Historical films: our favorite films from the past
Ashley Carter (editor) – Waterloo (1970)
In terms of precision, energy, scale, and that rare ability to capture a specific moment in time so perfectly, it’s hard to beat Sergei Bondarchuk’s. Waterloo. Not only is this a commendable and truthful portrayal of the most famous battle in history, it also manages to condense a single day of blind chaos into a concise 134-minute span without ever losing its narrative focus. Rod Steiger and Christopher Plummer are perfectly portrayed as Napoleon and Wellington, two enemies with a reluctant admiration for each other and the weight of their respective nations on their shoulders.
Far from being a grandiose spectacle of blood and violence, Bondarchuk’s film delves into the psychology behind the unimaginable pressure the two men are under, oscillating between large-scale sets and moments of quiet introspective voice-over. It was not a success when it was released, but it certainly establishes itself as a legitimate masterpiece of historical cinema.
George White (co-screen editor) – The Sharpe Company (1994)
Of course, realism is not the main objective of the Sharpe series of movies (yes, movies – it’s definitely not a TV series …) but every release is convincing nonetheless – and The Sharpe Company is perhaps the best of the bunch. Sean Bean is a phenomenal force whenever he graces the screen as the iconic rifleman, elevating shoddy screenwriting to impressive levels with his no-frills acting and legendary accent.
Yet in Company, Pete Postlethwaite steals the show as the utterly loathsome Obadiah Hakeswill, proving a thorn in Sharpe’s side and a constant source of public disgust. Set in 1812 in Badajoz as the British attempt to fight a fortress against their French enemies, Hakeswill proves the film’s true enemy, constantly sinking into new and inconceivable hollows over time. Bursting with tension, violence and deception, this is a hell of a movie.
Jamie Morris (Screen co-editor) – Run (1985)
Akira Kurosawa had four decades of filmmaking experience and over two dozen feature films to his credit when he directed the 1985s. Run. Even the top talent in the industry would be forgiven for losing touch by then, but the Seven Samurai director has remained as sharp as a katana and his latest epic is one of the highlights of his career.
Run was the most expensive Japanese film to date when it was released, shot on location in some of the country’s most famous castles and starring 1,400 armor-clad extras. It all adds up to a captivating and colorful film that ranks among the finest samurai epics ever made.
Hilary Whiteside – Apocalypse now (1979)
Apocalypse now is part of a group of popular American films released in the late 1970s focusing on the Vietnam War. Coppola raised a number of pertinent questions in hindsight. American patriotism is scrutinized, as is the validity of waging war on foreign soil. Human psychological fragility is explored in an alien, macho world, and poignantly, Coppola graphically exposes the utter disrespect for human life and a country’s culture. It is truly an anti-war film reflecting the politically charged and pro-peace movement of the time.
The film follows the river voyage of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) from South Vietnam to Cambodia as he embarks on a mission to assassinate a renegade officer (Marlon Brando). Part of the film’s success lies in the range of emotions Coppola captures and transfers to the screen. Fear, threat, sadness, euphoria, hatred. The oozing heat, unsettling sounds, utter seclusion and hidden threats of the tropical jungle are palpable as Willard descends the river. It is completely devouring.
Jake Leonard – Aguirre, the wrath of God (1972)
Inspired by Gonzalo Pizarro’s failed expedition to find the mythical town of El Dorado, Werner Herzog’s claustrophobic epic is an atmospheric gem.
Surrendering to the perils of his location, Herzog is able to offer a true exploration of order and chaos, spirituality and humanity, place and people, greed and obsession, colonialism and the commodity. The scenes on rafts in the river rapids are particularly terrifying, with Thomas Mauch’s brilliant pocket cinematography really adding to the experience. And the performances are just as exciting – although Klaus Kinski steals the show as the lopsided Agirre, who will stop at nothing to be successful (no matter how impossible it is).
This is difficult but fascinating work by one of the riskiest, finest, and most ambitious filmmakers in the business, capturing the mystery and grandeur of a weird, ridiculous, and horrific story almost lost to l ‘story.
Katie Green – My beautiful lady (1964)
My beautiful lady, the classic ’60s musical starring era beauty Audrey Hepburn is a tale that has been reimagined in myriad ways in other films you may be familiar with – one being the one of my favorites, A pretty woman. Well-educated professor Henry Higgins takes working-class cockney daughter Eliza Doolittle under his wing to improve her job prospects.
Like in every musical, there is a song that stands out, and for me it is I could have dance the night away. My beautiful lady is a historic film and, although older than many of our readers, it’s a musical that can be enjoyed by all ages – with a sing-along soundtrack and a plot that will keep you going. really attracts.
Sebastien Mann – A field in England (2013)
Four men, all deserters from the English Civil War, roam the psychedelically spooky English countryside of yesteryear, following a man who may or may not be the devil himself in Ben Wheatley’s funny black gem in 2013 A field in England. The man, O’Neill (Michael Smiley), is on the hunt for lost treasure, dragging the sick and drunken bunch of cowards with him as he walks through a barren field that breathes as if he’s alive.
Directing on a shoestring budget, Wheatley says much of the inspiration comes from accounts of people grinding and eating hallucinogenic mushrooms, and how they would fall under the hypnotic influence of performing magicians. This is by no means a movie for everyone, with its surprising panics and peculiar tone, but if you’re a fan of low-budget weirdness and the English countryside, you’ll find a lot to like.
Chris King – Dead or alive (1995)
The old west. For almost as long as the movies have brought us epic adventure stories, we’ve been fascinated by America’s lawless frontier. Nice guys with white horses and whiter teeth. Outlaw in black; cute anti-heroes or just evil people.
Most would point you to John Wayne and Clint Eastwood for the epitome of the western genre. Me? I bring you the 90s classic of Sam Raimi, Dead or alive. He’s got it all: betrayal, family, a lone gunslinger, and more Midi high quickdraws that you can shake a six shooter. Combine that with a stellar cast of Sharon Stone, Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, and Gene Hackman and you’ve got the perfect western.
Stone’s “Lady” is on a quest for revenge, but Raimi’s classic has more heart than you might think. So get in the saddle and enjoy the ride.