Great Movies for Teaching US History: Manifest Destiny

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.

Manifest Destiny 1800s-1880s

Once America became its own independent country, it looked to expand, and looked West.  That land had been claimed by England, France, and Spain, but because all had fought difficult wars in the years proceeding, this allowed the perfect opportunity to allow America to make it’s claim.

Lewis & Clark: 1803-1806

Lewis and Clark were adventurers who were sent by Thomas Jefferson to find and map water routes across the United States. National Geographic retells the story through narration and real time actors.  Jeff Bridges narrates quotes from historians’ points of view, while actors narrate their characters journals.

Starting in Missouri, the show follows the duo as they head west, encountering Native Americans, new wildlife, and perils along the way. The story introduces us to Sacajawea, and explains how she played a pivotal role as their guide. The series has amazing cinematography, and when not following the actors shows birds-eye views of landscapes as if the viewer is exploring along with the adventurers.

National Geographic does a great of job of not only documenting the trip but supplying resources to follow along with the show.

The Alamo: 1836

Be careful when picking an Alamo-related title, as there are several available. Unfortunately, the Alamo films are some of the least historically accurate, and instead choose to focus on the grandiose battle as opposed to the events that led up to and followed the battle.

The 2004 version of The Alamo may be your best bet. While other films focus mainly on the battle, this film gives more back story to the legendary characters that are remembered: Davie Crocket, Jim Bowie and Sam Houston. This story follows the political careers of several characters before the battle, and describes how they each wound up at the Alamo.

While the film’s climax is the battle, it portrays the events that followed as well. While critics and historians question the accuracy of the film as a whole, these events are arguably accurate. At the very least, it can be used as a‘stepping stone of sorts to encourage interest in the topic.

The next two entries tell the story of the West over several decades; the first is a fictional retelling of the time period while the second is a documentary featuring historians, photographs, and historical artifacts.

How the West was Won: 1840s-1880s

This film is a true epic that spans five parts and covers several decades during much of the 19th century. The movie encompasses the 1840s-1880s and follows the fictional Prescott family as they leave their lives in New York and move west.

The movie portrays some of the reasons why families chose to move west; some for land or wealth, others to escape their present lives. It shows the hardships families faced both from nature and people. The show goes on to portray life in the West, as well as focus on the Gold Rush, the Civil War, and The Transcontinental Railroad.

While the family portrayed is fictional it does depict what hardships people in the West faced.

The West: 1806-1887

Ken Burns is a critically acclaimed producer who will be featured in this series again.

The series does an amazing job of condensing more than 80 years of history into an eight-part series that is about 12 hours long. It covers everything from Manifest Destiny to the Gold Rush, the American Railroad, and Cowboys and Indians. Using photographs, journals, and interviews from historians, the film retells multiple stories from multiple families. The documentary gives a firsthand portrayal of the lives of the American people as they expanded into Western territory.

PBS offers several resources that go along with the film series, including external links and lesson plans.

Related Articles

Join our community

Sign up to participate in America’s premier community focused on helping students
reach their full potential.