From Schindler’s List to Free State of Jones, Hollywood has pushed out some impressive historical dramas. However, these films can be brutal. Here are some great historical movies for junior high and high school.
Historical Movies for Middle School Under R
From Schindler’s List to Free State of Jones, Hollywood has pushed out some impressive historical dramas over the years. However, being brutally accurate, these films are not appropriate for kids. A follow up to Historical Movies for Kids, here are some great historical movies for junior high and high school.
Most are under the R rating (There are a few exceptions that are noted as R), and none have graphic sexual content or an obsessive amount of profanity. Additionally, all are engaging and handle violence realistically without being gory.
(Read why I believe a fictional movie or a “based on a true story” movie can be beneficial for learning history.)
Ancient Time Movies
The Ten Commandments
This classic was made in 1956, and is nearly four hours long. Still, it’s a fantastic and engaging movie to watch every Easter! This detailed story is about the life of Moses and the Exodus. Image credit: The Ten Commandments
This 10 part series brings the Bible to life, from classic biblical stories such as the Exodus and David and Goliath, to the stories through Judges and more.It’s a high quality series that can be bloody and is sometimes historically inaccurate, but it makes a good compare and contrast with the Bible.
A.D. The Bible Continues
This 12 part series begins where The Bible ended. Like The Bible, it’s not always historically accurate but worth a watch.
I’ll be honest; I didn’t like the book Ben Hur very much, so I don’t plan on seeing the movie. It was WAY too word-y and descriptive in places that don’t need that much description. However, the movie has received positive reviews.
The Nativity Story
Great for around Christmastime, this is the poignant story of Jesus’ birth.
Early History to 1700s Movies
Made in 1964, this is the story of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, and King Henry II, at a time where the ruling class was replaced with a new monarchy. It was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and was awarded the Best Adapted Screenplay award.
I have not seen this series yet, but I’ve heard great things about it. It’s a hopeful series set in 1783, shortly after America’s War of Independence. After coming back from the war, Ross Poldark is faced with tragedy – his father is dead and the family mine has closed, his sweetheart broke her commitment, and his house is destroyed. Still, he manages to rise above these challenges. (PS from a reader, I’ve heard that the third season has a bedroom scene of adultery)
Amazing Grace tells the true story of William Wilberforce, who worked to end slavery in Britain in the 18th century. Despite many struggles and setbacks, with perseverance (and grace), Wilberforce sees his cause until the end. It’s among the top classic Christian historical movies, but its message can be enjoyed by all. (PS it stars Benedict Cumberbatch) Image credit: Amazing Grace
Man for All Seasons
Winner of six Academy Awards, this film is about the conflict between Henry VIII and Sir Thomas More. In More’s final years, he refused to sign a letter to the pope to annul Henry VIII’s marriage. It has ranked #43 on the British Film Institute’s Top 100 Greatest Films of All Time.
Last of the Mohicans
Set during the French and Indian War in 1757, it tells the story of the dying Native American tribe the Mohicans. Interestingly, many aspects of Native American life in the film (moccasins, bows, arrows, and canoes) was created in the ways people in the 18th century would have created them. It’s rated R for violence, but I haven’t found many movies on this war, so thought it was worth sharing.
1800s and Early 1900s Movies
The Great Locomotive Chase
After commandeering a Confederate locomotive, heroic Yankee soldiers known as the Andrews Raiders try to bring about an early end to the Civil War by crippling the Southern railroad network. This is a Disney movie with their story!
This is the story/legend of Wyatt Earp, an American old west gunfightin’ gambler. His life story is partly true, party exaggerated, partly made up, making it a great intro to the Wild West.
North and South
Set in 1851, North and South is based on the Elizabeth Gaskell classic. Margaret Hale comes from a well to do family in southern England. The family moves to a northern mill town, but Margaret soon begins to fall in love.
Killing Lincoln is based on the bestseller by Bill O’Reilly. This docudrama narrated by Tom Hanks talks about the details before, during and after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865. It’s engaging and an excellent spring broad for diving into the American Civil War and Lincoln’s life.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, this epic biopic profiles Lincoln’s last four months in office before his assassination in April 1865.
The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)
Loosely based on the classic novel, The Count of Monte Cristo is a wonderful story filled with betrayal, revenge, and adventure. Edmond Dantes is a well-liked and handsome young man who has everything in life; a striking promotion and a beautiful fiancee. After being falsely accused of treason by his best friend, Edmond is imprisoned for several years. After escaping from prison, Edmond is determined to seek revenge. Image credit: The Count of Monte Cristo
The Battle of the Alamo during the Texas Revolution was in 1836. 200 Texans from various backgrounds defended a small Texan fort for 13 days from an entire army.
The Men Who Built America
Just who were the men who built corporate America? Meet John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan, the founders of America’s oil, rail, steel, shipping, automobile, and finance industries. From the Civil War towards WWI, it shares their stories. Being so vast, some parts are not 100% accurate, and there are so many unexplored layers. Still, it’s a top-quality engaging docudrama and definitely encourages further studying.
Walt Before Mickey
Walt Disney didn’t always have success. Walt Before Mickey details his struggles as an animator before Mickey Mouse came along! It also gives a great perspective on early film.
Out of Africa
Winner of 1985’s Best Picture Academy Award, Out of Africa is a romance drama starring Meryl Streep. She plays a woman who runs a Kenyan plantation, who falls in love with a mysterious hunter. Plus, it’s a true story.
Great Depression and WWI Movies
The King’s Speech
Colin Firth plays King George VI, a soon-to-be king with a speech problem. Lionel Logue, an Australian speech specialist, is hired to help him through his stuttering problem. When his brother renounces his throne, George VI must make his first wartime radio broadcast: Britain declaring war on Germany in 1939, the start of WWII. It’s rated R for profanity and has no/low sexual content and violence. Image credit: The King’s Speech
World War II Movies
The Monuments Men
The Monuments Men, a true story, follows a group of unlikely American soldiers sent to Germany in order to rescue Europe’s greatest treasures: their art. The Monuments Men, while hailed as “not 100% realistic” at times, was a fresh reminder of a group of ragtag soldiers who helped rescue Europe’s humanity through its artistic heritage. You can check out more about the realism on History vs. Hollywood.
The Imitation Game
Played by a witty Benedict Cumberbatch, Alan Turing was a quirky but brilliant mathematician. Turing gathered a collection of Britain’s top codebreakers, linguists, scholars and chess champions to successfully glean top secret intelligence from the Nazis’ “unbreakable” Enigma code. Grab the movie guide here.
Image credit: The Imitation Game
The Tuskegee Airmen were a group of black pilots during WWII who fought the Nazis in the air and racism on land. This film isn’t perfect with historical accuracy, but I still enjoyed it. A more accurate version is a film called The Tuskegee Airmen.
Louie Zamperini lived an extraordinary life. A troublemaker in his childhood, Louie became an Olympian and ran in the 1936 Nazi Olympics, and even had the opportunity to shake Hitler’s hand. When WWII broke out, he enlisted. On a rescue mission, his aircraft crashed and he and a friend spent 47 days at sea, with no food and the company of several sharks. Afterward, he spent 2 years in a Japanese POW camp. Here is his story of survival, resilience, and redemption. (PS the book was better, and they have a young adult version with less violence. Louie has also written a memoir.) Grab the movie guide here.
The Longest Day
The Longest Day is a full, dramatic account of D-Day, on June 6, 1944. It was made in 1962 and won 2 Oscars. Until Schindler’s List came along, it was the most expensive black and white movie ever made.
Against the Sun
In a similar story as Louie Zamperini’s, Against the Sun is the true story of a pilot, bombardier, and radioman who survived 34 days at sea. While traveling over 1,000 miles, the three men battled the lack of food, sharks, and the elements and miraculously, all three survived. Image credit: Against the Sun
The Great Escape
Starring Steve McQueen, this oldie is based on a true story about a massive prison camp escape with Allied POWs. It’s almost three hours long but kept me engaged the full time.
For those mature enough, I would recommend the series Band of Brothers. Based on the real-life members of Easy Company, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks worked to keep it realistic. It’s mature and brutal, but is a solid tribute to Easy Company, and the Greatest Generation in general. Its R rating is deserved; violence and language are rough, but there’s little sexual content. Each of the 10 episodes opens with the real-life members of Easy Company, and each episode closes with facts at the end.
Best Years of Our Lives
There are many movies about life during WWII, but few are about the post-war life that returning soldiers had to face. This film was made shortly after WWII, and tells the story of 3 men; one who was in the Navy, one was in the Army in the Pacific, and one who was in the Air Force. Image credit: Best Years of Our Lives
Judgment at Nuremberg
Starring Spencer Tracy, this film won two Academy Awards and was nominated for 11. After the Holocaust, in 1948, several Nazis were put on trial for war crimes against humanity. This is a fictionalized version, that can shed much light on the Nuremberg trials.
The Little Traitor
In this sweet coming-of-age movie, Proffy (short for “professor”) is a young Jewish boy growing up right before Israel officially became a country in 1948. Israel, with its people young and desperate for freedom, want nothing more than the British to leave them alone.
At the time, Britain owned Israel, which was then called Palestine. Proffy has similar views. That is, until he befriends a British soldier. It doesn’t try to show the big picture, but instead the story of a Jewish boy and British soldier. It has a smidgen of partial nudity/Proffy becomes interested in women (you can skip this part), but other than that is great for 12+ with some discussion.
Set in 1947 on the cusp of Israel becoming a country, a commander of the Israeli underground works to lead 600 Jewish Holocaust survivors from detention camps in Cyprus to the land of Israel. Like in The Little Traitor, the British owned Palestine/Israel at the time and were letting only a handful of people into their country.
Cast a Giant Shadow
Part fact and part fiction, this is another story of Israel’s independence, starring John Wayne and Frank Sinatra.
Call The Midwife
In this period drama series based on a true story, young Jenny is a midwife in the 1950s in the poorest parts of London. The series deals with tough topics like abortion, miscarriage, workhouses, and prostitution. Fans of Downton Abbey will definitely enjoy it! Image credit: BBC
Cold War and Beyond
Bridge Of Spies
With the winning combination of Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, Hanks plays a Brooklyn lawyer. During the Cold War, the CIA sends him on an impossible negotiation mission for the release of an American pilot.
Not Without My Daughter
Starring Sally Field, this true story would probably not be in the big box today. Tricked by her Iranian husband, an American woman finds herself trapped in Iran with her daughter. Even when given the chance to escape, she refuses to leave without her daughter.
First They Killed My Father
This Netflix film is based on the bestselling memoir about a girl during the Cambodian genocide during which 2 million Cambodians died.
The Kite Runner
Based on the brilliant and beautiful New York Times bestseller, this coming of age story is set in Afghanistan in the 1970s. During Kabul’s annual kite running competition, the privileged Amir betrays his friend Hassan, who is of a lower class. Amir is unable to make things right until decades later. The story centers around a child rape which is not graphic but still difficult to watch. However, it is still a fantastic story of forgiveness and redemption best for teens and up. Image credit: The Kite Runner
Based on a true story, Hotel Rwanda is the under rated film of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. In Rwanda, the majority Hutu’s blamed the minority Tutsi (that composed about 14% of Rwanda’s population) for social and economic chaos. Over a course of 100 days, around 800,000 people were murdered, including over 75% of the Tutsi population.
Paul, a hotel manager that was part Hutu and part Tutsi, saved around 1200 people with his hotel. It’s a story that deserves to be among the ranks of Schindler’s List, except this film is rated PG-13, with relatively low violence compared to what it easily could be.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Oskar, a brilliant nine-year-old with Asperger’s syndrome, must cope with his father’s death, who died on the September 11, 2001 attacks. One day, he finds a mysterious key that his father left him and he begins a search across New York in search of the key’s lock. The story unfolds nicely, although the second half was better than the first half. Overall, I enjoyed it, although its pace and style isn’t for everyone. The cast is incredible, with newcomer Thomas Horn and Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock.
Make a movie night educational!
Make a movie night educational with my growing collection of movie guides! Find movie guides for favorites like Unbroken, The Zookeeper’s Wife, or The Pursuit of Happyness. You can also find me on Teachers Pay Teachers.
More Historical Movies for Kids and Teens
Check out the rest of the movies in this full series!