Believe it or not, historical epic is one of the oldest film genres ever made. The powerful characters, larger-than-life scenes, and overwhelming action sequences are not only visually stimulating but also leave a lasting impression on the audience. That’s perhaps why most good historical movies remain iconic even years after their release. From Giovanni Pastrone‘s Cabiria in 1914 to Robert Eggers’ The Northman in 2022, historical films have had quite a journey, punctuated by some award-winning, stunning works.
The Northman is already leading in the historical genre, to the extent of becoming one of the best movies of 2022 so far. Like some of its acclaimed predecessors, the Viking epic is a breathtaking piece of storytelling weaved in a well-told narrative. The Northman has indeed stirred up our memories of all the great historical movies produced over the years. So, we decided to celebrate history through cinema, with our top picks of award-winning historical movies in chronological order. So let’s get started, shall we?
The Vikings (1958)
In a time when historical movies revolved around, sword-wielding, leather-clad kings and princes, The Vikings charged in with their swashbucklers in boots, furs, and axes. Based on the 1951 novel, The Viking by Edison Marshall, this epic movie narrates the sagas of Viking legend, Ragnar Lodbrok, and his sons.
The plot revolves around Viking prince Einar, and his half-brother, Eric, a former slave, fighting for the throne of Northumbria. But the rivalry is more to do with their love interest, Princess Morgana. Directed by Richard Fleischer, The Vikings stars Kirk Douglas as Einar, Tony Curtis as Eric, and Janet Leigh as Morgana, among others. With admirable cinematography, Orson Welles’ narration, coupled with the quintessential Viking war sequences, this movie remains a benchmark for many period films.
Ben Hur (1959)
After a record 11 Academy Awards, and rave reviews from fans and critics alike, you cannot call Ben-Hur just a movie; it’s a spectacle that has lasted decades after its creation. The movie is a remake of the eponymous silent film, originally adapted from the 1880 novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, by Lew Wallace. The plot follows Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy Jewish prince of Judaea, forced into slavery by his former childhood friend, who’s now a Roman imperial. After Ben-Hur’s family is brutally killed, he survives but swears revenge.
The religious epic movie, directed by William Wyler, stars Charlton Heston in the titular role, winning him the Academy Awards for Best Actor of the year for his career-defining performance. With more than 15,000 extras, an epic chariot race scene, and an overwhelming sea-battle sequence, Ben-Hur stands as an example of exemplary filmmaking in the history of Hollywood.
A historical classic, Spartacus sees another stunning performance by Kirk Douglas in the titular role and Stanley Kubrick’s filmmaking genius, earning the movie four Academy Awards. Based on the eponymous novel by Howard Fast, the plot is inspired by the story of Spartacus, a leader of a slave revolt, and revolves around the events of the Third Servile War, weaved into a story of freedom, love, and political corruption within the Roman Empire.
The multiple-award-winning movie is inspired by the 15th-century epic poem, The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun SchirWilliam Wallace by Blind Harry. Mel Gibson helms the movie as the director, producer, and lead actor. He portrays the role of Sir William Wallace, a 13th-century Scottish warrior, who leads his countrymen in the First War of Scottish Independence against King Edward I of England. Braveheart has earned five Academy Awards and been highly acclaimed for its engaging and compelling narrative and production.
This award-winning movie of the new millennium is also regarded as one of the best period dramas made in the last couple of decades. Ridley Scott’s magnum opus, or so we would like to believe, Gladiator features Russell Crowe in the titular role of Maximus the gladiator. Once a trusted general of the Roman Emperor, Maximus is made a slave after the emperor’s death. He steals the show with his valiance and fighting skills and leads a massive troop to defeat the army.
Though violent and gore to some extent, the depiction of slavery and enactments of famous battles in this movie are praise-worthy. The ensemble cast also features Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Ralf Möller, Oliver Reed, Djimon Hounsou, Derek Jacobi, John Shrapnel, Richard Harris, and Tommy Flanagan, among others.
The Last Samurai (2003)
This period action-drama film emphasizes the conflict between history and modernism in two very different cultures. Set in 19th century Japan, The Last Samurai follows a veteran soldier, Nathan Algren, who is haunted by his wartime experiences. He is sent to train a Japanese army to stop a rebellion against the new emperor of Japan. But his mission turns into a journey of self-discovery and transformation, giving him a purpose that he never expected.
With lavish settings and rich costumes, accentuated by award-worthy performances by Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe, The Last Samurai is a beautifully-made movie and can be said to be one of Cruise’s best works. Directed by Edward Zwick, The Last Samurai also features Timothy Spall, Billy Connolly, Tony Goldwyn, Hiroyuki Sanada, Koyuki, and Shin Koyamada, in other roles.
Though it’s loosely based on Homer’s Iliad, this movie is more about Achilles than it’s about the city of Troy. Instead of the original decade-long Trojan War, the plot follows a few weeks of the war, with Achilles leading the Myrmidons and the Greek army to invade Troy against Hector’s Trojan army. Brad Pitt’s Achilles is indeed the star of the show here, with his invincible, heroic warrior almost single-handedly wiping out the enemy army.
Troy might be a fictionalized version of the ancient epic poem but stands on its own merit. The legendary saga of power, glory, love, lust, betrayal, and heroism is recreated in a marvelous production, through intense drama and high-octane action. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen, Troy boasts a star-studded cast with Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, Orlando Bloom, Diane Kruger, Brian Cox, Sean Bean, Brendan Gleeson, and Peter O’Toole, among many others.
Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
Another masterpiece by Ridley Scott, this historical epic deals with the complexities of religions through a dark and tragic narrative. Set in the 12th century during the Crusades, the plot follows a French blacksmith, Balian, who heads to Jerusalem to save the city from Sultan Saladin, who in turn is trying to claim the city back from the Christians. The two heroes face each other in the legendary Battle of Hattin, but each of them stands with his own virtues and faith.
The movie’s ensemble international cast is perhaps one of its highlighting features and boasts the likes of Orlando Bloom, Eva Green, Ghassan Massoud, Jeremy Irons, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Edward Norton, Marton Csokas, Liam Neeson, Michael Sheen, Velibor Topić and Alexander Siddig, among many others.
Let’s say this right away. This isn’t a movie for history buffs or those who swear by historical facts. Based on the 1998 comic series of the same name by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, this Zack Snyder directorial is a fictionalized retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae, fought between the Spartans and Persians.
The plot follows 300 Spartan warriors led by King Leonidas, who battle the invasion led by Xerxes and his army of 300,000 soldiers. Real or not, the movie stands on the portrayal of unparalleled heroism and warriorhood of the Spartans, only heightened by Gerard Butler’s gritty performance as Leonidas.
Valhalla Rising (2009)
There are many opinions and views on Valhalla Rising, owing to the unsettling violence and brutality. But that’s also what makes this movie so hard-hitting because that’s what you sign up for when you watch a Nicolas Winding Refn movie.
The Danish period drama is set in 11th century Scandinavia and follows a little boy and a Norse warrior-turned-slave called One-Eye, played by Mads Mikkelsen, who travel with a bunch of Christian Crusaders in search of the Holy Land. But the journey leads them to something far dangerous, to an unknown land with dark forces. The catch is that the protagonist is mute, and yet he brings unimaginable violence, which gives the action sequences a unique direction.
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