An earlier post pilloried poor historical dramas…this list contains superior efforts.
Tombstone-1993: No movie will ever accurately portray the life and character of Wyatt Earp, he’s not nearly likable enough; but Tombstone comes close to capturing the tumultuous two-year period the Earp clan resided in Southern Arizona. Kevin Jarre crafted a remarkably accurate and detailed script and was granted permission to direct the film. Shortly after filming began, studio hatchet men fired Jarre and stripped much of his work from the final product. The production values remained high featuring authentic costuming, gun play, and a detailed recreation of Arizona’s biggest boom town. Enough of Jarre’s script remains giving Val Kilmer’s sly Doc Holliday plenty of saucy one liners to balance Kurt Russell’s conflicted Earp. Put Sam Elliot on a dusty street with a gun and a Stetson, good things will happen. The film takes liberties with history (Holliday was a dentist and did not kill John Ringo,) but the production design and spirited performances make up for the hooey.
All the President’s Men-1976: Rarely do films capture a time period as well as Alan Pakula’s political pot-boiler. Based on Woodward and Bernstein’s 1974 best seller,
Pakula and Robert Redford went to great lengths to recreate the tensions in the Washington Post press room during the Watergate scandal (even purchasing the desks that were used by the newsroom staff.) The film focuses on the first seven months of the scandal, narrowing the scope covered in the book. Tension is created by the performances and the writing, not through gimmicks and violence. Made during the peak of political thrillers, this film stands the test of time (despite the hideous mid-70’s clothing.)
Master and Commander; The Far Side of the World- 2003: Leave it to Peter Weir to bring Patrick O’Brian’s ‘Lucky Jack’ Aubrey series to the big screen. Master and Commander drops viewers onto a British frigate during the Napoleonic wars exposes them to the brutal life the sailors endured. Weir spent months in preproduction to guarantee period authenticity, also utilizing computer effects and functioning rigged sailing vessels. The actors were put through a rigorous training program to ‘learn the ropes’ just like midshipmen in the 19th century. With an intelligent script, plenty of high seas action, and rollicking performances, Master and Commander rises above ordinary costume dramas. Weir has denied plans for a sequel, but star Russell Crowe is more than willing to reprise his role.
Son of the Morning Star-1991: A rare example of a historical film that presents an even-handed portrayal of a controversal figure. Gary Cole rises to the challenge of
portraying Custer during his career on the frontier. Based on Evan Connel’s best seller, the made for TV film is epic in its scope and accurate with its history. Custer is neither hero nor villain, but presented as a conflicted soldier, ambitious but flawed. Part frontier epic, part love story, part biography, Son of the Morning Star succeeds on all levels of storytelling. Western fans will applaud the authentic cavalry action, while socially conscious viewers will appreciate the fair portrayal of American Indian concerns.