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The History of America in 30 Films (Part 1)

Imagine, if you will, a movie theater that, over the course of a single month, will show films covering the entire length of American history. Each night they’ll play a movie that evokes a certain period, moving chronologically to the present day.

Over the course of several articles, I’ll pretend to be the programmer for this imaginary theater, doing my best to capture America over 30 films. Each of these movies will serve as an entry in a larger story… think of it as the American Cinematic Universe.

This first set of movies is from the pre-Revolutionary era of American history. First a bit of housekeeping; there are a few unfortunate problems when it comes to making selections from this period. There are virtually zero films about Native American culture before the arrival of Europeans. On the other hand, movies that do feature Native Americans of this early era are often outdated and offensive. Perhaps the biggest issue in terms of programming this particular set of movies is that there aren’t many of them. American filmmakers simply haven’t done much exploration of the pre-Revolutionary era. With that all laid out, let’s get started.

1492: 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)

Dir. Ridley Scott

1492: Conquest of Paradise

It’s surprising that there has yet to be a great (or even very good) movie made about Christopher Columbus. Two films about him were released in 1992 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage. Both were critical and box-office failures, though Ridley Scott’s 1492 is certainly the better of the two. It’s not exactly terrible, but calling it a “good movie” would definitely be a bit of a stretch. Still, it feels wrong to leave Christopher Columbus out of this list, seeing as his journey is the earliest we can begin in terms of America on film.

Again, it would be great if there were a movie about the pre-Columbian period of the continent; for now, Scott’s 1492 will have to do as the starting point. At least the costumes and scenery are  nice!

1608: The New World (2005)

Dir. Terrence Malick


Yes, we have to jump over 100 years in history here, but you’d be hard pressed to find any movies (especially passable ones) set in 1500s “America.”

The New World depicts the founding of Jamestown, Virginia and features names you’ll know, like Pocahontas and John Smith. The movie does an incredible job of capturing that moment in time, though it’s obviously not entirely historically accurate. The cinematography is incredible, and Malick manages to make you feel like you’re actually there in the early 17th century. No list of films about American history would be complete without this.

It’s already difficult to find movies set in this time period, so the fact that this one is actually very good makes it all the more essential.

1692: The Crucible (1996)

Dir. Nicholas Hytner


Daniel Day-Lewis stars in this adaptation of Arthur Miller’s play of the same name. The film is set during the infamous Salem witch trials, though as originally written, the play served as a potent metaphor for McCarthyism and the Red Scare.

The story is based on real-life events and people; Miller took pride in its historical accuracy, though there were certain adjustments he made in order to make everything a bit more dramatically viable. He even went to great lengths to accurately represent the way people would’ve spoken in 17th century Massachusetts.

And, of course, Day-Lewis is, as always, pretty good at that whole acting thing.

1757: The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

Dir. Michael Mann


Oh, look who it is… Daniel Day-Lewis! He has a weird tendency to pop up throughout American history and I’d be willing to wager he’ll make yet another appearance or two in future installments of this very series. Here he stars as Nathaniel “Hawkeye” Poe, an adopted son of the last chief of the Mohican tribe. Though the story told here is fictional, it’s one of the few movies to be set during the French-Indian war, giving us a unique look at life in the British colony of New York.

The history surrounding the story, however, is relatively accurate, and you’ll likely leave the movie knowing more about the French-Indian war than you did before. Plus, this is the conflict that set the stage for a pretty important part of American history… some kind of revolution? 😉

FOR PART 2: the Revolutionary War and the early years of independence.

Have any other movies set in this era to add? Let us know below!


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