U.S. History in Film Part 2: 1914-2008

Welcome back! Last time, we took a look at movies based on U.S. history from Columbus to the end of the 19th century, and boy did we have fun! But there’s still plenty of history to cover, so we better get back in the groove. And what better place to jump back in than what so many people foolishly called “The war to end all wars”?


The old lie; dulce et decorum est pro patria mori

Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

Most American movies about World War I tend to be … not that good. A lot of stories about two fellas from the same town who love the same gal and will use the war to prove themselves to her. Dalton Trumbo wasn’t into that kind of junk; he wanted to make something that showed the world just how horrible war is. The film, which Trumbo wrote and directed based on his own novel, is about Joe Bonham, a U.S. soldier who lost his arms, legs, eyes, nose, ears, and mouth when an artillery shell went off. Bonham lies in a hospital unable to see, hear, or speak, going back and forth between memories of his life before the war and fantasies of what his life could have been. During the moments he is awake, Bonham continuously nods his head, sending out a message in morse code. His message is simple: “Kill me”

Bonus Trivia: Metallica used scenes from Johnny Got His Gun for the video to their song “One” (“Hold my breath as I wish for death…”). When they got tired of paying royalties for the footage, Metallica bought the rights to the movie.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Very loosely based on the true story of the Niland brothers, Steven Spielberg took Robert Rodat’s fantastic script and turned it into the most realistic portrayal of World War II ever put on film. While the characters and plot are made-up, the things they witness, from the opening scene at the taking of Omaha Beach on D-Day to the decimated towns of France, are all heavily based on truth. Along with making an instant classic, Spielberg brought shaky-cam to mainstream audiences.

Bonus Trivia: The opening D-Day scene was so realistic that veterans of World War II would often leave the theater because the scenes caused them to have flashbacks. The Department of Veterans Affairs created a nationwide hotline for veterans who were affected by the film to help them find therapists to work through their PTSD.

M*A*S*H (1970)

Based on MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors by Richard Hooker — who was actually two people, Dr. H. Richard Hornberger, who worked in a MASH unit, and writer W. C. Heinz — M*A*S*H is a not-very-true but still very great movie about the Korean War. The movie doesn’t have a cohesive plot; it is a series of vignettes focused on the lives of the staff of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital over the course of a year.

Bonus Trivia: Robert Altman, who directed the film, thought that the book was terrible and racist. Considering that the only black character in the book goes by the name “Spearchucker,” I’m not going to argue with him.


Better dead than red

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

Something that American schools tend to skip over is the House Un-American Activities Committee run by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. HUAC was originally created to ferret out Nazi propaganda in the U.S., but by the 1950s it had turned its eye to communists, especially in Hollywood. A blacklist of writers, directors, and actors who refused to cooperate ended or caused irreparable harm to an untold number of careers (including the aforementioned Dalton Trumbo). Good Night, and Good Luck is all about Edward R. Murrow and his broadcast team at CBS calling out the actions of McCarthy and his committee, dealing a serious blow to the reputation of HUAC.

Bonus Trivia: Richard Nixon served on the committee while he was a Congressman. Robert Kennedy was a staff member on the Senate subcommittee.

The Front (1976)

Taking a lighter tone, The Front stars Woody Allen as Howard Prince, a cashier whose writer friend gets blacklisted by HUAC and asks if he can put Prince’s name on his scripts so he can keep selling them. Before long, other blacklisted writers start to use Prince’s name on their scripts, turning him into one of the best-known writers in Hollywood.

Bonus Trivia: Zero Mostel, who plays a blacklisted actor here, actually was blacklisted. Parts of his character’s story are based on his life and the life of fellow blacklisted actor Philip Loeb.


Not because they are easy, but because they are hard…

JFK (1991)

The assassination of John F. Kennedy sent shockwaves through America and was the first in a string of politically motivated assassinations in the 1960s. Oliver Stone co-wrote and directed this movie based on the life of New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, who believed that the assassination of JFK was carried out by members of the U.S. government. How much of the film is fact and how much is fiction depends on what side of the JFK conspiracy theory you fall on. What can’t be denied is that Stone made a great film, and “back and to the left” became a well-used joke in pop culture.

Bonus Trivia: JFK was such a hit that it led to an outcry of US citizens demanding that the Assassination Records Review Board release the official records on JFK, which had been ordered sealed from the public until 2029. With the passage of the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, the date for when the official records would be released to the public was moved up to October 2017.

The Right Stuff (1983)

I don’t know if there’s a better movie to make people want to do the impossible than The Right Stuff. Covering the story of the Mercury Seven — the pilots chosen to be America’s first astronauts — The Right Stuff is long, but there isn’t a minute wasted. It shows just how brave the pilots had to be to do things no human had ever done before.

Bonus Trivia: A whole lot of The Right Stuff is made-up, but the bit that pissed off a lot of people was the depiction of Gus Grissom panicking when his Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft sank. In reality, the Liberty Bell 7 sank when the craft’s hatch opened prematurely due to a mechanical failure. Oh, and the movie kinda forgets to mention the women who helped make all of it possible.


Do you remember things that made sense?

Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

Directed by Oliver Stone with a script by Stone and Ron Kovic (and based on Kovic’s autobiography), the movie follows Kovic from childhood to his time fighting in Vietnam (where he’s shot and paralyzed from the waist down), to his time as a member of the group Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Born on the Fourth of July is not an easy movie to watch; it is an unflinching look at how our government fails to care for the men and women who fight for this country. Recent scandals in the VA are a stark reminder that many of the things that happened to Kovic and the other veterans of Vietnam still happen today.

Bonus Trivia: William Baldwin, Daniel Baldwin, and Stephen Baldwin all appear in the movie. They don’t play brothers, and they have no scenes together.


I am not a crook

All the President’s Men (1976)

There is no one moment that caused the American people to lose confidence in their government, but Watergate is where the majority turned. All the President’s Men hit theaters less than two years after Nixon resigned as president, and it has become the best-known version of the story. Luckily, the movie sticks to the facts, and the truth of the story makes for a great political thriller.

Bonus Trivia: The phrase “follow the money” originates from this film. I imagine screenwriter William Goldman wishes he had trademarked it.

Nixon (1995)

Oliver Stone is all over this list! Nixon is based on the life of, if you haven’t guessed, Richard Nixon, the 37th president of the United States, and the only one who has ever resigned (as of this writing, anyway). The movie tells Nixon’s story in a nonlinear fashion, jumping through his life up to the days before he let the world know that they wouldn’t have him to kick around anymore. Stone’s goal was to show Nixon as a tragic figure. Whether he pulled that off is up to the viewer.

Bonus Trivia: When the movie was released, the Richard Nixon Library released a statement saying that Oliver Stone was trying to “defame and degrade President and Mrs. Nixon’s memories in the mind of the American public.” How the movie could do that more than Watergate, I have no idea.


They will be blaming immigrants and poor people

United 93 (2006)

This is a fantastic and powerful — and very hard to watch — film about the hijacked plane that crashed into a field near Shanksville, Penn., on Sept. 11, 2001. What makes it hard to watch is the reality of the situation. How close to the truth the film is can’t be said, since there were no survivors, but writer/director Paul Greengrass plays it as real as possible, with the majority of the film happening in real time.

Bonus Trivia: The flight attendants and pilots in the movie are actual flight attendants and airline pilots. Greengrass chose to use them instead of actors so that the technical dialogue would feel more natural.

The Big Short (2015)

The funniest movie here is also the one that I think best explains the world we live in today. Director Adam McKay, previously best known for the films he’s made with Will Ferrell, took on the task of explaining the 2007-08 financial crisis to idiots like me, and he more than succeeded. The movie moves quickly, never stops, and finds the perfect mixture of comedy and drama.

Bonus Trivia: McKay’s 2010 film The Other Guys is also connected to the 2007 financial crisis, with end credits showcasing the financial facts and historical moments that caused it.


Now, these aren’t the only movies about U.S. history worth watching. Not by a long shot. Space constraints forced me to leave out some greats: 12 Years a Slave, Lincoln, Tombstone, Selma, Platoon, and Patton, just to name a few. What is here makes for a good starter, though. Just remember that some of them take liberties with the truth, so don’t rely on them if you’re taking a test or trying to make your friends think you’re smart.


Derek Faraci lives in historic Farmington Hills, Mich.

Image credit: Nate Koehler