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By Michael Vecchio


Gandhi (1982) Dir. Richard Attenborough

The name Mahatma Gandhi can mean many different things to many people; perhaps it stands as a synonym for peace, for resistance, for obstinance, and even for revolution. But whatever association one holds with the name of Gandhi, his legend is equal parts myth and truth.

Director Richard Attenborough’s epic, sweeping and emotional film is not only tremendously informative and accurate in its depiction of Indo-British relations and the struggle for independence, but strikingly human and moving through its spotlight of this extraordinary man and his life mission.

Gandhi Trailer.

Winner of eight Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director), Gandhi is a wondrous achievement in cinematic biographies, bringing this particular chapter of history to life in illuminating and incisive fashion. And of course one cannot forget the outstanding performance of Ben Kingsley (Best Actor winner), who embodied the noble spirit of the Mahatma in one of the best screen roles ever seen.

Der Untergang: Downfall (2004) Dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel

As the central figure of the Second World War and the Holocaust, Adolf Hitler continues to fascinate us, remaining a prominent fixture in the world’s collective culture, and the go-to personification of evil. As such numerous books, plays and films have been produced that attempt to glean some understanding of who this madman really was. 

Downfall is one of the most striking and disturbing depictions of Hitler, with a totally mesmerizing lead performance from the late great Bruno Ganz. Set in the Fuhrerbunker at War’s end in 1945, Hitler and his remaining loyalists refuse to leave Berlin, despite the advances of the Allies. As their inevitable defeat approaches, Hitler begins his descent into an even more depraved paranoia. While the film was criticized by some as potentially humanizing Hitler, it is precisely this human look that makes the movie even more effective. 

Downfall Trailer.

Like any well-known dictator, Hitler is a figure surrounded by much mythology (much of which was created by the Third Reich itself). Downfall shows Hitler in all his wretchedness; rather than sowing sympathy for him, the movie asks us to remember that the only way a person like Hitler could achieve power was through the inaction and contrivance of others. In the years since its release, the movie has also become well known as the source of a very popular Internet meme; a scene where Hitler excoriates his generals for perceived disloyalty. This has spawned a number of parody videos, where the subtitles are changed to reflect things as trivial as parking tickets or Superbowl losses. While some of these are certainly amusing, it is a shame that the true meaning of this scene and the film as a whole has been rendered as merely a parody. But Downfall is a work way beyond parody offering a fascinating glimpse and insight into the final days of the Fuhrer.

Hotel Rwanda (2004) Dir. Terry George

In the span of a few months in early 1994, nearly 800,000 people were systemically murdered in what has now become infamously known as the Rwandan Genocide; Rwanda, a small country in eastern Africa had long experienced social unrest amongst its diverse population of ethnic groups. But when the president of the country was shot down in his helicopter, tensions exploded and the minority Tutsi population was immediately singled out for blame, beginning a campaign of mass murder and bloodshed against them.

Hotel Rwanda Trailer.

Just 10 years after this horrific event, the film Hotel Rwanda emerged reminding western audiences of the atrocities and that one need not look back to the Second World War to see widespread and organized genocide…

Recounting the true story of Paul Rusesabagina (a commanding and sensitive Don Cheadle), the manager of the Hotel des Milles Collines in the capital of Kigali, the film dramatizes his role in sheltering up to 1,300 people to avoid them being slaughtered. Distressing and yet uplifting, Hotel Rwanda chillingly recreates the atmosphere of terror and uncertainty gripping the country; as UN peacekeepers struggled to maintain order, the world watched both in horror and indifference as the killing grew.

Munich (2005) Dir. Steven Spielberg

The ongoing tension between the state of Israel and Palestine has produced numerous armed conflicts, proxy wars and an endless attempt at lasting peace; but each time a compromise seems to be reached, another setback brings negotiations crumbling down.

Perhaps one of the most infamous episodes of political violence between the two occurred during the 1972 Munich Olympic Games; it was there that members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September, took hostage and subsequently killed athletes and coaches of the Israeli Olympic team.

Munich Trailer

Steven Spielberg’s film is a layered and ambitious project, that attempts admirably to maintain its neutrality; while some events and names have been changed, as a whole Munich faithfully examines the lead up to this specific incident, while also providing a broader context into the lingering disputes between Palestinians and Jews. It is an informative and thrilling film, that works both as a historical document and one of personal contemplation.

All the President’s Men (1976) Dir. Alan J. Pakula

Although recent events in American politics may soon eclipse the Watergate Scandal, it remains the most infamous story in American political history. The break in at the Democratic party offices continues to captivate the American public nearly 50 years later. This notorious event in presidential history effectively ended the rule of President Richard Nixon, who to date remains the only office holder to have resigned.

All the President’s Men Trailer

Four years after the initial break in and attempted cover up, and just two years after Nixon’s resignation, Alan J. Pakula’s film All the President’s Men (based on the book of the same name by investigative journalist Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward) proved to be a searing expose’ on corruption at the highest level of power and the struggle for journalistic integrity and the importance of freedom of the press. Featuring an all star cast including Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, and Hal Holbrook, the film was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress in 2010; riveting and meticulous it is an important snapshot of 20th century American life and the struggle to keep truth alive.

These podcasts give more detailed stories from these pivotal historical films.

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The text of this article was commissioned by History Guild as part of our work to improve historical literacy. If you would like to reproduce it please get in touch via this form.