When we look back on our history in America, there is tons of strife, politics, and bloodshed in the hopes to establish a new nation that promises freedom for all. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moments that led us to where we are today, but it is clear that storytelling is an integral part of our history.
Nowadays, most people prefer to learn about history by watching a TV show or movie about real life events. As a result, we’ve found the 10 best movies to teach American history that capture significant events and tell true stories in an interesting and engaging way. You can learn about the American timeline from the French and Indian War all the way up to 9/11 and never get bored.
To truly capture American history in film, we’ve listed these movies in order of when the events took place as opposed to when the movies were made and released.
10. Last of the Mohicans (1992)
During the French and Indian War in 1757, the Mohicans are a Native American tribe that are trying to coexist among British colonists. However, when another tribe supporting the French kidnap daughters of the British colonel, the Mohicans go to battle to rescue them. As the British and French come to a head in America, the Native Americans are split between their loyalty. Not to mention their land and their tribes are at risk of violence and being wiped out by the colonizers. This is a very interesting piece of early American history that is important to understand as it leads to the Seven Years War and later, the American Revolutionary War.
9. The Patriot (2000)
Made in 2000, The Patriot highlights the American Revolutionary War, which took place in 1776. Specifically, this story follows Benjamin Martin who is a veteran of the French and Indian War and hopes to avoid any conflict with Great Britain. However, once his son is killed in battle, he changes his tune and ends up leading a Colonial Army to protect the new America from British forces. This movie is an entertaining tale a bravery based on historical facts surrounding the Revolutionary War, so you’ll learn more than you realize while watching.
8. Harriet (2019)
Harriet, based on Harriet Tubman, is set during the 1840s as she leads the Underground Railroad and becomes a famous abolitionist in history. As the movie begins, you see Harriet as a slave on a southern plantation and then her unbelievable escape to join her free husband, John Tubman. Once in Pennsylvania, she meets William Still of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery society and helps hundreds of slaves escape torturous environments. Her own safety is at risk as her former slave owner and others are searching for her up north. Based on a true story, her impact on the Civil War and freedom is amazing as she freed more than 750 slaves.
7. Gone with the Wind (1939)
Written in 1936, this story takes place during the American Civil War (1861 to 1865). Scarlett O’Hara is the most desirable southern belle in Georgia. However, with tons of potential suitors, she is told that she cannot have the one she wants: Ashley Wilkes. On the brink of war, she agrees to marry another man, Charles, but he is sadly killed in battle. She witnesses firsthand how devastating the war becomes and the south is surprised by their inability to survive. As she tries to protect the land she loves so much, several tragic situations occur. In a complicated and twisted love story, you can see the significance of history in Scarlett’s environment, pressure to be an upstanding woman, and finding what truly matters in the wake of war time.
6. Lincoln (2012)
Lincoln takes place in 1865 as the American Civil War appears to be coming to a close. The President hopes to pass a new constitutional amendment that will permanently ban slavery from the United States. While he was a popular leader, it feels like an impossible task due to the southern resistance and votes required in order to make his vision a reality. This movie takes us through the most important political decision in history and each step necessary to end the Civil War in addition to freeing all slaves forever.
5. Pearl Harbor (2001)
One of the best movies to teach American history centers around the early days of World War II. Pearl Harbor is based off of the historical event of the same name, which took place on December 7th, 1941. Right before the United States entered into World War II, many Americans enlisted and in this movie, we see two best friends join the Army Air Corps together. Like many Americans, they get stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii along with many divisions of the Navy. As nurses, soldiers, and pilots meet and fall in love, they have no idea what’s coming. Japan joins in with Nazi Germany in the summer of 1941 and plans a devastating, surprise attack on the U.S. base at Pearl Harbor. This film shows the events of December 1941 in great detail, which killed over 3,000 Americans and then led the United States to declare war on Japan.
4. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Saving Private Ryan takes place in 1944 as American soldiers storm the Normandy beaches with Allied forces otherwise known in history as D-Day. It’s a bloody battle in the hopes of pushing back against occupied France. In the movie, the United States Army Chief of Staff learns that a woman’s three sons were killed in this battle, which was a tragedy not unheard of during this time. As a result, a special mission is assigned to find and rescue her fourth son who may still be alive. The film’s plot does deviate from the history books, but the journey throughout occupied France remind us how desolate the war became before it finally ended in 1945.
3. Hidden Figures (2017)
In Hidden Figures, we see the United States racing against Soviet Russia to send a man to space, which was at its height in 1961. As a result, NASA was looking for outstanding talent to prove to their Soviet foes during the Cold War that they had more advanced technology and resources. Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson were unknown heroes of this time period in history. These three mathematicians made significant contributions to our space program and did so at a time when NASA was still segregated and women did not qualify for the same jobs as men. This is an important biopic of all three women that demonstrates the reality of this period in history.
2. All the President’s Men (1976)
As we’re looking at the best movies to teach American history, All the President’s Men is one of the more recent examples chronologically. In 1972, as Richard Nixon is running for re-election, there is a break in at the Democratic Party National headquarters. Two reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post, exposed the event which some thought meant nothing. Instead, it was discovered that there were many illegal intelligence efforts like this happening behind the scenes of American politics. As a result, Nixon stepped down as the 37th President of the United States and this scandal changed the scope of journalism and politics of the future.
1. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Lastly, Zero Dark Thirty takes us closer to our present day as it details a post 9/11 world in which American intelligence sought out and killed Osama Bin Laden. A CIA agent, Maya, has been searching for Osama for ten years until it seems like she has finally found a gap in the Al-Qaeda cover up. Sure enough in 2001 Navy SEALs strike down on a compound and the man who led the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in 2001 was killed. It was a significant moment in American history, which was brought on by an even more significant American loss.
As we look all the way back to 1757, we can see the early land of America in the French and Indian War. From there, we have the American Revolution, American Civil War, World War II, and so much more. Our country is filled with a rich and dark past and these 10 best movies to teach American history can help us understand these moments on a deeper level. While we all learned about these significant events in school, it can never hurt to reacquaint ourselves with our country’s past. With the creativity in front of and behind the camera, you won’t even realize how much you’re learning on the screen. There is no doubt that soon enough we’ll have even more movies that discover and bring to life these moments that defined our nation.