25 Great Movies for Our 'Historically Illiterate' Children

I don't know how many of you were lucky enough to catch the recent profile on 60 Minutes with Morley Safer interviewing our most famous living historian, David McCullough.

The author of countless volumes which all make the past accessible and very much alive, McCullough has gone on record to bemoan the younger generation's limited understanding and appreciation of history -- even the history of their own country.

McCullough related the story of one otherwise poised and smart young woman who confided she'd never realized that the thirteen original American colonies were all on the East Coast.

Yikes. What happened?

Obviously part of the problem lies in our educational system.

McCullough rightly pointed out that we need to teach our teachers better -- that no one should simply be able to major in "education," but rather in specific areas of learning which promote passion and expertise in one particular area.

He then asserted that the responsibility for young people's "historical illiteracy" (his term) went beyond teachers and the system.

Ultimately, the fault lies with us parents.

We don't talk about history with our children around the dinner table anymore. Too often these days, we don't even make it to the table, and even when we do it's not for very long.

Beyond the lack of quality time and good old-fashioned conversation, more than ever our culture seems all about the present and the future. The subject of technology -- how we can and will use it -- dominates our collective attention.

In private secondary schools today, there are many more course options, with each new offering designed to give our kids the skills to navigate this complex, dynamic new century.

For instance, as a high school senior, my son is taking not American History, but The History of Business Ethics, which I suppose could lead him into economics and, one day, a job in finance.

Rather than the classics he takes Spanish, because it is the second most spoken language in the United States. Recognizing the ascendancy of China and how technology is shrinking the world in general, that language is also available to him.

How easy, then, for dusty old history to get lost.

On a more fundamental level, lovers of history in its purest and most accurate form must, of necessity, love the printed word.

And personally, I'm convinced our children read less than we did. They certainly read differently... just as they watch differently.

As people who have never lived without computers and portable devices, as experts at navigating the web to find just the information they need fast, younger people really don't need to read a book all the way through. Really, what's the point?

The world is becoming more about images, less about words; more short-form, less long-form driven. The proof is all around us. And the rich, rewarding discipline of history may suffer as a result.

Even recognizing the many important -- indeed, crucial -- ways in which our children will outperform us, their relative ignorance of history is still dispiriting.

As John Kennedy once remarked: "To see our future, we must understand our past."

McCullough himself asserted that history's relevance lies in the fact that it relates human stories involving real, flesh-and-blood people. People whose achievements and failures have not only shaped who we are, but also have much to teach us.

Because, unfortunately, as imperfect beings, part of our tendency is to repeat those mistakes. Thus history can make us humbler and wiser.

Segueing to movies and no doubt an unintended lack of humility, I was struck by a recent quote in the New York Times attributed to Jennifer Lawrence, the 22-year-old star of Winter's Bone and The Hunger Games.

About her chosen career she said: "I like making movies, but that doesn't mean I want to watch a black and white, freaking boring, (unprintable epithet) silent movie."

Now I don't expect Ms. Lawrence to be sitting at home catching up on John Gilbert's filmography. Still, is it really necessary to dismiss a whole era of movie-making, an era that produced some truly brilliant and memorable work?

To me the remark simply indicates a lack of historical perspective. And that's a shame, since many people will pay attention to what she has to say.

On a positive note, seeing the recently released Lincoln with two of my grown children gave me renewed hope about the enduring pull of history and the ability of movies to capture it.

After the screening, my son and daughter fired questions at us about that tumultuous period and, specifically, the root causes of the Civil War.

Though some historical films can be either maddeningly superficial or downright inaccurate (either through carelessness or in the interest of dramatic license), the best of them -- like Lincoln -- can be valuable entry points to get our kids curious and motivate further inquiry.

If history itself is comprised of human stories, great movies can make those stories feel even more immediate, more human.

With that in mind, here are twenty-five of my favorite historical films, and the subjects they cover (note: recognizing that historical documentaries merit their own piece, I'm just focusing here on narrative films).

Click on any of the titles to read the full reviews on our site.

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) -- Early days of the future president.

All The King's Men (1949) -- Power-mad Southern Governor based on Huey Long.

A Night To Remember (1958) -- Titanic sinking, 1912.

Inherit The Wind (1960) --- Scopes Monkey Trial challenging Darwin's Ascent of Man.

Judgment At Nuremberg (1961) -- Trial of Nazi war criminals.

The Longest Day (1962) -- D-Day, June 6, 1944.

A Man For All Seasons (1966) -- Sir Thomas More vs. King Henry VIII.

The Battle Of Algiers (1966) -- Algerian struggle for independence in the late '50s.

The Missiles Of October (1974) -- The Cuban Missile Crisis.

All The President's Men (1976) -- The investigation that toppled a president.

Gallipoli (1981) -- Disastrous World War 1 battle.

Reds (1981) -- An American's first hand view of the Russian Revolution.

Gandhi (1982) -- Biography of leader who helped win India independence.

Danton (1983) -- The French Revolution.

The Killing Fields (1984) -- Times reporter covers '70s Cambodian Invasion.

The Official Story (1985) -- Aftermath of Argentina's "Dirty War" in the 1970s.

The Last Emperor (1987) -- Life of China's last emperor, early-mid 20th century.

Glory (1989) -- First black regiment during the Civil War.

Born On The Fourth Of July (1989) -- Disabled Vietnam vet joins the opposition.

Malcolm X (1992) -- Portrait of slain black leader.

Schindler's List (1993) -- One man saves countless Jews during World War 2.

Apollo 13 (1995) -- Fateful flight during hey-day of America's space program.

Downfall (2004) -- Hitler's last days.

Milk (2008) -- The story of San Francisco's first openly gay elected official in the '70s.

City Of Life And Death (2009) -- The Rape of Nanking in the late '30s.

Looking for good movies to watch? Top movie recommendations? For over 2,400 of the best movies on DVD, visit Best Movies by Farr

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