21 Timeless Historical Dramas
Gone With the Wind (1939)
Despite a rotating set of directors and controversy over the decision to cast English actress Vivien Leigh to play feisty, fussy Southern belle Scarlett O'Hara, Gone would not be easily forgotten. Leigh nailed the role, sizzled with co-star Clark Gable, and proved curtains could be utterly glamorous.
Band of Brothers (2001)
Ten episodes follow the path of the U.S. Army's Easy Company from D-Day preparations to the aftermath of Hitler's defeat during World War II. Fresh off the success of Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks executive produced the miniseries based on Stephen E. Ambrose's book of the same name (Spielberg also directed segments, and Hanks wrote and starred in some parts).
As Queen Elizabeth I, Cate Blanchett holds court, fields threats on her life, and defies her doubters to become a political icon during the early years of her momentous tenure as England's first female monarch. The sequel, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, followed QEI through her twilight years.
Mad Men (2007-present)
The times they were a-changin'. As America underwent a cultural and moral revolution in the 1960s, Don Draper & Co. swam against the current, helped along by a regular diet of cigarettes, three martini lunches, affairs, and glossy self-delusion.
Focusing on a story long kept under wraps from the 443-day 1979 Iran hostage crisis — that of six hostages who fled to the Canadian Embassy and hid there for months — director-star Ben Affleck created a thrilling film about events long ago and far away that still feels deeply personal.
The historically tight 2000 presidential election between the Republican candidate, Texas governor George W. Bush, and his Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore, triggers a domino effect of power brokering, public outcry, and precedent-setting judicial intervention. Danny Strong — who would go on to write another election-based, politics-as-theater TV movie with 2012's Sarah Palin flick Game Change — anchors the spiderweb of tabloid-ready personalities and behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing in his award-winning screenplay.
Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999)
Released when the PC was ubiquitous and no one had ever heard of an iPod, Pirates tackles the soap operatic digital showdown between tech frenemies Bill Gates (Anthony Michael Hall) and Steve Jobs (Noah Wyle, shown), whose frenzied competition begat 20th and 21st centuries' most life-changing inventions.
Citizen Kane (1941)
Orson Welles reinvented the wheel, employing cinematography and narrative innovations as he depicted early 20th-century America's changing political and journalistic landscape through the life of fictional newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane. Ironically, Kane's powerful storytelling was the cause of its initial box-office failure as real-life magnate William Randolph Hearst — one of the Welles' inspirations — blocked publicity for the movie in his massive network of newspapers. (That story is retold in RKO 281: The Battle Over Citizen Kane.) Hearst won the battle but lost the war: Today, Citizen Kane is considered by many to be the greatest film ever made.
Too Big To Fail (2011)
A dependable ensemble takes viewers through the beats of the economically, ethically complex 2008 financial meltdown, which trickled down from Wall Street to Main Street.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
An epic in every sense of the word. David Lean's sumptuous, 216-minute look at the life of T.E. Lawrence features many standouts, including Peter O'Toole as the British Army officer navigating the shifting geopolitical sands of North Africa and the Middle East during World War I.
This sweeping look at the life and legacy, both historical and genetic, of a single slave remains one of the most-watched programs in U.S. history. Sold into slavery as a teen, Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton) loses his identity and is thrust into horrific conditions when he is shipped to the New World. Though Kunta (played as an older man by John Amos) does not live to see the end of slavery, his descendants become landowners and artists — Alex Haley, author of the source material (Roots: The Saga of an American Family) claimed to be descended from Kunta Kinte.
Schindler's List (1993)
Steven Spielberg's film about Oskar Schindler, the German factory owner who saved more than a thousand Jews from the concentration camps in World War II, captured widespread acclaim — and seven Oscars — with its elegant black-and-white cinematography and striking symbolism.
John Adams (2008)
Eight hours and 56 years pass in what feels like a matter of minutes in the biographical miniseries about America's brilliant, if irritable, Founding Father (Paul Giamatti, who took home Golden Globe, Emmy, and SAG Awards for the role).
Chronicling the indomitable spirit of William Wallace (played by director Mel Gibson), who became the blue-striped face of the resistance in the First War of Scottish Independence, Braveheart took home plenty of gold during the 1996 awards season. But it was the country of Scotland itself that emerged the real winner in the year after the film's release — tourism went up 253 percent.
And the Band Played On (1993)
Based on Randy Shilts' trailblazing history of the AIDS epidemic, the docudrama tracks Patient Zero before zooming out on a tapestry of characters whose lives are affected by the global health crisis.
Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)
In stark, poignant black and white, George Clooney secured his triple-threat status as director, co-writer, and co-star of the story of legendary TV newscaster Edward R. Murrow's (David Strathairn) on-air crusade against U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy's 1950s anti-Communist bullying, which seeped out of political halls and into the entertainment industry.
Denzel Washington won his first Oscar as Private Trip, a member of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry — the first formal unit of the U.S. Army made up entirely of African American men — during the Civil War.
Hatfields & McCoys (2012)
Detailing the 28-year backwater feud between two American families, the 286-minute miniseries gives faces and texture to storied patriarchs Hatfield (Kevin Costner, shown) and McCoy (Bill Paxton).
Battleship Potemkin (1925)
In five vignettes, Sergei Eisenstein's landmark silent film presents the 1905 revolt by sailors on the Russian battleship Potemkin against their Tsarist officers. A compact, richly evocative 69 minutes, Eisenstein peppered his propaganda film with a montage likening governmental authorities to peacocks and a fictionalized massacre so effective it apocryphally became accepted as fact by some.
Pride and Prejudice (1995)
There have been many, many adaptations of Jane Austen's 1813 novel about the culture of manners and courtship in 19th-century England, but how many of them were responsible for Colin Firth's wet-shirted breakthrough?
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Like Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (the film's inspiration), director Francis Ford Coppola admitted he was nearly driven insane when his dream project turned into a nightmare thanks to inclement weather, media attacks, difficult actors, and technical challenges that significantly delayed the film's release. The Vietnam interpretation proved worth the wait and budget excess, as it performed well, received across-the-board critical praise and became a touchstone of New Hollywood filmmaking.