Best Historical Movies for Your Thanksgiving Food Coma
If you're like me, you're not getting off the couch tonight.
I love nothing more than watching a movie on Thanksgiving night. I’m always full from eating way too much, so I put on my coziest jammies, cut another slice of pie, and pile onto the couch with my family…where we proceed to bicker over what we’re going to watch, before whoever is lucky enough to have the remote makes an executive decision and puts on whatever they want.
Fingers crossed the person who wins the remote is me this year.
If it is, I’m probably going to watch one of the following ten movies that I’m recommending to y’all. IMDb has a list of the Top 50 Best History Movies as rated by thousands of people, but today I’m only recommending ones I’ve actually watched.
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I stumbled across The Courier randomly a few weeks ago and decided to give it a try. (Honestly, I will give anything that features Rachel Brosnihan or Benedict Cumberbatch a try. Something that features them both? C’mon!) It’s a Cold War spy thriller in which an everyday English businessman, Greville Wynne, is recruited to “do business” in Russia, thereby helping a conscientious Russian official, Oleg Penkovsky, pass intel to the Brits, stopping a major nuclear confrontation. It’s thrilling and a little scary at times; I 100% recommend it.
If you want to read Wynne’s account of the story, he wrote about it in The Man from Odessa. Author Ben MacIntyre also wrote a book on the events of this story called The Spy and The Traitor, which brings in the larger historical picture. John Le Carré called it, “The best true spy story I’ve ever read.”
Watch The Courier now.
I know there is controversy around this film; director Christopher Nolan didn’t use many actors of color despite the fact that many people of color fought at the battle of Dunkirk in May 1940. Trust me, by recommending this I’m not trying to say that conversation isn’t important—it’s incredibly important.
However, I still think this movie has a lot to offer. Other than casting, it’s pretty historically accurate. It captures the terror soldiers felt in an open-air assault, as well as the betrayal British troops felt after being abandoned to die and having to watch the rescue boats coming for them repeatedly sink. Personally, I applaud that Nolan didn’t choose one single hero to focus on; think about how many enormous stars are in this movie! Harry Styles is in this, Tom Hardy is in this, and yet the movie isn’t about them, it’s about the sheer scale of horror in war.
What can I really say about Hamilton? It is a worldwide phenomenon. We will never ever forget about Lin-Manuel Miranda because of it. The way it made history “fun again” for a new generation is something I’m grateful for.
Is watching the version that’s on Disney+ the same as watching it on stage? No, of course not. So if you’re not up for that, at least read Ron Chernow’s book that inspired Miranda: Alexander Hamilton. And if you’ve already read that and watched Hamilton a million times, check out this behind-the-scenes book of the making of the musical.
The Trial of the Chicago 7
I feel like the right to peaceful protest is up for debate a little at the moment in the U.S., and this is a great movie about another moment in U.S. history when people who were protesting government policies came under attack. This movie covers a would-be peaceful protest at the Democratic National Convention that turned violent when the police got involved.
One particularly hard-to-watch moment is when Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, playing
Bobby Seale, is bound and gagged in the courtroom. This really happened in a U.S. courtroom in 1968. However, the reality was much worse. In the movie, Abdul-Mateen is bound for a few minutes. In real life, he was bound and gagged for several days in full view of the entire courtroom. You can read the official transcript, including the much tamer thing that the real Bobby Seale said, in the trial’s official book.
When we were told we were getting a version of Princess Diana’s life starring Kristen Stewart, I was elated. (I hated everything to do with Twilight, but I forgive it because it gave us Kristen Stewart.) I think she did an amazing job transforming into Diana Spencer and all the rumors that she’s going to get an Academy Award for this role are well-deserved.
The movie doesn’t claim to be super historically accurate, but there are moments in it that are true. For instance, the royal family does open presents on Christmas Eve. However, everyone weighs themselves before and after Christmas dinner. It’s a tradition that George VII started, not a way to track the Princess’s eating disorder, as the movie suggests.
I just did a two-parter on Rosa Parks, but years before this podcast was even a twinkle in my eye, I saw Selma in theatres.
The thing is… I was raised in Texas, where the Civil Rights Movement was really glossed over in our history books. I feel like we were told something to the effect of, “Black people said they wanted equality so we gave it to them. 🤷♀️” This movie wasn’t the first time I realized that my public education had been horribly biased, but it was one of the first times I felt viscerally impacted by the reality of what Black Americans had to go through in order to gain even basic civil liberties in the US.
The movie has been deemed 100% historically accurate, which is an impressive ruling for any movie. Director Ava Duvernay did an amazing job. If you haven’t seen it, it’s time. If you want to read more, here’s a memoir of the march told from the perspective of a 15-year-old girl.
Pocahontas: Beyond The Myth
Listen, we have to have at least one on here that touches on the history of the Indigenous people of America. The relationship between colonists and Indigenous peoples was fraught and full of violence and deception. This documentary, just under an hour, uncovers one of the myths of one of the most famous Indigenous people. It is made by the Smithsonian, an institution absolutely interested in preserving some of the integrity of The American Myth, but there are Native people involved in the telling. I think it does a pretty good job of telling the truth.
Watch Pocahontas: Beyond the Myth now.
The Other Boleyn Girl
Based on the Philippa Gregory novel of the same name, The Other Boleyn Girl is a dramatic portrayal of the two Boleyn sisters who fell in love with Henry VIII. Mary Boleyn is played by Scarlett Johansson and Anne Boleyn by Natalie Portman, which is a casting choice that I think I personally would switch, if given the chance. Mary Boleyn has often been maligned as a seductress of kings, but history has proven that wrong many times over, and Gregory’s Mary sticks to the truer version! Johansson’s portrayal is a bit too sexual. Similarly, I love Natalie Portman, but I think she doesn’t get the playing-hard-to-get energy of Anne Boleyn quite right. That said, this is a fantastic movie for anyone who wants something with a little more integrity than Desperate Housewives.
I sort of can’t believe it took me this long to add a movie with Keira Knightley in it! I love her and she has done so many truly excellent period pieces. There is another I wanted to suggest, but it’s a historical figure I want to cover on the podcast pretty soon and I don’t want the story ruined. 😉
Colette is a mostly true story that mainly takes place in 19th-century Paris. It’s based on the life of novelist and actress Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, whose first husband took credit for a bunch of her work. She has an affair with a woman (who her husband also lusts after) and decides to make a life for herself. The whole movie is very inspiring and fun. I really recommend it if you’re looking for an alternative to some of the more intense fare on this list. I also can’t recommend Colette’s books enough; Gigi is one of her most famous novels.
The Imitation Game
I started this list with a Benedict Cumberbatch flick, and I’m going to end it with one as well. He and Keira Knightley both have something very timeless about their faces, which lends them well to period pieces, you know? And Cumberbatch always seems to pick up characters who are a little bit misunderstood and make them both a little more relatable while still emphasizing their uniqueness. He does that really beautifully here as Alan Turing, the man who cracked the German code and helped end WWII.
Truthfully I tried to stay away from war movies on this list, just because I personally get sick of them, but it’s hard to deny that war is cinematic. Despite The Imitation Game being a war movie, there’s not a lot of actual war in it, so if you’re feeling movie-battle-fatigue, this is still a safe one to watch. You can also check out the book that inspired the movie, Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges.
Watch The Imitation Game now.
So that’s my list! Of course, House of Gucci is in theatres now. The movie is based on the book, House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed, which is a fantastic read. It’s so gripping and also impeccably researched. If you’re into this podcast, you’ll be into the book. I’m hoping that the movie is just as good.
What’s your favorite historical movie? Tell us about it in the comments!
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