If two genres of movies are diametrically opposed to each other, it’s the testosterone-filled action movie and the more dramatic Oscar-bait period piece. Even their fan bases consist of very different moviegoers. Action movies may get the blood pumping and keep audiences on the edge of their seat. However, many historical drama buffs find these films lack substantial characters or plot.
Meanwhile, period pieces are known for their immersive sets, costumes, and stories, which tend to put many action fans to sleep. Fortunately, the sub-genre of Historical Action perfectly marries the two genres. Films like Gladiator and Seven Samurai blend violent set pieces with powerful plots full of drama and Oscar-Worthy performances. The result has been some of cinema’s memorable films.
10 ‘Apocalypto’ (2006)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 66%
Mel Gibson’s brutal action film about a Mayan kidnapped by an enemy tribe could almost be a horror movie with its many heart-pounding thrills. Despite being in another language and about an ancient civilization, Apcalypto completely endears the audience to Jaguar and his village. They deal with everyday norms like overbearing in-laws, father son relationships, and more.
This makes it all the more horrifying when their village is brutally attacked, and they’re dragged to a foreign city. Jaguar goes through an odyssey-like adventure, fighting man and nature to return home. Gibson’s riveting directing throws viewers right into the action, allowing them to feel every hit, stab, and emotion the characters feel. This makes the film more than just an action movie but an experience.
9 ‘The Last Samurai’ (2003)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 66%
This action drama about a US army captain who’s kidnapped by Samurais and becomes engrossed in their culture uses all the trapping of action films to preach a more profound message.
This film is a buffet of everything that makes a good action film, including shootouts, stealthy ninjas, samurai fights, and, last but not least, Tom Cruise. However, underneath the surface of this film lies a movie about friendship transcending nationality or culture.
8 ‘Braveheart’ (1995)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 76%
Mel Gibson directs and leads this brutal but emotional film based on the true story of Sir Wallace, who fought against Britain in the first Scottish Independence War. Braveheart is a film working overtime to please action-goers and drama audiences, which speaks to the direction of this film.
This film’s battle sequences are brutal and well-choreographed, showing viewers the chaos of a battlefield in this period. Similarly, it also throws viewers back in time, giving them all the Shakespearean-like drama they could ask for. That includes Williams’s romance with Isabella and tear-inducing scenes like his powerful final words where he screams freedom.
7 ‘Gladiator’ (2000)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 80%
Ridley Scott’s epic film about a Roman general betrayed and forced to fight as a gladiator shows why classic underdog stories never go out of style.
This crowd-pleasing movie sets up a cowardly villain that audiences will hate and a lovable family man who’s been wronged, making for the perfect revenge story. It’s no surprise Gladiator turned Russel Crow into a star. His balanced performance, being both heroic and vulnerable, makes audiences root for Maximus as if they were in the Colosseum themselves.
6 ‘The Last Duel’ (2021)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 85%
This true story of a French noblewoman who accuses a man of rape, leading to the last legal duel in France, has an intriguing mystery that makes this film oddly timely. Action is not the focus of this film but a tool. Of course, there are violent battles and a heart-stopping final jousting scene, but the unreliable narrators set this film apart.
This socially charged story is told from three different perspectives, making the question of whether Marguerite De Carrouges is lying about her assault loom over everything in this film. This causes action like the final jousting scene to feel weightier.
5 ‘The Northman’ (2022)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 85%
Robert Edger’s fantasy action about a Viking seeking revenge for his father’s murder has the violence of God Of War and a scandalous story worthy of soaps like Days Of Our Lives.
This revenge epic does not sugar-code the cruelty and violence of Viking life. While most films will try to make their protagonist seem heroic, this film refreshingly goes out of its way to tell the audience none of these characters are innocent. Despite the moral ambiguity, this film is oddly fun, playing out like an ultra-violent Shakespeare play full of revenge, treachery, and mysticism.
4 ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ (1992)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 94%
This Oscar-winning film about a white man raised by Native Americans during the French Indian War is as poignant as it is violent. It’s hard not to get wrapped up in this emotional story, and it’s sweeping vistas. Its wide shots of battle scenes with hundreds of extras harken back to the sword and sandal movies of the 60s.
It’s messages of people being forgotten by time and bridging gaps between racial divides still resonate. Not to mention, Danial Day-Lewis as Hawkeye gives a powerful performance that hardcore action buffs rarely get to feast their eyes on.
3 ‘Once Upon a TIme in the West’ (1978)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%
This Western opus about two gunslingers protecting a widow from a gangster who’s after her late husband’s land; complex storytelling techniques make it feel almost modern. Director Sergi Leone uses the audio mix as a narrator, with environmental sounds often foreshadowing danger instead of the score. Things often happen off-screen, leaving viewers with nothing but the sound effects to make them dread what’s coming next. The dream-like way the camera seamlessly connects shots and its use of distinct angles stand the test of time all these years later.
However, it’s characters take this film from great to classic. These complex personalities wear multiple layers, some good, others bad. The villains have moments of mercy, and the hero has a moment of cruelty that people still debate about today. Meanwhile, the damsel in distress is more calculating and less innocent than she appears, making this film a character study that happens to have some action.
2 ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’ (1999)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%
Ang Lee’s martial arts fantasy about forbidden love in aristocratic ancient China took the world by storm with its fantastical fight scenes bridging the language gap. This martial arts epic’s fight scenes are more than just set pieces but works of art.
They almost feel like interpretive dance or bale by how harmonious and elegantly they’re choreographed. Lee shoots with wide lenses, so the audience can see both fighters simultaneously, like dancers on a stage. The film works similar to a musical except, when scenes reach their emotional climax, characters start fighting instead of singing. Subtitles are almost unnecessary because the fights tell audiences exactly what the characters feel.
1 ‘Seven Samurai’ (1954)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 100%
Akira Kurosawa’s groundbreaking film about a band of samurais defending a village from pillagers changed film forever.This genius film can’t be regulated as just another action movie but a master class in filmmaking. It’s visual storytelling far surpasses many current movies. Instead of using wide lenses for every epic battle shot, it uses telephoto lenses and pans after characters, making viewers feel inside the battle. Also, long takes and scenes filmed with multiple cameras simultaneously make it easy to follow the action. It also introduced the infamous slow-mo shot to action films.
Its storytelling technique is also influential, with the first character intro purely for showing how efficient the protagonist is. The film also spends the entire first half assembling and developing the heroes, which is still used in heist and action films today. It’s fair to say this is one of the most influential films in the action genre and cinema as a whole.