16 Retro Action Movies That Make History Fun As Hell
Movies about history have an uneven track record when it comes to accurately portraying their settings, but in some cases, exaggeration and inaccuracies actually work to the benefit of the period rather than its detriment. The Cold War, for example, was an anxious time for many countries, but as far as movies like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and X Men: First Class are concerned, it was a non-stop thrill ride of fashion-forward action. The early 20th century was riven by World War I, a bloody catastrophe with such a complex origin that historians still don’t agree on what happened, but according to Matthew Vaughn’s The King’s Man, it has a very simple, extremely improbable, and wildly entertaining explanation.
When filmmakers decide to focus their lenses on a distinct period, they go all in. For directors like Shane Black, Guy Ritchie, and a selection of others, this usually leads to depictions that are more stylish and fun than an accurate portrayal could be. Whether you like cars or fashion, superheroes or ancient artifacts, Hollywood has a version of the past that will make you desperate for a time machine.
- 144 VOTESPhoto: Universal Pictures
The Mummy has terrified a lot of kids over the years, but it paints one of the most desirable versions of the desert that the movies have to offer. Comparing it to, for example, Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s practically an advertisement for a romantic getaway in a barren wasteland of sand dunes. Starring Brendan Frasier as Rick O’Connell, an out-of-place American fighting alongside the French Foreign Legion in Egypt in the 1920s, it follows an archaeological dig that inadvertently resurrects a cursed mummy and introduces O’Connell to the love of his life. Imhotep (the mummy in question) goes through a series of frightening forms and is hell-bent on destroying everything in sight, but O’Connell and Rachel Weisz's Evelyn are so lighthearted throughout their escalating ordeal that it’s hard to take the stakes seriously.
On top of the movie’s rom-com undertones are all the ingredients for the perfect adventure: a treasure map, history shrouded in myth, and the shifting allegiances of minor characters. The fact that it takes place away from American or European cities makes the period aspect of the movie feel timeless. The characters hang out around a campfire drinking whisky outside the City of the Dead, explore an ancient city, and ride camels into the sunset. It could be 1500 or 2000. Despite the peril that Imhotep poses, it looks like a simple yet thrilling place to be. Almost nothing about the story is historically accurate and even the mythology is largely a Hollywood fabrication, but anyone who's seen The Mummy has probably caught some of the hunger for knowledge and adventure that Rick and Evelyn so dashingly exhibit.
- 232 VOTESPhoto: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom / Paramount Pictures
Most history books remember the 20th century as a timeline of human-led catastrophes. Two world wars, the Great Depression, the specter of nuclear annihilation, the continued fallout of colonialism - you name it. In true Spielbergian form, however, the Indiana Jones franchise picks through the rubble of a dismal setting and comes up with treasure. Yes, there are skulls made of crystal, a golden crucifix, and glowing diamonds, but more importantly, there is a hero who cares about history and isn’t afraid to crack a few whips to preserve it (or plunder it, if you want to get technical).
According to the Indiana Jones movies, the Nazis could have destroyed themselves without anyone’s help, Area 51 actually does have aliens, and college professors can be more ripped than Thor. It may not be the most realistic depiction of the 20th century, but it’s thrilling enough to make you wish you were right there in the thick of it, slinging desert sand and swapping insults with the respected archaeologist himself. Whatever his flaws (and there are plenty), Indy is one of the few heroes who can make the mid-1900s look like an ideal time for globetrotting.
- 327 VOTESPhoto: Buena Vista Pictures
The Rocketeer suffered at the box office when it was released in 1991, but has received a well-deserved following in the years since. Based on the Dave Stevens comic series, the movie takes place in 1938 Los Angeles and follows a young stunt pilot named Cliff (Billy Campbell) who discovers a jet pack that gives him the ability to fly. It also gets him into hot water with the US government, the mob, and the Nazis. Boasting a supporting cast of Alan Arkin, Jennifer Connelly, and Timothy Dalton, The Rocketeer is old-fashioned fun at its finest and an homage to LA of the late '30s.
Peppered with references to the era, the movie has elements of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett’s gritty LA underworld alongside pure Hollywood glamour. Characters are modeled after real-life movie stars like the swashbuckling Errol Flynn and the pin-up Bettie Page. The infamous eccentric Howard Hughes makes an uncharacteristically jovial appearance, too. The sets demonstrate the art deco design that proliferated at the time, and even the acting is pitched to the mannered, exaggerated style that stars like Clark Gable and Katharine Hepburn made famous. The combination of Hollywood nostalgia and a Nazi-fighting all-American superhero makes the era feel both innocent and exciting. Director Joe Johnston would eventually make a hit out of a retro comic book with Captain America: The First Avenger, but The Rocketeer deserves more credit as a period movie that fully and joyously captures the energy of its time.
- 429 VOTESPhoto: Buena Vista Pictures
Unless you’re paying very close attention to the newspaper headings that appear in the movie, you might not realize that The Incredibles takes place in 1962. Even though writer/director Brad Bird insists that the movie wasn’t supposed to be noticeably set in that year, the period provides another layer of world-building on top of the masterful animation. The movie follows the Parrs, a suburban family of five whose social conformity hides their extraordinary powers. Forced to live undercover after the government deemed superheroes to be detrimental to society, the Parrs lead a mundane life until a secret mission leads Bob Parr (otherwise known as Mr. Incredible), to a former fan who is now a villainous self-made superhero named Syndrome.
Cookie-cutter houses and the “celebration of mediocrity” that Mr. Incredible detests are hardly aspirational, but the movie creates an alternate universe in which the dullness of the ‘60s is balanced by a “retrofuturistic” style. As Bird explained, The Incredibles is meant to look like what characters from the ’60s would imagine the future to be. Everything from the architecture to the Incredibles’ costumes exemplifies the best of the ‘60s. Syndrome’s lair is modeled off of the spaceship-style designs of the Brazilian architect, Oscar Niemeyer, with a dash of a Bond villain’s mansion thrown in. The Parrs’ house is a showroom of mid-century modern furniture, while the fashion designer Edna (an Edith Head/Ana Wintour amalgam) lives in an elegant compound modeled after neo-plasticist architecture. Because the movie doesn’t make the sets overtly futuristic, audiences are left to assume that it captures what the '60s actually looked like. This light touch combined with the presence of actual superheroes makes the period seem just about as cool as postwar suburban America could ever be.
- 543 VOTESPhoto: Columbia Pictures
A masked hero, a wise mentor, a training sequence in a cave - it’s a familiar formula, but The Mask of Zorro does it well. Based on a 1919 pulp magazine series set in the mid-1800s which had already been turned into a hit film by 1920, the movie is layered with nostalgia. Anthony Hopkins plays the original Zorro, Don Diego de la Vega, an aging swordsman who summons his fighting spirit one last time to rescue his daughter from the brutal tyrant trying to take over California. Along the way, he teams up with a bandit, Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas), and agrees to teach him the ways of the sword. Once he’s been put through a rigorous training program (lots of tiny candles are involved), Murrieta dons the mask and assumes the role of Zorro just in time to seduce his mentor’s daughter.
Dishing up plenty of horse acrobatics, witty one-liners, and serious dueling, Zorro is like Robin Hood’s cooler Spanish cousin who doesn’t need a band of merry men to wreak havoc on the elites. He knows the difference between right and wrong but isn’t afraid to mix things up when it comes to social etiquette. When he stumbles upon de la Vega’s daughter in her bedroom, he doesn’t bow or take off his mask, he engages her in a duel to the death. This naturally turns into a dress-slicing game of seduction that resembles the mating dance of exotic birds more than a flirtation between well-bred adults in 19th century Europe, but when it comes to honor, Zorro isn’t playing games. His mission is clear: slaves and peasants should be freed and their tyrannical leaders should be slain. He does this with so much panache that it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed that jousting has been displaced by a legal system.
- 642 VOTESPhoto: Warner Bros.
Early in Guy Ritchie’s Cold War espionage thriller, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., an aghast CIA agent tells his KGB nemesis exactly where he draws the line, saying, “You can’t put a Paco Rabanne belt on a Patou.” This could have been the tagline for the movie poster. The plot follows Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), a gifted pickpocket and womanizer under contract to the CIA to avoid prison time. Armie Hammer plays Illya Kuryakin, a robotic KGB agent with anger management issues. The men try to kill each other, and then have to work together to avert nuclear annihilation.
The movie avoids the bleakness of 1960s East Berlin and the USSR by relocating to Italy as quickly as possible. The scenery (and nearly everything else) is straight out of a Bond movie - luxurious villas abound, the water is turquoise, and all the characters are sun-kissed and glowing. Cold War espionage, according to the movie, is approximately 20 percent action, 30 percent banter, and 50 percent haute couture. Solo and Kuryakin may be opposites in nearly every way, but neither disputes the importance of a perfectly tailored suit. Then there are the cars. Jaguars and Ferraris are a necessary part of the framework, but toward the end there is also a Land Rover commercial disguised as a chase sequence, and Kuryakin gets an arbitrary Steve McQueen moment on a Métisse Desert Racer. The Cold War was a tense time for many across the globe, not least because countries were still struggling with the economic fallout of World War II, but The Man from U.N.C.L.E. gives the Bond franchise a run for its money when it comes to making the 1960s look like a European version of the Gilded Age.