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Films do not need to be wildly fictional to captivate viewers. Sometimes those with a historical context can capture the imagination as powerfully as films with a contemporary setting.

When I was teaching film, I often found that films set in the past were particularly effective tools to open spectators’ eyes to the complexities of earlier times, and to the ways in which history defines the here and now. I’ve previously written about many of the best (for example, “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” about the treatment of Australian aboriginal people by British colonizers; “The King’s Speech,” chronicling the effort by the new king of England, George VI, to overcome his debilitating stutter; “The Hurt Locker,” dramatizing the traumatic experiences of American soldiers during the Iraq war; and a number of others). In researching this article and refreshing my recollection of other historical films, I was struck by the sheer magnitude of them, offering up an abundant and edifying treasury of stories of times past. Here are three such films.

”Indochine” (1992)

This one has got everything: historic conflict, the politics of nation-building, a searing love triangle, great star turns, and opulent atmosphere. The film is set during the period when the French proprietorship of Vietnam was coming to an end, and political and economic divisions between the North and South regions of the country were boiling over into armed conflict.

Iconic film goddess Catherine Deneuve stars as Eliane Devries, an affluent French rubber plantation owner who has adopted a Vietnamese daughter, Camille (Linh Dan Pham) and raised her in European cultural traditions (rather than her native Asian customs). In the 1930s, when the story begins, Eliane is grappling with internal tensions in the country, as workers are beginning to rise up against their exploitation by the French; she is also involved in a torrid relationship with French navy officer Jean-Baptiste Le Guen (Victor Perez). Camille goes away to school in France and there becomes enamored of western ideas of democracy; when she returns, she sides with the Vietnamese laborers, who are beginning to contest French imperial rule and embrace nationalism.

The French military attempts to suppress the movement, and Camille is caught up in the uprising and almost killed. She is rescued by Jean Baptiste, and the two become clandestine lovers, conceiving a child in the process. But Camille is killed, leaving a baby son, whose care, ironically, is given to Eliane. How the child will come to terms with his mixed ancestry, as the fate of Vietnam is to be decided at the 1954 Geneva Accords provides the film’s resolution. Filmed in sumptuous Southeast Asia, “Indochine” is a provocative and gorgeous cinematic experience.

”Schindler’s List” (1994)

As we reflect on the abiding presence of anti-Semitic attitudes, more visible in American society recently, it is useful to be reminded of the ways such loathsome ideas can culminate in mass genocide. This Holocaust film, honored by many awards, focuses on the true story of protagonist Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a prominent German industrialist who convinces the Nazis to allow him to employ Jewish workhands from the Krakow ghetto in his factories in Poland.

Schindler’s initial motivation is strictly pragmatic — he joins the Nazi party to curry favor with officials, and he wants to access free, dependable labor to advance his war profiteering, using local Jews to “manage” his enterprise, particularly local ghetto functionary Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), raising the issue of Stern’s complicity in the manipulation of his own people. However, Schindler becomes increasingly aware that his practices are saving lives from extermination in the Polish death camps. He is able to outfox the sadistic SS commandant, Amon Goth (Ralph Fiennes), who is organizing the massacre of ghetto inhabitants or their transport to Auschwitz. Ultimately, the once avaricious businessman becomes a profound humanitarian. Neeson is formidable in his role, and Fiennes is brilliant as an icy fiend. The film is, of course, much more multifaceted, with a number of subsidiary plot lines, but ultimately it stands as a profound testimony to both the malice and the goodness resident in the human soul.

”The Iron Lady” (2011)

Many Americans are only generally aware of the governance of Margaret Thatcher, who served as the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, the only woman ever to do so. Thatcher’s leadership coincided with the presidential terms of Ronald Reagan in the U.S., and her conservative philosophy and policies were similar, though in ways less benign, than his.

This film stars Meryl Streep in the key role, in another of her flawlessly skilled cinematic representations of a memorable figure. Told as a sustained flashback, the story is structured as an imagined conversation between Thatcher and the “ghost” of her deceased husband, Denis Thatcher, when she is elderly and afflicted with senility. She reflects on her life and political rise from a middle-class upbringing as a grocer’s daughter, through the local and then national ranks of the Conservative Party, breaking through the glass ceiling that had forever thwarted British women of ambition.

Thatcher was quickly appreciated as an expert strategist and proficient manager of people and issues as she rose to power, skills she brought to the office with mixed results, often polarizing the public. She was branded “the Iron Lady” by many of the public who deemed her handling of labor disputes (especially miners’ strikes of the mid-’80s) as ruthless and void of empathy. Her rigid militarism, exhibited in the conflict with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, offended many. The film humanizes her, perhaps unfairly dramatizing the sad decline in her later years. Streep’s strength as an actor, though, enables her character to bridge these contrarieties, making the film an intriguing inquiry into both politics and gender.


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