Everyone loves a good documentary, especially in the age of lockdown. The problem is, there are as many bad ones as good ones – badly researched, strange topics or, god forbid, aliens.
As a result, people tend to look down on documentaries as overly casual and not ‘serious history’. I’m here to say the opposite: when well researched, documentaries are the perfect tool for learning, especially when first approaching a new topic. I know nothing about 20thC history, for example, and find documentaries a great way to briefly get into completely unknown topics.
The selections here come from a deliberately broad range of history – it is an interesting trend that many of the greatest documentaries I have watched tend to be on modern history, however. In no particular order, then, here are my nine suggestions:
Who Killed Malcolm X? – NETFLIX
Lots of great interest is raised here. I think many are put off by the sensationalist ‘mystery-hunting’ title but, with a combination of extensive archive footage and solid narrative, this is an exceptional summary of the atmosphere of race relations in the US that created Malcolm X. Particularly interesting questions about how we do history are raised, and the interaction between ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ historians.
Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb – NETFLIX
Egyptology is a complex and controversial topic for Western audience, wrapped-up so tightly in a sense of Orientalism and treasure-hunting. This documentary does a good job at stripping away some of the unhealthy mythos while maintaining a sense of excitement and adventure. Important questions are raised – the film follows an all-Egyptian team, exploring whether this is the best route for the future of Egyptian academia. It’s absolutely stunningly shot, and a great piece of escapism. There’s been a lot of valid criticism, including a sense of over-dramatisation and artifice, but it’s clearly a beautiful and informative introduction.
Five Came Back – NETFLIX
I do not like Second World War documentaries in general. I think they tend to focus unhealthily on an obsession with the Nazis and, rather than asking important historical questions about suffering and the horrors of war, revel in the spectacle of fascism.
If you are going to watch one, however, watch this exceptional work that escapes these failings. Exploring the role of films as propaganda and war support, this documentary follows the journeys of five filmmakers as they balance making their art with serving their country.
Netflix also contains a playlist of the propaganda films referenced throughout the documentary which, although shocking and upsetting, are well worth the watch.
Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain – BBC IPLAYER
For the international viewers amongst you, this is perhaps a controversial choice – Marr is a journalist rather than a historian. If on occasions it ventures into the flag-waving, Rule-Britannia -singing end of the spectrum, this is actually a well-researched and supported look at the social history of post-war England.
Age of the Samurai: Battle for Japan – NETFLIX
Docudramas are an interesting mix, and often suffer from over-exaggeration and bad acting, but when they’re done well prove an incredibly accessible and engaging way to understand history. There’s certainly some of that here but, broadly, it’s a very interesting look into a period and place that Western historians typically have very little knowledge of. Set in 16thC Japan, it follows the violent civil war
As a warning, it’s a pretty rough watch with lots of violence and blood.
Raiders of the Lost Past with Janina Ramirez – IPLAYER
While I love the first series of this series, I have a real problem with how it was advertised by the BBC. It was sold very much as a ‘strap your boots on, Indiana Jones, let’s go nick some treasure’ type vibe. In fact, the content is the absolute opposite, and Dr Ramirez does an amazing job at exploring archaeology as an academic discipline itself. Particularly interesting is the episode on the Nazi dig that discovered the Lion Man, and the uses and abuses in archaeological theory. This is what archaeology documentaries should be – not focused on the treasure but the interesting worlds that surround everyday items, and how academics use them.
Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives
I stand by this as a blend of history and good humour. Yes, it’s perhaps a little more light-hearted than other examples on this list, but we must not forget that the former Python was himself a remarkable scholarly mind, and his work on Chaucer is impressive. It is consistently jolly and lively, and sometimes there’s simply no alternative than actually getting into the historical period you’re studying.
Apollo 11 – YOUTUBE (previously on Netflix)
This is a stunning piece of work, recolourised (previously unseen) footage of the preparation for the Apollo 11 launch and moon landing. It’s so strange to see vivid, real images of the mission – in places it seems like you’re watching a Star Trek episode and you need to remind yourself that it’s very much real. There’s no annoying, condescending voice-over, it’s just beautiful footage. If you have any interest in space travel whatsoever, this is an absolute must-watch – genuinely breathtaking.
Britain’s Viking Graveyard (All4 – https://www.channel4.com/programmes/britains-viking-graveyard/on-demand/68557-001)
I wanted to end with at least one example from my beloved early-medieval context. Focusing on the camp of the Great Heathen Army at Repton, and the exceptional work of Dr Jarman, this is a really interesting look into how we find the archaeological footprint of the Vikings. There’s a much better engagement with (up-to-date) archaeological evidence than many of its counterparts – we’re not in a world of Viking gods and pointy-helmet raiders but an extension of some serious, ground-breaking research.