Hollywood Nailed It with These Historical Films

By: Riley Brown | Published: Nov 07, 2023

Hollywood doesn’t always get it right. There has always been a level of artistic liberty in the film industry, but over the years, some filmmakers and producers have recognized the value of presenting a more authentic representation of past events.

We’ve gathered a list of films that put accuracy first and interpret history while preserving the truth. Which ones got it right?

'Saving Private Ryan' Shows The Reality Of D-Day

In 1998, Steven Spielberg directed his period masterpiece Saving Private Ryan. It is seen as one of the most accurate depictions of World War II, especially the chaos and bloodshed of the D-Day landings in the opening scene. 

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The film portrays American soldiers as they storm the beaches of Normandy and follows a group of soldiers on a mission to rescue Private Ryan. The film’s attention to historical detail is remarkable, and while the film takes some creative liberties with its storyline, overall, it is a compelling and authentic representation.

'Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World Is Fictional But Factual 

This movie stands out from others on the list because its plot is primarily a work of fiction. Nonetheless, it deserves its place on this list due to its remarkable production quality. This was the first time such costume and ship design accuracy had graced the silver screen. 

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The film depicts the hierarchical structure of the British Navy and the brutal realities of life at sea, including the dangers of battle and disease. They match the vivid descriptions in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels, upon which the film is based. Thus, successfully immersing audiences into the 1800s life on the open seas.

Did The Wolf of Wall Street Cry Wolf?

The 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street, directed by Martin Scorsese, is based on the memoirs of Jordan Belfort, a former stockbroker convicted of fraud and other financial crimes in the 1990s. The film captures the essence of the culture of greed and excess that permeated Wall Street in that era, but some critics have questioned its accuracy. 

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The film has also been criticized for the behavior of its criminal protagonist being shown in a positive light. In addition, some of the events portrayed in the film have been disputed by Belfort’s former colleagues and industry insiders.

“I am Spartacus!” Was Right 

The 1960 film Spartacus, directed by Stanley Kubrick, is a retelling of the story of a Roman enslaved person and gladiator who started a rebellion. The film is a largely accurate portrayal of the politics and social dynamics present in ancient Rome. 

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It captures the brutality of the slave trade, the lavish excesses of the elite, and the ruthlessness of politics. The attention to historical detail is evident from the sets and costumes to the language and customs of the characters. However, some aspects were slightly exaggerated or simplified for dramatic effect.

'Gangs of New York' Got More Than A Few Things Right

True to life director Martin Scorsese set out to recreate the violent clashes between rival gangs in 19th century New York City in his 2002 film Gangs of New York

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The film does capture the true grit and brutality of the era while showing the real-life tension between Irish immigrants and the nativist gangs who sought to exclude them from American society. However, it simplifies and exaggerates the complexities of the political and social landscape of the time. Plus, the sets were fantastic!

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'All the President's Men' Tackles Watergate

There’s always pressure for accuracy when recreating one of the most significant events in modern American political history. Luckily, the 1976 film All the President’s Men hit it out of the park. The film is based on the book recounting circumstances that led to the Watergate scandal and the resignation of President Richard Nixon, with journalists who broke the story, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, as the authors.

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The film’s accuracy is regarded as very high due to the filmmakers’ close adherence to the book and the use of real locations, props, and even some people involved in the story.

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'12 Years a Slave' Tells A Difficult Truth 

The 2013 film 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free man captured and sold into slavery in pre-Civil War America. 

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Critics and viewers alike regard the film as historically correct concerning the brutality and dehumanization of slavery and the courage and resilience of those who fought against it. The filmmakers consulted with historians and scholars to ensure the film’s accuracy, and many scenes were based on Northup’s descriptions of his experiences. 

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'Apollo 13' Creates An Authentic Experience

Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 is based on the events of the aborted Apollo 13 mission to the moon in 1970. The celebrated director waited for technological advancements to reach a level that allowed for an authentic representation of the Apollo 13 experience. 

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As a result, the spacecraft details are meticulously accurate, and the actors’ performances are so convincing that audiences feel they are experiencing the events alongside the astronauts. The filmmakers also took time to consult with people involved in the mission. 

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'Downfall' Is Downright Accurate

The 2004 film Downfall, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, chronicles the final days of Adolf Hitler’s life in his Berlin bunker in 1945. The film is considered very close to the truth since it is based on historical records and eyewitness accounts–though it is impossible to know what transpired in those final days.

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In addition, the filmmakers worked closely with historians and experts on the period. Thus, the film’s portrayal of the characters is highly realistic and nuanced, capturing the failing regime’s desperation and fanaticism.

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'Selma' Pays Tribute To The History Of Civil Rights 

The 2014 film Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, dramatizes the events surrounding the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, helmed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists to obtain voting rights. The film is praised for its accurate portrayal of the events of the time, including the violent response of law enforcement to peaceful protests. 

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Historians and civil rights leaders influenced the film considerably, and many scenes were based on first-hand accounts. Some details were changed for dramatic effect, but the film is a powerful and realistic tribute. 

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'The Last Emperor' Tries Its Best

Historians have long debated the story of China’s last emperor, as the period remains shrouded in mystery. And while the 1987 film, The Last Emperor cannot claim complete historical accuracy, director Bernardo Bertolucci and writer Mark Peploe did all they could to portray what is historically understood of the era. 

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Details of the emperor’s life remain uncertain, but the film’s depiction of the royal family’s lavish lifestyle and the era’s turbulent politics are considered accurate.

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'Suffragette' Is Anchored In Truth 

The 2015 film Suffragette, directed by Sarah Gavron, tells the story of the women’s suffrage movement in the United Kingdom in the early 20th century. The film is prominently based on historical events and real-life figures, including the leader of the movement, Emmeline Pankhurst.

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While some characters are fictional, the film still successfully outlines the unfair treatment of the suffragettes by the police and authorities, as well as the struggles and sacrifices made by these women to gain the right to vote. 

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'Tora! Tora! Tora!' Tells Pearl Harbor The Right Way

The 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora! conveys the events leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. It is considered one of the most historically accurate portrayals of the attack–much more than the modern hit Pearl Harbor starring Ben Affleck.

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The filmmakers consulted with military historians and veterans. The film features an almost documentary-like realism in its depiction of the events, and some scenes were filmed on an actual aircraft carrier. The storyline includes both the American and Japanese perspectives, as well.

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'Stalingrad' Doesn’t Hold Back

During World War II, the infamous Battle of Stalingrad was fought, and it remains one of the most gruesome and massive battles in history. Although many filmmakers have attempted to use this battle as a setting for other stories, the 1993 film Stalingrad was dedicated to portraying the actuality of the battle. 

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Director Joseph Vilsmaier honed in on a small group of soldiers who experienced the real-life horrors of the period. The movie’s precision originates from its determination to exhibit the genuine brutal reality of war.

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'The King’s Speech' Is Heartwarming And Truthful

The award-winning 2010 film The King’s Speech gives an intimate look into King George VI’s struggle to overcome his stutter and lead his country during the early years of World War II. The film changes some details of the king’s personal life and relationships. Still, it is generally regarded as historically accurate in portraying speech therapy and the challenges of assuming the throne. 

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In addition, the film’s attention to detail in costumes and sets of the era, as well as the performances of its cast, make it moving and memorable.

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'Schindler's List' Is Painfully True

The 1993 film Schindler’s List, directed by Steven Spielberg, is a powerful retelling of the true story of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who had a change of heart and saved the lives of over a thousand Jewish people during the Holocaust.

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The film is an authentic representation of the brutal conditions of the concentration camps, the atrocities committed, and the heroism of those who risked their lives to save others. Based on a book by Thomas Keneally, the film stays true to the sentiment of the original story. 

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'Green Book' Is A True To Life Friendship Story

Green Book tells the true story of a road trip taken by African-American pianist Don Shirley and his Italian-American driver and bodyguard, Tony Lip, in the 1960s. While the film has been criticized for simplifying and sanitizing the complexities of the relationship between Shirley and Lip, it does well in depicting racism and segregation during this era. 

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The “Green Book,” a guidebook for African-American travelers to find safe and welcoming establishments, was an invaluable resource. The film also accurately portrays the music scene of the time, with performances by Shirley in various venues along the way.

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'Black Robe' Is Indigenously Accurate

Black Robe is a 1991 film about a priest who journeys through 17th-century Canada to establish a mission among the indigenous Huron people. It provides a detailed account of the lives and customs of the indigenous people and is lauded for its respectful and faithful depiction. 

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Director Bruce Beresford adapted the novel of the same name by Brian Moore, dedicating himself to bringing the characters and settings to life with historical accuracy. The film gives a vivid representation of the period with attention to detail in portraying the Huron people, their language, and customs.

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'Gettysburg' Gets It Right

For those intrigued by one of the Civil War’s most pivotal battles, Gettysburg provides an answer. The intentionally measured pace of the film allows director Ronald F. Maxwell to showcase not just the two opposing fronts but also the happenings that occurred off the battlefield. 

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The movie scrutinizes every aspect of the era and has garnered acclaim from viewers and reviewers for its exceptional acting and precise portrayal of historical events. Additionally, the attention to detail in recreating the uniforms, weapons, and battle tactics has been praised by military historians. 

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'The Lion in Winter' Is A Medieval Masterpiece

Modern Medieval films aim to portray the hardships experienced by lower classes realistically, but earlier productions tended to focus more on glamor and idealized versions of the period. Although The Lion in Winter’s characters may appear polished and poised, it makes sense since the film is a story about royalty. 

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The film depicts the life of King Henry II’s struggle to choose his heir and the political manipulation by his sons and wife to secure their interests. The film’s gripping storyline and remarkable performances earned it three Academy Awards.

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No Make-Believe In 'Moneyball'

Moneyball is a sports drama starring Brad Pitt and is based on the story of his character Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. The film generally stays true to the core events and principles of Beane’s real-life efforts to revolutionize how baseball teams are built and the players’ evaluations. 

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Beane’s use of data-driven analysis and unconventional strategies to put together a competitive team is accurate. And, hiring underappreciated players encapsulates the evolving landscape of baseball management in the early 2000s.

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The Hard Truth Of 'Fruitvale Station'

Fruitvale Station is based on the true story of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old African American fatally shot by a police officer on New Year’s Day in 2009 at Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, California. The film recounts the events leading up to Grant’s demise and subsequently shows the aftermath of the shooting for his family and community. 

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While some details and conversations in the film may have been fictionalized, the overall account of the life and the circumstances surrounding the end of Grant’s life are mainly accurate, drawing on first-hand accounts, police reports, and other public records. 

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'Captain Phillips' Follows A Memoir

The critically-acclaimed film Captain Phillips is based on the true story of Somali pirates’ 2009 hijacking of the MV Maersk Alabama. The film’s director, Paul Greengrass, worked closely with Captain Richard Phillips, whose memoir the film pulls from, and with crew members of the ship and members of the U.S. Navy who were part of the rescue operation. 

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Additionally, the film was shot on location in the seas off the coast of Somalia, further adding to its authenticity.

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'Lincoln' Is Exceptionally Precise

The film delves into the final months of President Lincoln’s life as he pushes for the abolition of slavery in America. By portraying Lincoln in public and private life, the movie allows viewers to connect with the legendary leader beyond his political role. 

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The film’s accuracy has been praised by historians, who believe that Daniel Day Lewis’s depiction of Lincoln is the most realistic to date, including the little-known higher-pitched voice of America’s 16th president. 

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'Born on the Fourth of July' Gets Help From A Real Veteran

Born on the Fourth of July is based on the powerful autobiography of Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic. Though some events and characters were changed for dramatic storytelling purposes, the film is viewed as an accurate account of Kovic’s experiences and the anti-war movement of the 1960s and 70s. 

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Kovic was heavily involved in the production and worked closely with legendary director Oliver Stone to ensure the authenticity.

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'Das Boot' Captures Real Emotions

Das Boot provides an incredibly visceral experience of the realities of submarine warfare during WWII. It showcases the unique frustration and struggle of fighting while enclosed in a submarine. The film effectively portrays the paradox of feeling both protected and vulnerable simultaneously.

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Director Wolfgang Peterson captures the intense emotions and crew’s exhaustion as they engage in an unrelenting battle. The gripping battle scenes offer viewers an insightful perspective on the nature of submarine warfare.

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'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford' Is Rooted In Reality

Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is undoubtedly a classic Western and encompasses many aspects of the genre. But, more importantly for this list, it is also rooted in reality. 

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The movie follows renowned outlaw Jesse James in the final seven months of his life, particularly with his connection to Robert Ford. The film’s strict adherence to historical facts and remarkable acting performances led to its well-deserved nominations for two Academy Awards.

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'The Iron Lady' Came To Life With Meryl Streep

Acting legend Meryl Streep took on the role of the infamous Margaret Thatcher in the 2011 film The Iron Lady. Many believed only a legendary actress like Streep could successfully tackle the complex and enigmatic Thatcher. 

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Streep’s performance was hailed as a triumph as she brought the great Iron Lady to life on the big screen, perfectly capturing her disposition and temperament through the ups and downs of her years as a world leader.

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'Cold Mountain' Recreates The Civil War Era

Adapted from the novel Cold Mountain, the film version narrates the story of a Confederate soldier who has deserted the army towards the end of the Civil War, embarking on a journey to reunite with his lost love. 

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The characters in the movie are imaginary, but the time and incidents depicted in the film are factual. The movie was a smash and applauded for its authentic portrayal of the struggles faced by Southern women during the war. Cold Mountain defied expectations at the box office, earned critical acclaim, and won an Academy Award.

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'Zodiac''s Painstaking Research Paid Off

In Northern California during the 1960s, a notorious serial killer–the Zodiac Killer–terrorized the region. With numerous attempts to solve this mystery for decades, the suspected culprit was finally identified in 2021. Zodiac, the movie, depicts the actual events surrounding the pursuit of the criminal.

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The film’s meticulous attention to detail resulted from 18 months of deep research into the case. After its release, the film was well-received by a significant portion of the audience, and it’s considered director David Fincher’s most notable film to date.

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