World History at the Movies

Ever since D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, movies and historical fact have had an uneasy relationship. (Griffith himself thought that motion pictures would render history books irrelevant.) The messiness of history — its myriad inassimilable facts — does not easily fit into the regular mold of a Hollywood blockbuster. But movies can do something that history books often can’t — they can bring human stories to life and make us care about them. Here are a few excellent films (appropriate for high school world history students) that do just that.

Though the film’s central scene — the massacre on the Odessa steps — never in fact took place, Battleship Potemkin is an important record both of Soviet history and the history of cinema. Eisenstein was commissioned to make a film celebrating the 1905 mutiny on the Potemkin, a crucial pre-1917 event in the Soviet imagination, and the result, banned in the Soviet Union, had a huge influence worldwide.


Based on Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel, Visconti’s The Leopard depicts the changes to Italian society during the Risorgimento and the decline of the Sicilian aristocracy. A classic of Italian cinema, The Leopard movingly evokes the decadent world of the old order and ambivalently registers its loss in the character of the Prince Fabrizio Salina (Burt Lancaster).


Adapted from the book The Death and Life of Dith Pran, The Killing Fields tells the story of the rise to power of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia towards the end of the VietnamWar and of two journalists’ attempt to both report on what was happening and stay alive. One of the journalists, Sydney Schanberg, won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting while the other, Cambodian photojournalist Dith Pran, was captured by the Khmer Rouge. Both risked their lives to communicate what was happening in Cambodia to the world.


SHOAH (1985)
Director Claude Lanzmann spent more ten years making this nine-and-a-half hour documentary about the extermination of six million Jews during the Second World War. The result is the most honest and moving film created about the Holocaust. Lanzmann interviews survivors, Nazi functionaries, and witnesses, never hesitating to ask troubling questions and always refusing to give easy answers.


MALCOLM X (1992)
Spike Lee’s Malcolm X is the story of a man transforming himself — from a small-time crook into a fiery spokesman for racial separation into a prophet of universal brotherhood under Islam. Malcolm X was a complex, multi-faceted personality and Lee doesn’t reduce him to either a hero or a villain.


From the 1800s up until the 1970s, under the policies of multiple Australian governments, thousands of Australian aboriginal children were forcibly taken from their families and brought up in care homes or adopted by white families. Rabbit-Proof Fence tells the story of three mixed-race girls as they trek across the Australian outback to reunite with their families. A necessary film about a shameful period of Australian history.


Arendt is best-known today for “Eichmann in Jerusalem”, the New Yorker article in which she coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe Adolf Eichmann’s bloodless approach to mass murder. But she was a fascinating figure who wrote about most of the important subjects of the twentieth century. Von Trotta’s film explores Arendt’s relationships with the philosopher Martin Heidegger and the writer Mary McCarthy and fills in the background to Arendt’s most famous work. —Jeremy Harris