Top 10 Films about Historical Figures

Often the best stories have a truth to them. In Top 10 Films’ list of the greatest movies about historical figures, we take a look at iconic people and their legacies that will forever live on.

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I’m a sucker for a good film about people who really lived. Fictional films can’t always generate the emotion or the raw humanity of a movie which presents a historical figure; be they a despot, a genius, or an ordinary person caught up in extraordinary situations, the words “a true story” can be both misleading and truthful. A brave filmmaker, tackling even the most awful of historical figures, can entertain, enlighten, or move you; the fact that these people existed allows a certain expectation of reality from the audience. We’ve attempted to cull the best-of-the-best of historical films, from all periods of time, from all genres, and from all of cinema history. We’ve tried to keep it to films focusing on a single person (although, as if often the case, these films do have fairly large ensemble casts to work with) and although there’s one exception to this rule, we think we’ve got things pretty spot on. Here is our Top 10 Films about historical figures…

10. Hotel Rwanda (George, 2004)

Top 10 Films about Historical Figures
Searing, soul-destroying account of the butchery in Rwanda during the period of ethnic cleansing which took place there during the mid-90’s. Don Cheadle delivers one of his best performances (in my opinion) as a hotelier doing his best Schindler’s List impression, trying to save as many lives as he can by offering sanctuary within his establishment. Only a corpse would fail to be moved by this story.

9. Ray (Hackford, 2004)

Top 10 Films about Historical Figures
Jamie Foxx’s Oscar-winning role sees him playing the legendary Ray Charles, the blind rhythm and blues musician, as the film tracks through his life. Elegantly told, with Foxx and the rest of the cast in dynamite form, Ray is the modern Amadeus, giving us both light and shade to a complex, often not-quite-a-saint individual, and providing a broader context to the showman we saw on the screen.

8. The Passion of The Christ (Gibson, 2004)

Top 10 Films about Historical Figures
Whether you’re a believer or not, there’s no denying Mel Gibson’s passion (heh!) for bringing the final days of Christ’s life to the big screen was fraught with controversy. Violent, poetic, beautifully shot, and masterfully scored by composer John Debney, Passion Of The Christ is the truest account thus far on one of history’s most famous figures.

7. Gandhi (Attenborough, 1982)

Top 10 Films about Historical Figures
Ben Kingsley’s masterwork performance, and Richard Attenborough’s Oscar winning film, Gandhi is a one-of-a-kind look at the life of one of history’s most cherished and revered men. In showing his non-violent methods of protest against the British occupation of India, Gandhi set the benchmark for epic historical films in a post-Star Wars age.

6. Schindler’s List (Spielberg, 1993)

Top 10 Films about Historical Figures
Spielberg’s Oscar-winning Holocaust film is essential viewing for… well, everyone. This is the reason films were invented – to move, to entertain, to horrify, and to educate. Liam Neeson, a far cry from his Taken action chops, plays the Nazi war profiteer who saved the lives of some 1000+ Jews from the gas chambers of Hitler’s Third Reich. Ben Kingsley aides Neeson as his “voice of reason” in Stern, in an equally memorable role. Shot in black and white, Schindler’s List is the very definition of “this should be shown in every classroom” filmmaking.

5. Downfall (Der Untergang) (Hirschbiegel, 2004)

Top 10 Films about Historical Figures
The last days of life inside Hitler’s Fuhrerbunker, at the close of the European theater of WWII, Bruno Gans’ magnetic, hypnotic portrayal of one of history’s most reviled figures paints him as a melancholy, almost pathetic human figure in light of all he hoped to (and did, I guess) accomplish. Powerful performances surround Gans, as Downfall’s grisly, desperately sad finale plays out – the murder of the Goebbels children, in particular, will bring a tear to the eye of any parent – never before has the sadness and futility of war been so fully realized from the perspective of the Nazi command structure as it is here. Like Schindler’s List, Downfall is essential viewing for everyone.

4. Braveheart (Gibson, 1995)

Top 10 Films about Historical Figures
Littered with historical inaccuracies, Mel Gibson’s salute to Scottish warrior-poet William Wallace snagged the Best Picture Oscar back in 1994; while it might rewrite history a little bit (or a lot), there’s no denying the power it had to transport viewers back in time to the world of a repressed Scotland. Featuring breathless battle sequences (which, viewed in HD some twenty years later, can be picked apart with ease) and postcard-beautiful Scottish landscapes, Mel Gibson’s wayward accent can’t even prevent viewers from finding this one of the more entertaining historical films to grace our screens.

3. The Great Escape (Sturges, 1963)

Top 10 Films about Historical Figures
Blistering WWII film about a group of POW’s attempting to tunnel out of a German prison camp, The Great Escape features one of cinema’s most astonishing cast rosters, as well as one of its most tense and memorable sequences. The tunnel construction, and subsequent collapse, as well as the constant fear of discovery by the Nazi soldiers, backlit by names like Richard Attenborough, Steve McQueen, Donald Pleasance and James Coburn all playing real-life people (or composite’s of real life people), ensure The Great Escape remains one of the great historical films of all time.

2. Amadeus (Forman, 1984)

Top 10 Films about Historical Figures
Milos Foreman’s opus to the talent, life and desolation of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is riveting from beginning to end. Told from the perspective of Mozart’s contemporary opponent, Salieri (played by F Murray Abraham) and mostly in flashback, Amadeus is a triumph of casting and production design – and if you have ever heard the soundtrack in 5.1, you’ll appreciate that as well – and also the winner of numerous Oscars, including Best Picture. Tom Hulce’s performance as Mozart might seem annoying and look-at-me twee, but I think it’s a gem of a portrayal of a complex, misunderstood genius.

1. Lawrence Of Arabia (Lean, 1962)

Top 10 Films about Historical Figures
If not the greatest film ever made, then certainly in the top 3. Peter O’Toole is terrific in his debut film role as TE Lawrence, a British soldier who united the disparate Arab nations against the Turkish forces during World War I. David Lean’s direction, Maurice Jarre’s evocative score, Freddie Young’s dazzling and Oscar winning cinematography, to the fantastic casting and you-can’t-buy-this-stuff location filming, there’s not a single element to Lawrence Of Arabia that falls over with the passing of time. Steven Spielberg once described this film as “a miracle”, and it’s hard to see how this statement isn’t one of the best single line reviews of a film ever. If you have never seen it, you owe yourself a few hours of glorious, 70mm brilliance.

Honorable mentions: Walk The Line, Spartacus, The Fighter, The Sound Of Music, The Last King of Scotland, The Queen, Elizabeth, JFK.

Written and compiled by Rodney Twelftree

Discover more top 10 lists from Rodney Twelftree: Top 10 Animal Film Stars
Top 10 Australian Comedy Films
Top 10 Clint Eastwood Films
Top 10 Disaster Films
Top 10 Film Composers
Top 10 James Bond Gadgets
Top 10 Modes of Transport in Film
Top 10 Ridley Scott Films
Top 10 Steven Spielberg Films
Top 10 Traditionally Animated Films
…and be sure to check out his great site Fernby Films

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About the Author
An Aussie lad with a love of cinema, Rodney Twelftree parlayed his interest in films into a website dedicated to reviewing them. Currently Editor In Chief at fernbyfilms.com, Rodney spends much of his time watching films, television, reading science fiction novels and trawling the internet for news and reviews on all things film.

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  1. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    There are so many great films about real people. You have some great ones on here for sure. But when you say historical figures, do you mean historical as in famous politically? I’m just wondering what you mean. Can you include biopics?

    I can understand why you rank the list the way you do, but I would personally have JFK as my number one film.

    Good list though.

  2. Avatar
    Mark Reply

    Good work ….

    Interesting that this list should appear just hours before the death of Margaret Thatcher, which may lead fans of The Iron Lady (of which I’m not one) to ask why isn’t it on the list.

    Personally I’d have Nixon in my top 10 … which leads me to Dan’s above remark: Would you have JFK as a Kennedy biopic, or one about Jim Garrison? I’ve always felt that Costner was a wee bit miscast in the film – I would have had Rodney Dangerfield as the New Orleans DA (believe it or not, this isn’t as silly as it sounds).

    Gary Sinise as Truman; Josh Brolin as W was also great (as was Richard Dreyfuss as Cheney)

    Also, Benicio Del Toro as Che; Downey Jnr in Chaplin; Val Kilmer in The Doors (if we assume actors and rock stars are historical figures – in the case of Charlie and Jim I think a valid case can be made).

    Robert Mulligan as Custer in Little Big Man was pretty memorable …

  3. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    Having never heard the real Jim Garrison speak, I thought Costner was brilliant as Garrison. The entire film had great actors in their roles. Candy as Dean Andrews and Pesci as David Ferry were the casting coup of the 90’s.

    But back to your question, I’d have JFK as a biopic about Garrison.

  4. Avatar
    Mark Reply

    Dan – admittedly having Dangerfield in the role would have been box office anathema and a bit bizzare; plus he would have had to have taken some voice lessons, but it could have worked.

    Garrison is in JFK – he plays Earl Warren. If you get Fox, watch the JFK anniversary stuff come November … one of the shows has some TV interview footage with Jimbo circa the trial period.

    Nevertheless, you’re right about JFK’s cast though – Pesci was great as Ferrie; Oldman should have at least been nominated for best supporting actor as Oswald; Ed Asner as Bannister was good, as was Sutherland as the fictitious X (who else could have summed it all up with the same sense of urgency in the 10 minutes or so that he had?)

  5. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    @ Mark – considering this list was written about three weeks ago, mark it down as serendipitous coincidence that it appeared here just before Thatcher’s death. Certainly wasn’t intended!

    Just on JFK – it was certainly in contention for inclusion. By historical figures I mean any figure in history – which is why Mozart was included…. Be they politicians, film stars or just amazing people in general, they are all worthy of being seen.

    @ Dan G – With you on Cosnter playing Garrison. One of his his best performances.

  6. Avatar
    Pete Turner (@ilovethatfilm) Reply

    Excellent list! Only one I haven’t seen is Amadeus. Schindler’s List Downfall and Gandhi are probably my top three. I thought Chaplin was pretty brilliant too. Iron Lady would have been nice and topical today.

  7. Avatar
    Jack Deth Reply

    Hi, Rodney:

    Great choices well defined and defended!

    Pleasantly surprised to find ‘Downfall’ amongst the chosen. Right up there with 1992’s ‘The Wannsee Conference’ for excellent attention to detail in a memorable, historic period piece.

  8. Avatar
    Evan Crean Reply

    Still a few essentials on this list I really need to see. I’m happy with the inclusion of Ray, Ghandi, Braveheart, The Great Escape, and Amadeus though.

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