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

The three women of Hidden Figures

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: 

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 Men & The 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:

Teach With Movies
History vs. Hollywood
Historical Movies in Chronological Order
History in the Movies
Modern Era history movies
Ancient Era history movies
Hollywood’s Best History Movies
Teach with Movies
How to Use Hollywood Films in the Social Studies Classroom 

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? 

cross posted at

Glenn Wiebe is an education and technology consultant with 15 years' experience teaching history and social studies. He is a curriculum consultant forESSDACK, an educational service center in Hutchinson, Kansas, blogs frequently at History Tech and maintains Social Studies Central, a repository of resources targeted at K-12 educators. Visit to learn more about his speaking and presentation on education technology, innovative instruction and social studies.