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My 10 fave historical movies that every social studies teacher needs to see

I started off by thinking that it would be easy to knock out a quick piece on my top ten favorite history movies. But that idea lasted about a minute. There are so many movies that I’ve enjoyed. And as Amazon, Netflix, and every other online and cable channel are pumping out movies left and right, it’s hard to keep up.

So . . . I decided to make a couple of lists: My top ten faves. Other great movies that aren’t the top seeds. And a list of movies about teachers and schools because . . . well, I enjoyed them.

And since these are my lists and we know that it’s all about me, there isn’t any real criteria for inclusion. Some would be good for instructional purposes. Some not. Some are more historically accurate than others. Others are “based on actual events.”

The only sorta, kinda rule is if the movie appears while I’m channel surfing, it wins control of the remote and must be watched through to the end credits.

So . . . my favorites in no particular order:

  • Band of Brothers
    Yes, technically a mini-series. But I love the story of Dick Winters and the others who were a part of Easy Company.
  • Glory
    Robert Gould Shaw leads the US Civil War’s first all-black volunteer company, fighting prejudices of both his own Union army and the Confederates.
  • Hidden Figures
    I love NASA and space. I love underdog heroes. So this is a no-brainer. (It’s worth it for the opening scene alone.)
  • Schindler’s List
    Based on the true story of how Oskar Schindler managed to save 1100 Jews from being gassed at the Auschwitz concentration camp. A testament for the good in all of us.
  • All the President’s MenThe Post
    Yup. Two movies on one line. My list, my rules. All the President’s Men is not as detailed as the book but it’s easier to follow. The Post has Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, so . . . awesome. But both of these are basically documentaries about the importance of the Bill of Rights. And understanding the importance of and protecting freedom of the press has never been more crucial.
  • Hotel Rwanda
    Danger. Bravery. Evil. Courage. This story of genocide exposes both the good and bad in people.
  • Gandhi
    An awesome story depicting human courage fighting for human rights against the machine of British colonialism.
  • 1776
    Yes. It’s a musical. But it’s a funny and almost just a little bit historically accurate musical.
  • Selma
    John Lewis is one of my heroes. To see him through this lens and to get just a sliver of what it would have been like for residents of Selma to step out the way they did? Incredible.
  • Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
    Full disclosure. I’ve not been on a ship from the early 1800s but others who have praise the accuracy of the uniforms, language, rigging, and events. This is so cool.

Other history movies I enjoy for a multitude of reasons:

  • Saving Private Ryan
  • The Last of the Mohicans
  • On the Basis of Sex
  • Dances with Wolves
  • BlacKkKlansman
  • Gangs of New York
  • Miracle
  • Outlaw King
  • John Adams
  • 12 Years a Slave
  • Gettysburg
  • Lincoln
  • The Mission
  • Apollo 13
  • The Great Debaters
  • The Imitation Game
  • Darkest Hour
  • Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
  • Gladiator
  • The King’s Speech
  • They Shall Not Grow Old
  • 42
  • Letters from Iwo Jima
  • The Crown
  • Memphis Belle
  • The Free State of Jones
  • Amistad
  • The Great Escape
  • Vice
  • The Name of the Rose
  • Iron Jawed Angels
  • And pretty much any episode of Drunk History

Feel-Good Teacher Movies

  • Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
    As social studies teachers, this is about the best non-example I can think of. Plus, well . . . it’s hilarious.
  • Dead Poet’s Society
    Captain, my captain. Emotional connections to content can make all the difference.
  • Teachers
    “Half of these kids aren’t coming back.” “Yeah. But the other half is.” Best line ever.
  • School of Rock
    Differentiated instruction and Jack Black. Enough said.
  • Searching for Bobby Fischer
    Pushy parents and pushy teachers are not always the best thing for bright kids.
  • Akeelah and the Bee
    There are all sorts of ways to learn and to make friends.

And I get it. Maybe I’m just encouraging the stereotype of the social studies teacher who shows movies so he can finish up his game plans. So some resources to help break the stereotype:

Start with this 2012 Social Education article, The Reel History of the World: Teaching World History with Major Motion Pictures. Its focus is obviously on world history but it has some nice generic type tips.

The people at Truly Moving Pictures also have a couple of handy tools. The first is a nice PDF guide for parents and educators that provides suggestions for activating positive emotions during viewing. They also have extensive curriculum guides for a variety of feel-good movies. Not all would work in a social studies classroom but there several such as The Express and Glory Road that could be used.

There are numerous print resources to help teachers:

There are lots of other useful online tools out there. Check out these resources for more ideas and suggestions:

What additions to my list would you make?
Where am I way off base?
What movie or mini-series from Netflix / Amazon / random cable channel do I need to watch?

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. You missed Cinderella Man and The Patriot, two of my personal favorites. I do love many on your list though!

    May 9, 2019
    • glennw #

      You’re right! Other than 42 and Jackie Robinson, I completely skipped over all the different historical sports movies. Thanks!


      May 10, 2019
  2. Amanda Jessee #

    I love the series “Liberty’s Kids”. It was originally on PBS Kids. Walter Cronkite stars as Ben Franklin. Additionally, the caliber of the actors who guest star as the voices of historical figures is astounding–Sylvester Stallone, Billy Crystal, Annette Bening, Warren Buffett, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dustin Hoffman, Maria Shriver, Ben Stiller, Michael Douglas, Liam Neeson, Whoopi Goldberg, and Norman Schwarzkopf. My 5th graders love it, and my 6th graders ask if they can watch it again the following year! It gives the kids a visual representation that textbooks don’t touch, but in a way that is totally kid friendly.

    May 9, 2019
    • glennw #


      Thanks for sharing! I’d forgotten all about Liberty’s Kids. My own kids loved that. Will add it to me mental list!


      May 10, 2019
  3. Colin Kloster #

    I’ve used the movie Dave in in my classes after the AP test and my kids love it. We always have some good discussions afterwards.

    May 10, 2019
    • glennw #


      Is that one where a Human Resources guy acts as a body double to cover for a corrupt president? I love the show! “What day is it?” “Tuesday.” “Everybody works on Tuesday!” I’m sure your kids love it too.

      I hadn’t thought about that one in a long time – thanks for sharing.



      May 10, 2019
  4. Chanin Aumiler #

    I show both National Treasure movies and The Alamo (Billy Bob Thornton version.) From History Channel: America, Story of Us; The Hunt for John Wilkes Booth (then Unsolved Mysteries–Booth episode and Brad Meltzer’s Decoded–Booth episode; LOVE the conspiracy theory that Booth wasn’t killed and lived until 1903!) We also watched clips early this year from the new mini-series Sons of Liberty. Sam Adams is HOT! LOL! One of my girls asked for a copy for Christmas!!

    Wild Wild West with Will Smith is good, but not 100% appropriate for 8th grade. 🙂

    Sex and the Civil War, Lincoln and the Telegraph, Stealing Lincoln’s Body–all good History Channel stuff I have but don’t usually have time to show.

    Love Last of the Mohicans and The Patriot, but can’t show them because they are rated R for violence (go figure–war movies!) I usually show a clip from Mohicans to illustrate guerrilla warfare.

    Good list for me to catch up on this summer. Thanks!

    Chanin K. Aumiller


    Social Studies

    May 10, 2019
  5. Lori Wilcox #

    Cold Mountain. 😊 (Petersburg crater)

    Lori A. Wilcox

    Patton Jr. High

    Social Studies

    May 10, 2019

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