If you’re reading this website, chances are you don’t go to see most movies to learn something about history. But if a historical event can be the impetus for a great film, then the movie carries with it a resonance that it didn’t have before. Sometimes, that resonance can be very, very boring (see also: period pieces), and sometimes, when applied to action films, it can be pretty damn great. Let’s forget about the former and, in honor of the Blu-rayTM and DVD release of Hatfields & McCoys, focus on the latter as we evaluate seven of the best historical action films of all time.
If you thought that Matthew Broderick couldn’t spearhead a badass action film, then you haven’t seen 1989’s Glory, a film inspired by the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first army unit entirely comprised of African American soldiers.
It’s a moving story in its own right, but it also features a whole mess of action, and, as Hatfields & McCoys demonstrates, the warfare during this era was…messy to say the least. Rather than morphine shots, this era boasted whiskey, leg amputations, and cannonballs taking out whatever was in the their path. Yikes.
Also worth checking out for an up-and-coming Denzel Washington giving a killer performance.
Careful: Some of these historical action adventure films can be kind of educational, despite their best efforts. Apocalypto is one such film that traces the decline of the Mayan empire in the Mexican Yucatan peninsula.
Following director Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, audiences braced themselves for gore, but not on the level that they got. I don’t know if you consider cutting out still-beating hearts and beheadings “action,” but I do, so these Mayans make the list.
While there is some controversy regarding the film’s depiction, by and large it is based on historical context, which makes the violence all the tougher to stomach.
Perhaps the best revenge film on this list, Munich follows the aftermath of the terrorist attack at the 1972 Olympics in which 11 Israeli athletes were murdered and the Mossad extracts revenge by taking out 11 targets. The premise is badass, and made even more so by the fact that it’s very real and very accurate.
The hits take place across the world, and they are carried out by some of the hardest men you’ll ever see depicted in film. Don’t mess with the Israelis. Don’t mess with anyone, actually. It’s crappy behavior. And you’re better than that.
It doesn’t get much more historical than the Battle of Thermopylae, when 300 Spartans went head to head with thousands more Persians. It also doesn’t get more action-y, as the entire film is pretty much sensationalized hand-to-hand combat between some hard-ass motherfathers. While this was based on historical events, it’s a copy of a copy, true to graphic novelist Frank Miller’s interpretation of events.
Lots of people die. Unlike some of the other entries on this list, you’re probably not going to learn a single historical fact by watching this film, but learning is pretty overrated.
They’re not all contemporary films, as this chariot-racing, Charlton Heston-starring film can attest. Ben Hur was an overblown blockbuster before it was cool to make overblown blockbusters. In a time before CGI, the chariot races were shot using actual horses and chariots. Not too shabby.
Of course, Ben Hur is a fictionalization of the plight of many, but by 1959 standards, the adherence to fact throughout the film has it standing as a testament to historical action films well before such a premium was placed on accuracy by critics and the Academy alike.
When a feud lasts as long as this one did, a movie won’t suffice, so you have to bring out the big guns: a three-part mini-series that begins following the Civil War, then evolves as the two rural families continually rub each other the wrong way, complete with murders, executions, forbidden love, and MUTTONCHOPS, MUTTONCHOPS, MUTTONCHOPS!!!
The story is most definitely a saga, but one that will keep you engaged as these hillbilly Montagues and Capulets get after it. They set the standard for family feuds.
Sorry, Steve Harvey.
The historical accuracy of Braveheart has been a point of contention (read: Almost all historical scholars call bullshit), but it’s based on a real guy doing some real stuff, namely liberating Scotland from the tyranny of the English monarchy.
They didn’t wear those plaid outfits until the 16th century, but that doesn’t mean the film isn’t based on historical events. Gibson acknowledges that he made the decision to go with less historically accurate interpretations for the sake of good cinema.
But relax, he’s not a historian, he’s a filmmaker. And he made a pretty damn good historical action-drama with Braveheart.