Study American History with Movies of the American Involvement in World War I and World War II, plus The Roaring Twenties and The Great Depression
Modern American History is one of the subjects my family dives really deeply into at the high school level.
It seems like modern American history gets much less coverage than say Ancient, Medieval, and early American history. I know in my family we don’t cover the World Wars in elementary or middle school, because it’s difficult for me (even as an adult) to think about the horribleness of the World Wars. Once our kids are old enough to think abstractly and critically, then it’s time to study and learn about those dark times in our nation’s history. By studying the sacrifices made by those generations, we will hopefully be raising up the next to not let those atrocities happen ever again.
Modern American History with Movies: A Vetted List
I selected these Modern American History movies as appropriate for high school students (ages 14 and older). Some are rated R, mostly for violence, and they are noted. There are many other good movies set in this time frame that aren’t included in this list because they aren’t based upon real, historical events. For example, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Book Thief are excellent movies but both are based upon historical fiction books.
Also, be sure to check out these four ways to incorporate movies into your homeschool (beyond reading the book and watching the movie) in this post: How to Study American History with Movies for Homeschool Families
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Modern American History Movies for Teens
American Involvement in World War I
War Horse 2011 PG-13 This epic film tells the story of Joey, a horse, as he travels to different owners, beginning with a farm boy who must sell him to a British Army captain during the First World War. Definitely a tear-jerker, it’s a movie that you will love! On Netflix and Prime, as well as most other streaming services.
Sergeant York 1941 NR Gary Cooper stars in this movie about a man who doesn’t believe in violence, but is recruited to fight for his country in WWI. This movie was an Academy Award winner and is based upon the real-life hero. Find it on most streaming platforms and on Prime.
Flyboys 2006 PG-13 A group of young American pilots voluntarily join the French forces because the United States hadn’t yet joined the war. They become the LaFayette Escadrille (although the movie blends this group’s story with the similar LaFayette Flying Corps). Find it for free on Vudu or rent it on Prime.
The Lost Battalion 2001 NR (Made for TV by A&E). (Don’t get this mixed by with the WWII movie, Lost Battalion, from 1961.) This movie is based upon the true story of a battalion of American soldiers defending an area in France. They become surrounded by the Germans, but refuse to surrender. Don’t miss this one! Find it on Netflix or YouTube, if you can.
1917 2019 R Okay, so this movie doesn’t fit into our “American Involvement” per se. It’s about two British soldiers who have to get behind enemy lines to deliver a message which will save hundreds of lives. But it’s too good of a movie to not include it here. Common Sense Media says this about it: “Teens may be reluctant to see a movie about World War I, but 1917 could be a game changer: It’s hard to imagine anyone won’t appreciate its originality, heart, and grit.” It’s rated R for war violence and gore. Rent it on Google Play, Vudu or Prime.
The Roaring Twenties & The Great Depression
The Great Gatsby 1974 PG This older version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book is more true to the book than the newer film with Leonardo DiCaprio if that’s important to your studies. The newer one does a good job of showing the absolute decadence of the Roaring Twenties but it does show Daisy and Gatsby’s extra-marital affair. On most streaming platforms, including Prime.
All the King’s Men 1949 PG This is based on the Louisana governor and senator Huey P. Long the “Kingfish”. Although he starts out as an honest, small town guy, he is quickly corrupted by power and money. This will appeal to your teens with an interest in politics. (Make sure you don’t grab the remake from 2006 with Sean Penn.) The 1949 version is on Prime and most streaming platforms.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn 1945 PG This movie is an accurate adaptation of the book of the same title. The movie, however, doesn’t include the full ending of the book. The Nolan family lives in an apartment building in Brooklyn during the early 1900s. The daughter, Francie, dreams of a better life. It’s an excellent example of what daily life was like for immigrants in the early 20th century. My teens said it was REALLY good for being a black and white movie. And it really is! Not currently available to stream.
Grapes of Wrath 1940 NR/G This movie is based upon John Steinbeck’s prize-winning book and won two Academy Awards. Henry Fonda stars in this film about a migrant farming family who decides to escape the Oklahoma Dust Bowl and head to California. Eye-opening depiction of what life was like for many families during the Great Depression. You can stream it on Prime and most other streaming services. Don’t miss this heartbreaking, but heartwarming movie!
O Brother, Where Art Thou? 2000 PG-13 The light comedy from the Coen brothers is a parallel of Homer’s Odyessy. The main character, Ulysses, gets out of the Mississippi prison chain gang and is making his way back home during the Great Depression. Be prepared to discuss the racial slurs that were commonly used during the 1920s in the South. However, this is a great movie with a clever storyline and witty dialogue. Amazing soundtrack, too! Find it on Vudu, Google+, and Prime.
Journey of Natty Gunn 1985 PG The story of a girl’s trip across the country to find her father during the Great Depression is one your whole family will enjoy! It really conveys a picture of the Great Depression-era. Find it on Disney+, Prime, and most other streaming services.
American Involvement in World War II
Patton 1970 PG Patton was a general truly feared by the Nazis. He believed in reincarnation and making your enemy die for his country. This film won Rated PG by 1970s standards, would be at least PG-13 for a lot of salty language today, I think. It won six Academy Awards. Available on Hulu, Prime, and most other platforms. CommonSenseMedia has a few questions to discuss with your teens after viewing.
Windtalkers 2002 R The Navajo Code Talkers were a highly classified group of soldiers who spoke their native language as “code” in World War 2. Their language was an unbreakable code to the Japanese and played a large part in many American successes. This movie is rated R for a lot of violence and racial language, but I’ve included it so you can start a discussion with your teens about 1.) the huge racial barriers faced by the Navajo Marines who volunteered to help their country and 2.) the often forgotten, but invaluable contribution of the Navajos. Available on many streaming services and Prime.
These Holocaust movies aren’t from an American perspective, but these films are very important in preserving and honoring the memory of those who lost their lives during the Holocaust. Many of the survivors of the Holocaust came to America to live and raise their families.
Schindler’s List 1993 R Oskar Schindler was an Austrian factory owner and a member of the Nazi party. He used his enamelware factory to save 1200 Jewish people. This movie explores good and evil and how both can sometimes exist within the same person, as well as how a person’s heart can change. Schindler is buried at Mount Zion in Jerusalem and was named (along with his wife, Emilie) “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Israeli government. Rated R for scenes of nudity at the concentration camp Auschwitz. Also, check out the book, Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally. Stream it on Prime as well as most other streaming services.
The Hiding Place & Return to the Hiding Place 2000/2014 PG-13. The Hiding Place tells of Corrie Ten Boom’s courageous hiding of Jewish people in Holland. Return to the Hiding Place is not a sequel, but actually a retelling of the same story, but from the perspective of the Freedom Fighters. Stream either on Prime, or you can find it for free on TUBI. If your teens haven’t yet read the book, The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom, it’s highly recommended for high school students.
Normandy “D Day”
IKE: Countdown to D-Day 2004 PG This made for TV movie stars Tom Selleck as Eisenhower. It tells the story of the 90 days leading up to the invasion at Normandy. Other than a few minor details and incorrectly portraying duplex drive landing craft (which none of the landing craft had), this film is pretty accurate. The DVD of this movie is getting more difficult to find, but you can stream it on Prime and VUDU.
The Longest Day 1962 NR This movie describes the events of the Normandy Landing, D-Day, from several different perspectives, such as the French Resistance, British and American troops, and the German command. The most factually accurate D-Day movie, it’s filmed almost like a docudrama. Streaming on most platforms and Prime. Saving Private Ryan is a newer movie of the Normandy Landing, but is an EXTREMELY graphic film that can be upsetting to watch.
Hacksaw Ridge 2016 R Based upon the heroic acts of a “conscientious objector” who was drafted anyway to serve in the Army. He served as a medic and saved 75 men at the Battle of Okinawa, for which he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. There’s also a book (and audiobook) that coordinates with this movie, Redemption at Hacksaw Ridge: The Gripping True Story that Inspired the Movie by Booten Herndon You can stream it on Prime and most other streaming platforms.
Midway 2019 PG-13 This remake stays pretty true to to the original. Overall, this movie is historically accurate with the exception of a few very minor details, like insignia on uniforms or planes. Also, two of the characters who are shown to die were actually captured by the Japanese and tortured for two weeks before they were killed. On Prime, Vudu, and Google+.
Flags of our Fathers 2006 R A film directed by Clint Eastwood and based upon the non-fiction book, Flags of our Fathers by James Bradley. Bradley is the son of one of the six flag raisers in the iconic photo at Iwo Jima. Three of the survivors are thrust into celebrity when they return home. The film explores many themes,including idolatry, and the mental ramifications of war. You can stream it on most platrforms, including Prime.
Prisoners of War
Unbroken 2014 PG-13 Louie Zamperini was an American Olympic athlete and an officer in the US Army during World War II. This film by the Coen brothers tells how his bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean. He survived only to be taken as a Japanese prisoner of war. This is an AMAZING story that you don’t want to miss. There’s also a sequel called Path to Redemption. Together, the two movies coordinate with Laura Hillenbrand’s book, Unbroken: A World War 2 Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. (Listen to the audio book for free with an Audible trial.) Like most World War II stories, there are some tough scenes to watch, use these as a conversation starter with your teens. Stream it on all major platforms including Prime.
The Railway Man 2013 R (This movie is technically about a British officer, not an American, but still worth watching). A story of revenge and redemption with similar themes to that of Unbroken. This movie is based on the true story and autobiography of Eric Lomax. It stars Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. Rated R for prisoner of war violence. Stream it on most platforms like Prime, or for free on TUBI. Another movie about the Burma railroad (built by British POWs) is The Bridge of the River Kwai from 1957, which won seven Academy Awards.
More American History Movies
Civil Rights Movement up to September 11 (coming soon)
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What historically accurate movies do you recommend?