A unique element of the cinematic arts is how film can give us a fully-formed look into a different time. By decorating a set and actors putting on some costumes, the audience can be transported hundreds or thousands of years into the past through epic movies.

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The historical epic is a staple of film, being part of the genre since the medium’s inception. You have silent films such as Napoléonand Joan of Arc to modern films like Braveheartand The Northman. Many of these historical epic movies are shining examples of some of the most engaging stories ever put to the silver screen.

Updated on December 29th, 2022, by Hannah Saab:

The best historical epics continue to showcase the way cinema pushes the boundaries of what’s possible to depict on the big screen, with new additions like 2022’s All Quiet on the Western Front highlighting the way these remarkable films can span numerous genres. With ambitious set designs, numerous actors and incredible stories, historical epics are among the very best that the film industry has to offer.


‘The Northman’ (2022)

Available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

The Northman

Robert Eggers pulled off a miracle with The Northman. The indie auteur, known for his distinct visual style, got a studio to give him $90 million without sacrificing any aspect of what he’s known for. The Northman is a weird, dark, intense Viking revenge movie that just screams Eggers.

The film is based on the ancient Viking tale of Amleth, which inspired Shakespeare‘s Hamlet. When King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) is killed by his brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who also takes his wife Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) as his Queen, his son Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) swears to, “Avenge you, father. Save you, mother. Kill you, Fjölnir.” Years later, after Fjölnir’s reign has ended and Amleth has been long believed dead, Amleth infiltrates Fjölnir’s life to meet his fate and get his revenge. The story may feel familiar because of how much of an impact the source material has had over the ages, but Eggers has made the definitive telling.

‘The Last Duel’ (2021)

Available to stream on Hulu and HBO Max.

The Last Duel

Based on the non-fiction book by the same name, Ridley Scott‘s The Last Duel tells an epic story of Medieval France that feels incredibly relevant in the 2020s. When Marguerite (Jodie Comer) accuses Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) of rape, her self-righteous husband, Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), challenges Le Gris to a duel to the death to legally determine whether she is telling the truth or not.

What makes this underrated Ridley Scott gem truly special is its structure. The movie is told in three distinct sections, showing the events in question from each character’s point of view. The differences emphasize the way that each of the characters sees the world. It’s a one-of-a-kind historical epic that does not get the love it deserves upon its release.

‘Spartacus’ (1960)

Available to rent on Apple iTunes.


When you think of a classic Hollywood epic, chances are, you’re going to think of Stanley Kubrick‘s Spartacus. It’s a legendary part of film history. It helped build the profile of Kubrick, one of the greatest directors of all time, was written by famous, blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, and features a top-tier cast including Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, and an iconic performance by Kirk Douglas as Spartacus himself.

The movie, set in 73 B.C., follows Thracian slave Spartacus as he leads a rebellion against the Roman government. It’s a well-crafted story with a nice balance of action and complex political intrigue as Roman senators maneuver against Spartacus to maintain their control.

‘Braveheart’ (1995)

Available to stream on HBO Max.

Mel Gibson standing with a large group of men cheering before going to fight in Braveheart

Braveheart tells the story of William Wallace (Mel Gibson), a legendary Scottish warrior who fought for Scotland’s freedom against the rule of King Edward I of England. There are few movies as epic and inspiring as Braveheart. Wallace’s speech rallying the troops will live forever in cinematic history as one of the all-time great monologues.

Braveheart is incredibly well directed by Gibson, who won the Best Director Oscar for his work. The film also won Best Picture and three more, proving itself to be a cultural juggernaut due to the widespread acclaim from both critics and audiences.

‘Ben-Hur’ (1959)

Available to rent on Apple iTunes.


Ben-Hur is a bonafide classic of Hollywood cinema. The chariot scenes are some of the most memorable action sequences of all time, and Charlton Heston‘s performance as Judah Ben-Hur is one of the best of his entire career.

Historical epics are incredibly difficult to make. They require a precise understanding of historical context, high production value, and hard work. Ben-Hur pulled off each of these requirements, even under the restraints of making a blockbuster in the 1950s. Hollywood tried to remake Ben-Hur in 2016, but modern action movie sensibilities just don’t match up to the craftsmanship of the original.

‘Dances With Wolves’ (1990)

Available to stream on HBO Max.

Dances WIth Wolves
Image via Orion Pictures

Kevin Costner truly understands what makes cinema such a magical art form. He also understands the complexity of the American frontier, part of what makes him so compelling on the hit show Yellowstone. Dances With Wolves combines these two elements into what is undeniably Costner’s masterpiece.

The film follows Lieutenant John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) as a Union soldier assigned to maintain a lonely outpost during the Civil War. While there, he meets and befriends a Native American tribe who take him in as one of their own. He then fights alongside them against the Union soldiers, trying to push them off of their land. It’s a story that attempts to correct some of the lore surrounding America’s Westward expansion and show it for what it really was.

‘Les Misérables’ (2012)

Available to stream on Netflix.

Les Miserables

There aren’t many historical epics that double as musicals, but without a doubt, Les Misérables is the best one. This story, set during a turbulent time in 19th Century France, is one of the most potent and emotional musicals ever made.

Les Misérables follows Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) as he runs from the viscous Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who hunts him down for breaking his parole. Simultaneously, it follows Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a poor woman who turns to prostitution to care for her child. As the stories intersect, the characters sing about their love and passion at a time when it would be easy to give up hope.

‘Seven Samurai’ (1954)

Available to stream on HBO Max and The Criterion Channel.

Saven Samurai

Akira Kurosawa is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, and Seven Samurai is one of his absolute best films. In fact, this movie is so beloved that it popularized the “assemble a team” plot structure that can be seen in other movies like The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, and Star Wars. Filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have cited the film as a significant influence on their careers. The impact of Seven Samurai cannot be overstated.

The story centers on a small village that recruits seven unemployed samurai to help them defend themselves from bandits. The plot may be fairly simple, but it’s emotional, and when the battle finally happens, it’s nothing short of epic. Seven Samurai is undeniably the most iconic samurai movie of all time.

‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ (2000)

Available to stream on Hulu.

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is Ang Lee‘s multinational adaptation of the Chinese novel of the same name that became an instant blockbuster in the United States when it first premiered. American audiences were captivated by the story of love and adventure, regardless of the language barrier.

The film takes place in 19th century China and tells the story of Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat), who gives the legendary Green Destiny sword to young warrior Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) to deliver to Governor Yu (Fazeng Li). However, when it is stolen from her, a game of cat and mouse becomes one of romance and redemption.

‘Gladiator’ (2000)

Available to stream on Netflix and Paramount+.


Ridley Scott’s Gladiator is one of the most epic movies ever made. The legendary tale of Maximus (Russell Crowe) captivated audiences around the globe, becoming a box office hit and winning the coveted Best Picture Oscar at the 2001 Academy Awards.

Maximus sets out on an unstoppable mission for revenge when Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) has his family killed and is subsequently enslaved. The story is epic in the truest sense of the word, with the scenes at the Colosseum showing the vast scope and scale in a way we’ve never seen before. This film is truly one for the ages, and is still among the best gladiator movies ever made.

‘Titanic’ (1997)

Available to stream on Pluto TV.


Director James Cameron‘s Titanic is a film that requires no introduction. Based on the true story of the eponymous ship’s sinking, the award-winning epic disaster film follows the forbidden relationship that blossoms between Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet). The maritime accident claims multiple lives, and the devastation is emphasized by the main characters’ doomed romance.

The classic film, which became a career-defining one for its leading stars, is still the subject of numerous parodies and homages in pop culture. It’s an excellent example of a historical disaster-drama film done correctly, and it also held up incredibly well decades after its initial release.

‘Schindler’s List’ (1993)

Available to stream on Showtime.

Schindler's List Still

Schindler’s List, directed by Steven Spielberg, is one of the most iconic and internationally renowned portrayals of the Holocaust. Spielberg’s legendary historical epic is based on Thomas Keneally‘s popular historical non-fiction book, Schindler’s Ark. The stirring film is about Oskar Schindler‘s valiant rescue of Jewish immigrants, which he accomplished by recruiting them to work in his factories.

With its riveting and masterfully filmed scenes all depicted in black and white, audiences may recall one of the film’s most unsettling moments. A brief scene shows a small kid wearing a bright red coat, which is subsequently seen again after she dies. It’s a disturbing and crucial movie that’s as relevant today as it was in 1993.

‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979)

Available to rent on Apple iTunes.

Martin Sheen in 'Apocalypse Now'
Image via Omni Zoetrope

Director Francis Ford Coppola‘s Apocalypse Now is an epic masterpiece that transports viewers to the horrifying height of the Vietnam War. While the war film is primarily centered on a clandestine operation to murder a Green Beret Colonel, it accomplishes much more over the course of the movie.

The film is both a wild psychological journey and a portrayal of the harrowing situation in Vietnam at the time. It highlights how conflict can change individuals and juxtaposes the macabre with the country’s lovely scenery. It’s a frightening depiction of the crimes that are frequently committed on the frontlines, as well as the people who are permanently affected by their horrifying involvement in them.

‘Lawrence Of Arabia’ (1962)

Available to rent on Apple iTunes.

Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia, directed by David Lean and based on the 1926 novel Seven Pillars of Wisdom, redefined the epic historical drama genre. It recounts the protagonist’s daring WWII raids on Aqaba and Damascus, as well as his emotional turmoil as he tries to accept his role in the war.

The narrative, magnificent visuals, and flawless soundtrack of the film have influenced numerous directors and continue to have an impact on the industry as a whole. Although it has been criticized for inaccuracy, the film’s wide renown far trumps any shortcomings.

‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ (2022)

Available to stream on Netflix.

Felix Kammerer in All Quiet on the Western Front
Image via Netflix

All Quiet on the Western Front is already being recognized as one of the greatest war films ever made, and it does justice to Erich Maria Remarque‘s eponymous 1929 novel. The film follows 17-year-old Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) as he enlists in the Imperial German Army alongside his school pals in 1917, three years into the First World War.

War is not what they expect, and the film wastes no time in presenting the horrors of the battlefield in a raw, harsh and really horrifying manner. With massive set pieces, excruciatingly long one-take shots and no shortage of violence and blood, it’s a horrible, painful-to-watch film that, unfortunately, is both significant and timely today.

NEXT: The Best War Movies of All Time, Ranked According to IMDb

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