50 Best Historical Movies, from Romances to Biographical Dramas
We'll admit, Hollywood isn't the best place to turn to for history lessons—especially when it comes to films like Gladiator and Braveheart. But even so, we’ve found that there are many instances where Hollywood delivered quality entertainment and got the facts (mostly) right. From intense historical thrillers to biographical dramas (with a side of romance), here are 50 of the best historical movies you can stream right now.
1. ‘Frida’ (2002)
Who’s in it? Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina, Geoffrey Rush
What it’s about: This movie tells the captivating life story of surrealist Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo. After suffering a traumatic accident, Kahlo suffers a number of complications, but with the encouragement of her father, she begins to paint as she recovers, eventually deciding to pursue a career as an artist.
2. ‘On the Basis of Sex’ (2019)
Who’s in it? Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates
What it’s about: Jones stars as the iconic Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was the second woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. The film details her earlier years as a student, as well as her groundbreaking tax law case that formed the foundation of her later arguments against sex-based discrimination.
3. ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979)
Who’s in it? Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne, Harrison Ford
What it’s about: The psychological war film is loosely based on Joseph Conrad's novella, Heart of Darkness, which tells the true story of Conrad's journey up the Congo River. In the film, however, the setting was switched from late 19th-century Congo to the Vietnam War. It centers on Captain Benjamin L. Willard's river journey from South Vietnam to Cambodia, where he plans to assassinate an Army Special Forces officer.
4. ‘Apollo 13’ (1995)
Who’s in it? Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton
What it’s about: Adapted by the 1994 book, Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger, Apollo 13 recounts the events of a famous mission to the Moon that went haywire. While three astronauts (Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise) are still en route, an oxygen tank explodes, forcing NASA to cancel the mission to get the men home alive.
5. ‘Unbroken’ (2014)
Who’s in it? Jack O'Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund
What it’s about: Throughout the film, we follow the incredible story of former Olympian and veteran, Louis Zamperini, who survived in a raft for 47 days after his plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean during World War II.
6. ‘Hamilton’ (2020)
Who’s in it? Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr.
What it’s about: Written and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the musical film is based on Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, Alexander Hamilton. The critically acclaimed motion picture details the politician's personal and professional life, complete with stunning performances and addictive musical numbers.
7. ‘Hidden Figures’ (2016)
Who’s in it? Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe
What it’s about: You'll enjoy this inspiring tale, which centers on three brilliant Black women at NASA (Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson) who wind up being the masterminds behind astronaut John Glenn’s launch into orbit.
8. ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ (2020)
Who’s in it? Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Daniel Flaherty, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton
What it’s about: The film follows the Chicago Seven, a group of seven Vietnam War protesters who were charged by the federal government with conspiracy and attempting to incite riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
9. ‘Citizen Kane’ (1941)
Who’s in it? Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warrick, Ray Collins
What it’s about: Not only was it was nominated for nine Academy Awards, but Citizen Kane is also considered by several critics to be the greatest film of all time. The quasi-biographical film follows the life of Charles Foster Kane, a character who is based on newspaper publishers William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. American businessmen Samuel Insull and Harold McCormick also helped inspire the character.
10. ‘Suffragette’ (2015)
Who’s in it? Carey Mulligan, Meryl Streep, Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Gleeson
What it’s about: Set in 20th-century Britain, the movie covers the suffragette protests in 1912. When a laundry worker named Maud Watts is inspired to join in the fight for equality, she's faced with a number of challenges that could put her life and family at risk.
11. ‘Dark Waters’ (2019)
Who’s in it? Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Victor Garber
What it’s about: Ruffalo shines as Robert Bilott, an environmental attorney who filed a lawsuit against DuPont in 2001 on behalf of more than 70,000 people after the company contaminated their water supply. The movie was inspired by Nathaniel Rich’s 2016 New York Times Magazine piece, "The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare."
12. ‘The Revenant’ (2015)
Who’s in it? Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson
What it’s about: The Oscar-winner is partially based on Michael Punke's novel of the same name, which tells about the famous story of American frontiersman Hugh Glass. In the film, which is set in 1823, DiCaprio portrays Glass, who gets mauled by a bear while hunting and is left for dead by his crew.
13. ‘The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind’ (2019)
Who's in it? Maxwell Simba, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Aïssa Maïga, Lily Banda
What it’s about: Based on Malawian inventor William Kamkwamba's memoir of the same name, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind tells the story of how he built a windmill in 2001 to help save his village from a drought at just 13 years old.
14. ‘Marie Antoinette’ (1938)
Who's in it? Norma Shearer, Tyrone Power, John Barrymore, Robert Morley
What it’s about: Based on Stefan Zweig's biography, Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman, the movie follows the young queen before her execution in 1793.
15. ‘First They Killed My Father’ (2017)
Who’s in it? Sreymoch Sareum, Kompheak Phoeung, Socheta Sveng
What it’s about: Based on Loung Ung's memoir of the same name, the Cambodian-American film tells the powerful story of 5-year-old Ung's survival during the Cambodian genocide under the regime of Khmer Rouge in 1975. The film, which was directed by Angelina Jolie, details the separation of her family and her training as a child soldier.
16. ‘12 Years a Slave’ (2013)
Who’s in it? Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o
What it’s about: Based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 slave memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, the movie follows Solomon Northup, a free African American man who gets kidnapped by two conmen and sold into slavery in 1841.
17. ‘Loving’ (2016)
Who’s in it? Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, Marton Csokas
What it’s about: The film is based on the historic 1967 Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia, where an interracial couple (Mildred and Richard Loving) fought against Virginia state laws that prohibit interracial marriage.
18. ‘The Elephant Man’ (1980)
Who’s in it? John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud
What it’s about: The British-American film is based on the life of Joseph Merrick, a severely deformed man who became well-known in 19th century London. After being used as a Circus attraction, Merrick is given the opportunity to live in peace and with dignity. The screenplay was adapted from Frederick Treves's The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences and Ashley Montagu's The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity.
19. ‘The Iron Lady’ (2011)
Who’s in it? Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Iain Glen
What it’s about: This movie looks into the life of the inspiring British politician, Margaret Thatcher, who became the first woman to serve as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1979.
20. ‘Selma’ (2014)
Who’s in it? David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Carmen Ejogo, Common
What it’s about: Ava DuVernay directed the historical drama, which is based on the Selma to Montgomery marches for voting rights in 1965. The movement was organized by James Bevel and led by activist Martin Luther King Jr.
21. ‘Letters From Iwo Jima’ (2006)
Who’s in it? Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara
What it’s about: The Oscar-winning film, which was directed by Clint Eastwood, depicts the 1945 Battle of Iwo Jima through the eyes of Japanese soldiers. It was filmed as a companion Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers, which covers the same events but from the perspective of Americans.
22. ‘Tess’ (1979)
Who’s in it? Nastassia Kinski, Peter Firth, Leigh Lawson
What it’s about: The movie, which takes place in South Wessex during the 1880s, centers on Tess Durbeyfield, who is sent to live with her rich relatives by her alcoholic father. When she gets seduced by her cousin, Alec, she gets pregnant and loses the child. But then, Tess appears to find true love with a kind farmer. The movie was inspired by Thomas Hardy's book, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, which examines the story of the real-life Tess.
23. ‘The Queen’ (2006)
Who’s in it? Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell
What it’s about: If you’re a fan of The Crown then you’ll enjoy this drama. In the wake of Princess Diana’s unfortunate death in 1997, the queen labels the incident a private affair, rather than an official royal death. As you might remember, the royal family’s response to the tragedy leads to major controversy.
24. ‘The Impossible’ (2012)
Who’s in it? Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland
What it’s about: Based on the experience of María Belón and her family during the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, the movie follows a family of five whose holiday trip to Thailand turns into a complete disaster after a major tsunami hits.
25. ‘Malcolm X’ (1992)
Who's in it? Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, Angela Bassett
What it’s about: The Spike Lee-directed film follows the life of the iconic activist Malcolm X, highlighting a number of key moments, from his incarceration and conversion to Islam to his pilgrimage to Mecca.
26. ‘The Big Short’ (2015)
Who’s in it? Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt
What it’s about: Directed by Adam McKay, this comedy-drama is based on Michael Lewis’s book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine. Set during the global financial crisis of 2007–2008, the movie focuses on four men who were able to predict the housing market crash and make a profit.
27. ‘Trumbo’ (2015)
Who’s in it? Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren, Elle Fanning
What it’s about: Breaking Bad actor Cranston stars as Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in the film, which was inspired by the 1977 biography, Dalton Trumbo by Bruce Alexander Cook. The movie addresses how he went from being among the most elite writers to being blacklisted by Hollywood for his beliefs.
28. ‘Elisa & Marcela’ (2019)
Who’s in it? Natalia de Molina, Greta Fernández, Sara Casasnovas
What it’s about: The Spanish romantic drama chronicles the story of Elisa Sánchez Loriga and Marcela Gracia Ibeas. In 1901, the two women made history as the first same-sex couple to be legally married in Spain after passing as heterosexual partners.
29. ‘Lincoln’ (2012)
Who’s in it? Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Gloria Reuben, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
What it’s about: Loosely based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the movie highlights the final four months of President Lincoln's life in 1865. During this period, Lincoln tries to abolish slavery by passing the 13th Amendment.
30. ‘The Great Debaters’ (2007)
Who’s in it? Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Denzel Whitaker, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett
What it’s about: The inspirational film was directed by Washington and produced by Oprah Winfrey. It’s based on an old article about the Wiley College debate team by Tony Scherman, which was published in American Legacy in 1997. And throughout the film, a debate coach from a historically Black college works hard to transform his group of students into a powerful debate team.
31. ‘1917’ (2019)
Who’s in it? George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch
What it’s about: According to director Sam Mendes, the movie was inspired by the stories of his paternal grandfather, Alfred Mendes, who spoke about his time serving in World War I. Set during Operation Alberich in 1917, the movie follows two British soldiers who have to deliver a crucial message in order to prevent a deadly attack.
32. ‘Munich’ (2005)
Who’s in it? Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Sam Feuer, Ciarán Hinds
What it’s about: Based on George Jonas’s 1984 book, Vengeance, the Steven Spielberg film details the events of Operation Wrath of God, where Mossad (the national intelligence agency of Israel) led a covert operation to assassinate those who were involved in the 1972 Munich massacre.
33. ‘Effie Gray’ (2014)
Who’s in it? Dakota Fanning, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters, David Suchet
What it’s about: Effie Gray, which was written by Emma Thompson and directed by Richard Laxton, is based on the real-life marriage of English art critic John Ruskin and the Scottish painter, Euphemia Gray. The film chronicles how their relationship fell apart, after Gray fell in love with painter John Everett Millais.
34. ‘Race’ (2016)
Who’s in it? Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Irons, William Hurt
What it’s about: The movie chronicles the story of the legendary runner, Jesse Owens, who made history in 1936 after winning four gold medals at the Berlin Olympic Games. It was directed by Stephen Hopkins and written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse.
35. ‘Jodhaa Akbar’ (2008)
Who’s in it? Hrithik Roshan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Sonu Sood
What it’s about: Set in 16th-century India, the historical romance centers on the relationship between Mughal Emperor Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar and Rajput Princess Jodhaa Bai. What starts as a formal alliance turns into a genuine romance.
36. ‘The Founder’ (2016)
Who’s in it? Laura Dern, B.J. Novak, Patrick Wilson
What it’s about: The next time you enjoy your order of fries and Chicken McNuggets, you’ll know how one of the biggest fast food chains in the world got its start. In the film, Ray Kroc, a determined businessman, goes from being a milkshake machine salesman to becoming the owner of McDonald’s, turning it into a global franchise.
37. ‘The Post’ (2017)
Who’s in it? Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk
What it’s about: The movie follows the life of Katharine Graham, who not only made history as the first female publisher of a major American newspaper, but also presided over the publication during the Watergate conspiracy. Set in 1971, it tells the true story of how journalists at The Washington Post attempted to publish the content of the Pentagon Papers.
38. ‘All The President’s Men’ (1976)
Who’s in it? Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam
What it’s about: Just two years after journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward published a book about their groundbreaking investigation into the Watergate scandal, Warner Bros. made it into a movie that would receive multiple Oscar nominations. After covering a burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in 1972, Woodward discovers that it's actually part of a much bigger scandal, which ultimately leads to President Richard Nixon's resignation.
39. ‘Amelia’ (2009)
Who’s in it? Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor
What it’s about: With a series of flashbacks, this film details the life and accomplishments of aviation pioneer, Amelia Earhart, before her mysterious disappearance in 1937.
40. ‘Elizabeth’ (1998)
Who’s in it? Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Kathy Burke, Christopher Eccleston
What it’s about: In 1558, after her sister, Queen Mary, dies from a tumor, Elizabeth I inherits the throne and becomes the queen of England. The Oscar-winning film chronicles the early years of Elizabeth I’s reign, which prove to be extremely challenging.
41. ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’ (2019)
Who’s in it? Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Jim Parsons
What it’s about: Set in 1969, Efron plays charming law student Ted Bundy. But after he strikes up a relationship with a secretary named Elizabeth, news gets out that he secretly abused, kidnapped and murdered multiple women. The movie is based on The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy, a memoir by Bundy's former girlfriend, Elizabeth Kendall.
42. ‘The Theory of Everything’ (2014)
Who’s in it? Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox
What it’s about: Adapted from Jane Hawking’s memoir, Travelling to Infinity, the biographical film centers on her former relationship with her ex-husband, Stephen Hawking, as well as his rise to fame as his experience with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis).
43. ‘Rustom’ (2016)
Who’s in it? Akshay Kumar, Ileana D'Cruz, Arjan Bajwa
What it’s about: The Indian crime thriller is loosely based on the K. M. Nanavati v. State of Maharashtra court case, where a Naval Commander was tried for the murder of his wife’s lover in 1959. In the film, Naval Officer Rustom Pavri learns about the affair after he discovers love letters from his friend, Vikram. And when Vikram is killed shortly after, everyone suspects that Rustom is behind it.
44. ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ (2013)
Who’s in it? Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell
What it’s about: Saving Mr. Banks is set in 1961 and it uncovers the true story behind the iconic 1964 film, Mary Poppins. Hanks stars as film producer Walt Disney, who spends 20 years pursuing the film rights to P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins children’s books.
45. ‘The Duchess’ (2008)
Who’s in it? Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling
What it’s about: Knightley stars as the 18th-century aristocrat, Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, in the British drama. Based on the book Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, A World on Fire by Amanda Foreman, the movie revolves around her troubled marriage and her love affair with a young politician.
46. ‘Schindler's List’ (1993)
Who’s in it? Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes
What it’s about: Inspired by Thomas Keneally’s non-fiction novel, Schindler's Ark, the historical drama focuses on German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who saved the lives of more than 1,000 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his enamelware and ammunitions factories.
47. ‘Cadillac Records’ (2008)
Who’s in it? Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Gabrielle Union, Beyoncé Knowles
What it’s about: The film dives into the history of Chess Records, a popular, Chicago-based record company that was founded by Leonard Chess in 1950. It not only brought blues to the spotlight, but it also introduced musical legends like Etta James and Muddy Waters.
48. ‘Jackie’ (2016)
Who’s in it? Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig
What it’s about: We follow First Lady Jackie Kennedy in the wake of her husband, John F. Kennedy’s, sudden assassination.
49. ‘The King’s Speech’ (2010)
Who’s in it? Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter
What it’s about: The King’s Speech centers on King George VI, who teams up with a speech therapist to reduce his stammer and prepare for a crucial announcement: Britain officially declaring war on Germany in 1939.
50. ‘The Finest Hours’ (2016)
Who's in it? Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Holliday Grainger
What it’s about: The action film is based on The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard's Most Daring Sea Rescue by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman. It tells of the historic United States Coast Guard rescue of the crew of SS Pendleton in 1952. After the ship gets caught in a dangerous storm in New England, it splits into two, forcing several men to grapple with the fact that they might not survive.
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