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How to Teach History with Classic Movies

Updated on May 7, 2012
Marye Audet profile image

Marye Audet-White is an internationally known food writer, food editor for Texas Living, cookbook author, and food blogger.

Films Can Bring History to Life

Learning history form a textbook can be a dry, and uninspiring experience. You can use classic, historically accurate movies in your homeschool to spice up your history lessons and give your students deeper understanding of history. As they learn to identify with the characters in the movies they will have a new understanding that the people in history books were not just names on a page but real people, with real fears, triumphs and emotions.

Once you have chosen your movie, you will want to preview it and make notes about possible comprehension questions, reports, projects, and other enrichment activities. Allow your students to suggest films that they would like to see as well.

Some Films to Consider

There are thousands of films that are appropriate for the study of history. When choosing a movie keep in mind the age of the child, and the subject matter of the film. War movies are violent, as is war, but the classic films from the mid 1900s will be generally less violent and bloody than modern ones, and yet are still able to get the point across that war is violent.

  • Ben Hur-ancient history
  • Paint Your Wagon- California Gold Rush
  • Fort Apache- Native American/American wars
  • Broken Arrow- Watch this after Fort Apache and contrast the two films.

  • Gettysburg-Civil War
  • Tuskegee Airmen- WWII. The story of the first African American pilots, men who overcame great racial obstacles to fight during WWII. This is an awesome movie.
  • The Alamo- The classic move with John Wayne. True story of the Battle of the Alamo.
  • Gods and Generals-Civil War
  • Grapes of Wrath- Dustbowl years
  • Adventures of Marco Polo - the tale of the explorer, Marco Polo in the courts of Kublai Khan
  • Down to the Sea in Ships-Whaling in the early 1800s
  • The Lion in Winter-King Henry the second

Enrichment Activities

After you have watched the films with your students spend some time discussing them. What were their thoughts and feelings? How did they perceive the main characters? Ask questions and take time to listen to the answers.

There are several enrichment activities that can be done after viewing a film. Choose two to three activities per film for best retention.

  • Act out a part in the movie.
  • Pretend to interview the main character.
  • Write a synopsis of the movie
  • Create a movie poster.
  • If the movie is an adaption of a book read the book. Contrast the book and the movie.
  • Make a map of the location of the film.

By doing these things, and others, the information from the film will become real and easily remembered by your student. They will develop an understanding of not just what occurred in history, but why it occurred. By identifying with the characters the lives history becomes living and real, and not dry facts in a dusty tome.

Using films in conjunction with other methods of teaching history is an excellent way to give your students a love of the subject and an interest in it.


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    • profile image

      Bob 6 years ago

      Johnny Tremain is good for events leading to the Revolutionary War.

    • profile image

      Dr. J.M. Herrera 6 years ago

      I have to disagree with theuse of John Wayne's "Alamo." It is horribly inaccurate (even if its fun to watch). The modern version with Dennis Quaid and Billy Bob Thorton much more historically accurate both in its depiction of the battle and in the factual details of its protagonists.

    • profile image

      Gone With the Wind Scarlett 8 years ago

      Try Gone With the Wind for a taste of what it meant to be a Southerner and a Confederate during the Civil War.

    • Marye Audet profile image

      Marye Audet 9 years ago from Lancaster, Texas

      They are all good movies..and yeah, you do need to make sure they are accurate. As PART of a history program, though, using good historic movies is an incredible help.

    • MrMarmalade profile image

      MrMarmalade 9 years ago from Sydney

      Thos films, most of them bring back special memories.

      Thank you I could well believe the ones, I am talking about would be excellent teaching material

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 9 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      The Tuskegee Airmen is a particularly good and fairly accurate film, imo. Widntalkers, about the Navajo code talkers in WWII has been critcized for being two-dimensional, but it is a start. Gone with the Wind shows the mass destruction on the southern battlefields in jaw-dropping images. I first watched the entire film a month ago and was surprised.

      Some historical movies are very good for teaching. Others are incorrect or try to teach revisionist history, but your choices are all pretty good, I think. Good group of films, although I never saw Paint Your Wagon.

    • RainbowRecognizer profile image

      RainbowRecognizer 9 years ago from Midwest

      This is really nice, especially for home schoolers who are okay using the TV - thanks, Marye!

    • J D Murrah profile image

      J D Murrah 9 years ago from Refugee from Shoreacres, Texas


      I am glad you posted this. I have often used movies in teaching aspects of history. Some of the others that I use are El Cid, Braveheart, Zulu, Cast a Giant Shadow and the Horatio Hornblower series. These have been useful in portrayingsome of the key events and people that haveshaped history. I always make sure that we discuss the events in the film and in history.

      Best Regards,

      Jeffrey Murrah