I love reading. And I love reading ANYTHING about ANY kind of history. Yes, I am a fanatic. History teaches us who we are as a people, what/who has failed or succeeded in the past, and hopefully guides us to a better future. But I know that not all my kids are as fanatical about history as I am. So, years ago we supplemented our kids’ education in this very important subject by using good classical movies.
Of course a movie cannot teach as much as a book (the book is always better, right?). And I know that Hollywood quite often takes MANY liberties when dealing with an historical subject. However, a movie can grab attention, stir imagination, and “distill” a vital point to warn, inspire, or instruct in a way that lectures, reading primary sources, or even field trips cannot (and my wife and I believed in using all those techniques in teaching our kids American and world history).
The following is a list of movies we have watched. Many are historical fiction; others are based on true events. The list is not exhaustive. You will probably add many I leave out. For this article I have included only “G” rated films that the whole family can sit down and watch.
Here are movies to teach seven different historical epochs.
1. Ancient and Medieval/Renaissance history.
I recommend The Nativity Story (2006) as an excellent adaptation of the birth of Jesus from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Here’s a brief scene:
Ben Hur (1954) (the old one with Charleton Heston of course), and Spartacus (1960) (the original with Kirk Douglas) can’t be beat. For a study of Renaissance/Reformation history our family’s favorite is Luther (2003) (starring Joseph Fiennes). These films have a lot of color, action, pretty good acting, and tell the story well while keeping your attention. Spartacus and Ben Hur may drag in a few places for the kids, so I would recommend just fast forwarding to the action scenes. Wait till the kids see Charleton Heston in that chariot scene!! WOW!!! (My jaw still drops whenever I watch that.) Here’s the chariot race:
And my boys always loved watching the battle formation of the Roman army in “Spartacus”!
And here’s Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms:
2. Colonial/Pioneer/Wild West history.
Believe it or not, my kids loved watching the old Disney classic The Light in the Forest (1958) (starring James MacArthur, Jessica Tandy, and a cameo appearance by Fess Parker). This fictitious story is indeed based on true events and some very real people from America’s colonial days and gives young children a fairly accurate view of what life was like 250 years ago.
Another oldie but goodie that shows life out in the Wild West is the John Wayne classic The Alamo (1960). You just can’t do better than the Duke. And John Wayne as Davey Crockett??? What a thrill! (Yes, I know the movie takes a few historical liberties, but the kids will not care about that.)
3. The American Civil War and slavery.
Both movies tell the story very accurately (but boy is Gettysburg LONG — over 3 hours long!), but in my opinion Gods and Generals is a better movie. The music is great in both films.
Amazing Grace (2006) starring Ioan Gruffudd and Benedict Cumberbatch is the story of William Wilberforce and his attempt as a Christian in the British Parliament to rid the Empire of slavery. This is a great film the whole family can watch to get an idea of the evil of slavery and how people dealt with the issue in the early 1800s. I would tell my kids how terrible it was that America did not learn from Wilberforce and the British on this issue.
4. Civil Rights and race relations.
I recommend one of my all-time favorite movies: Lillies of the Field (1963) starring Sidney Poitier. This movie is just pure joy from beginning to end. It is the story of a black American Baptist freelance carpenter, and how some German Catholic nuns “con” him into building for them a chapel in the desert out West. It is hilarious, poignant, and teaches a lot about how to live in peace with other people. It also taught my kids what issues Americans had with race back when I was born.
The classic film dealing with this issue is To Kill A Mockingbird (1962), featuring Gregory Peck in probably his greatest role. Lillies of the Field is a pretty funny movie. Mockingbird takes a much more serious look at the issues. The theme of racial prejudice is certainly one for kids to learn about, however the story does deal with the issue of rape as well. So, of course, you would probably not want to expose your younger children to that. Here’s the original trailer:
5. Turn of the century and World War I.
The Miracle Worker (1962) starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke is a classic. It is, of course, the true story of Helen Keller and her struggle growing up as a deaf and blind child in Alabama at the turn of the century. This is a film that all families should watch together and love every minute. Here is the famous “water scene:”A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) is also a heartwarming movie that depicts life in the inner city for a struggling family around the year 1900. It stars Dorothy Maguire and Joan Blondell. You and your kids will want to watch this beautiful film over and over again:
Sergeant York (1941) is a must-see. This is the true story of Alvin York who earned the Medal of Honor in World War I. It traces his “wild and woolly” life in the mountains of Tennessee, his conversion and struggle with warfare, to his heroism on the battlefield. The actual Sergeant York handpicked Gary Cooper to play himself in the film, and personally supervised on the set! It’s another great one you and your kids will love.
Here is the scene where he personally captures over 100 German soldiers!
War Horse (2011) is a good starter film about World War I for kids. I know that it greatly conflates events from 1914-1918 (in one scene they seem to jump through about four years of battle), but kids will not notice that, and the whole family will enjoy a beautiful, moving story. Here’s my favorite scene, where the poor horse is tangled up in barbed wire, and both the Germans and British soldiers work to free the poor animal:
6. The Great Depression.
If you want your kids to get a basic idea of what life was like during the Great Depression, I recommend the movie Kit Kittredge: An American Girl (2008) based on the American Girls book series. This is just a really cute movie, but it does fairly accurately depict the sudden economic hardship of a family at the beginning of the Depression:
The Grapes of Wrath (1940) starring Henry Fonda has been called one of the greatest films of all time. It depicts a family thrown off their farm and traveling in their broken down car for the “promised land” of California. The film should spark a lot of conversation in the family about the causes of the Great Depression, how family pulls together during crisis, and how to treat one another in society.
7. World War II.
The WW2 film my whole family loved was The Great Escape (1963) starring Richard Attenborough, Steve McQueen, David McCallum, and James Garner. Based on a true story of mostly British soldiers escaping from a Nazi POW camp, this movie is filled with humor, excitement, and inspiration. I saw this film when I was about six years old, and I will NEVER forget Steve McQueen’s motorcycle ride over the barbed wire fence. Here ya go:
We also watched The Longest Day (1962), which is a pretty good depiction of D-Day from the German and Allied perspectives (although it certainly does not portray the gruesome reality as Saving Private Ryan (1998) does). It is filled with a cast of all the great actors of the early 1960s, and deserves a place in your video library:
When dealing with the horrible issue of the Holocaust, I recommend three films that the whole family could watch (but children younger than 10 would probably have a pretty tough time). First up is the Christian classic The Hiding Place (1975). It is the story of Corrie ten Boom’s Christian Dutch family that hid Jews and paid the price for it:
Then there is the amazing Italian film Life is Beautiful or La Vita è Bella (1997). It is entirely in Italian with English subtitles, so it may be tough for younger kids to keep up. It is the story of a Jewish Italian man who marries a Catholic Italian girl before World War II, and during the war does the most outlandish and ingenious things to protect his little son from the horrors of a concentration camp. The film is amazing because it is so funny and horrifying at the same time. You just have to see it to believe it:
And I recommend The Pianist (2002). This is the true story of a Jewish Polish family that is exterminated by the Nazis, except for one man who is a concert pianist. While it is not as gruesome as “Schindler’s List” (and it does not contain any nudity either), it is a grinding movie that probably children under the age of 10 or 11 could not handle. But it is excellent:
As for the war in the Pacific, the whole family could sit down and watch both Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Tora! is a pretty accurate film about the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Kwai is a fictitious story based on the Japanese treatment of British prisoners while building a railway. (The Japanese treated their prisoners much, much more savagely than depicted in the movie.) But it’s still a good flick:
Well, that brings our history lesson up to the end of World War II. I’ll write another article about other good movies you could use to teach your kids history after World War II. But for now, this ought to get you started. Enjoy!