Any Top Ten List is inherently biased from the start, and this one is loaded with assumptions even before I toss out my candidates for your review. There are certainly films which treat complex and significant historical subject matter well: that is, with attention to period detail, historical context, well-crafted dialog, compelling characters, skillful direction and a plot that deftly carries the story.
Those that get full marks in all of these dimensions are rare, indeed, while those that bungle them are simply unwatchable. Some - Dances With Wolves, say - succeed in many respects yet fall victim to presentism and the intrusion of the politics and social attitudes of the present day. This can make for a moving theatrical experience, but falls short of a faithful depiction of the sensibilities of the past.
Given that the interests of modern audiences have to dovetail with the interests of Hollywood film producers, there are some historical periods and subjects which, for better or worse, make their way to the large and small screens, and others which do not. It helps if the screenplay is an adaptation from a wildly successful novel set in a period setting, or a noted work of popular history, but even then you may end up with something like the overwrought Gods and Generals or a brilliant production of one of Jane Austen's novels which critics and scholars adore yet nobody else watches.
There are many moments in history and fascinating individuals who deserve 1st class treatment on film but, so far as I am aware, have yet to receive it. Your list is bound to be different than mine, but here is what I would love to see done well on film:
- Anything set in the American Southwest prior to the Texas Republic. We remember the Alamo, but seem to ignore the centuries of history that came before. De Soto, Coronado, The Pueblo Revolt of 1680, all would be marvelous subjects. Such movies do not get made, I suspect, because they are painful reminders of the conquest and suppression of indigenous peoples and are prone to oversimplification by screenwriters.
- King Philip's War. More than half the towns in New England were attacked, more than 15% of all the native peoples in the region were killed in the bloodiest conflict of the 17th century in English North America. There have been some excellent scholarly treatments in recent years, but nothing by Hollywood.
- There are several figures from our Revolutionary history who would make excellent movie subjects. Nathaniel Greene, or Benjamen Tallmadge and his whaleboat raiders, come first to mind. It would also be refreshing to see the Saratoga Campaign, complete with Jenny McCrea and Benedict Arnold and Gentleman Johny Burgoyne, given its due on film.
- The wreck of the whaleship Essex. The Heart of the Seawould be a superb starting place. Moby Dick ends with Ishmael clinging to Queequeeg's coffin. The crew of the Essex had far more horrors ahead of them after their ship, which was Melville's inspiration, was rammed by the whale.
- Cheng I Sao "Wife of Cheng", the most successful pirate of all time, was a chinese woman who commanded a fleet of more than 1,500 ships and 80,000 men in the early 1800s.
- Germany's Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, the Lt. Colonel whose East Africa command remained undefeated throughout WWI and managed to divert British forces from the western front while fighting a guerrilla campaign across numerous colonies. Along those same lines, a grand film could be made of Count Felix von Luckner's wooden, three masted bark that became the WWI commerce raider the Seeadlerthat captures 16 vessels before the end. Lowell Thomas wrote "Count Felix Von Luckner - The Sea Devil", which could be the basis for the screenplay.
- A film centered around the careers and conflicts of Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster. They were the most important American politicians of their generation, and the strongest voices for their respective regions during the first half of the 19th century.
- Harry Truman. But not based solely on the superb book by McCullough. I would love to see it draw heavily from Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure; the True Story of a Great American Road Trip.
- The Morro Castle disaster. A Depression-era booze cruise gone horribly wrong with the captain dead, a raging storm and the ship afire off New Jersey.
Those would be my suggestions for Hollywood to do and do right. What about yours?