The Beloved Tradition of British Historical Movies

    Britain has a long history of movies set in the past. Here we have three movies – two classics and one recent blockbuster – that feature Brits acting in historical settings or recreating some of the most dramatic events in history.

    Death on the Nile, 1978

    Based on the book by Britain’s greatest mystery author Agatha Christie, Death on the Nile follows an upper-crust couple on an Egyptian honeymoon. Naturally, murder soon follows. Christie’s best detective Hercule Poirot investigates aboard a Nile paddle steamer.

    It shares a fascination with ancient Egypt, using the temples and pyramid settings you’d expect to see. As one of Christie’s more exotic settings, it’s obvious why it’s one of her most popular stories as Egypt continues to inspire media past and present.

    Even today, there are still movies and games inspired by one of history’s oldest, most mysterious civilisations. Popular games like Pharaoh’s Daughter and others in the fireblaze slots series use Egypt and other historical settings to add to the experience. In this case, the eerie still waters of the Nile provide a great backdrop for a murder mystery as the steamer passes Giza and other memorable vistas.

    Following Peter Ustinov’s Poirot, it stars many actors that would be familiar to more modern audiences such as Maggie Smith and Angela Lansbury, while past greats like David Niven and Bette Davis also star. It also won a best costume design Academy Award and more recently, a 2022 remake by Kenneth Branagh and Ridley Scott was released.

    Waterloo, 1970

    An Italian/Soviet production shot in Ukraine, the production of the 1970 Waterloo movie is almost as famous as the battle itself. It still holds the record for most costumed extras, as 15,000 Soviet army members took to the field on horseback with no special effects. It also does a good job of balancing romantic, jingoistic heroism with the fact that almost 80,000 people died (and 7,000 horses) which is a tragedy no matter if they were British, Prussian or French.

    Waterloo covers the battle between Britain and the Napoleonic French in 1815, the battle that broke Napoleon and his stranglehold over Europe. The movie (much like the battle itself) is biased towards the British, understandable given how the battle has come to be remembered. Christopher Plummer as the Duke and Rod Steiger as Napoleon are also particularly memorable.

    1917, 2019

    A more recent blockbuster that doesn’t need much introduction, 1917 was the Sam Mendes flick that won three Academy Awards. Shot in England, it’s inspired by stories from Mendes’ grandfather and delves into the gritty trench warfare of World War One, the less-portrayed war. Where new weaponry collided with old military tactics, we follow trench runners who sprinted through barrages to deliver important information.

    That’s exactly the plot of 1917, as young British soldiers Will and Tom (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) must hurry to call off a doomed attack. You also find Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong and Colin Firth in supporting roles. It uses uncomfortably long, wandering takes adds to the realism as we follow them through the chaos.

    With 1917, it’s fair to say that British historical epics are still alive and well. While these movies used settings or events that interested people, they solidified their legacy through the costuming of Death on the Nile to the cinematic techniques that made Waterloo and 1917 possible.

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