A scene from the 1979 film "Apocalypse Now"

Best movies inspired by major historical events

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June 2, 2021
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Best movies inspired by major historical events

Some of the best plots in movie scripts comes from landmark moments in world history, from the Crusades to the American Civil War, which are  retold and reexamined through film numerous times. Many actors embrace the chance to play revered characters from years past, while others shy away from filling the shoes of men and women who started actual revolutions. While you think you may know everything you can about a certain historical leader or moment from history class, movies inspired by historical events often tell long-neglected parts of the story.

Stacker chose 25 major world historical events and dug into the data behind the films inspired by them. Some are direct retellings of the event, while others are metaphors for the event or stories deeply connected to the event. To qualify as the #1 movie on the event, the film had to have the highest IMDb user rating and at least 2,500 votes. 

Read on to find out the top-rated film portraying the life of Jesus, early American history, world wars, and more major historical events.

Life of Jesus: 'The Gospel According to St. Matthew'

- Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
- IMDb user rating: 7.7
- Metascore: data not available
- Runtime: 137 minutes
- Year released: 1964

Enrique Irazoqui spent most of his life in academia, but starred as Jesus Christ in this film that was nominated for three Oscars. The film tells the story of Christ through the Gospel of Matthew, and follows the protagonist's expedition near the Sea of Galilee as he gains devout followers.

Triumph of the Roman Empire: 'Gladiator'

- Director: Ridley Scott
- IMDb user rating: 8.5
- Metascore: 67
- Runtime: 155 minutes
- Year released: 2000

Russell Crowe had roles in Hollywood films like "L.A. Confidential" and "Mystery, Alaska," but he became a bona fide movie star as the Roman gladiator Maximus Decimus Meridius in this Ridley Scott epic. The film provides portrayals of gladiator life, ancient Rome, and Marcus Aurelius and family. "Gladiator" won the Oscar for Best Picture.

The Trial of Joan of Arc: 'The Passion of Joan of Arc'

- Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
- IMDb user rating: 8.1
- Metascore: data not available
- Runtime: 114 minutes
- Year released: 1928

One of the first times French heroine Joan of Arc was portrayed on the big screen, it came in this 1928 silent film. Renée Jeanne Falconetti starred as the lead character, and the story focuses on Joan's trial and execution. Although many movie critics fawned over Falconetti's performance, she did not appear in another film after this role.

Atlantic slave trade: 'Amistad'

- Director: Steven Spielberg
- IMDb user rating: 7.3
- Metascore: 63
- Runtime: 155 minutes
- Year released: 1997

This Spielberg epic recounts the events on La Amistad, a slave ship that was overtaken by revolt in 1839. Djimon Hounsou and Morgan Freeman starred in a script by David Franzoni that was fraught with controversy. Scholars have argued that the film has glaring historical inaccuracies, and questioned it as a tool for education about slavery.

French and Indian War: 'The Last of the Mohicans'

- Director: Michael Mann
- IMDb user rating: 7.7
- Metascore: 76
- Runtime: 112 minutes
- Year released: 1992

Based on the James Fenimore Cooper book of the same name, "The Last of the Mohicans" recounts the French and Indian War, and an attack on Fort William Henry in upstate New York. The film served as Daniel Day-Lewis's Hollywood follow-up to his Oscar-winning role in "My Left Foot," and today, many film buffs laud the movie for its score.

The American Revolution: 'Hamilton'

- Director: Thomas Kail
- IMDb user rating: 8.5
- Metascore: 90
- Runtime: 160 minutes
- Year released: 2020

This film, based on the hit musical, chronicles the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton. The brainchild of Lin-Manuel Miranda, this hip-hop inspired movie is noted for its diverse cast, wit, and intricate storytelling. Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr also have key roles in the story.

Napoleonic Wars: 'Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World'

- Director: Peter Weir
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Metascore: 81
- Runtime: 138 minutes
- Year released: 2003

Outside of pirate-inspired flicks, films set on the high seas have not always had huge box office numbers. But with Russell Crowe coming hot off the heels of "Gladiator," this epic set during the Napoleonic Wars proved to have a lasting impact. Crowe plays Jack Aubrey, a fictional character in the British Royal Navy, whose army drifts off course toward the Galápagos Islands.

The Civil War: 'Dances with Wolves'

- Director: Kevin Costner
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Metascore: 72
- Runtime: 181 minutes
- Year released: 1990

Based on a novel, this film directed by and starring Kevin Costner follows a Union army lieutenant who is sent to the West and encounters Sioux tribes. While the plot details a conflict between the Sioux and Pawnee, some have criticized the portrayals of the tribes in the film. Still, the film cleaned up at the Oscars, winning Best Picture and with Costner winning Best Director.

World War I: 'Paths of Glory'

- Director: Stanley Kubrick
- IMDb user rating: 8.4
- Metascore: 90
- Runtime: 88 minutes
- Year released: 1957

Trench warfare during World War I created some of the most brutal fighting in combat history. "Paths of Glory" details a crew of French soldiers who defy orders to engage in an attack that will almost surely lead to death, raising questions of patriotism, valor, and humanity. The script—based on a true story of soldiers executed on charges of cowardice—bounced around Hollywood for over two decades before Kirk Douglas helped bring it to theaters.

Russian Revolution: 'Doctor Zhivago'

- Director: David Lean
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Metascore: 69
- Runtime: 197 minutes
- Year released: 1965

While audiences in the West gobbled up this tale set during the Russian Revolution, the book the film is based on was banned in the Soviet Union. Looking to gain any upper hand possible during the Cold War, the CIA smuggled copies of the book into the Soviet Union to stir up antagonism toward communism. Over three hours long, the film tells the story of a family's search for identity over many years.

Irish Civil War: 'The Wind that Shakes the Barley'

- Director: Ken Loach
- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Metascore: 82
- Runtime: 127 minutes
- Year released: 2006

Set during the fight for Irish independence, this drama follows brothers joining the Irish Republican Army. The film's title comes from a classical Irish song and the movie features several historical themes that serve as precursors for The Troubles. Some critics were disturbed by the portrayal of British atrocities in several scenes.

Nazi concentration camps: 'Schindler's List'

- Director: Steven Spielberg
- IMDb user rating: 8.9
- Metascore: 94
- Runtime: 195 minutes
- Year released: 1993

This black and white film featured a heavyweight trio of acting greats: Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, and Liam Neeson. Set during the Holocaust, German Oskar Schindler defies the Nazi regime by saving the lives of over 1,000 Jews.

D-Day: 'Saving Private Ryan'

- Director: Steven Spielberg
- IMDb user rating: 8.6
- Metascore: 91
- Runtime: 169 minutes
- Year released: 1998

After "Amistad," Steven Spielberg went right into finishing up another historical epic, this time based around the invasion of Normandy. "Saving Private Ryan" follows a military unit who, fresh off the heels of securing Normandy Beach, are assigned to find a soldier whose brothers were killed in action. Tom Hanks and Matt Damon star in a film that has been credited for showing the intensity and gruesomeness of World War II like few others.

Life of Gandhi: 'Gandhi'

- Director: Richard Attenborough
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Metascore: 79
- Runtime: 191 minutes
- Year released: 1982

The life of Mahatma Gandhi is retold in this epic film, with Ben Kingsley starring as the title character. Kingsley won a Best Actor award at the Oscars for intimately detailing Gandhi's life of nonviolent protest and resistance against the British Empire. Before accepting the role, Kingsley said he thought portraying Gandhi would be "impossible."

The Vietnam War: 'Apocalypse Now'

- Director: Francis Ford Coppola
- IMDb user rating: 8.4
- Metascore: 94
- Runtime: 147 minutes
- Year released: 1979

Partly based on "Heart of Darkness," this film about the Vietnam War featured an ensemble cast including Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, and Robert Duvall. Originally, George Lucas was set to direct, but he made "Star Wars" instead, and Francis Ford Coppola's epic vision brought in eight Oscar nominations. The film provided one of the more intimate depictions of the mental toll of war on the silver screen.

U.S. Civil Rights Movement: 'Malcolm X'

- Director: Spike Lee
- IMDb user rating: 7.7
- Metascore: 73
- Runtime: 202 minutes
- Year released: 1992

Denzel Washington delivered a powerhouse performance as Malcolm X, but not to be overlooked is the work of Angela Bassett, Delroy Lindo, and a cameo by Nelson Mandela. The film was released shortly after the Los Angeles riots, and still resonates today for its deep dive into American race and the civil rights movement. The script was heavily influenced by Alex Haley's book, "The Autobiography of Malcolm X."

Assassination of JFK: 'JFK'

- Director: Oliver Stone
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Metascore: 72
- Runtime: 189 minutes
- Year released: 1991

Kevin Costner led the way in this award-winning film, which reenacts the lead-up to and aftermath of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The film was heavily criticized for historical inaccuracies, but that didn't stop director Oliver Stone from making future films about American presidents (George W. Bush and Richard Nixon). "JFK" became a cultural phenomenon, and was spoofed on "Seinfeld," in a scene involving baseball player Keith Hernandez and a mysterious wad of spit.

Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.: 'Selma'

- Director: Ava DuVernay
- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Metascore: 80
- Runtime: 128 minutes
- Year released: 2014

"Selma" vividly details the 1965 voting rights marches, with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. going up against the policies of Alabama Governor George Wallace. The powerful marches eventually led to a removal of voting restriction laws, but the fight was not completely over; today, states are implementing laws once again to limit voting rights.

The moon landing: 'The Right Stuff'

- Director: Philip Kaufman
- IMDb user rating: 7.8
- Metascore: 91
- Runtime: 193 minutes
- Year released: 1983

"The Right Stuff" was the rare case of a box office flop still being a revered award season favorite. The story of the first military personnel selected to become astronauts was not popular among audiences, despite featuring young stars like Dennis Quaid, Ed Harris, and Sam Shepard. Perhaps audiences were too accustomed to outer space films revolving around lasers and aliens, and not historical retellings of America's pursuit of space exploration.

Watergate: 'All the President's Men'

- Director: Alan J. Pakula
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Metascore: 84
- Runtime: 138 minutes
- Year released: 1976

Journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward broke the Watergate scandal, and their 1974 book about their reporting created the basis for a film two years later. Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford star as the reporters, who uncovered the government misdeeds that eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. The film won four Oscars, and in real life, Woodward and Bernstein's reporting resulted in The Washington Post winning a Pulitzer Prize.

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Apartheid: 'District 9'

- Director: Neill Blomkamp
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Metascore: 81
- Runtime: 112 minutes
- Year released: 2009

"District 9" was revolutionary for its science fiction plot based on real events during apartheid in Cape Town, South Africa. The film was a box office and critical success, and launched the career of director Neill Blomkamp. Splicing in documentary footage, the film is a harsh critique of racial injustice.

The Cold War: 'Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb'

- Director: Stanley Kubrick
- IMDb user rating: 8.4
- Metascore: 97
- Runtime: 95 minutes
- Year released: 1964

At the height of the Cold War, Stanley Kubrick took on the hysteria around the nuclear posturing between the Soviet Union and the United States. Kubrick landed Peter Sellers and George C. Scott for the film, and the duo combined to land a number of witty, memorable quotables. A few years later, the film would be cited as helping inspire the counterculture of the late 1960s.

Rwandan genocide: 'Hotel Rwanda'

- Director: Terry George
- IMDb user rating: 8.1
- Metascore: 79
- Runtime: 121 minutes
- Year released: 2004

Don Cheadle wowed audiences with his stunning performance as a hotel manager during the Rwandan genocide. Cheadle's character saves thousands amid the violence, and the film picked up several award nominations. However, the Rwandan government flip-flopped in its praise and then criticism of "Hotel Rwanda."

9/11: 'United 93'

- Director: Paul Greengrass
- IMDb user rating: 7.6
- Metascore: 90
- Runtime: 111 minutes
- Year released: 2006

Of the many films about 9/11, "United 93" was among the most praised. The movie takes viewers inside the United 93 flight that was hijacked and eventually crashed in Pennsylvania, after passengers and crew tried to overtake the controls. Many critics thought that the film wasn't exploitative of those who died on September 11, 2001.

2007 financial crisis: 'The Big Short'

- Director: Adam McKay
- IMDb user rating: 7.8
- Metascore: 81
- Runtime: 130 minutes
- Year released: 2015

Talk about big banks, housing bubbles, and financial markets can often go over the head of the average moviegoer not well-versed in those subjects, but "The Big Short" simplified the 2007 financial crisis and made it accessible and entertaining for audiences. Based on a book by Michael Lewis, the film starred Brad Pitt, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and several other stars, whose characters notice a chance to cash in bad mortgage loans before much of the public. The film is memorable for its deliberately imperfect cut scenes, and cameos by Margot Robbie and others explaining different facets of the market in lay terms.

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