12 Movies for an Action-Packed History Lesson

12 Movies for an Action-Packed History Lesson

Epic historical action movies don’t always get the attention they deserve, and, with the exception of The Northman and The King’s Man, we seem to have hit a bit of a dry spot when it comes to the genre of late.

We could argue “They don’t make ‘em like they used to”, but instead, we decided to bring you our top 12 historical action movies, in no particular order, to check out next time your inner historian is in charge of the remote. We’re not saying these are all good, but they’re movies about historical things that we reckon you should watch (if for no other reason than to complain about them with us).

Fun fact before we kick off: a lot of Aussies feature in historical action movies. Mel Gibson (Braveheart, The Patriot, Gallipoli, Apocalypto) and Russel Crowe (Gladiator, Robin Hood, Master and Commander) to name a few. Anyway….

The King’s Man (2021)

We couldn’t not include The King’s Man in this list, after mentioning it in the opening. The synopsis is pretty straight forward: One man must race against time to stop history’s worst tyrants and criminal masterminds from starting a war and wiping out millions of people. This historical action flick was delayed multiple times, mostly due to the ongoing COVID-19 situation around the world. But it finally debuted in December 2021, with mixed reviews. And by mixed, I mean one commenter has declared this movie: “A totally ridiculous film that twists historical fact into a stale pretzel and feeds it to ignorant audiences”. Ouch.

300 (2006)

Let’s get another obvious historical action movie out of the way. If you’re yet to see 300, I have two questions: one, why not? And two: what are you doing reading this list? In 480 B.C., a state of war exists between Persia, led by King Xerxes and Greece. At the Battle of Thermopylae, Leonidas (Gerard Butler), king of the Greek city state of Sparta, leads his badly outnumbered warriors against the massive Persian army. Though certain death awaits the Spartans, their sacrifice inspires all of Greece to unite against their common enemy. Yes, this is a c+p from the globally accepted synopsis for the flick. There’s not a whole lot of OC to say on this one: it’s a Zack Snyder flick and honestly, David Denby from the New Yorker puts 300 so simply: “A muscle-magazine fantasy crossed with a videogame and an army recruiting film”. It is what it is.

Braveheart (1995)

Braveheart takes the crown as the most epic historical war drama/action flick ever made. Fight me. It set the bar, love it or hate it. In case you’ve been living under a rock since 1995, Braveheart is directed and co-produced by Mel Gibson, who plays Sir William Wallace, a late-13th century Scottish warrior. The film depicts the life of Wallace leading the Scots in the First War of Scottish Independence against King Edward I of England. Say what you want about Braveheart – it grossed $210.4 million worldwide. But it did receive criticism for its numerous historical deviations.

Apocalypto (2006)

Mr Gibson makes another appearance (he is, as we said earlier, heavy on the whole historical action movie thing). Set in Yucatán, Mexico, around the year 1502, Apocalypto follows a young man named Jaguar Paw, a late Mesoamerican hunter, and his fellow tribesmen who are captured by an invading force. After the devastation of their village, they are brought on a perilous journey to a Mayan city for human sacrifice at a time when the Mayan civilisation is in decline. Apocalypto is a 2006 flick produced, co-written and directed by Gibson, and similar to The Passion of the Christ, all dialogue is in a modern approximation of the ancient language of the setting. It’s got jungle, thrills and history. I haven’t seen this one, hence relying on IMDB and Google to paint a picture, but my colleagues reckon Apocalypto would feel a lot better if it wasn’t a Gibson flick.

The Last Duel (2021)

While The Last Duel is a thought-provoking drama flick, it still ticks the boxes for historical and action. The official synopsis says The Last Duel is “a cinematic and thought-provoking drama set in the midst of the Hundred Years War that explores the ubiquitous power of men, the frailty of justice and the strength and courage of one woman willing to stand alone in the service of truth”. It’s based on actual events, and unravels long-held assumptions about France’s last sanctioned duel between Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris, two friends turned bitter rivals. It’s directed by Ridley Scott from a screenplay by Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon, based on the 2004 book The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France by Eric Jager. The content, and the film’s length, make this a difficult watch, but it explores gender dynamics that are, unfortunately, still very topical.

Public Enemies (2009)

The tale of John Dillinger is one that has always fascinated me. Public Enemies is a 2009 flick that details the final years of notorious bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), as he is pursued by the FBI. It’s more on the biographical crime side of historical action, but the movie is worth a watch if you haven’t already seen it. It could go a lot harder on presenting Depression-era life (the internet agrees with me on this one), and given Christian Bale also stars in Public Enemies, you do want more from the cast. I do remember thinking at the time of its release, that it was nice seeing Depp play something different to what we were used to seeing him portray. But now, meh. It’s an interesting feeling rooting for the bad guy (in a movie, of course). Public Enemies is cat-and-mouse movie that has action for days.

Kingdom Of Heaven (2005)

Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven had all the hallmarks of a great historical action movie. The summary is that Balian of Ibelin travels to Jerusalem during the Crusades of the 12th century, and there he finds himself as the defender of the city and its people. Our friends over at AV Club probably put this best when they reviewed Kingdom of Heaven back when it premiered. They said it had “choppy pacing, thin characterisation, poorly realised romantic subplot, unsatisfying resolution and dramatic slackness”. They also said “the battle scenes look spectacular, but with Scott behind the camera, that’s kind of a given, and ultimately, Kingdom Of Heaven has little going for it but those battle scenes”. Amen, friends.

Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

Letters from Iwo Jima is a 2006 Japanese-language war film (still heavy on the action and historical content, don’t worry), directed and co-produced by Clint Eastwood. Letters From Iwo Jima starts just before the U.S. invasion of a tactically significant Japanese island, and ends with the U.S. victory. All of this is shown exclusively from the Japanese military perspective, as they dig tunnels, lay in supplies, and prepare to fight off the Americans with almost no resources save their own discipline.

Dunkirk (2017)

It shouldn’t take very much to sell someone on the thought of a Christopher Nolan war movie. Dunkirk is about what happens after the clashing of armies, focusing on a British retreat at the beginning of World War II trapped in a battle for time. It’s bleak, it’s beautiful, and back in 2017, we declared it one of the greatest war movies we’ve ever seen. Dunkirk has received a lot of praise since its release in 2017. I’m not sure if you’ll appreciate this, but I genuinely think it’s on par with Nolan’s The Dark Knight as one of his best movies.

Troy (2004)

Boy, does Troy have all the makings of a good action movie based on historical events. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen and written by David Benioff, Troy is (loosely) based on Homer’s Iliad, and it portrays the battle between the ancient kingdoms of Troy and Sparta. If you haven’t seen this one, the synopsis is as follows: While visiting Spartan King Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), Trojan prince Paris (Orlando Bloom) falls for Menelaus’ wife, Helen (Diane Kruger), and takes her back to Troy. Menelaus’ brother, King Agamemnon (Brian Cox), having already defeated every army in Greece, uses his brother’s fury as a pretext to declare war against Troy, the last kingdom preventing his control over the Aegean Sea. It’s been called a “violent, watered-down version of the Iliad”, and we tend to agree: Troy is an overblown historical action flick but it’s one of those movies you have to see for your full exploration of the genre.

Revenant (2015)

We at Gizmodo Australia tend to like everything Leonardo DiCaprio does, and I guess that extends to his time in the historical action movie Revenant, too. Despite the movie being…ugh. Look, the camera work is good. While exploring the uncharted wilderness in 1823, frontiersman Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) sustains life-threatening injuries from a brutal bear attack. When a member (Tom Hardy) of his hunting team kills his young son (Forrest Goodluck) and leaves him for dead, Glass must utilise his survival skills to find a way back to civilisation. Grief-stricken and fuelled by vengeance, the legendary fur trapper treks through the snowy terrain to track down the man who betrayed him.

There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood is the story of family, religion, hatred, oil and madness, focusing on a turn-of-the-century prospector in the early days of the business. It’s not ‘historical’ in the same manner as the other action movies on our list, but it’s a good glimpse into the life of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he makes his lucky strike and becomes a self-made tycoon. But, of course, as his fortune grows, he deviates into moral bankruptcy. Just don’t be thinking the ‘blood’ part of the title is what you’re getting.