06/26/2013 05:16 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2013

Tracing the Steps of History Through Hollywood

I am hooked on historical films. I love them because they put a fresh layer of paint and a crisp veneer on what today might be ancient ruins or stuffy museums. They help us visualize what things might have looked like hundreds and thousands of years ago. By cultivating our creativity to imagine what was going on beyond the frame of the camera, many reveal the everyday personal drama that the history books have long-since glossed over. I'm no movie critic, but I find the movies that focus on a single historical figure to often be the ones I enjoy most. The most successful films condense historical events into personal experiences we can relate to, and hopefully be transformed by. Here are a few I have enjoyed watching as I've toured the continent over the last few months:

The Wind that Shakes the Barley - Set in Ireland during the bloody eleven-month civil war that spanned the years of 1922 and 1923, this story revolves around two brothers torn apart, landing on either side of the pro- vs. anti-treaty contingents. It's a heavy hitting portrayal of the Irish struggle for independence from the British Crown, and definitely worth watching before any visit to the Emerald Isle.

Saving Private Ryan - A classic directed by Tom Hanks, this film hardly needs an introduction. But this cinematographic feat brings the grainy historic footage we've all seen on the History Channel, to colorful HD clarity. If you're headed to Normandy, set some time aside to watch this one again to understand the impossible odds the young American, British and Canadian men faced in the biggest amphibious assault in history. Imagine the gangway dropping and finding a post-apcalyptic blur of smoke, deadly zipping bullets and fallen comrades all around you.

Schindler's List - This is a story brought to life by Stephen Spielberg of an enterprising, imperfect hero who saved hundreds of Jews from perishing in concentration camps by employing them in his factory during WWII. As history goes, Schindler paid Nazis for Jewish workers who received no compensation. Once word got out that larger meals and better healthcare was provided to the workers at this fabled metalworking factory on the south side of Krakow, Schindler's List became the only list anyone wanted their name on during this horrific time in history.

The Pianist - This film is another tale of humanity's drive to survive, this time set in the Ghetto of Warsaw. Based on a true story, the protagonist, a professional pianist, finds his world turned upside down as his rights are stripped, his friends are killed, and his family deported to the Nazi extermination camps. He navigates the constant threat of deportation and actually survives through a combination of sheer luck, faith, and the help of a good friends.

The Gladiator - This movie, one of my favorites and Russell Crowe's debut, is set in Ancient Rome and follows the journey of an exiled Roman military commander who ends up being sold into slavery and exploited as a gladiator for others' entertainment on the fringes of the Empire. His success in the ring propels him to the biggest gladiator stage in the world: the Colosseum, and he comes face to face with his betrayer.

Recently, I've enjoyed these historic television series as well: Henry VIII, the Tudors, and Band of Brothers.

Just as traveling opens your eyes to things unknown, movies help you visualize them that much better. Of course, be sure to look past the Hollywood filter, but enjoy tracing the steps of the filmmakers and protagonists alike. What are your favorite historic movies?

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