There might be no better way to celebrate the Fourth of July than by partaking of that great American art form known as film. Some movies that celebrate the best; and worst, in United States history that are well worth watching on the nation’s birthday include:
- Glory (1989) – Of all the films made about the Civil War this combat story is by far the best. It’s one of the few Civil War films to escape the mind-numbing nostalgia for the Lost Cause of the Confederacy that destroys so many good movies (such as Gone with the Wind). Director Edward Zwick’s attention to detail; tremendous performances by Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Matthew Broderick and a dedication to accuracy, make this movie a standout. Another refreshing aspect of this film is its depiction of African Americans as human beings struggling for freedom and dignity rather than victims.
- Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) – Not exactly history; but a great romp through an earlier age of popular culture. Michael Curtiz’s direction; an aggressive over the top performance by Jimmy Cagney, and a believable plot for a musical make this one work. You’ll quickly see why this story of George M. Cohan’s life is still considered one of the greatest musicals ever made. Cagney definitely deserved the best Actor Oscar for this one.
- Cheyenne Autumn (1964) – John Ford’s last Western is one of his best films. It is also the most realistic and honest portrayal of the treatment of Native Americans in the West on film. Sorry Kevin Costner fans Dancing with German Shepherds is sentimental drivel. Ford’s accomplishment here is to demolish the mythology he helped create, expose the moral complexity of history and to remind us of an obvious historical truth: Native Americans were the victims (who were completely at the mercy of White America) not the villains. It’s also easy to see why this film is still ignored; it manages to dispel almost every popular myth about the Indian Wars.
- Sergeant York (1941) – Sure it’s simple and naïve propaganda but Howard Hawks’ retelling of the story of a World War I hero still holds up. Much of its success is from the star; British-born Gary Cooper, who is utterly believable as the conflicted everyman. Hawks mixes in just enough humor to make this flag-waving propaganda palatable even to modern audiences.
- The Big Red One (1980) – Samuel Fuller’s retelling of his wartime experiences is by far the best of all the movies about Americans in combat in World War II. The Big Red One succeeds because of its’ premise that war is absurd. By focusing on the absurdity of war; refusing to make moral judgements and portraying GIs as human beings, Fuller created a great film. There’s none of the pretentious moralizing; or hero worship, that makes movies like Saving Private Ryan so dull. There are also standout performances from Mark Hamil, Robert Carradine and the magnificent Lee Marvin in his last great role.
- The Man who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) – This classic is that rare animal; a film about history and its’ meaning. John Ford effectively portrays the contrast (and conflict) between the real people who built the country; such as lawyers and teachers, and the mythology of the gun-toting hero. He also asks the questions; “what is history and “what is the difference between history and legend.” Despite those deep questions, the movie is delightfully entertaining because of great performances from Lee Marvin; as the title character, John Wayne, Woody Strobe, Andy Devine and Jimmy Stewart.
- Citizen Kane (1941) – Make no mistake, Orson Wells’ classic is about America and its’ history. Its’ working title was The American and the story focuses on a pivotal era of U.S. history from 1890 to 1940. The movie is also loosely based on the life of a real person; mining heir and newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst – who was outraged by Wells’ portrayal of him. The story is an examination of the American dream from the point of view of a person who has achieved it without struggle, and a man’s search for meaning. The movie is more relevant than ever today; because Citizen Kane is reputedly Donald J. Trump’s favorite movie.
This is just a sampling of the great American films you can watch on the Fourth. Others you might try include; Back to the Future, Superman and Superman II, The Right Stuff, Bonnie & Clyde, Ride the High Country, Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, In the Heat of the Night, The Wild Bunch, All the President’s Men, Shane, Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, Ace in the Hole, The Dirty Dozen, The Music Man, It Happened One Night, Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, The Godfather, The Searchers, Red River, High Noon, A Face in the Crowd, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Rambo, The Sands of Iwo Jima, Stagecoach, Ghostbusters, The Deer Hunter, Rocky, and Clint Eastwood’s The Unforgiven.