5 Favorites Redux #2: Films About Major Historical Figures

Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.

In honor of this week’s release of Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet starring Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman, we’ll be looking at films that have a major historical figure at their core.

While these may not be the all-time best historical films or everyone’s agreement on the best historical portrayals, these five films are among my favorites. Here are my favorites in order of release.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Carl Theodore Dreyer takes a look at the trial of Joan of Arc, which ended with her execution. This silent film is emotionally wrought, powerfully written, and is one of the latter silent era’s best films. It’s photography is often cited as one of the most influential of the period.

Starring Maria Falconetti, credited simply as Mademoiselle Falconetti, gives a tremendous performance as the noted French teenager tasked by the king to lead many French armies to victories in thought-unwinnable conflicts over the British in the Hundred Years’ War. Tried for heresy for her belief that her actions were in support of God, the trial takes various twists and turns leading to the recantation of her confession and eventual burning at the stake. It’s a film that is as unconventional and influential as any of the era.

The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)

Based on a play adapted from diary written by a young Jewish girl during her years in hiding, The Diary of Anne Frank is George Stevens’ stellar look at the frightening and cramped conditions two Jewish families must endure to escape the Nazis during World War II. A sometimes claustrophobic drama, Stevens gets to the emotional heart of Frank’s life and struggles in the cramped attic in Amsterdam.

Filled with wonderful, touching performance, The Diary of Anne Frank is a taut historical exploration of one of the most horrific stories that came out of the Holocaust. While Anne Frank might not have been a world leader or a noted celebrity, her first-hand account of the horrors and fears facing Jews in 1940s Germany and the surrounding territories marks her as one of the most significant historical figures of the period and this film enables audiences to relate to and ultimately care for what happens to the girl and her family and thus vicariously for the millions of Jews who faced similar fates during that fateful period.

Schindler’s List (1993)

Another drama to come out of 1940s Nazi domination, Steven Spielberg’s look at Oskar Schindler, a munitions manufacturer in Krakow, Poland, who helped save the lives of hundreds of Jews by putting them to work in his factory, is a stirring and vivid look deep in the heart and soul of the Jewish experience.

Anchored by terrific performances from Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes, the film is a haunting portrait of the horrors of the war from the senseless victimization and slaughter of Jews to the evils of the prison camps of the Third Reich. Spielberg’s film is disturbing in its portrayal, but necessary in its depictions of the venality and depravity of Nazi Germany and the hope that Schindler himself gave his workers. Schindler’s List is unquestionably one of the greatest films in cinema history and should be required viewing for all school children so as to stave off the potential for such events to happen again.

Evita (1996)

Although it was never one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-running hits (like Cats or Phantom of the Opera), it was successful enough to win seven Tony Awards (out of eleven nominations) in 1980 upon its transfer to Broadway. It took almost two decades and a lot of drama to bring Evita to the big screen. In spite of its historical inaccuracies, the film released in 1996 under the watchful eye of Alan Parker who created one of the most lush and lavish musical extravaganzas seen on the big screen in decades and which helped revive interest in the transfer of musicals from the stage to the silver screen.

Giving Madonna the best acting role of her career as Eva Peron, the film co-starred Antonio Banderas as Che Guevara (who stands in for revolutionaries of all stripes even if the character himself wouldn’t have been old enough to protest Peron) and Jonathan Pryce as Juan Peron. Pryce and Banderas are perfect and while some disagree, Madonna acquits herself terrifically in the lead role. Why this film lands in my all-time favorite films about historical figures is because of just how profound a movie-going experience it was. With booming sound, thrilling music, gorgeous production design, and sumptuous cinematography, the small screen hasn’t been able to do its grandiosity justice. The aforementioned historical inaccuracies derive from a now-discredited portrait of Eva Peron that was the basis for the musical. In spite of this, Madonna helps create a sympathetic character, forced into the role of villain by the patriarchal influences surrounding her. It may be more harsh on Evita than history has been, but it’s an evocative and sensational experience.

Selma (2014)

Opening as four young children are murdered in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, Ava DuVernay’s terrific film about the march for equality led by Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma, Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery, the film explores the challenges King faced in his pursuit of equality against the forces of hate.

Anchored by the commanding performance of David Oyelowo, Selma is a riveting drama that lays out the events of the tragic march that eventually helped galvanize national attention of the situation facing black communities in the South and helped usher in the end of segregation. The importance of the events told in this film are accentuated by a superb cast and skilled direction. While the speeches herein were created out of whole-cloth for the film due to rights issues, it is a nevertheless rousing and engaging film.

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