Underrated Historical Movies That Flopped At The Box Office

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Vote up the historical dramas that got unfairly ignored in theaters.

The great thing about historical movies is that they bring past time periods and/or actual events to life. Reading about them in books is great, but having someone visualize them for you can help add depth of understanding. This is undoubtedly one of the main reasons why this genre has continually thrived over the decades. Audiences love to see the past recreated. 

Despite that love, the following historical movies all flopped at the box office. This didn't happen because they're bad. Far from it - they're really quite good. Instead, they were victims of the myriad factors that can cause any movie to perform weakly at the box office, from poor marketing campaigns, to non-commercial subject matter, to release dates that saw them up against heavy hitters. Whatever the reason, these are pictures with something to offer, and they deserve a second chance at finding a wider audience. The next time you want to take a cinematic trip back in time, check out one of these underappreciated gems.

Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures / Paramount Pictures

  • In 2006, Clint Eastwood made two very different movies on the same subject, the battle at Iwo Jima. Flags of Our Fathers was told from the American point of view, Letters from Iwo Jima from the Japanese. Both were well reviewed, but only Flags was a hit at the box office. Several factors likely contributed to that, including a lack of star power and the fact that it was subtitled. American audiences were also more inclined to see a movie about American soldiers. 

    Ken Watanabe plays General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who is sent to Iwo Jima to lead the Japanese troops. The story focuses on the revolutionary strategies he devised, including building bunkers in the hillside rather than on the beach. Tactics of that sort gave their side a strong advantage. Underneath that is a look at the mindset of Kuribayashi and his troops, who arrived in battle fully committed and expecting to die, unlike their American counterparts who were equally committed but hoping to make it home. Letters from Iwo Jima's examination of the psychological impact of making the choice to sacrifice one's life for a bigger ideal is haunting. 

    1,659 votes

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  • 2
    1,373 VOTES

    In Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven, Orlando Bloom plays Balian of Ibelin, a blacksmith who joins the Crusades, making a long journey to Jerusalem with his father, Baron Godfrey (Liam Neeson). His goal is to help defend the city against Sultan Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), the man attempting to take it away from Christians. He eventually finds himself fighting in the Battle of Hattin, potentially risking it all for a cause he believes in. 

    Scott was extremely unhappy with the version of Kingdom of Heaven released to theaters. In an effort to appease the demands of test audiences, the studio made him cut a reported 45 minutes to make it shorter and accessible to mainstream crowds. He was later allowed to release a longer, more nuanced version on Blu-Ray. Both versions are action-packed, with frenzied, elaborately staged fight sequences. The longer cut has new subplots that strengthen the story, as well as detailed relationships between the characters. Getting viewers who felt burned by the theatrical version to check out the director's cut may not be easy, but it is undoubtedly the epic vision Scott wanted people to experience. 

    1,373 votes

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  • 3
    966 VOTES

    It's weird to think of Steven Spielberg having any movie that could be called “underrated,” given his unprecedented track record of success. For some reason, though, his intense drama Munich didn't get as much love from the public as some of his other serious-minded works, like Schindler's List and Amistad, did, despite being nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. Eric Bana plays Avner, a former bodyguard leading a top-secret team in an effort to exact revenge against the people who carried out the kidnapping and murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic games. Sometimes they are able to eliminate their targets with ease, but in a few cases, serious obstacles present themselves.

    Munich is a revenge drama fueled by a horrific real-life act of terrorism. It dives deep into the feelings Avner and his team members have about their mission. They're all gung-ho at first, but then Avner starts to doubt the righteousness of his actions. And when evidence arises that the team is being played and someone may be targeting them, a sense of paranoia takes over. Spielberg gives the movie a political charge, grappling with the cycle of violence that has long been part of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. His passion for telling this story is evident throughout. 

    966 votes

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  • 4
    524 VOTES
    The Courier
    Photo: Lionsgate

    The Courier stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Greville Wynne, a businessman who is approached by agents from MI6 and the CIA with a proposition. They want him to set up business in Moscow, establish a relationship with a Soviet officer willing to share sensitive information about Nikita Khrushchev's plans, and transport messages back and forth. The theory is that, as a normal guy, he will fly under Russia's radar, avoiding any sort of suspicion. Wynne hesitantly agrees after some coercion, only to find himself becoming more and more committed to a cause that grows increasingly dangerous.

    The movie is based on a remarkable true story that shows the field of espionage at its most covert. Suspense is wrung from watching an ordinary man put into situations that require finesse in terms of not blowing his cover. Knowing he's not formally trained for such work adds to the tension. Cumberbatch, as always, is magnificent, conveying the mounting pressure Wynne feels as MI6 and the CIA put him in a pinch. The role requires an actor who can suggest the moral drive this character feels to risk his life for his country, and Cumberbatch has it. This relatively little-known slice of history is consequently absorbing from beginning to end. 

    524 votes

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  • 5
    560 VOTES

    It's always a big deal when Martin Scorsese directs a new movie, yet somehow Silence didn't get a ton of notice when it hit theaters in late 2016. Opening against big holiday releases like Star Wars: Rogue One, Passengers, and Sing made it tough to stand out. This religious drama centers around two 17th-century Portuguese missionaries, Father Sebastian Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver). They make a trek to Japan in search of their missing mentor, Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson). While there, the men also try to spread Catholicism to the people. There's danger in doing this, as Christianity in any form has been forbidden by the ruling party. 

    A lot of Scorsese's movies contain Catholic imagery or themes. Silence brings them to the forefront. It's a deep, contemplative examination of faith and spirituality. Garfield and Driver give performances of great conviction that help the themes resonate. Working with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, Scorsese brings the historical time period to life vividly. There's a misconception in some quarters that Scorsese can only do Mafia movies. Silence is further proof that this belief isn't even remotely true. 

    560 votes

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  • The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford grossed just under $4 million domestically, despite starring Brad Pitt. Perhaps the title giving away the fact that his character is killed off deterred audiences. The film is really more about Ford (Casey Affleck), a loser-ish guy who joins the James gang, then gets into a pinch with the law. The only way to extract himself is to make a deal in which he'll kill his boss - which he does by cowardly shooting him in the back after he turns to straighten an askew picture on a wall. Although the slaying appeases law enforcement, it also turns Ford into a social pariah, as James is viewed by a wide swath of the public as something of a folk hero.

    Aside from multi-layered performances from Affleck and Pitt, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is notable for atmospheric, deeply evocative cinematography that plunges you into its world. This film doesn't look like any other Western. Director Andrew Dominik gives the movie a slower pace, leading to a 160-minute running time that, rather than feeling dull, proves energizing because you can absorb all the visual and character details he's richly packed in. 

    746 votes

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