Turn off the Lights

A History of Historical Action Movies

Action movies are a dime a dozen, and because they typically follow a proven formula, filmmakers aren't afforded a lot of room to play. You could argue there's no such thing as an artistic studio action movie anymore, and I'd have a hard time debating you. But one recent trend in action movies—one that we'll be seeing in full force this weekend with the release of Captain America: The First Avenger—is to transport the viewer to a different time and place. Period action films are all the rage, and in the last ten years or so, no major historical event has gone unrepresented in the genre. Here are some of our favorites:


Who knew ancient Greeks were so jacked? Zack Snyder's uber-stylized epic was the surprise hit of 2007, launching its director and star (Gerard Butler) to the A-list in a hurry. Say what you will about the corny dialogue, but you can't deny the sense of wonder you first had when you saw Snyder's crazy vision of Greece. It's a film that, perhaps more so than any other on this list, benefited from its sense of time and place.


The 2000 Best Picture did more than jumpstart the career of one Russell Crowe; it totally reinvigorated a genre. The swords-and-sandals epic was left for dead until this Ridley Scott actioner came around and sent chills up moviegoers' spines with its amazing Colosseum fights and some kick-ass performances from Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix.

Kingdom of Heaven

It's tough to find a great action film from the Middle Ages, but Ridley Scott's return to the period action genre — five years after the release of Gladiator — is a good place to start. By transporting viewers to Jerusalem during the peak of the Crusades, the film doesn't exactly feel like a Middle Ages picture, but regardless, it's still a fine action film with some tremendous battle scenes and a surprising amount of heart. One tip: Stick with the Director's Cut; it contains at least 30 minutes of extra footage that fill in some of the Theatrical Cut's glaring holes.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Where the "Pirates" franchise opts for fantasy, Peter Weir's high-seas epic feels quite realistic. It also perfectly captures the sense of adventure present during Europe's colonizing years. Again, Crowe gives an outstanding performance, but what's most memorable are the rousing battle sequences, some of the best ever captured on the high seas.


X-Men: First Class

Don't have to dig much to find an excellent example of a Cold War action movie. X-Men: The Last Stand director Brett Ratner and X-Men Origins: Wolverine helmer Gavin Hood couldn't produce a great "X-Men" movie, but Matthew Vaughn had no trouble, and part of his success has to come from his decisions to rewrite a little history and use the Cuban Missile Crisis as the basis for his rousing superhero film, the best of 2011 so far.

The WWII action-movie market is quite crowded, running the gamut from Saving Private Ryan to Pearl Harbor. No word yet on where "Captain America" will fall on that spectrum, but it was one of our most anticipated summer movies for a reason. It looks different than your average superhero movie. It's taking us back in time for some old-fashioned ass-kicking. And as you can see, a simple change like that is often all that's necessary to make a movie fresher and more exciting than its competition.


Meet the Author

User not found.

Follow Us