Study Mid-American History with Movies from the 1860s to the Early 1900s.
These Mid-American history movies are a powerful way for teens to learn about American history because the senses are immersed in the sights and sounds of that era. Not only do movies help kids learn the events that happened, but they also feel the emotions of the characters, which makes them much more memorable.
Also, don’t miss these four ways to incorporate movies into your homeschool (beyond “read the book and then watch the movie”) in this post: Study American History with Movies for Homeschool Families
Mid-American History with Movies: A Vetted List
These Mid-American History movies are vetted for appropriateness for high school students (ages 14 and above). Some are rated R, mostly for violence, and they are noted.
There are several movies on this list produced by Disney, which would be appropriate for all members of your family (these are labeled as well).
I have not included documentaries or docudramas, only fictionalized accounts of actual events or times. Documentaries are a great tool for learning, but I only use those sparingly in our school. Mainly because my kids moan and groan if I make them watch one! 🤷
Mid-American History Movies for Teens
The Life of Abraham Lincoln
Young Mr. Lincoln NR 1939 stars Henry Fonda as Lincoln before he began his political life. The story chronicles ten years of Lincoln’s life as a new lawyer. Also available to rent on Amazon Prime and most other platforms or stream for free on Tubi.
Lincoln PG-13 2012 features Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field and is directed by Speilberg. This movie tells about Lincoln’s desire to pass the Thirteenth Amendment during the four months before his assassination. A must-see movie! Also available to rent on Prime and other streaming services.
The Conspirator PG-13 2010 is directed and produced by Robert Redford. After Lincoln is assassinated, one woman and seven men are arrested and charged with conspiracy to assassinate the President, the Vice-President, and the Secretary of State. James McAvoy plays the lawyer reluctantly defending the lone woman in the conspiracy who owned the boarding house where John Wilkes Booth was staying. Available free on Prime and to rent on other streaming services.
American Civil War
The Great Locomotive Chase NR 1956 is a Walt Disney Production. This light-hearted look at the American Civil War is based upon the real-life events that followed a group of Northern spies who try to steal a Confederate train to sabotage the South’s railroad lines. This movie was originally released under the name Andrew’s Raiders. Also available to rent on Prime and other streaming platforms.
Gettysburg PG 1993 stars Tom Beringer, Martin Sheen, and Jeff Daniels. This film is based on the novel The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. Don’t confuse this movie with the documentary of the same name from 1995. This movie is known for its historical accuracy. Available to rent on Prime.
Glory R 1989 looks at civil rights during the American Civil War. This film uses some out-dated terms which gives you and your kids the perfect opportunity to start a discussion about why those words are so hurtful and should not be used. This film is probably rated R because of the terms used; check out Common Sense’s review if you are unsure about this movie due to its rating. This story about one of the first all-black regiments really is one of the best Civil War movies. Available to rent on Prime.
Shenandoah NR 1965 stars Jimmy Stewart who plays a conscientious objector to war, but must choose a side when his family members become involved. This is a timeless family classic. Find it on Prime and most other streaming services.
Post Civil War and Reconstruction
The Free State of Jones R 2016 Matthew McConaughey stars as a Southern farmer who bands together with other farmers and slaves. Together their county secedes from the Confederacy to form The Free State of Jones. Based on a true story. Read the review from Plugged In before deciding whether the violence in this film is appropriate for your teen. You can also rent it on Prime.
Dances With Wolves PG-13 1990 stars Kevin Costner in one of his most famous roles at John Dunbar. This movie is set during the Civil War, but on the Western Frontier, so it’s on both this list and the Western Expansion one. This is a must-watch movie! It’s also available on YouTube, Vudu, Hulu, GooglePlay, and Prime.
Gone With the Wind G 1939 This epic blockbuster is sometimes criticized for its stereotypical viewpoints on slavery but I think it gives an authentic feel for how life in the South was for plantation owners during that time period. It’s important to understand that people often don’t make the right or best choices and we can try to emphasize with their point of view without condoning their choices. Rent it on Prime or most other streaming platforms.
Late 1800s to Early 1900s American History
High Noon PG 1952 This film is the quintessential western with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly that won multiple Academy and Golden Globe awards. This film is considered by the Library of Congress to be one of the most important films for preserving historical and cultural themes. Find it on Prime and most other streaming platforms.
Rough Riders NR 1997 Teddy Roosevelt formed the 1st Volunteer Cavalry, nicknamed the Rough Riders, to fight in the Spanish-American war in 1898. Spain’s loss resulted in the loss of rest of their Western hemisphere colonies and established the United States as a major military force. This short (4 hour) mini-series was originally created for television. You can find it on Prime, Netflix, and Hulu.
Pollyanna G 1960 Haley Mills is determined to spread sunshine where ever she goes in her new small town. This movie is set at the turn of the 20th century (early 1900s) and shows what typical American towns were like then. There are three versions of this movie; my family prefers the Walt Disney version. It’s streaming on Prime , Disney Plus, and most other platforms.
Newsies PG 1992 Another Walt Disney Production. This is my oldest son’s favorite musical! He saw it when his older sisters watched it for their history class and immediately requested that we buy our own copy of it. There’s a newer version of it, but we’ve only seen the original with Christian Bale. This musical helps students understand why labor unions were helpful in the early 1900s. It’s also available on Prime and Disney Plus, as well as most other streaming services.
More American History Movies Lists
Civil Rights Movement up to September 11 (coming soon)
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