Ten great British history films.

On screenjunkies.com, Honora James made a list of the top ten “English historical movies”, whatever that means.  Not only did Honora list a flick about a Scot as the top “English movie”, but she left out a few of the treasures that show the Sceptred Isle in its true splendor.

So, I’ve made my own list of great motion pictures that tell us about the history of Britain.

1.  The Madness of King George

“Everybody” loves a good film about the royals, and this has to be the best one out there.  It’s funny in a dry kind of way, not the laugh out loud American humor.  Witness the tongue-in-cheek vindictive wit that the British are so famous for.

King George III goes crazy.  Those around him don’t know how to react.  I really wish Mel Brooks made a remake, then I’d have a new number 1 (the possibilities are endless).

2 and 3.  Robin Hood, (Men in Tights + Prince of Thieves)

Robin Hood existed, that’s a fact.  Some people say he wasn’t the nice proto-socialist we all make him out to be, but rather a dangerous greedy bandit.   Killjoys!

In 1991, Kevin Costner brought some diversity to Sherwood Forest by bringing in  a Moor who looks nothing like Moors, and by bringing in some rousing speeches to the Merry Men.  Many of the Merry Men had great, authentic, regional accents.   Costner, as Mel Brooks pointed out, didn’t.

Prince of Thieves was enjoyable, included a stellar cast, and would have been my top Robin Hood film is we didn’t have to see Costner’s bottom.

Mel Brook’s Men in Tights has cheap gags, but Costner’s love of his own backside deserved to get ridiculed.

Eventually when everyone got as sick of Friar Tuck as they were of the Sheriff of Nottingham, Hollywood tried to revive bad King John’s enemies with an “accurate” biopic (or one that makes him look like a not-so-nice guy –  apparently accurate history is when we accept all the slander against our heroes-), and it failed.

The problem with the “accurate” pic is that we don’t even agree on what Robin Hood’s real name was.  If you must speculate to fill in the gaps, might as well speculate in an entertaining way.

Another great Robin Hood movie is the one by Disney, and it is accurate in some things.  We all know that Maid Marianne was a fox, but here again, Robin Hood walks around without his trousers.

Lesson from history:  Costner is a great actor and a great producer.  We just don’t want to see the back of him.

4. Time Bandits

History from a British point of view, very British.

Sure, the premise is fictional, but at least this film doesn’t claim to be accurate.  We get to see what the British think of Napoleon.  Oh, and here’s an Thatcherite view of Robin Hood that actually worked.  This follows history as a large section of Brits see it.

I’d add Black Adder, if it were a film.  Same kind of humour, but slightly to the left, and more for adults.   Black Adder is too introspective into the character to be considered a straight history show, but its creators do have a passion for the past.

5. Gandhi.

I do say, if Braveheart qualifies as an English movie, Gandhi surely qualifies as a British film.  With British principal actor, a British director, and told from a British (not Indian) point of view, this film shows how an Indian anti-colonialist became a British icon.

The film starts with Gandhi’s education in England, it follows him to his budding activism in South Africa, and through to Indian independence.

Although the story does cover his assassination, the post-colonial part of his life is more of an epilogue, a kind of lament at the fact that despite all this great man did the world is still violent.

The film doesn’t make Gandhi out to be a deity of any kind.  It does show Gandhi’s struggle with anger, when he hits his wife once, as well as his initial fearful hesitancy in taking up the cause of equality.

However, the personality warts are left to a minimum, in order to let the story flow and the hero shine.  Most of the facts that would make Gandhi less palatable to a British audience are left out.

Lesson from history:  Gandhi was born British and died a citizen of the world.

6.  The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

An art film to the core, this isn’t some light-headed spectacle for the fans of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, nor is it a bombastic film about national pride like Pearl Harbor.

No, Colonel Blimp is as close as you can get to an anti-war film for the second world war, made during the second world war.

We start with the younger generation, the “greatest generation” who fought World War II.


Youngsters from the home guard are rehearsing “the war begins at midnight” a little prematurely and running rampant.  The older Colonel Blimp is a victim of this “impudence”, and after a brief stuggle he lands in a swimming pool goes into flashback about the old days.

The most controvertial point of this film is that the “greatest generation” wasn’t really any better than their forebears.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is said to have annoyed Churchill and other powerful people.  It’s also apparently loved by Martin Scorsese and other artists.

Lesson from history:   Great minds don’t think alike.

7-10.  The jury’s still out on these.

Seriously, does the list have to be cemented in stone?  There’s a lot
of movies I haven’t seen yet, and even more that haven’t been made
yet.  I’ve seen other films, like Lawrence of Arabia, Remains of the
Day, and so on, and they just didn’t grab me.

Have a different list?  Why not share it?  Maybe you’ve noticed something that I’ve missed.