We all know better than to believe everything we see on TV, right? Even on so-called "reality" shows, the "reality" part is often stretched a little thin, and when it comes to historically-set movies, well, anyone who has studied even a little bit of history can tell you that they usually get more wrong than right. But every now and then a movie comes along that really nails the details—and the broad strokes—of the historical event or period that it is trying to portray. All those other, historically inaccurate films make those rare accurate ones seem all the more precious by comparison…
A Night to Remember (1958)
Years before James Cameron's blockbuster Titanic would take the box office by storm, director Roy Ward Baker (who would later to go on to direct a handful of decidedly less historically accurate horror films for Hammer Studios) had already helmed what many consider to be the definitive cinematic adaptation of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. While A Night to Remember misses a few technical details (such as the ship breaking in half, as it really did), Baker's adaptation of Walter Lord's 1955 book of the same name gives a stunningly accurate depiction of events on board perhaps the most famous doomed ship of all time.
The Lion in Winter (1968)
While modern medieval dramas—and even fantasy shows like Game of Thrones—may take great pains to showcase the dirt, disease, and distress that often accompanied life in the Middle Ages, medieval films from the golden era of Hollywood weren't exactly known for their dedication to historical accuracy. Even The Lion in Winter may be guilty of glamorizing life in the era from time to time, but what it does get right is the complex political situation that it is depicting.
Tora! Tora! Tora!
While the attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the United States into World War II was already almost 30 years in the past when Tora! Tora! Tora! was released, a joint American-Japanese co-production showcasing a nuanced view of both sides of the controversial bombing seems like a daring move to this day. Yet the result was a film so accurate to the details of the historic event that it is still frequently shown in history classes covering the Second World War.
All the President's Men (1976)
There have been a lot of Watergate comparisons making the news lately, so there's no better time to revisit the definitive film on one of the biggest scandals in American history. Part of what makes All the President's Men stand out on the historical front is that Ben Bradlee, then the executive editor of The Washington Post, collaborated on the film to help ensure that all the details were as accurate as possible.
Das Boot (1981)
Make no mistake, there were plenty of submarine movies around before the release of Das Boot, from more realistic fare like the 1957 war film The Enemy Below to fancifully science-fictional tales like The Atomic Submarine. But no movie before it had ever captured the gritty and claustrophobic reality of waging war inside a pressurized metal tube hundreds of feet beneath the sea.
Schindler's List (1993)
Director Steven Spielberg has made so many historical films over the years that you could make a list (and someone likely has) ranking them all by historical accuracy. Few of his films have had as profound an impact as Schindler's List, however, regarded by many as one of the definitive films about the Holocaust, and filmed, in many instances, in the actual locations where the events took place.
Apollo 13 (1995)
Recreating a moment in history that was itself already heavily documented can be both a blessing and a curse. Sure, you have lots of resources to draw from, but so do any critics who may want to tear apart the accuracy of your reproduction. Maybe that's why director Ron Howard worked so hard to nail the details of his retelling of the history of the Apollo 13 spacecraft, down to hiring NASA technicians to work as consultants and obtaining permission to film scenes on board a reduced gravity aircraft in order to simulate weightlessness.
There have been plenty of movies made about World War II (this isn't even the only one on this list), but the German-language film Downfall earns special accolades for its historically accurate treatment of the final days of Hitler and the Third Reich, adapted from the memoirs of Hitler's personal secretary.
An earlier film on this list (All the President's Men) was a major influence on David Fincher's approach to filming Zodiac, and the result is a movie that many people consider Fincher's masterpiece. As with several of the other films on this list, the thing that makes Zodiac's period setting stand out is the attention to detail, as well as a willingness to let the story sprawl, and to accept and embrace the ultimately anticlimactic resolution of our protagonist's personal obsession with the identity of the Zodiac killer.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
This 2013 Oscar winner gets a substantial portion of its authenticity by being adapted from an actual slave narrative of the same name written in 1853. As such, it showcases much of the brutal and dehumanizing reality of slavery in the American South at the time. Of course, slavery is a topic that has been tackled on film many, many times, but many historians agree that the detailed and nuanced depictions in 12 Years a Slave really make it stand out.
It may not seem like a big chore to get the details right in a film that's set just 14 years before it hit screens, but when you're talking about the 14 years that elapsed between 2001 and 2015, jumping backward a few years can sometimes be harder than painstakingly reconstructing the events of decades or even centuries ago. Rather than the big sweeping stuff (9/11 is a plot point, after all), it's the little touches that make the not-so-distant past of Spotlight stand out, such as the big, clunky computers on the office desks, or an AOL billboard spotted in the background.
So while taking the accuracy of just about any movie you watch with a grain of salt is always encouraged, if you're hankering for some mostly factual history with your entertainment, these are a few films that won't steer you too far wrong. What's your favorite movie that gets history at least mostly right?
Featured still from "Schindler's List" via Universal Pictures