Four for the Fourth: Movies That Celebrate America!
- Wednesday, July 02, 2008
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.
Will these men form one nation or a nation of sovereign states? While the legislative battle rages, Jefferson and Adams sing about how they “burn” for their spouses.
Although it retells history in engaging fashion, 1776 is not suitable for family viewing. This 1972 film is, in fact, bawdy at times, and is rated “PG” for language. It includes several flippant uses of God’s name and some sexual humor.
GOLDEN DOOR: The Journey
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
— Emma Lazarus
Our nation’s story is a story of immigrants—people who came to this country in search of something they couldn’t obtain in their homelands. Some came for the promise of material prosperity, some for the opportunity to make their own way in a rugged land, and some for the chance to worship freely.
Golden Door, an Italian film released last year to unexpectedly strong results on the art-house circuit, follows one man’s journey from Sicily to America. In the film’s opening shot, Salvatore and his son climb a mountain and seek guidance from a statue of the Virgin Mary about whether to leave his village and make the journey to America. “What should we do? Go or stay” he asks the icon.
His prayers are answered when another son arrives and presents him with photos, ostensibly of America, where money grows on trees and giant onions are hauled in wheelbarrows.
“Blessed be the Lord,” Salvatore says. He dreams of a land of great material blessings—a country where money falls from the sky and he swims in rivers of milk. The local clothier tells Salvatore, “God will bless you,” while another man says, “God will guide you there.”
Aboard the ship, Salvatore will strike up a friendship with Lucy, a beautiful, mysterious Englishwoman about whom rumors swirl. Does a boyfriend await her in America? Has she been jilted? If no one is there to meet her at Ellis Island, will she be able to enter America?
Their budding romance is a bright spot amid the uncertainties of the journey. In one memorable sequence, the ship encounters rough seas and the violent consequences are harrowing. It’s a grim sequence that reminds us of the sacrifices made by so many who brought nothing but their hopes to this country, sometimes at great peril.
They arrive at Ellis Island, but can see America only through the fog. Later, they peer through a high window at the land outside. Golden Door shows us their reaction to the sight of the new country, but never allows viewers to see it. It remains a place grounded in the imaginations of the characters and the viewers.
Upon arriving at Ellis Island, however, the characters’ journey is far from over. To enter the country, proposals are made, bargains are struck, and tests are undertaken to keep out the infirm and those lacking in intellect. After surviving so much, some will not be admitted and some will choose not to enter. But for those who do enter through the Golden Door, opportunity awaits.
“I came to America in 1914 by way of Philadelphia,” says Sam Krichinsky, the protagonist of Barry Levinson’s drama of Jewish immigrants who settle in Baltimore. “I didn’t know what holiday it was, but there were lights and I walked under them,” Sam recounts.
The holiday is the Fourth of July and the lights are fireworks. In America, Sam’s life is full of promise. He goes into business with his brothers, plays music on the weekends, gets married and has children. All the while, he expresses thanks for the country he calls home. Indeed, the film repeatedly returns to subsequent July Fourths, and to Thanksgiving Day, during which the broader family gathers and engages in sacred rituals, including the cutting of the turkey.
Avalon (1990) traces the lives of three generations of Krichinskys, capturing the evolution of 20th century America, especially its second half. The Krichinskys move to the suburbs—described as places with bigger lawns and fewer people under the same roof—but the Krichinsky brothers gradually grow apart emotionally as well as geographically. Television takes over their lives and captures the imagination of the country. Sam’s entrepreneurial, can-do spirit passes on to his son, Jules, a door-to-door salesman who eventually sets up shop with his cousin to sell TV sets. Jules then moves from selling TVs to selling advertising time on TV programs.
Sam sees it all, and he takes the measure of family “progress” as his relationships with his siblings deteriorate. In a nursing home, Sam again remembers his arrival in America, and we see him walk under an awning with the words, “Our flag was still there.” Sam, like the country he loves, hasn’t always lived up to his ideals, and his successes have been tempered by setbacks.
Though melancholy, Avalon is a beautiful picture of family life as a microcosm of the American experience.
YANKEE DOODLE DANDY: Service
Our military fights for our country, but citizens of the United States serve their country in other ways as well. Yankee Doodle Dandy, the story of songwriter George M. Cohan, exemplifies a patriotic sense of service and love of country.
Released in 1942, the film has Cohan tell his life story directly to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who calls him to the White House for reasons not made clear until the film’s closing moments. In the interim, Cohan explains how he, the author of the song "Yankee Doodle Dandy," really was born on the Fourth of July (in 1878) performed vaudeville routines across the country with his family, and eventually found fame.
“You Irish Americans carry your love of country right up front, like a flag,” the president tells Cohan, acknowledging the Rhode Island-born entertainer’s heritage. Driven by a combination of ambition, pride and patriotism, Cohan conquers Broadway and Tin Pan Alley, writing such popular tunes as “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” and the World War I anthem “Over There.”
Asked about the secret to his success, Cohan explains, “I’m an ordinary guy who knows what ordinary guys want to see.” When his confidence is dealt a blow by the failure of one of his plays, Cohan takes out a newspaper ad, publicly apologizing for the play’s poor reception among the public. When the nation goes to war, Congress dubs Cohan’s song “Over There” as “the American victory hymn.”
The film closes with the president awarding Cohan the Congressional Medal of Honor. When Cohan demurs, noting that he’s not a military veteran, Roosevelt explains, “ A man may give his life to his country in many different ways.” The film’s patriotic music reminds us of just how much Cohan contributed to the country’s morale, especially during wartime.
If the film has a misstep, it’s in showing a performance done in blackface—not uncommon in its time, but difficult for modern audiences to watch or approve.
The film, a giant hit, showcases star James Cagney’s talent as a dancer, and it won him an Oscar for Best Actor. Later in his life, Cagney cited “Yankee Doodle Dandy” as his personal favorite among all the films he in which he starred.
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