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Five Great Movies for Teaching Early American History

  • May 18, 2019
  • By Donielle
Five Great Movies for Teaching Early American History

I think movies are terrific teaching tools. I have blogged about a great book called Movies As Literature. This curriculum turns family movie night into at least a year of worthwhile literary discussions. This is a book I highly recommend for middle and high school students and their families.

Since I was teaching American History this year, I really wanted to make it a memorable experience. I have used many fun and interactive teaching methods through the years: field trips, road trips, re-enactments, and massive timelines of events chalked onto sidewalk!

This year, since I was teaching high schoolers who were able to view scenes of war violence, I decided to supplement our reading. We tried some historical period movies. Because of the nature of war and slavery, these are not for younger children! Of course, Hollywood has to condense important events and glamorize things important to today’s audiences, but do not let that stop you from taking advantage of some rich historic visuals. These movies give us a picture of things we have only read about in our textbooks. Here are the top five movies most appreciated by my American History students:

The Last of the Mohicans

We read the book by James Fenimore Cooper before watching the movie, which I recommend every student do as well. Be sure to check out my post on the book. The book tells of a true event in the French and Indian War, the surrender of Fort William Henry, though the characters are highly fictionalized. The film’s usefulness lies in setting the stage for understanding the complicated relationships the settlers had with the Indians and the Indian’s alliance with the French. It depicts that style of warfare that seems ludicrous to us now, but that characterized combat back then. There is a kissy-kissy scene you can skip over that has no bearing on the plot.

John Adams

It is more of a mini-series (on NetFlix) but my students learned more about the beginnings of our country from this series than from their textbooks and living books. The series follows John Adams from pre-Revolution lawyer days through his presidency, never glossing over his struggles, family issues, and personality quirks. It helps us also understand John Quincy Adams. It is the story of America’s beginnings well produced by Tom Hanks. We watching this after reading The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.

The Patriot

It is bloody and graphic and is for highschoolers only. After reading about “The Swamp Fox” Francis Marion, this is a great movie to tell the story of the American Revolution in the south and to understand how guerrilla warfare won the Revolutionary War. The reluctance of many Americans to take up arms against the mother country is an important topic to discuss.


This movie is well directed by Steven Spielberg and pretty historically accurate. This case was more important than most people realize in bringing to the nation’s attention the inconsistency of the slavery mindset. Since an elderly John Quincy Adams figures heavily into the plot, it is good to watch after the John Adams series. I recommend students read The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass before watching the movie. You can check out my post on that book out, too. Mr. Douglass explains the psychology of slavery in such a compelling manner that you cannot leave that book without feeling like your mind has been a little bit blown – both by the pervasive sinfulness of that “peculiar institution” and the intelligence and articulateness of the author. If you are going to watch one history movie this year, make it the Amistad. That Dijimon Hounsou did not receive an Academy award for his stirring performance is a travesty.

In The Heart of the Sea

This is the true story on which Herman Melville based is novel Moby Dick. We read Moby Dick before watching the movie (a gargantuan feat in and of itself). Whaling was the energy industry before the discovery of fossil fuels (a point made at the end of the movie). It is an important part of our history. It’s also an easy sell to the kids because Thor and Spiderman are the stars – that is Chris Hemsworth and Tom Holland. The talk of cannibalism was a little too much for my 7th grader, so you might want to send middle schoolers out to the kitchen to pop some popcorn when sailors start dying in the life boats.

Right now we are working on the 2004 version of The Alamo. The kids found Jeff Daniels playing George Washington in The Crossing interesting but not as compelling as the George Washington in the John Adams series. Look for the Civil War movie teaching guide coming soon!

By Donielle, May 18, 2019
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