Great Movies for Teaching US History: The Colonies

This series on Great Movies for Teaching U.S. History, from the Revolutionary War to the Cold War, will publish on consecutive weekdays through May 2. It features films and documentaries inspired by historical events in the United States, including information about their educational value, ratings and appropriateness for children, and how well they represent the time periods covered.

The Colonies 1607-1757

This section will explore the time before the Revolutionary War, when America was still being developed into the 13 colonies. The films presented feature the first settlers, The Native Americans, and the French and Indian War.

Pocahontas: 1607

Disney’s Pocahontas tells the tale of an American Indian woman who encounters some of the first Pilgrims. While the story may take liberties with history (there is a talking tree), it does outline a historical period and is a great starting point for kids to get interested in American History.

The film mitigates the actual events from both the English and Native American standpoints. While many argue that Pocahontas does not portray the historical events accurately, it does include a decent amount of accuracies considering it’s a cartoon film for kids. The truth is much more brutal, but the film features real characters such as John Smith, Governor Ratliffe, and Pocahontas. The time period, ship, and purpose of founding Jamestown are all accurate as well.

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History Channel’s Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower: 1620s

Using journals, historical data, and professional historians, the History Channel recreated what life would be like for the Pilgrims crossing the Atlantic. The program does a great job of integrating education and entertainment, using interviews with historians, and actors to portray characters in actual events.  The film makers used the works of William Bradford to recreate the journey. The film covers everything from the decision to make the journey to America, to the voyage across the Atlantic, to the first landing at Plymouth Rock.

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The Crucible: 1692-1693

The movie takes place between 1692 and 1693 and recreates the actual trials based on records in Salem, Massachusetts. The movie was adapted from the Tony-award winning play by Arthur Miller, and was originally created to mock the McCarthyism period  of the 1940’s-1950’s. The interesting thing about this play/movie is, though it may sound ridiculous in hindsight, the Salem Witch Trials were actual trials. There was order to the process, and it was well-documented. The actors portray historical characters such as Sarah Good, Abigail Williams, John Proctor, and many more.

The movie contains brief nudity and sexual content. It centers on a girl who feels slighted by a man who made love to her and then chooses not to pursue a relationship.

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The Last of the Mohicans: 1757

Based on the novel with the same title, the story centers around a fictional character, Nathaniel Hawkeye, during the French and Indian War. During this time, France and England were fighting over control of North America. The English enlisted the help of some of the Native Americans to fight the French. The film takes place over a short period and focuses mostly on one character and his drive to rescue a woman. While this is fictional, the setting in which the story takes place is real, with accurate locations, battles, and names of historical figures.

The film also depicts how the Native Americans were conflicted in terms of which side to fight for.  While tensions were still high between Native Americans and settlers, the English and French both offered deals to Native Americans, dividing tribes and forcing them to fight one another.  The movie also does a good job of portraying of the day-to-day activities, as well asrecreating the time period, with dress, weapons, and even military tactics.

The film is violent. It aims to show the savagery of the battles, and how both Native Americans and Europeans would try to intimidate one another through brutality. There are several intense gruesome battle scenes, attacks on women and children, and the aftermath of an attack on a home that was burned down.

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Please feel free to make your own recommendations for historical films by posting a comment.


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