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Underrated Historical Movies

by Released : 2023-11-08

1. The Duellists (1977)

Ridley Scott’s other Napoleon film and one of the best director debts of all time. Although made for less than a million dollar’s Scott gets the most out of this film by breaking it up into chapters. Scott noted on a DVD commentary how he was heavily influenced by Barry Lyndon (1975) and he tried to emulate cinematography of Kubrick's film, which approached the naturalistic paintings of the era depicted. Carradine and Keitel, both Americans, deliberately chose not to adapt accents to match their British co-stars, believing their natural idiolects better reflected their character's class and ideological backgrounds. The leads insisted upon using real 1798-pattern light cavalry saber swords for the sword dueling sequences. The fight scenes hold up due to the realistic swordplay and are quite thrilling. As Ridley Scott looks to bring back the historical epic with Napoleon after he once did Gladiator, check out his first historical epic and arguably his best film. 

2. Aguirre Wrath of God (1972)

Directed by Werner Herzog like a documentary allowing the audience to be immersed in the experience of travelers. The lost city of gold has always been a popular myth, but no film has perfectly captured the madness and futility for the search. Klaus Kiinski is sadistic as a ruthless Spanish conquistador, who descends into madness while looking for El Dorado. The film was shot on a simple 35 camera on location in the Peruvian rainforest. Set in 1560 The film’s lavish costumes combined with the accurate setting works in its favor capturing a  documentary-like feel. The audience really feels like they are one of the conquistadors searching for El Dorado. 

3.  1900 (1976) 

Bernardo Bertolucci unsung epic with a large 10 million dollar budget, overshadowed in America by another De Niro movie Taxi Driver. One of the longest commercially released movies ever. The superior version is the director cut at 5 hours and 17 minutes, overseas the film was released in two parts and an edited down version was released in America. Since, the film was not seen in the right fashion by most people the reviews were mixed. Now regarded as one of the best Italian films of all time, 1900 is little known in the USA and not talked about among De Niro’s classics. Robert De Niro plays the spoiled son of a landowner, one of his most unlikeable characters. International superstar Gearad Depardieu is a great foil to De Niro here as his poor, slave, best friend. Sutherland is creep as the fascist bodyguard and has one of the bloodiest outbursts in film history. Lancaster is also solid here as a drunkard landowner. The film takes place from 1901 to 1942 following the rise of Fascism in Italy. 

4. Time after Time (1979) 

The best traditional time travel movie except Back to the Future, the film also stars Mary Steenburgen who would later star in Back to the Future 3. Although a modest box office success at the time, making 13 million. The film is most known for starring Malcom McDowell and Mary Steenburgen’s relationship. McDowell is perfect as H.G. Wells and David Warner portrayed one of the most realistic interpretations of Jack the Ripper put to screen. Despite being released in 1979 the film feels more like a classic 60s adventure film or a commercial film from the 80s. The pace is brisk, the romance is enticing, and the time travel sequences are visually splendid. Starting in 1893, Jack the Ripper escapes in H.G. Wells Time Machine to 1979, where he is pursued by Wells. The film was remade into a TV show in 2017, but lasted only one season.

5. Shanghai TRIAD (1995)

Set in the 1930s the film follows a young boy named Tang from a rural village who comes to Shanghai to work for Triad boss. The culture shocked boy is assigned the boss's mistress to be her servant. Xiao, a cabaret singer and triad mistress is cruel to the country bumpkin and treats him like a pet. Gong Li’s last collaboration with the director/ partner due to their relationship deteriorating. However, despite behind the scenes issues Li is stunning in her performance as a seemingly shallow mob mistress. Over the course of several days a Triad war erupts with Tang caught up in the violence. A coming of age film in the backdrop of mob violence, what sets this film apart from others in its genre is lush detailed production design that transports the audience back to 1930s Shanghai. The film’s startling ending leaves an impact long after the credit’s roll.

6. I wanna hold your hand (1978)

Set in 1964 during the height of Beatlemania the film follows a group of teenagers as they travel to New York City in a desperate attempt to gain entry to the Beatles first live appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. Robert Zemeckis' first film and produced by Steven Spielberg, the film perfectly captures Beatlemania. Despite a modest budget the studio made Spielberg promise that he would step in to direct the film if Zemeckis was doing an awful job. The film gets the most out of a 3 million budget by using hundreds of extras to show the effect the Beatles had on teenagers and women in general. In the 1970s and 1980s numerous films were made glamorizing the 1950s and early 1960s, of that crowded genre this is one of the best and most accurate. However, besides American Graffiti which started this genre craze many of these films failed at the box office. This film was not an exception and despite a small budget flopped at the box office. One of the best teen films of the 1970s and a critical darling, the film deserves a larger audience.

7. Ragtime (1981)

Despite a large 30 million dollar budget and a stacked cast the film was a huge flop. The film based on the popular book follows a number of characters in Pre World War 1 New York City. Glorious production design never has the streets been so filled with extras in an American Film, reminiscent of British historical epics. Classic cars, detailed costumes, lavish parties the film has some of the best production design ever put to film. James Cagney had not acted since 1962, but came out of retirement for this film, Elizabeth mcGovern was only 20 but nominated for the Oscar, Mary Steenburgen is also great here. Even a young Samuel L. Jackson makes an appearance. However, the true standout is Howard Rollins who became the second black man nominated for best supporting actor and this was his film debut performance. A tragic powerful performance, shockingly similar to Rollin’s own life whose drug issues regulated him to a tv career. His other notable film is a Soldier Story, which features a young Denzal Washgiton.

8. The Quiet American (2002) 

Set in 1952 Vietnam towards the end of the first IndoChina war the film stars Michael Caine and Brendan Frasier. The film was shelved by Miramax for a year after 9/11 due to what they deemed as “unpatriotic views”. A silly accusation which caused the film to bomb against a 30 million$ budget. Caine’s last nominated role he’s in full command here as he still feels young enough to be a lead in this film and is charming as ever. Frasier is also magnificent giving a layered performance, showing off his dramatic range, long before he won an OSCAR. Both Caine and Frasier vye for the same women’s affection, while also being friends creating a complex love triangle. A solid thriller and spy film, the film has a great backdrop in 1950s Vietnam and some thrilling war scenes. 

9.  Cobb (1994)

Tommy Lee Jones won the oscar for Fugitive, but this is his best performance. The film follows the relationship between sports writer Al Stump and Ty Cobb in the 1960s. Despite a powerful lead performance the film was a huge flop barely making 1 million dollars. Ron Shelton had already made sport classics White Men Can't Jump (1992) and Bull Durham (1988). The combination of Shelton and Tommy Lee Jones’s rising starpower made many believe the film would be a hit. Jones was so upset about the failure of the film that it led to a feud with Jim Carrey on the set of Batman Forever (1995). The box office success of Dumb and Dumber, Ace Ventura, and the Mask in 1994 overshadowed Cobb. So, when Tommy Lee Jones got to the set of Batman Forever he already hated Jim Carrey. Carrey has talked about this in multiple interviews for years, while Jones has never publicly addressed it. Although a box office failure Cobb is now considered to be one of the best baseball films of all time. 

10. The Mambo Kings (1992)

 Armand Assante is one of the most underrated actors of all time, whose career was mostly regulated to TV. However, one of the biggest films he did was Mambo Kings, set in 1950s New York. The film follows two Cuban Brothers in the Mambo music movement. It was also Antoni Banderas first film; he did not speak English at the time and had to learn his lines phonetically. After the success of Goodfellas (1990) and Reversal of Fortune (1990), the studio wanted Ray Liotta and Jermany Irons to star. But, producer Arne Gilmcher was able to get his way and also casted Cathy Moriarty in a supporting role due to her work in Raging Bull (19800. Despite positive reviews the film made only 6.7 million against a 16 million dollar budget. The film is best known for it’s oscar winning song “Beautiful Maria of my Soul"

Honorable mentions