Historical Movies

Below, I have described some movies that have been made about historical characters or events.  Do keep in mind that in my evalations, my only purpose is to analyze them in terms of their historical reliability. Otherwise good movies will get a low "grade" from me, not because I think the movie is junk, but because it does not align very well with what history tells us the real person or event was like.  I have occasionally inserted movies based on fiction, if the fiction is from the historical period (such as movies based on Homer's Odyssey and Iliad).  

OK. Time for a few disclaimers.  One, I get pretty analytical--about movies as well as about life in general. If you are the sort of person who just likes to eat their buttered popcorn and enjoy the movie, without thinking about the questions I'm discussing here, you most likely won't get too much out of these reviews.  Two--I will do my best to avoid any plot spoilers here, so you don't have to worry about that as you are reading.  Three, the vast majority of these films have adult sexual content--meaning, unmarried people in passionate emraces, with the understanding that they are or will be having sex; some actually have brief nudity.  The only ones that don't have this are the following: A More Perfect Union;    .   My complaint here isn't that I would like Hollywood to remove any references or hints to sexual infidelity in its movies--its just that I don't see the benefit in seeing the various body parts involved.  Although these are my conservative fangs showing through here, I would caution others on the opposite spectrum (say, feminists) that Hollywood violence doesn't really promote their agenda, either--as can be seen in the two rape scenes (you don't see the body parts, but they are rapes nonetheless) of husbands over their wives in the new Alexander movie. This shouldn't be seen as a conservative vs. liberal issue; I would like to think that folks all across the spectrum could see that scenes like this cannot help provide an audience with a mature sexuality.

Below movie reviews of a simliar kind, I have included links to primary sources that you might want to read, to come to your own conclusions about the movie. If you are going to purchase a copy of a primary text, let me recommend that you consider used copies in good or better condition.  If you aren't going to read the book 5 million times, you don't need to worry about getting a hardcover copy; a used copy can usually save you at least 50% of the original purchase price. I have found used booksellers on Amazon to be on the whole, rather reliable.  I can't offer you detailed information on which translations to get; but I can state confidently that the Penguin editions have traditionally been pretty faithful, yet in easy-to-read modern English--just make sure its not a copy of a translation made in 1910, and you should be fine. . Thumbnails of the movies, and their titles, are links to the Internet Movie Database description. One last thing--I gotta tell you, the book is always better than the movie....

OK., on to the flicks!



Index of subjects:

Ancient Greece

Ancient Rome

Judaism and Christianity

United States



Ancient Greece (Back to index)

Homer's classics, the Iliad and Odyssey, record, respectively,  the legend of the Greek war against Troy, and the story of Odysseus' return to his homeland, a Greek island called Ithaca, after the fall of Troy.  These two epic poems are the first works of European literature that are extant.



Three movies based on the Homeric works have come out in recent years, one of them with as faithful a reproduction of the primary sources as I've seen in a historical movie.  This would be the made-for-TV miniseries The Odyssey.


Odyssey video cover

The producers of this movie had the doubly-difficult task of making a movie based on one of the most popular works of literature of all time, and one that was at least 99% fiction, in which the main character, Odysseus, spent most of his time interacting with mythical creatures and deities.  The producers really pulled it off, accurately depicting the events in the Odyssey, and also, the characters and their own inner struggles--Odysseus, who wants to go home but is having a lot of fun where he is; Telemachus, Odysseus' young son who longs to free his home from the suitors. I'm not saying that this is my favorite movie on this page, but its fidelity to the primary sources that it is based on gets it an A.

Backing up a bit, chronologically, there have been two movies made about the first of Homer's works, the Iliad.  The most popular one, starring Brad Pitt as Achilles, tells the story with the main focus on Achilles.  Helen of Troy tells the story from the perspective of Helen, the wife of one of the Greek kings, Menelaus of Sparta, whose journey to Troy with one of its princes, Alexander (also called Paris), started the war.  Since I have common beefs with both of them, I will discuss them below, before trashing each one individually, below.

One thing that I disliked about both movies is that they both portrayed the Greeks, and their High King Agamemnon of Mycenae in particular, as hell-bent on attacking Troy, using Helen's adulterous escapade with Alexander only as a pretext.  Needless to say, this isn't found in Homer.  Going further down this road, they both portray the kings, and Agamemnon in particular, as being hesitant to do the fighting themselves, and instead, getting others to do their fighting for them.  Now this is of course Achilles' criticism, but the Iliad has some good descriptions of both Menelaus and Agamemnon  mowing down their opponents in battle.  Another interesting twist on the Trojan War, is the portrayal of the Trojans as being basically peaceful, but willing to endure a war against the Greeks, to defend Helen's choice to live with Paris.  The most squaemish scene in this light, was Priam (the Trojan King) asking Helen if she loved Paris, with the understanding that it she really did, then Priam would deem it sufficient cause to allow her to stay and to fight the Greeks.  Now if one wants to say that the portrayal of the motives of the Greek kings was more realistic than that of Homer, that's fine, but then lets make the Trojan war cause a bit more realistic than the protection of a woman's right to choose and determine her own life.  I just see much of this as a lot of modern-day Hollywood's pc (politically correct) views being implanted in their movies.  Moreover, if anyone was portrayed in the Iliad as being unwilling to fight, it was Alexander, who was rebuked by his brother for not going out and fighting the Greeks, even though he brought this war on the city.  There was never a peep in the Iliad about how the Trojans cared for Helen's choice.


Helen of Troy DVD Cover







Troy DVD Cover







300 DVD cover


Again, folks, keep in mind that I am speaking from the standpoint of a historian, not a movie-watcher--I have to say that I was more dissappointed by 300 than I was with any other movie mentioned in this page.  The producers at least had the integrity to state at the end of the movie that it was based on the novel by ______, which itself was based on a comic book in the same vein.  My main beef with the movie is its portrayal of the Persians.  In this light, the movie had as much to do with the Lord of the Rings than it did with the actual Battle at Thermopylae.  I have no problem with a movie portraying the heroism of the Greeks fighting against a huge empire, for their freedom--which the movie did an excellent job of. Its just that the Persian warriors, and even their King Xerxes himself, were portrayed as semi-demonic figures, more like orcs than real human beings.   Yes, I root for the ancient Greeks when I read of their struggles against Persia. But portraying your opponents as demons ruled by an ultra-femme king isn't going to solve any problems, at all.  

Perhaps my second biggest disappoinment was the way they portrayed Spartan government.  Spartans were ruled by two kings, not by one (which was never mentioned in this movie).  Moreover, the ephors were elected representatives of the people, who had a lot of power over the kings--they certainly were not currupt, leprous beings who hid up on a difficult-to-scale hilltop.

On the other hand, they did insert a nice touch, in presenting the Greek hoplite tactics (and a philosophy of teamwork as well), when they had Leonidas turn Ephialtes away.  Much of the episode of Ephialtes is made up. He was a traitor, but Herodotus states that he was simply a local who took a bribe, not that he was deformed, and because of this, turned away from the Spartan army. But it at least gave Leonidas a chance to explain why holding the shield high (too high for Ephialtes) was absolutely vital for each and every Spartan warrior. 

This movie also provided a very good illustration of the sentiment (also recorded in Herodotus) that the Greeks felt--that since they were free, they were stronger and therefore braver warriors, whereas the Persian army would be made up of slaves (not technically, but figuratively, since the various nations of the Persian empire were ruled by a king), fighting because a king orderd them to, or merely afraid of a whip. Quite a few of the epigrams that the Spartans uttered in the movie, were in fact recorded by Herodotus or others.

With my dissappointments taken, this movie was still worth the money. I can only hope that the comic-book aspects of it don't dilute the very real and historical background of the movie, in the minds of its audience.

The main source for Thermopylae, as well as the Persian wars in general, is Herodotus, credited with being the first true historian.  He wrote of the Persian wars in his magnum opus

.  The Battle of Thermopylae is covered in 7.201-233 (that is, book 7, chapters 201 through 233).   He wrote in the late 400s BC, some 60 or 70 years after this particular battle. If you get this book, be prepared for a nice long read--my Penguin edition stretches for 584 pages.  You will get his coverage of much else besides wars--he wrote of many of the nations and lands around Greece and the Persian Empire, and never passed up an opportunity for a juicy story.  Imagine Fox News merged with National Geographic, and a little People magazine thrown in to boot.


Alexander the Great movie thumbnail


The main source we have for Alexander the Great is a work from the 2nd century AD, by Arrian.  He followed to eyewitness accounts, those of Ptolemy (one of his generals and eventually the founder of the dynasty that ruled Egypt for almost three centuries), and Callisthenes, a playwright/scientist/philosopher who also accompanied Alexander on his great expedition.   Another extant work, of less historical value, is Plutarch's Life of Alexander.  Plutarch was a prolific writer who wrote with the express purpose of illustrating the characters' virtues and exposing their vices.  Plutarch's work is more biographical, focues on Alexander as a person, whereas Arrian, himself a miltary commander, was basically a chronological narative of Alexander's expedition.



Ancient Rome
(Back to index)

Augustus DVD CoverAugustus

Peter O'Toole portrays Augustus Caesar, narrating the action in the miniseries (four-hour long) in a retrospective on his life.  This movie does an excellent job of illustrating the dynastic problems that Augustus faced (he deserves credit for trying to create a permanent solution, instead of an Alexanderesque "my empire goes to the strongest"), over and against the backdrop of the Roman civil wars from Sulla onward, from the 80s BC down to the Battle of Actium, in 31 BC.  On the down side, however, the movie tends to gloss over the legal reforms Augustus made, in order to make his imperial rule seem, or conform to, a restoration of the Roman republic.  This movie is fairly solid in terms of what it does provide, so it gets a B.



Cleopatra image  Cleopatra

 

This is the mother of all sword-and-sandal Hollywood epics. What more could you ask for: Cleopatra, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, a $44 million production cost (and this was back in 1963, when that was a lot of money), a great supporting cast led by Roddy McDowell and Rex Harrison, a story about Rome’s Samson and Delilah story about a soldier’s soldier who was corrupted by the love of history’s most voluptuous woman. The modern DVD version is four hours plus.   

From a historical standpoint, the only real beef I had was what it didn’t include: not a hint of Antony’s classic military calamity, his failed invasion of Parthia in 36 BC, as well as Cleopatra’s continued support of him in the years afterward.  As is usual with such omissions, I am surprised by it, because the episode was heavily laden with drama and romance. 

 Having said that, the movie does a great job of capturing the political issues that Caesar was facing in the aftermath of Pharsalus (not Pharsalia, as reported in the movie, which was an epic poem about the battle itself, which was called Pharsalus): if he takes too much power, the Senate would reject him; if he took too little, his plans for reform would be derailed by jealous and pompous Senators. 

Again, the movie did a good job of capturing the political positions of Octavian, Marc Antony, and Cleopatra, in the wake of the division of the Roman world into Octavian’s western half and Antony’s eastern half.  Octavian was not strong enough to take on Antony until he had shored up his position as Caesar’s heir, which some in Rome (and even Antony) were not sure Octavian was worthy to be; Antony took the wealthy east for himself, and was the accomplished military leader, but he could lose his authority if Rome saw him held too tightly in Cleopatra’s embrace; Cleopatra needed the patronage and protection of a Roman leader if she and her country were to survive with any degree of  autonomy.

For its overall fidelity to historical reality, I give it a B+. 


Judaism and Christianity (Back to index)




United States (Back to index)

More Perfect Union graphic


A More Perfect Union: America Becomes a Nation



This movie earns one of the few A's on this page.  Even though it was not a Hollywood production, it was filmed on location in both Philadelphia and Alexandria, Virginia.  This movie is a perfect example of art for a didactict, or teaching, purpose. It is not very exciting, and there is almost no action in the movie, to speak of--it was obviously made for educational purposes, i.e., to instruct viewers on the basic debates and questions at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787.   This is a great film to see if you are interested in learning a bit about the debates over the Constitution.