of a Grantham grocer, Thatcher broke societal norms by becoming the UK’s first female prime minister. Despite having to resign eleven years later due to her declining popularity, Thatcher’s rule was a period of significant social change and The Iron Lady is a powerful depiction of her unique life and personality.
10. Suffragette (2015)
In the early 20th century, working wife and mother Maud Watts’ (Carey Mulligan) life is changed forever when she learns of the growing suffrage movement. Gripped by political activist Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), Maud joins the diverse group of women fighting for equality and the right to vote.
Facing ever increasing police action, Maud and the Suffragettes are forced to continue their work in dangerous conditions – risking their lives, homes, jobs, and families for the cause.
11. Braveheart (1995)
Braveheart is loosely based on the life of William Wallace (Mel Gibson) – a Scottish knight and patriot who became one of the main leaders during Scotland’s First War of Independence.
While Wallace’s figure and story has grown significantly in legend over the years, Braveheart remains a powerful and entertaining depiction of the Scottish Wars of Independence – including the famous Battle of Stirling Bridge (1297) – and life in 13th century Scotland.
12. Mary Queen of Scots (2018)
Mary Stuart’s life was full of plight, adversity, and drama. She was Queen of France at sixteen and widowed at eighteen – before she defied pressure to marry and returned to Scotland in 1561 to reclaim her rightful throne.
Best known for her calamitous love-hate relationship with her cousin Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots is a compelling representation of two young queens attempting to navigate issues of marriage, betrayal, and court conspiracies in a male-dominated world.
13. The Imitation Game (2014)
During World War II, British mathematician Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), joins the British cryptography team to help decipher the German enigma code.
Turing and his team face a nail-biting race against time and manage to break the code, which is thought to have shortened the war by as many as two to four years. The Imitation Game also documents the tragic fate of Alan Turing, who despite bringing the Allies to victory, was criminally prosecuted for his homosexuality.
14. First They Killed My Father (2017)
First They Killed My Father is centered on the 2000 memoir by Cambodian author Loung Ung. It recounts her experience growing up in the mid-to-late 1970s during the Khmer Rouge’s campaign of violence – which wiped out around one quarter of Cambodia’s population.
The film follows Ung and her family, whose lives are turned upside-down when they have to leave their home and lifestyle to live in a hostile working camp. When her father (a former officer) is killed, the family makes the decision to split up in order to survive.
15. The King’s Speech (2010)
England’s Prince Albert (Colin Firth) is due to ascend the throne as King George VI in 1936, but his speech impediment is a source of apprehension and anxiety. Knowing her husband must be able to communicate with his country, Queen Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) hires Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) – an Australian actor and speech therapist – to help him overcome his stammer.
Resulting in an extraordinary friendship between the two men, Logue uses unconventional methods to help King George to speak with confidence. Not only is The King’s Speech fun and intriguing, but it also offers an interesting perspective on the abdication crisis of 1936.
16. Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
In 1945, Private First Class Desmond T. Doss became the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
After joining the army, Doss was shunned and ostracized by fellow soldiers for his pacifist beliefs when he refused to carry a weapon during World War II. However, he went on to earn respect and admiration for his bravery, empathy, and selflessness after he saved 75 men at the Battle of Okinawa without firing a single shot.
Hacksaw Ridge is a gripping story of faith, integrity, and courage.
17. Apollo 13 (1995)
When an oxygen tank explodes during the 1970 Apollo 13 lunar mission, astronauts Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) must find a way to return safely to earth.
With various technical problems and tensions within the crew threatening their success, Apollo 13 is full of drama and excitement, and will leave you on the edge of your seat. The epic story of NASA’s near disaster.
Whether you’re a history fan or not, sitting down to watch a good historical film can be fun, educational, and entertaining. Centered on or around real life events, these films have a magical way of bringing some of our favourite historical figures and events to life. Who knows, by watching one, you might discover a new historical topic to explore.
If you’re after some more history inspiration, why not visit the history section of our website, or have a read of our articles 20 of the best history books, 28 of the best historical sites to visit in the UK, and 12 historic sites with Tudor connections?