7 Most Brutal & Violent Historical Dramas

I. The Proposition [2005]

Centering around three very different brothers embroiled in the life of crime in 1880s Australia, John Hillcoat’s brutal western is bound to leave an impression. The scriptwriter of this under-seen gem is musician Nick Cave, and the story tells of a lawman (Winstone) who makes the proposition to an outlaw (Pierce): if he will hunt down, deliver or kill his berserk older brother who is wanted for rape and murder, his vulnerable younger brother will be spared an execution. The outlaw has to choose among different conflicting loyalties. Anchored by the great performances from Guy Pierce, Ray Winstone, Emily Watson and John Hurt, as well as the attentiveness to details, memorable characterisation and atmospheric cinematography, The Proposition is a violent, but also stunning film.

II. The Nightingale [2018]

If a film is known for its mass theatre walkouts during its premier then that should tell you something about the extent of violence and brutality on display (Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible is other noteworthy example to receive as much publicity in this regard). Jennifer Kent, the director of psychological horror film The Babadook, forgot her breaks completely in making her “sadistic” film machine The Nightingale. Some pointed out that the violence, including the prolonged rape on display, is so extensive than it is simply nauseating, but other brave souls simply say that this is pure realism on film. What is clear, though, is that The Nightingale is a well-crafted film, and the journey of survival and revenge of Irish convict Clare Carroll turns sympathetic and moving, as the director also says something about the state of the 1800s Australia. In sum, see it at your peril.

III. The Painted Bird [2019]

Partly based on a novel by Jerzy Kosinski, The Painted Bird is a film directed by Czech director Václav Marhoul (Tobruk) and shot in black and white. It tells of a boy who wanders through a World War II-torn Central European country, witnessing the violent atrocities, sexual depravities and the savagery of people around. The film conveys the existential despair caused by war, want and human cruelty. Like The Nightingale above, the film also caused a number of well-publicised theatre walkouts, but despite the horrific content of this 3 hour-long film, the sheer beauty of the cinematographic work on display still remains one of the foremost reasons to see it.

IV. Brimstone [2016]

What is it about the obvious cinematic brutality of some European film-makers that so unsettles American critics? Though they seem perfectly content with the pointless and over-the-top violence coming from Tarantino, some cannot seem to stomach a more realistic or historical outlook. Brimstone is a violent historical drama-western that follows a young girl and then woman Liz (Dakota Fanning) who is pursued through her life by one ruthless man – the Reverend (Guy Pierce). Brimstone, led by courageous Dutch director Martin Koolhoven, is not a perfect film, but has much to recommend, including the outstanding work of its lead stars and the grim, beautiful cinematography. The film is a tense and claustrophobic cinematic experience.

V. The Northman [2022]

In this story, Prince Amleth (a figure in a medieval Scandinavian legend) (Alexander Skarsgård) is on the path to avenge the killing of his father by his uncle. The story, rooted in mythology, may not claim originality, but the film still provides a visceral experience for those looking for one. In the capable hands of director Robert Eggers (The Witch), the story slowly descends into extreme violence, but the images remain spectacular. Robert Eggers’s Nosferatu is currently being filmed.

VI. Come and See [1985]

This is a story of Belarusian boy Flyora (Aleksey Kravchenko) who suddenly finds that he has to fend for himself after his family and neighbours are killed by the Nazis. The time is the World War II and the German onslaught. The immersive character of the film only makes its individual scenes more unforgettable, but also harder to digest. Partly based on Ales Adamovich’s book Khatyn, Come and See is grim and horrific, but so is the war. The film is now rightly regarded as one of the best to depict its harrowing impact.

VII. 12 Years a Slave [2013]

The fact that this film about slavery in the 19th century and based on the real life of Solomon Northup is a cinematic masterpiece is undeniable. Steve McQueen crafted a historical drama rooted in realism, and his work shines with an engrossing story, remarkable, Oscar-worthy performances, and breath-taking cinematography. However, few will also argue with the fact that this Academy Award winner also makes for a very uncomfortable and disturbing watch, especially when the story gets to all the physical, psychological and sexual abuse perpetrated by cruel and despotic slave owner Edwynn Epps (Michael Fassbender).


6 Comments Add yours

  1. msjadeli says:

    I’ve seen 5 of the 7 and have written down Brimstone and Come and See me. I loved “The Proposition” and have reviewed it on my blog. I question whether the brother played by Danny Huston was insane. He was responding to the rape of the white invaders on the land and its indigenous population. Each of these movies is shocking in its brutality but such good cinema! Another in this vein is Tarkovsky’s “Ivan’s Childhood.” Another one I even hesitate to mention because it still haunts me is “The House that Jack Built” starring Matt Dillon. So terrifying.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment. Yes, Ivan’s Childhood is among my all-time favourite films, but I think the reason it is not on this list is that I don’t think the depiction of horror there is at the front of the work or there is overt and excessive extreme violence shown, as in the films which made it to my list. Tarkovsky’s aims are subtler in his debut. This is not to say that the film is not hard to watch – any film with children and war is, for example, I also made this list previously – Childhood in Cinema: 10 Unforgettable Films – https://spotlightonfilm.com/2021/07/08/childhood-in-cinema-10-unforgettable-films/ , and it has both Ivan’s Childhood and René Clément’s Forbidden Games. The latter also deals children and the trauma of war.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. msjadeli says:

        You’re welcome and I see what you are saying. I’d like to see more of Tarkovsky’s movies. Will check out that link, thanks.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. msjadeli says:

    p.s. The House That Jack Built is not an historical drama but Ivan’s is.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. moviefanman says:

    I’ve heard of the majority of these films save for #3, and yes they all have a ‘take no prisoners’ and ‘tell it like it is’ attitude. I’ve only ever considered checking out Brimstone because an actor friend of mine (he’s taking time off for the moment to raise a family) has a small role in it.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. godtisx says:

    I haven’t seen most of these! Notes to self!

    Liked by 1 person

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