Top 10 Desert Island Historical Movies

I’m heartened by the recent excitement about Downton Abbey – does it mean historical stories are going mainstream again? Here are my Top Ten Favorite Historical Movies, in no particular order. Some you may have seen, and some I bet you haven’t. Fall in love all over again with these outstanding historical adaptations.

Desert Island Top 10 Historical Movies:

1.  I laugh out loud and annoy the neighbors when I watch An Ideal Husband. Jeremy Northam and Cate Blanchett are fabulous as the politically ambitious, shining models of marital bliss, but witty Minnie Driver and the rakish Rupert Everett steal the show. Blackmail. A comedy of errors. Reluctant romance. A good girl tells a lie and saves the day. Even with the all-star cast, this clever story from Oscar Wilde doesn’t quite get the love it deserves.

2.  In The Four Feathers, Heath Ledger’s character is not so gung-ho about gallivanting off to war in the Sudan for the “Empire.” His four closest friends (including his fiancée played by Kate Hudson) each ask for the feather back which they insulted him with – a badge of cowardice – after his fantastic undercover rescue of his comrades. The message: War is not glamorous. Bravery manifests in diverse ways. Heath Ledger’s dimples. And he headbutts a giant Nubian. Don’t miss it.

3.  The adorable Hugh Dancy and the ever intrepid Romola Garai sparkle in this George Eliot adaptation of Daniel Deronda. This movie is deliciously tragic, fascinating in the way one can’t look away from a car wreck. Every character fields disaster and scandal, but everyone gets a happy-ish ending (except the nasty aristocrat who drowns because his pants are too heavy to allow him to swim, or something). In the end, the whiny heroine decides to hold her chin up and seek validation through merit, and the hero marries the other woman, the sweet and humble one who sings like an angel even if she is *gasp* a Jewess.

  4.  I Capture the Castle, adapted from the novel by Dodi Smith grew on me with time, like a tart flavor. Like so many film adaptations, the book is plainly better. But who’s complaining about watching Henry Cavill play the earnest and self-sacrificing Stephen? Not me. The shabby-genteel Mortmains scrape together a living in a dilapidated old castle, and trouble ensues when they try not to appear poor for the new neighbors. Unrequited love. Coming of age. The crazy plot twist at the end suits the character of this charming story, and I’ve come to like the open-ended resolution.

 5.   It seems Charles Dickens wrote Nicholas Nickleby in a fit of heroic passion, and it’s a mystery to me why this triumphant, intensely emotional little masterpiece is so little known. Sublimely played by Charlie Hunnam, Nicholas holds his tragedy-torn family together by sheer force of will despite the best efforts of some very dastardly villains. A lovely tale extolling personal integrity and courage, the bizarrely entertaining secondary characters rescue the mood from being too maudlin. If Charlie Hunnam isn’t draw enough, experience it for Rachel Portman’s astounding symphonic-folk-blended soundtrack.

6.  A sweet country story, Under the Greenwood Tree is quirky and heart-warming. The hero is struck speechless upon meeting the heroine and remains awkward through several encounters, a plight most can sympathize with. The village church band does not abide being supplanted by the minister’s new harmonium, and pranks ensue. Miss Fancy Day resurrects her father’s old guilt by falling in love with a simple but ambitious farmer. The romance is innocent yet sizzling. The superb actors saved this adaptation from being silly; they sell it all the way, and the characters really shine.

7.  Look past Helena Bonham Carter’s gravity-defying Edwardian coif in A Room With a View, and you’ll adore the character who learns to think for herself. She makes wedding plans with the “perfect” gentleman, the prissy and detached “Cecil” (Daniel Day Lewis), breaking the heart of the mercurial bohemian played by Julian Sands. She tries to suppress her passions, her temper, and especially the romance sparked with George (Sands). Hearing Judi Dench’s eccentric character complain about the English tourist’s dependence on Baedeker is worth watching alone. Lovely panoramic scenes of Italy. E.M. Forster’s themes of breaking from conformity and self-actualization still ring true. And Julian Sands wrote the book on heroic kissing.

8.  The Tenant of Wildfeld Hall, a lesser-known gem from Anne Brontë features the gothic-style drama and bleak, romantic setting you’d expect but with a sophisticated twist modern viewers might appreciate: the heroine doesn’t fall into the arms of the hero right away. Prickly Helen Graham is hiding from her scumbag husband, and although her earnest suitor – the rustic, dashing Mr. Markham – proves himself worthy, she wants to give the new relationship time to develop. Poignant and refreshing.

 9.  I had no idea what I got myself into when I watched Bright Star. I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t even know who the revered romantic-era poet, John Keats was. A celebration of beauty and love, this film adequately captures a poet’s life in the creative and emotional sense. The tragic elements were difficult to swallow, juxtaposed with the pristine, transcendent romance, which is what made this story so effective. It devastated me (in a good way), consuming my thoughts for days afterward.

10.  Unlike most of the films on my desert island list, Amazing Grace received the recognition it deserved. Ioan Gruffodd and Romola Garai create a magical, sympathetic romance in this retelling of William Wilberforce’s efforts to end slavery in England, and how the famous hymn “Amazing Grace” became a religious and activist icon. If Gruffodd’s heart-wrenching despair and triumph doesn’t have you carrying on like a leaky watering pot, the end titles featuring what has to be a thousand pipers playing “Amazing Grace” will do it.

 10 1/2.  BBC outdid itself in this adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South. I know, I can’t count to 10, but I simply couldn’t do without this on my deserted island. Daniela Denby-Ashe’s genteel character in reduced circumstances learns to swallow her pride and see through the eyes of a man she tries very hard not to admire, the shrewd but honest owner of a cotton factory. Despite fascinating commentary on the industrial vs. pastoral struggle in 19th-century England, it’s the thoroughly satisfying, meaningful romance which moves me. I sigh like a girl at the end, smiling like a serene idiot long after the credits finish rolling.

  • Also coming: “If You Liked Downton Abbey, Try…”

Meanwhile, I’d like to know what’s on your Top 10 list. What movies (your favorites, historical or not) do you watch over and over?


  1. Great list, Moriah. Most I’ve seen, but a few I’m excited to check out. If you had expanded to TV adaptations, I would have had to add Lonesome Dove and Thorn Birds and the Tudors and maybre Deadwood. Thanks for sharing.

    • Hey, everyone! We have a celebrity in our midst! Thanks for visiting, Kaki. I’m honored. What a great idea – another list of favorite historical TV series. I’d add Cranford and Lark Rise to Candleford to your list.

  2. micahpersell says:

    What a great list! I’ve seen 1, 5, and 10. The rest are going on my Must-See List!
    Random factoid: Did you know John Keats and Fanny Brawne were both only 5 feet tall? Tiny packages; big love. I haven’t seen Bright Star, but I’ve read his letters to her in the collection with the same title. So sigh worthy I was hyperventilating.
    I’m also with you on Nicholas Nickleby. What a blond hunk!

  3. Moriah, you make every movie sound like a must see! Thanks for the recommendations!

  4. pambmorris77 says:

    I’ve seen them all!! A Room With a View is my favorite, I’ve read and seen all the E.M. Forster books/movies… I loved Daniel Deronda and read the 1000+ page novel this winter, loved it too, so read Middlemarch! Got other great ones to add to your list. Woman in White, The Moonstone, Jane Eyre (all versions!) And yes, I am getting Downton Abbey on DVD asap. LOVED it! No one puts Masterpiece Theater in the corner in my house!! Great list,Moriah. And yes, historical fiction is coming back big time so keep writing them for us believers!!

    • Pam, I had no idea you were such a conoisseur of historicals, considering you are a paranormal author. How delightful. Gratifying to find another Daniel Deronda and E.M. Forster fan. I have never seen Moonstone or Woman in White. Will devour ASAP. Thanks for the tip!

  5. Interesting list.
    I have seen very few movies out of these 10: only ‘An Ideal Husband’ (a good film, with wonderful cast), ‘A Room With a View’ (an very good film) and ‘North & South’ (I like this TV mini-series, but I’m a little reserved about the two leading actors: I liked the play of Daniela Denby-Ashe, but probably I’m wrong thinking if the actress had more pleasant kind of the face in this film I would like more this series; Richard Armitage is a very handsome actor, but I think his play in this movie seemed uneven – was not always convincing throughout the film’s action).

    I will list the titles of the other seven films and I will try to find them and make them look! Intrigued me 🙂


  1. […] time in Top 10 Desert Island Historical Movies, I picked obscurish period films, hoping I might suggest something new you’d want to see, […]

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