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TOP "TEN+" BEST HISTORICAL MOVIES
If You Want to Learn More About It, the Library of Ellen Recommends

"All of Life is in the Movies"
Movies have a way of touching our hearts and our lives in the way books and music alone do not. Movies bring fascinating people to life and make us experience things through their eyes that we would never get a chance to do otherwise.

Movies spread the panorama of the past before us, giving us insights and awareness that used to be enjoyed by only kings and philosophers. These are the best of the "historical movies"...
So break out the popcorn!

Please note these are my personal selections and do not reflect the views of "management" or the opinions of anyone other than myself. Where there is more than one movie listed in the group, I listed them in the order that I liked them.

1> The Best at Realistically Portraying Historical Times
..... Saving Private Ryan (with Tom Hanks)
..... Braveheart (with Mel Gibson)

Without a doubt, "Saving Private Ryan" offers the most realistic portrayal of a soldier's experience in the heat of battle that I have ever seen. It shows the stark terror before (with men shaking, sweating, vomiting, and involuntarily urinating from fear). It is especially accurate at conveying the horror of war during the battles (with limbs being severed, bodies being ripped open, and the periods of mental slowness and silence which are the result of the mind halting to deal with so many physical threats). It also deals honestly with the aftermath of battle (with the terrible devastation to the dead, wounded, and especially the living). The best part about "Ryan" was how war forced painful choices on soldiers making them into people they did not want to become and in the end, that some could not live with.

"Braveheart" was realistic in another way: it showed filthy, disease ridden, battle scarred people. It did nothing to soften or glorify the brutality of combat or the harshness of daily life. Although the plot was historically inaccurate (Edward 3 lived long and well after Wallace died, thank you), it was true to the times by showing how treacherous, barbarous, and ignorant the mass of humanity was. For those of us who were once leaders, it shows with terrifying accuracy how often leaders must pay the price for having the courage to change their world "for the better".

2> The Best at Rewriting History the Way it Should Have Been
..... Shakespeare in Love (with Gwyneth Paltrow)
..... Amadeus (with F. Murray Abraham)
..... Little Women (with Susan Sarandon)

Everything can be improved upon: especially history which proves rich material for entertainment but seldom fits neatly into a Hollywood plot. "Shakespeare in Love" is the ultimate clever plot: making one of the most moving stories of all time, Romeo and Juliet, accessible to modern audiences. It is the reflection of life's reality: "utter chaos on the verge of imminent disaster but strangely it all works out in the end". It would have been so romantic if it had been true but it was not! And yet, it was so good, that those of us who knew it was untrue, really wanted to believe it!

More tragic due to being untrue is "Amadeus", the story of the fictional slaying of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart by his arch-rival Antonio Salieri. Salieri could not live with knowing a crude and vulgar man like Mozart was "beloved by God" (what Amadeus means in Latin) while he, God's faithful servant, Salieri was "ignored". Like true Greek tragedy, in the movie, Mozart died without knowing his wife really loved him (she did not in real life) and Salieri grew old hearing Mozart's music grow stronger and his grow weaker (which was true). Alas! Salieri did not do Mozart in - it was the jealous husband of a female fan with whom Mozart having an "love affair". Hollywood gave old Wolfgang a much better exit!

Just as "Little Women", the thinly veiled account of Louisa May Alcott's childhood years in the home of local nutcase and ne'er do well Bronson Alcott, retold those years as the author wished them to be. Significantly the father was absent (people would go out of their way to avoid meeting father Bronson on the street) and the mother was loving, kind, and wise (instead of the real life toxic, vengeful harpie).

3> The Best at Iluminating the Lives of Historical Personalities
..... Patton (with George C. Scott)
..... Man for All Seasons (with Paul Scofield)

There are just some people who are larger than life and, in consequence, have a hard time fitting into it. General George S. Patton Jr was one of those men as the movie "Patton" very accurately depicts. Like many of us who have been in battle in one too many lifetimes, Patton was all too aware of himself as the age old soldier reincarnating once again to fight new battles. The last scene is an especially haunting reminder to us all that "all fame is fleeting". His departed all too soon - alas!

Then there are those who will live forever like Sir Thomas More, the lawyer turned saint, who was one of the few brave enough to stand up to the infamous King Henry VIII of England. There can be no greater tribute to Saint Thomas More's courage, humanity, and integrity than the title of the movie that documents his gracious life and noble death. More truly was "A Man for All Seasons".

4> The Best at Iluminating Lives That "Should Have Been" Lived
..... Ben Hur (with Charlton Heston)
..... Gladiator (with Russell Crowe)

There are some moments that stay with you the rest of your life: two are from the movies in this category. The first is from "Ben Hur" where Judah Ben Hur, once a wealthy Judean merchant, was being marched off to be a galley slave after having been betrayed by a friend corrupted by the power of Rome. Denied water, Ben Hur collapses from despair as much as thirst and then there is a miracle. Jesus Christ appears and gives Hur water that feeds his Soul with hope as it nourishes his body. The unconditional love pouring from Christ to Hur can be almost be felt…

Just as the bravery of Maximus is felt during his final confrontation with the "evil" Emperor Commodus. Mortally wounded and half dead, Maximus is still able to summon up his last ounce of strength to kill the Emperor so that the Empire may find it's way into better hands (it does not). Those who do not seek power for their own personal gain are the very ones who should wield it (not the way life works). The world would be a better place with people like Hur and Maximus running it!

5> The Best at Perpetuating Myths About the Past
..... The Private Life of Henry VIII (with Charles Laughton)
..... Cleopatra (with Elizabeth Taylor)
..... Spartacus (with Kirk Douglas)

No one who has seen Charles Laughton eating meat sloppily off a drumstick and throwing the bones in the direction of his hapless servants can possibly forget it. Laughton's portrayal of Henry VIII created an indelible image of the much married monarch who rarely screamed "Off with her head!" as the movie depicts. Yet he did it in real life with alarming frequency nonetheless (6 wives, 4 body count - 2 beheaded, 1 poisoned, 1 in child birth). This was karmic justice that this monstrous monarch very richly deserved (in my humble opinion - take that Henry!).

Karmic injustice was the result of both Elizabeth Taylor's portrayal of Cleopatra and Kirk Douglas' portrayal of Spartacus. In "real life", Caesar was Cleopatra's grand passion, not Antony. She latched onto Antony after Julius' murder hoping to mold him into another Caesar (she failed). Yet the off screen love affair between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor that rocked the world pushed history out the window and gave life to the legend of lukewarm lovers Anthony and Cleopatra.

Just as Kirk Douglas' noble portrayal of the slave turned rebel leader gave rise to the myth and legend of the selfless and heroic Spartacus. The historical Spartacus was just swept up into the swirl of events that he helped to create. In reality, he was just as brutal and merciless as the Romans whose tyranny (and civilizing influence) he was "fighting so bravely" to overthrow. Gimme a break!

6> The Best at Showing the Impact of Historical Events on People's Lives
..... Gone With the Wind (with Vivien Leigh)
..... Divided We Fall (foreign art film)

"Gone With the Wind" tells the story of what it was like to live in the war torn South during the American Civil War. A bit too clean (the girls are always fresh scrubbed and loaded with "Max Factor" makeup) and a bit too idealized (life on Southern plantations was rarely fun for master or slave), it nonetheless deals with harsh reality of life on the home front. The characters confront the worst of what war does: losing family serving as soldiers to devastating wounds and diseases, losing loved ones to physical and mental illnesses or starvation, losing home and livelihood to the wholesale destruction. Worse, it shows the moral compromises that must be often be made to ensure the survival of oneself and loved ones.

"Divided We Fall" depicts the interconnected web of life and how it's integrity is preserved only when "united we stand". The story revolves around an infertile couple under Nazi occupation who hide a Jewish neighbor. This is made difficult and dangerous by the frequent visits of a friend turned Nazi collaborator who increasingly suspects what they are doing. When their friend suggests they put up a disgraced German officer to make them appear to be "good citizens", they get out of the unwanted duty by claiming the wife is pregnant. And she becomes pregnant by the Jewish neighbor to make good the lie. As the Nazis are withdrawing, they make a final purge of the "Jewish menace". The collaborator tells the Germans his friend's house is clean when by now he knows they are harboring a Jew. In the subsequent purge of Nazis, the couple is saved by producing their refugee. He vouches for the couple as well as for the collaborator who he knows has often "looked the other way". So that, in the end, each of them saves the others.

7> The Best at Portraying Tragic Historical Events
..... Titanic (with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio)
..... Pearl Harbor (with Ben Affleck)

The best and worst people are capable of are often the most clearly revealed when they are engulfed by sudden, tragic events like the sinking of Titanic. "Titanic" has it all: from the chamber orchestra who bravely plays on until the last minute to the cowardly owner of the line who "early on" abandons the ship that his own selfish pride has wrecked. The story is made personal by the struggles of two star crossed lovers who go down with the sinking ship. If you want to see what real love is, you have to look no farther than Jack who rescued his Rose in "every way possible".

Although the main characters of "Pearl Harbor" could have taken lessons of the heart from those of Titanic, this movie is outstanding in showing "what it was like" to have been there. The "bomb's eye view" as they were being dropped from plane to ship really put into perspective just how small and fragile life is. Although I am American to the core, I could not help but marvel at the brilliant execution of the well conceived but doomed strategy of Japanese sneak attack… amazing!

8> The Best at Portraying Eyewitnesses to History
..... Schindler's List (with Liam Neeson)
..... Forrest Gump (with Tom Hanks)

Having "lived through" the horror of the Nazi Holocaust (in a past life), "Schindler's List" was very hard for me to watch. For me the most horrifying scene was not the obvious like the commander shooting hapless prisoners from his vantage point on the roof, the innocent being slaughtered over a mass grave with some pinned under the weight of dead bodies, or the smoke of those incinerated in the showers. For me, the worst scene was the property room where coats, shoes, jewelry, and gold teeth were being sorted into piles… a mute monument to the murdered who would no longer be needing them made by those who would later be joining them.

On the lighter side, "Forrest Gump" employs the device common to most bad historical novels… where the main character keeps on meeting - live and in person - most of the famous people of his generation. Yet the engaging nature of Forrest and the gentle way that he enriches all the lives he touches make you quickly forget this clumsy plot device. Forrest gets you to sit back, relax, and realize "life is a box of chocolates, you never know what you get until you look inside."

9> The Best at Capturing the Spirit of the Times
..... Cousin Bette (with Jessica Lange)
..... Evita (with Madonna)

Fans of the novel "Cousin Bette" may be alternatively delighted or horrified that in the movie Bette succeeds in making sure that her rich, pretentious Hulot relatives "get all the unhappiness they deserve". Wherever you stand in that controversy, the world of 1848 as depicted in the movie with all it's opulence, decadence, and excitement of "revolution in the air" is sure to please. Relying on songs and music of the period, it brings that era alive in ways that few historical movies do.

"Evita" brings alive postwar Argentina by bringing to life it's most charismatic figure: Eva Duarte Peron, the "spiritual leader of her people". More than just a study in "blonde ambition", "Evita" illustrates how one dynamic person can fill an entire population with the hope and belief - even if just for one brief and shining moment - that the future can be better… if only we will believe it. It also shows how easy it is for such hope to die and for absolute power to corrupt absolutely.

10> The Best at Using the Past to Comment on the Present
..... Lion in Winter (with Peter O'Toole)
..... Becket (with Richard Burton)
..... Dances with Wolves (with Kevin Costner)
..... The Crucible (with Daniel Day Lewis)

"We are the origins of war… bodies lie rotting in field and stream because the living ones are rotten. Why can't we love one another just a little… we have so much to love one another for." Although the real Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine would have not have said such things, it certainly is among the most powerful lines ever spoken on screen. As the movie "The Lion in Winter" shows, we are not that far removed as a race from the treachery and barbarism that were commonplace a millenium ago. Made after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, it nevertheless showed the wisdom of his words that "hate only begets hate". The play on which the movie was based was written as a tribute to Dr. King.

"Becket", like "Lion", is also set in the time of King Henry II of England. It shows how love can transform the "wickedest of sinners" into one of the most "revered of saints". Thomas a Becket started off his life as "drinking buddy" to King Henry. They were such good friends that Henry appointed Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury. "Friend" quickly turned "foe": when Becket started putting the cause of God and the church before the cause of the state, Henry had him murdered a la JFK. This play was written specifically as a tribute to John F. Kennedy.

"Dances With Wolves" is a tale of a white soldier's gradual adoption by a tribe of Indians. Left alone to guard a deserted outpost, the soldier quickly comes to realize his only support in the wilderness is the Native Americans surrounding him. He soon adopts their ways and becomes a key member of the tribe. Knowing it is hopeless, he returns to his people to help them see the Indians not as enemies but people with a valuable way of life. This movie is a tribute to the cause of diversity.

Where diversity is not tolerated, "The Crucible" shows how deadly it can be. The play on which this movie was based was set at the time of the Salem Witch Trials and was written as a commentary on the McCarthy Communism trials. The movie shows with distressing clarity just how little it takes to pit friend against friend, neighbor against neighbor, and wife against husband. It shows that in the crucible of karma, no one knows how they will react until the firestorm of events reaches them.


 

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