Every once in a while, a person comes along who really changes the course of human history. Then, as many as hundreds of years later, some people will make a movie about him or her. They tend to be pretty good, too. Here are six historical
Carl Dreyer's (completely, no music score is intended) silent work about Joan of Arc is way more emotional than most "history" movies ever get. Told almost completely in a series of close-ups, the movie's story has to do with the famous female who was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church centuries after being captured, tortured, and executed for heresy. It's an excruciating emotional experience, even if you know nothing about the history behind the subject.
The biggest hero of World War I (or one of them, anyway) was brought to life by Howard Hawks and Gary Cooper in this 1941 classic. York was an avowed pacifist who didn't want to fight in the war because of his religious beliefs, but off to war he went anyway and ended up capturing a total of 132 German soldiers in open combat. The movie tells his story with a minimum of propaganda and a maximum of old-fashioned entertainment (while not sparing audiences the reality of war).
"The Spirit of St. Louis"
Charles Lindbergh was the first person to ever fly solo across the Atlantic ocean, so the least we could do for him is have Jimmy Stewart play him in a movie. Sure, Stewart was about 20 years too old for the part, but who cares? The movie about his life focuses on the time leading up to his famous flight, and then the flight itself, which is handled with genuine tension and suspense.
"The Gospel According To St. Matthew"
There have been many Jesus movies over the years, but this one is arguably the best because of the way it treats Jesus with a documentary-like realism, making viewers feel like a camera crew was somehow transported to Biblical times to follow around Christ and the Apostles. The fact that it was made by a gay Communist atheist is of no consequence, Pier Paolo Passolini follows the Bible closer than more "devout" filmmakers like Mel Gibson.
Attenborough brought all the David Lean-like historical splendor he could muster to tell the true story of Gandhi, the revolutionary who preached (and practiced) non-violence in the most courageous way possible: Against the entire British army, who had no such qualms about using guns to get their way. Ben Kingsley is uncanny in the way he seems to capture Gandhi's essence, not to mention that he looks almost exactly like him, too.
Another historical biopic featuring an uncanny lead performance, this Spike Lee joint has Denzel Washington as the famed and controversial civil rights leader. And just because this is a big Hollywood production, don't think this is a watered-down vision of Malcolm's life-see as just an example the (literally) fiery credits sequence, which features an actual speech made by Malcolm X set to the burning of an American flag.