We are a reader-supported education publication. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission to help us keep providing content.
The United States has a brief but storied history full of memorable events and larger-than-life individuals, both good and evil. While history is usually a more reading-based subject, Americans also have paid homage to their past with some fantastic films. Here are ten great America-focused movies for your history class in order of release.
1. Gone With The Wind (1939)
Based on Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 book of the same name, this film based in Civil War-era Georgia has stirred up some controversy in recent years for its depiction of race relations and slavery. Still, Gone With The Wind is one of the unquestioned masterpieces of its era. It was also visually ahead of its time with vivid technicolor and wide panning shots of violence that shocked the audience in theaters.
The film earned 10 Oscar wins, including Best Supporting Actress, which went to Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American woman to win the award. You’ll find drama, intrigue, romance and a unique insight into how post-Depression America viewed the events of the Civil War.
2. Jeremiah Johnson (1972)
This movie follows the travels of a mid-1800’s army veteran named Jeremiah Johnson, who leaves his old life behind to become a fur trapper in Colorado’s great Rocky Mountains. The film is an emotional roller coaster, taking the viewer through the highest peaks and lowest valleys of frontier life. It also explores the tense coexistence of American frontiersmen and the area’s native population. With only a handful of named characters, the viewer becomes fully immersed in each person’s story, especially the protagonist, played by the great Robert Redford.
3. Last of the Mohicans (1992)
This film expertly weaves a fictional relationship between a Mohican-raised white man and an English officer’s daughter into the events of the French and Indian War, which took place in colonial America during the 1750s.
The movie is known for its remarkable attention to detail with dates, locations, language, costume design and battle tactics of the time period. With one of the most fantastic scores of all time and Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe in the leading roles, this movie has everything you want in a historical drama: action, love, star-power and above all, accuracy.
4. Gettysburg (1993)
Another film known for its spectacular score and attention to detail, Gettysburg is a four-hour-long epic covering the most noteworthy battle of the Civil War. It’s also famous for portraying both sides of the conflict in a favorable light and emphasizing the “brother against brother” theme.
Historians have scoured this film repeatedly to find anything that strays from the actual events, but to no avail. That’s because the director, writers, actors and the thousands of extras involved in the movie’s production were all massive history buffs themselves. They wouldn’t settle for anything less. It might take a few days to get through, but your students will be captivated for every single moment.
5. Apollo 13 (1995)
We jump forward to the space race, during which America’s Apollo missions firmly solidified them as the world’s greatest power in land, air and space. While Apollo 11 gets all the glory for landing on the moon, Apollo 13 gives us a more riveting story. The film recalls the three astronauts who were stuck on Apollo 13 for weeks, struggling with hunger and sickness, unsure if they would ever return home.
With the trio of Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon leading a phenomenal cast, this film perfectly captures the fear and excitement surrounding the rushed mission and the fates of each crew member.
6. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Another 1990s film starring Tom Hanks, Saving Private Ryan is known for its brutal realism in depicting D-Day, the bloodiest day of the Second World War, and its immediate psychological impact on those who participated.
Aside from the memorable action sequences, this movie also explores other themes of war, namely the touchy officer/grunt relationship and the humanization of the soldier. Each American soldier’s background is slowly fleshed out throughout the film, which brings home how tragic and devastating war really is. Some students might find it difficult to watch, but it will make a powerful impression and is among the great movies for history class.
7. The Patriot (2000)
The Patriot takes us back in time to the American Revolution, following a fictional man and his family’s struggles throughout the conflict. Rather than setting the scene in Boston or Philadelphia, this film mostly takes place in the farmlands of South Carolina, which gives us a welcome change.
Much like other Mel Gibson historical dramas (we’re looking at you, Braveheart), the film takes some liberties in changing historical events to create a better story. Still, the costumes and language are superb, and the Americans’ guerilla war tactics to defeat the British are another interesting point of emphasis. It’s a fantastic look into the religious and family values of the time, and how those values contributed to American independence.
8. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
This film covers the most recent historical events on the list: the hunt and termination of Al-Queda leader Osama bin Laden. However, rather than telling the story from the perspective of the Navy SEAL team who carried out the mission, this film follows an inexperienced CIA operative who found herself in the middle of the 9/11 investigations and eventually played a vital role in finding the man who orchestrated the attack.
It also avoids a common mistake in historical films of making the protagonists or “good side” look too admirable. Zero Dark Thirty’s main characters show the proper amounts of bravery and corruption that you’d expect from secret government operations.
9. Lincoln (2012)
Daniel Day-Lewis makes another appearance on this list with his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, the president who led the United States during the Civil War. This film covers the events of 1865, in which Lincoln needed to pass the pivotal 13th Amendment to officially free the slaves before the war’s end.
Director Steven Spielberg devoted over a decade of research to creating accurate sets and costumes, and Day-Lewis’s famous method acting skills gave us arguably the best on-screen depiction of Lincoln we’ve ever seen. It doesn’t have as much action and bloodshed as you’d expect from a Civil War movie, but that only emphasizes Lincoln’s quest for peace even more.
10. 12 Years A Slave (2013)
Last but certainly not least, 12 Years A Slave recalls the incredible story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who was taken captive and enslaved for 12 years. Northup meets many characters during his lengthy trial, some cruel and some compassionate. It’s a unique look into the slavery-era United States that you won’t find anywhere else.
With standout performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor, the late Michael Kenneth Williams, Michael Fassbender and many others, this film is a must-watch for those who are unafraid to explore America’s troubled and romantic past. Lincoln and 12 Years a Slave are both fitting movies for history class in today’s social climate.
American History Has Many Lessons
Although the United States has only existed for less than 250 years, it has a rich history full of many important life lessons. Show one of these movies in your next history class and your students will be thoroughly educated and entertained.