It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, White Christmas. When December rolls around everyone knows which movies to watch to celebrate the holidays. Sadly, America’s birthday doesn’t seem quite so lucky. So, here is a list of four films appropriate for celebrating July 4th.
Somewhat sadly, the most consistent celebrator of America may not be an American but an Australian. Mel Gibson’s The Patriot would certainly be an appropriate choice, but I’m recommending his lesser known We Were Soldiers. Soldiers is based on hero Lt. Col. Hal Moore’s experience in the Vietnam War. Though not for the squeamish, this moving tale of family, duty, and sacrifice shows how the combat zone extends from the front line to the front door.
It takes a family for a soldier to fight for his country but Gibson also poignantly parallels America’s hubristic military trajectory in 1965 to the hubris that led to Custer’s massacre on the Little Big Horn. Considering America’s current military foray into the Middle East, it is anything but un-American to devote further reflection to this somber warning.
To absolutely no one’s surprise, Red Dawn, the 1984 vehicle for the then new crop of Hollywood heartthrobs, garnered absolutely no attention from the Academy when Oscar nominations rolled around in 1985. However, I recommend a return to this film not for the acting prowess but to appreciate one of America’s continually underappreciated achievements: the defeat of communism.
Red Dawn’s plot is unimaginable today and that is exactly the point. In it, the Soviets attack the United States and seize control of at least a third of the country, forcing our young band of teen idols to take to the hills as guerilla fighters. I would argue that more than any other, this film informed the politics of American males now in their 30s or 40s. Growing up in a different era, our frequently ahistorical children will be shocked that we thought (and dreamed?) that we would need to be that resolute band of patriots.
Admittedly, this film will not produce the most nuanced understanding of the Cold War; however, the fact that merely two decades later the plot could not even be suggested speaks to how far we have come so fast. May the doomsday-terrorist scenarios Hollywood relies on today become just as rapidly dated.
America is an immigrant nation built by families. Perhaps no movie captures this simple but profound fact better than Barry Levinson’s Avalon. Beginning in Baltimore’s centennial celebration of Fort McHenry’s hold-out against the British, this movie tells the moving story of newly arrived Sam Krichinsky, his brothers, their children, and their children’s children in 20th century America.
Often heart-warming, the story is also frequently somber and always thoughtful as it documents the playing out of the American dream—a dream that quite frequently brings material wealth but also familial distance. Levinson’s truly brilliant portrayal of television’s impact carries the weight one expects of entire books by Marshall McLuhan or Neil Postman.
Likewise, Levinson’s ability to show the impact on America caused by the rise of suburbs should humble scores of sociologists who have used up small forests in efforts to document the phenomenon.
Ultimately, anyone with an extended family will appreciate and recognize this theatrical celebration of the follies, foibles, and power of familial love American-style.
Few things are as quintessentially American as the Western. So, if you take only one suggestion make it The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In it, you get two of Hollywood’s greatest icons—Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne –being directed by the godfather of Westerns: John Ford.
Not only is the surface story engrossing as these two titans battle a common foe while seeking the same woman’s hand, but you can (and should) understand their struggle as America’s. The United States conquered and civilized a continent, but one type of man was needed to settle it and another to govern it. Entire American epochs echo in the portrayal of these individual lives.
Though I won’t suggest these four will join the ranks of Christmas classics as essential annual viewing, watching these films will enhance and enlighten your 4th of July celebration. So, settle down with some popcorn and let freedom ring.