10 History Movies That Mostly Get It Right


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"Der Untergang" (Downfall)
Director Oliver Hirschbiegel poses in front of one of his film's posters. SUSANA VERA/Reuters/Corbis

"Downfall" is a German film released in 2004 depicting the final days of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, and it succeeds brilliantly both as compelling art and accurate history. The film is based on the memoirs of Hitler's personal secretary, Traudl Junge (née Humps), and Joachim Fest's "The Downfall of Hitler and the End of the Third Reich: An Historical Sketch."

Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, the film paints a pretty accurate picture of what it must've been like for the high-ranking members of the Third Reich living in an underground bunker when their failure is clear and their end is imminent.

James Niemi writes that the film illustrates how "unfathomable evil can be perpetrated by relatively ordinary human beings," and argues that the film doesn't attempt to make Hitler sympathetic, but humanizes him [source: Niemi].

Although it may seem an odd comparison, "Downfall" suffers from the same historical failing as Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." Both films have a very narrow focus on influential historical figures and their last hours before death. Within this strict lens, the films cannot at the same time accurately portray the wider historical context of their stories. Historians can legitimately argue that removing this context deprives their deaths of significance. Paradoxically, however, one could argue that the wider the focus, the more difficult it is to be accurate and objective.

The viewer would do well to always look on historical accounts with a skeptical eye, remembering that history is always more complicated than it seems on the page or in a film.

Author's Note: 10 History Movies That Mostly Get It Right

While studying literary theory, I became fascinated with narration. I love when writers employ unreliable narrators because it forces the readers to question how much we can trust the information we're given. Likewise, I enjoyed exploring this same theme in the context of the accuracy of historical movies.

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Sources

  • Ambrose, Stephen E. "The Longest Day." "Past Imperfect, History According to the Movies." Ed. Mark C. Carnes. New York: Henry Holt, 1995.
  • Berlin, Andrea and Jodi Magness. "Two Archaeologists comment on 'The Passion of the Christ.'" The Archaeological Institute of America. March 2004. (March 12, 2015) http://www.archaeological.org/pdfs/papers/Comments_on_The_Passion.pdf
  • Blowen, Michael. "The Astronauts Had It, But We Were Human, Too." The Spokesman-Review. Oct. 27, 1983. (March 12, 2015) http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1314&dat=19831027&id=uFdWAAAAIBAJ&sjid=5u4DAAAAIBAJ&pg=4457,6464467
  • Crossan, John Dominic. "Hymn to a Savage God." "Jesus and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ: The Film, the Gospels and the Claims of History." Ed. Kathleen E. Corley. London: A&C Black, Aug. 25, 2004. (March 12, 2015) https://books.google.com/books?id=bhqL1R0F6j8C
  • Ebert, Roger. "Great Movie: The Passion of Joan of Arc." RogerEbert.com. Feb. 16, 1997. (March 12, 2015) http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-the-passion-of-joan-of-arc-1928
  • Flagel, Thomas R. "The History Buff's Guide to the Civil War: The Best, the Worst, the Largest, and the Most Lethal Top Ten Rankings of the Civil War." Naperville: Sourcebooks, Inc., Sept. 1, 2010. (March 12, 2015) https://books.google.com/books?id=NdoiAQAAQBAJ
  • French, Alex, and Howie Kahn. "Punch a Hole in the Sky: An Oral History of 'The Right Stuff.'" Wired Magazine. November 2014. (March 12, 2015) http://www.wired.com/2014/11/oral-history-of-right-stuff/
  • Iriye, Akira. "Tora! Tora! Tora!" "Past Imperfect, History According to the Movies." Ed. Mark C. Carnes. New York: Henry Holt, 1995.
  • Lerner, Gerda. "Joan of Arc." "Past Imperfect, History According to the Movies." Ed. Mark C. Carnes. New York: Henry Holt, 1995.
  • Middleton, Shannon. "Apollo 13." "History Through Film." Ed. Eric Burnett. Lulu.com, 2008. (March 12, 2015) https://books.google.com/books?id=tYLRAQAAQBAJ
  • Niemi, Robert James. "Inspired by True Events: An Illustrated Guide to More Than 500 History-Based Films." ABC-CLIO. Oct. 17, 2013. (March 12, 2015) https://books.google.com/books?id=ZcGNAQAAQBAJ
  • Novick, Peter. "That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession." Cambridge University Press. Sept. 30, 1988. (March 12, 2015) https://books.google.com/books?id=mhiw__MLyVAC
  • Richards, Jeffrey. "A Night to Remember: The Definitive 'Titanic' Film." I.B. Tauris. Aug. 23, 2002. (March 12, 2015) https://books.google.com/books?id=PUYBAwAAQBAJ
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  • Wittenberg, Eric. "THE Movie." Rantings of a Civil War Historian. Dec. 5, 2007. (March 12, 2015) http://civilwarcavalry.com/?p=626
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