Weird History
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Movies That Gave Us An Unexpected History Lesson

Updated August 18, 2021 1.1k votes 219 voters 12k views9 items

List RulesVote up the movies that offer up a surprising lesson about the past.

Comedies about history like Bill and Ted's Excellent AdventureMonty Python and the Holy Grail, and The Death of Stalin get a lot right when it comes to the past. Flicks like National Treasure offer up truths about history, war movies often relay battlefield facts, and some films about the ancient world bring accuracy to the big screen, too. Overall, history's part of the package when you watch them. 

Then there are the movies you watch for pure entertainment. Whether it be a comedy, drama, or thriller, movies can be the ultimate escape from reality. While some flicks openly bring in elements of real-world experiences and history, many of them simply just make all of that go away for a while. Or do they?

We found some hidden gems - movies that snuck in history when we weren't even looking for it. Various cult favorites, classic feel-good flicks, and superhero movies - whether they like it or not - have taught us a thing or two about the past. Take a look and vote up the films with the most unexpected history lessons.

  • Field of Dreams (1989) has much to offer baseball lovers, Iowans, and people who enjoy a movie with a lot of talk about corn. It also includes an entire history lesson about one of the biggest sports scandals ever.

    The premise of Field of Dreams finds farmer Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) compelled to uproot his corn crop to build a baseball field. After attempting to resist, Kinsella gives in - driven by the idea that he's meant to help his hero, "Shoeless" Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta). 

    Kinsella tells his daughter, Karin, about the baseball scandal involving the 1919 Chicago White Sox - Jackson's team - as he constructs his field. The details of the scandal remain murky, but the idea that a conspiracy to rig the World Series was in the works left millions of people aghast. Allegations of cheating plagued eight White Sox players, leading to a trial (they were acquitted) and, ultimately, a ban from the sport.

    Jackson was among the banned players after he signed a confession saying he was paid to throw the game. However, he later stated that he was manipulated by a team lawyer into signing a document he didn't understand, as he was illiterate. Supporters of Jackson's innocence also point to his record-setting performance during the championship. He broke the World Series record with 12 hits, and had the highest batting average of either team.

    Once the field is complete in the film, ghosts of players from the 1919 White Sox - dubbed the Black Sox - take the field. The presence of the team offers insight into early 20th-century baseball and the entire movie is peppered with information about Jackson - everything from his batting average to how he got his nickname. While playing for a cotton mill team as a teen, Jackson hit a triple and ditched the cleats that were irritating his feet, running the bases in stockings.

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    'Clue' Takes Some Appropriate Jabs At J. Edgar Hoover

    The movie Clue (1985) brings together the classic characters from the board game for a deadly dinner party. As the blackmail scheme that brought them together is revealed, Colonel Mustard, Miss Scarlet, Professor Plum, and the rest do their best to avoid being slain by one of the iconic weapons they've been given as gifts. 

    During the movie, guests arrive to crash the party, strategically brought there by the blackmailer, Mr. Boddy. At one point, the phone rings. A wayward police officer answers the call, much to the chagrin of the group. The cop asks them, "And why are you receiving phone calls from J. Edgar Hoover?" 

    The cop explains who Hoover is - the head of the FBI - at which point Colonel Mustard (Martin Mull) inquires, "Why is J. Edgar Hoover on your phone?" The butler Wadsworth's reply: "I don't know. He's on everyone else's, why shouldn't he be on mine?"

    The whole exchange is a subtle statement about the surveillance practices undertaken by Hoover and the FBI in the Cold War era. By 1954, the year in which the movie is set, Hoover had identified all kinds of "subversives" and expanded the methods he used to keep tabs on people he suspected of ties to communism, fascism, or any other domestic threat. Phone taps were one of many methods used by Hoover and his men.

    Interestingly enough, 1954 was also the year Congress forbade anyone from depicting the FBI in any commercial media without Hoover's consent. 

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  • With a movie like Dead Poets Society (1989), it makes sense that watching it would introduce you to... well... dead poets. What the movie opens up, however, is an entire world of literature that boggles the mind.

    Dead Poets Society is set in the 1950s at Welton Academy. Teacher John Keating (played by Robin Williams) sets out to introduce his students to a host of poets, many of whom are considered inappropriate for the curriculum. Not only is Keating pushing boundaries with what he teaches, but his unusual methods for doing so also catch the watchful eyes of his colleagues and the headmaster.

    The writers mentioned in the movie include Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Alfred Tennyson - a who's who of literature. Mentions of Robert Frost and obligatory talk of William Shakespeare accompany nods to lesser-known authors like Robert Herrick, Vachel Lindsay, and Raymond Calvert. While Dead Poets Society may not be a comprehensive list of individuals who fall into the titular category, it's a place to start. 

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    The 'King Ralph' Rhyme About Royals Still Comes In Handy

    The use of mnemonic devices to learn didn't start with King Ralph, but the movie includes a good poem that's useful for remembering the order of the English monarchs. The movie features Ralph Jones (played by John Goodman), a commoner from the US unexpectedly thrust into the position of king of England. 

    As the newly crowned monarch, King Ralph has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to proper etiquette, his own royal bloodline, and the entire history of his position. To keep the order of his predecessors straight, he's given some guidance

    Here's a poem to remember the order of kings.

    I, II, III Eds, Richard II, Henry IV, V, Vl, then who? Edward IV, V, Rich the Bad, then Richard the Third, then Henrys Twice and Ed the Lad. Mary, Lizzie, James the Vain, Charlie, Charlie, James again.

    The little ditty is accurate - but it does omit Lady Jane Grey - perhaps due to her decidedly short reign

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