Relive 238 years of American history with these 42 movies

Consider this American History 101

Attempt Numero Uno American Movies
(Image credit: (Illustration by Sarah Eberspacher | Photos courtesy, iStock))

Begin with the beginning of our nation, and for that, the film adaptation of the musical 1776 (1972) tells the (slightly fictionalized) tale of the Second Continental Congress and the great debate over whether to declare independence. Though the film was largely panned, it managed to popularize the idea of John Adams as a crotchety, disliked, and obnoxious figure — a perception that also influenced Paul Giamatti in HBO's miniseries John Adams (2008), which spans from the Boston Massacre through the Revolutionary War to the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

It's harder to find accurate cinematic depictions of the 1800s, which may be out of shame; certainly, the issues of Indian removal and the expansion of slavery are not America's finest moments. But when the Texas Revolution (1835-1836) and the Mexican-American War (1847-1848) did make their way to the silver screen, the face of the films was the beloved John Wayne, who directed and starred in The Alamo (1960) and appeared in the Academy Award-wining How the West Was Won (1962). These fictionalized accounts often crowd out strict historical fidelity by romanticizing the time period and destitute locations. Fortunately, westerns are the exception to the rule in this regard; there are endless examples of films that fictionalize plotlines but accurately portray historical grit. Reflecting further on the 19th century, Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York (2002) does an outstanding job of capturing the city and Irish gang warfare, while HBO's TV movie Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (2007) offers a sobering look at the atrocities and consequences of Indian removal.

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Stephanie is a freelance writer and communication strategist based in New York. Her work focuses on pop culture and the relationship between entertainment and society.