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14 Underrated Epics That Prove The Best Action Scenes Are In History Books

June 21, 2021 4.0k votes 903 voters 95.0k views14 items

List RulesVote up the movies that turn historical drama into epic action.

Lawrence of Arabia, Ben-Hur, Braveheart, and Gladiator are some of the most commonly cited examples of action movies that take place within a historical context. If you've seen all of them and are craving something new, check out one of the following underrated historical epics. Some of them are absolutely on par with the greats and just get overlooked. Others aren't in the same league, yet still provide solid entertainment. 

What all of these movies have in common is a focus on action. The history they present may or may not be accurate, but each and every one works on the level of a pure action movie. It's not just about having action, either. It's about taking care in presenting it. That encompasses stunts, costumes, sets, cinematography, and performance. Great care has clearly been taken to present audiences with something lively and entertaining.

Which of these action-packed historical movies is most underrated? Your votes will decide.

  • Michael Mann is a notoriously exacting director who believes every detail in his films should be exactly right. That attention to detail was especially beneficial with The Last of the Mohicans. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Hawkeye, a white adopted Mohican trying to rescue the daughters of a British colonel and falling in love with one of them in the process. The movie plunks Hawkeye right into the middle of the French and Indian War. Mann, basing his film on James Fenimore Cooper's novel, creates two types of danger for his lead character. Hawkeye not only has to dodge and/or fight the French army, he also has to traverse occasionally dangerous terrain. 

    The Last of the Mohicans was a sizable hit when first released in 1992. Since that time, though, other historical action epics have overshadowed it. Mann truly makes the period setting come alive, transporting viewers back in time for a thrilling adventure.

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  • If only one scene from Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World could be chosen to argue its greatness, that scene would have to be the one in which two massive ships fire cannonballs at one another from close range. The boom of the cannons firing is scary, and we see the wood splinter as each cannonball takes out a chunk of its target. Crew members scream and shout as they attempt to get out of the way. Director Peter Weir makes you feel like you're in one of those ships while it's happening. As an added bonus, you get a brilliant Russell Crowe performance as Captain Jack Aubrey. In the story, the Napoleonic Wars are in full force. He and his crew are tasked with tracking down a French vessel.

    Master and Commander was nominated for the best picture Oscar in 2002. For some reason, audiences didn't fully gel to it during its theatrical run. The movie was a modest success, but the box office topped out at $93 million - far less than its reported $150 million budget. Most people who have seen it are very enthusiastic. There's no doubt, however, that this authentically staged historical adventure deserves to be discovered by a wider swath of the public.

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  • There are two ways to watch Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven. One is in its original theatrical cut, the other in the extended director's cut that's available on Blu-ray. Both have furious action in the story, which is set during the Crusades. Orlando Bloom plays Balian de Ibelin, a blacksmith who becomes a defender of Jerusalem and its people. Scott stages the action sequences with a frenzied quality that helps convey how chaotic it can be in the midst of battle. To call them intense would be an understatement.

    The theatrical version of the movie got generally negative reviews, primarily due to a story that felt disjointed. This prevented it from becoming a modern historical action classic like Braveheart. The director's cut of Kingdom of Heaven clarifies a lot of stuff, developing the characters more and furthering our understanding of the relationships between them. This version is a richer, more cohesive experience. 

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  • Tom Cruise reportedly learned how to wield a sword for his role in The Last Samurai. Well, of course he did. He's Tom Cruise, and that's precisely the kind of thing he does. The film casts him as Captain Nathan Algren, a one-time Civil War hero with a drinking problem. He gains respect for the samurai after being captured by one and eventually joins their side. A large part of the story focuses on battle between the American military and the samurai. These sequences have an amazing sense of scope, depicting in detail the kinds of combat techniques used by both sides. They're so intense you can really feel the stakes for the participants.

    One likely reason why The Last Samurai isn't talked about too much is that Cruise has made so many amazing action films set in modern times, namely the Mission: Impossible series. Those blockbusters have understandably dominated the conversation when it comes to Cruise's work. He gives a terrific, introspective performance here, though, and the sprawling battle sequences provide their own serious thrills.

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