Immersing yourself in well-told historical films and TV series is one of the most enjoyable ways to learn about the past. When done right, they don’t just recount major events year-by-year. They provide a vivid window into what it was like to live through eras that shaped our world.
The best historical shows and movies fall into three major categories:
Sweeping epics centered on major turning points
Some films focus directly on the landmark events and larger-than-life figures that defined entire eras. These grand epics don’t get bogged down in minor details. They capture the high-stakes drama and importance of major historical turning points.
Braveheart – The Scottish Fight for Independence
This 1995 Mel Gibson film depicts the first Scottish war for independence from England in the late 1300s. The story follows Scottish leader William Wallace as he mounts a growing rebellion against England’s occupation and oppression. Though some elements are fictionalized, Braveheart captures the courage, rage and raw determination of the Scots against seemingly impossible odds. It also hints at how Scotland’s culture was being threatened under English rule. Watching it, you’ll grasp why this victory was so pivotal for Scotland’s future autonomy.
Lincoln – The Push to Abolish Slavery
This 2012 Steven Spielberg film provides a nuanced look at President Abraham Lincoln during the final tense months of the Civil War. It reveals the enormous political challenges Lincoln faced to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. You gain insight into Lincoln’s gifted political and interpersonal skills. The film captures critical debates that truly shaped the future of American society and culture.
Fictional tales enriched by history
Some films and series use fictional stories, but they are firmly grounded in real history from a specific era. They provide a compelling view of how average people lived and the constraints that framed their choices.
The Favourite – Royal Drama in Early 18th Century England
This 2018 black comedy/drama is technically fiction. But it is richly embedded in the royal court of England’s Queen Anne in the early 1700s. England was engaged in war and political jockeying during this period. The story uses the relationships between three main women to reveal the personalities, machinations, and social norms that influenced real decision-making in the monarch and parliament at that time.
The Last Kingdom – England Threatened by Viking Invasions
This action-packed Netflix series follows a fictional Saxon lord, Uhtred of Bebbanburg during the late 800s AD. That’s when England was attacked and destabilized by Viking raiders and struggling to form its early kingdoms. Though fictional, Uhtred’s adventures illuminate the real-world tensions that finally unified the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms into England in 927 AD.
Human stories showing history’s real impacts
Some of the most compelling historical films and shows use personal human stories to reveal how major events affected people’s intimate lives and opportunities. They show history through everyday realities, struggles, and turning points faced by normal people, not just the rulers and generals who make decisions.
Titanic – Class Divisions and Economic Pressures in 1912
James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster Titanic is clearly both a sweeping romance and disaster film. But it excels at immersing viewers in the ambiance, culture and economic landscape of 1912. The lavish ship’s compartmentalized class structure hints at the rigid social stratification of the era. The hopes and dreams of Jack and Rose reveal the limited prospects facing working-class people and rigid expectations constraining upper-class women. Their fateful voyage shows how an epic tragedy devastated families across these divisions.
Chernobyl – Soviet Dysfunction Worsens 1986 Nuclear Disaster
The 2019 HBO miniseries depicts the true story of the disastrous 1986 nuclear accident at the Chernobyl power plant in Soviet Ukraine. But it also pulls back the curtain on how the authoritarian Soviet system itself exacerbated the crisis. Bureaucratic paralysis and government secrecy prevented emergency actions that could have saved more lives. The personal stories show the very human costs of a tragedy rooted in both technological and political failures.
So for lovers of history, some of the best films and shows go far beyond dates and events. They provide windows into pivotal moments that shaped national and personal destinies. At their best, they bring history to life by showing exactly what it was like to live through eras that forged our modern world.