If, as it is often said, the United States’ biggest export is popular culture, then American films might be the best example of that tendency. It is not at all unusual for an American movie today to gross far more money in international markets than it does domestically.

This trend has had negative consequences as Hollywood films—along with music and other aspects of our culture in general—have coarsened. And, since the 1960s, some of the most celebrated movies by critics and audiences alike have been highly critical of the government. Think of Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men, about the downfall of Richard Nixon, or Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog, one of many comedies that mock U.S. government policies. Then there’s Do the Right Thing and other films about inner-city life, with their depictions of people who feel disenfranchised by their country and government.

Many of these films are excellent—and deeply American—but on the Fourth of July (Independence Day) we celebrate what makes the country great, rather than examine its faults and failings. We reflect on our country’s roots and the people who made it into a great nation.

The four movies described below honor America and the spirit of its citizens. The films trace a journey from the foundation of the country and the immigrant impulse to come to these shores, to the assimilation of foreigners and the heights of their service as U.S. citizens.

Some of the films are well known but were released decades ago, and are easy to overlook in today’s media-saturated culture dominated by coverage of the latest releases. Others are more recent but were not widely released in theaters and did not find large audiences. Readers won’t find discussion here of more recent high-profile hits like Mel Gibson’s The Patriot or Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day. Instead, these four titles selected are offered in the hope that readers might discover, or rediscover, films unfamiliar to more recent generations, or which flew below the radar of contemporary audiences. (Readers are encouraged to add their own choices for movies to watch on Independence Day in the “User Comments” section below.)

So, four movies for the Fourth of July that capture the historic American experience. ...

1776: A Declaration of Independence

1776, a musical about the vote for America’s break from Britain and the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, successfully adopts a stage play for the big screen, but it’s not the overly reverent treatment viewers accustomed to history-book retellings of these events might expect.

They’re all here—John Adams, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, even John Witherspoon. Adams, the focal point of the early portion of the film, is portrayed as a nuisance, nattering on about independence at every opportunity. “John you’re a bore/We’ve heard this before,” sing his fellow elected representatives, as they implore him to “sit down, John/sit down.”

The men fight for and against independence, with the Virginians claiming a special place in God’s eyes and a Pennsylvania representative accusing Adams of using Virginia as a back door to enacting legislation favorable to New England.