Skip to Main Content

Film Genres

This guide highlights library resources for some of the more popular film genres.

A quick definition for historical films

History film (historical film)

A fiction film showing past events or set within a historical period. This extensive genre shares territory with the biopic, costume drama, heritage film, and epic film. In the 1910s the trade press contained adverts for ‘historicals’: large‐scale melodramatic feature films based on historical stage plays. A large number of internationally successful history films were produced in Italy during this period, while in the US, the films of Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith became synonymous with the genre; in fact, then president Woodrow Wilson described Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), as ‘like writing history with lightning’. The films of Sergei Eisenstein in the USSR and Carl Dreyer in Denmark are also celebrated for their complex engagements with history (see soviet avant garde).

During the 1930s the historical film was popular in Britain, especially the work of director/producer Alexander Korda and a cycle of historical costume dramas made by the Gainsborough film studio. In Hollywood, history films, especially the biopic, were a staple genre of the studio system: if the western and the war film are also considered as historical films, the history film is one of Hollywood’s largest and most enduring genres. Indeed, one of the most commercially successful films of all time, Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939), is a history film set during the US Civil War. In general, Hollywood’s history films tend to privilege the meticulous reconstruction of surface detail and focus their stories on well‐known individuals who shape events through sheer force of will, usually combined with a strong moral view of history. However, New Hollywood variants of the genre—including Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), Sounder (Martin Ritt, 1972), and Walker (Alex Cox, 1987)—challenged many of these conventions. The genre continued to thrive in Hollywood during the 1950s, the heyday of the widescreen, Technicolor historical epic. History films also remained a staple in a large number of national cinemas: in Japan, the chambara, or sword‐fighting film, formed part of an East Asian historical film tradition (see martial arts film). The development of CGI in the 1990s—and especially its ability to reproduce historical cityscapes and landscapes, as well as replace the need for large casts of extras—made the recreation of the past on film more affordable, leading to a rise in history and epic film production, marked most clearly by the commercial success of Titanic (James Cameron, 1997). A cycle of East Asian epic historical films has also found favour with audiences worldwide (see asian epic cinema).   ...

Kuhn, A., & Westwell, G. (2020). History film. In A Dictionary of Film Studies. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 7 Aug. 2023

Finding library resources for historical films

The Jones Media Center has a collection of historical films for viewing. To find them, you can do a subject search for "historical films." To find books about historical films, look at the subject headings that contain "history and criticism." These books will discuss historical films in general or those produced in different countries. To find film resources on a specific person, you can do a subject search and add "drama" with your other search terms.

Introductory reading(s)

Selected book title(s)

Finding scholarly articles & journals

Articles and other writings about movies can be found in many publications. We don't have any periodicals that look exclusively at historical films in our collections.  You can use Film & Television Literature Index to find articles or use the search box at the top of the page.

Selected list of historical films

Find more historical films in the library's online catalog.