For the third year in a row, students in Intro to History have been conducting a March Madness-style tournament to determine the best historical film. This week we’ve reached the Final Four! Polls will remain open until 8:30am this Friday if you want to cast your ballot in our final round of voting — it’s open to students, faculty, alumni, and all friends of the department.

After eliminating previous winners 12 Years a Slave (2020) and Schindler’s List (2021) from consideration and compiling nominations from a pre-semester survey, Prof. Gehrz assigned each student a film or TV series to nominate in one of four categories. Week by week through March, the rest of the class determined a winner via ranked-choice voting.

Presenting our final four!


Category: U.S. History before 1950
Year Released: 2013
Director: Brian Helgeland
Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford

Nominated by Will Swanda (History/Missional Ministries):
“This is the best historical film because of its uncomfortably accurate representation of the past alongside its entertainment value. 42 creates a painstakingly uncomfortable — yet simultaneously reassuring — narrative that shows both the best and worst of humanity. While showing the brutal racism of post-WWII America, it also shows the stories of people persevering that racism, confronting their own bias, and a man becoming an icon for a generation of people, young and old. This dichotomy of humanity is built through a constantly entertaining film. Every moment of the movie is filled with some sort of commentary on a Black man in baseball, both the slow and the fast scenes. The scenes on the diamond balance out the scenes in the office. Chadwick Boseman provides the performance of a lifetime in his breakout role, allowing the viewer to sympathize with Jackie the entire film. As Branch Rickey points out in the film, ‘to say “I sympathize with you” means “I suffer with you,”‘ and truthfully that’s what the audience does; you are actively suffering with Jackie Robinson as he perseveres through the racism of America in 1947/48. As 42 both accurately portrays the historical context of Jackie Robinson’s rise to greatness and entertains its audience, it solidifies itself as the greatest historical film of all time.”

Sample Student Comments:
“…I think this is one film that has a detailed amount of balance between entertainment, realistic circumstances, and a meaningful story that blends together to form a wonderfully accurate yet engaging historic film. It doesn’t sugar-coat or dance around the poignant topic of racism that it challenges. Instead, it invaluably presents the issue with honesty and integrity that only adds to the film’s worth, especially as a historical depiction.”

“This is a story that transcends generations. As described, the work of Chadwick Boseman was exceptional in bringing Jackie Robinson to life. The historical accuracy of the film is also a factor that plays in its favor. The issue of civil rights has been a huge if not the biggest problem in the United States for decades now, and this film captures the struggles that African Americans had to go through in every aspect of life. It shows a dark reality and wounds that may never be healed. At the end this movie not only moves but also inspires us.”

Will included this warning with his selection of this scene to illustrate the film: “This scene includes Jackie taking racial and verbal abuse from Phillies manager Ben Chapman, as well as an emotional moment in which he smashes his bat”

Hidden Figures

Category: The World since 1950
Year Released: 2016
Director: Theodore Melfi
Stars: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe

Nominated by Emma Ryks (History/Biology)
“With rising political, racial, and gender tensions in the US at this time, this film captures many facets of American life in both a historical and sentimental way. Scientific, technological, cultural, and national advancement were in full swing by the 60’s, progressing at a pace that it vigorously demanded the population to keep up with. Portraying historic tensions like this in a modern, digestible way is one of the many ways this movie stands as an exemplary historic film. It relates realistic issues to the present while remaining historically accurate in fact, costume, set, etc. It also does an impeccable job of drawing upon emotion and demonstrating relational (narrative) realism that is critical to a good historical film. History—being both a discipline of study and an engaging interaction with the past—is so powerful because of its emotional and relational appeal. Hidden Figures stunningly balances these historical criteria with entertainment value for a humbling and meaningful story.”

Sample Student Comments:
“This film is an accurate portrayal of not only the events of the Space Race and Cold War, but also of the black women who were a part of it. Previously, they had been all but unheard of. I also like how it talks about the racial and gender issues of the time, while keeping from getting too heavy or graphic.”

“This film is entertaining but also addresses very important issues. I liked that Emma discussed how the movie portrays realistic problems that relate to present day but are also historically accurate. There is still a large lack of women of color in STEM fields and this film helps bring attention to the historical roots of these issues.”


Category: British History
Year Released: 2019
Director: Sam Mendes
Stars: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman

Nominated by Nick Ketola (Social Studies Education)
“This film is the best produced historical film of recent years thanks to its intense tones and commitment to realism. The style of filming was specifically chosen to produce a product that captures that realism of World War I and its style of warfare. The film’s ability to be captured in one fluid shot, following the journey of two close friends as they enter the unknown that is no man’s land, is what makes this movie so captivating. Another aspect of the movie that is often overlooked is the score of the movie and its musical elements. The music highlights tense moments within the film’s storyline, guiding the audience in such a way that draws them in. From a historical perspective this movie follows many of the realistic views of British soldiers during the time of World War I. 1917 also holds itself to the true style of war during the time period it is portraying. Much of the warfare during World War I was fought in the trenches and you can see this in the film, not romanticizing but intensifying battles that occur during the war. Overall, this movie does a wonderful job at depicting a true event while keeping the story from being cinematized by including false or enriched views about war.”

Sample Student Comments
“I chose 1917 because it accurately depicts what life was like for soldiers during WWI. It shows what life was like for the soldiers in the trenches and how they fought. It also can draw out the emotion from the audience with the use of music and camera angles.”

“I chose this film since it felt the closest to historically accurate. It may be biased, but I feel that the TV shows [in the category — Downton Abbey, Bridgerton, The Tudors] are more dramatic and may stretch the truth to gain more attention/viewers. I also think that knowing the background of why the style of filming was used helped further the argument for 1917. It was used to show the realism of the war efforts. The film stayed true to the story and stayed away for including fictional information to further the views.”

Saving Private Ryan

Category: World War II and The Holocaust
Year Released: 1998
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Tom Hanks, Matt Damon

Nominated by Emily Guzik (Social Studies Education 5-12)
“To show why this is truly one of the best historical films, I dug further into the background of Saving Private Ryan. The wife of the screenwriter for the film showed him a book depicting D-Day and while reading it he discovered a list of names — repeated last names of brothers who had died in combat. The book he read described something similar being done with a family with that that is depicted in the movie. It should also be noted that this movie is incredibly historically accurate. It has been discussed by both World War II historians and survivors of D-Day. Multiple sources have stated that some veterans were so troubled by the D-Day sequence in the film that they had to leave the theater. The DVA took more than 100 calls from veterans seeking help after watching the movie; it was so accurate to them that it caused them PTSD. Some of the minor details that could have easily been overlooked were also done with such accuracy, down to the sound effects of certain bullets, rifle sounds, and ejecting clips of certain guns. The film even used the correct code names for the different sectors of Omaha Beach. Such detail was given to many aspects of this movie to try to portray its impact on the war. I believe that the details provided to this movie and the fact that it is based on a similar story is why it is such an impactful film.”

Sample Student Comments:
“I think that this is not only one of the best historical movies ever, but also one of the best war movies ever because of how well it depicts the brutal and uncomfortable realities of a world war. This movie can be very disturbing to watch at some parts, but I also believe that it’s important for a good historical film to be as realistic as possible, and I feel like this film does that the best out of the other films.”

“Its gruesome depiction of war leaves viewers shocked and the premise of bringing the last Ryan son home is absolutely gut wrenching. The acting is phenomenal, the cast is just as good, and Steven Spielberg does some of his best work on this film. Its entertainment value is through the roof and it touches on great themes outside of the war, specifically family and camaraderie. It’s a fantastic movie.”

Emily added a warning to her choice of scene as well: “THERE IS A LOT OF BLOOD”

Click here to vote, no later than 8:30am on Friday, April 8, 2022.

Congratulations to Saving Private Ryan, which defeated 1917 as ranked-choice voting moved to its second round. Thanks to all who voted!

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