To commemorate Independence Day for Plugged In, I talked a little about how important movies have been to the American story. They’re about as American as you can get, really: The United States was a big player in its invention and development, and now they pretty much dominate if not the art of movie-making, at least the business. Right alongside food and technology, movies are one of our biggest exports. So it’s a big deal.
I suggested that, if you wanted to do something quintessentially American today, you could do worse than watch a movie.
But what movie?
Well, let me make a few suggestions and give you an old movie from each decade in the 20th century, between 1930 and 2000—a movie that, while perhaps lacking literal fireworks, say something about who we Americans are, who we’d like to be and why we kinda make a big deal about every July 4. Not all these movies are family-friendly, by the way … some are pretty harsh. but I still think they\’re worth seeing.
Stagecoach (1939): Doesn’t seem you could go wrong picking a Fourth of July movie from 1939, what with Gone With the Wind and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington released the same year. But if you’re going to talk about quintessentially American movies, you gotta stick a John Wayne flick in there, and his performance here as Ringo Kid made the tough-talking cowboy a star. The flick is about a stagecoach rumbling through Apache territory and carrying a cadre of wildly divergent passengers (sort of like MTV’s The Real World under Indian attack) and is considered one of the best Westerns ever.
Casablanca (1942): Given that the United States was fighting World War II for nearly half of the decade, no surprise that patriotic movies would’ve been in their heyday here. 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, a biographical musical starring James Cagney, has rightly landed on other patriotic lists, as has 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives—the bittersweet story of American G.I.’s coming home. But for me, you can’t beat the sappy but incredibly effective story of Rick and Ilsa, caught up in a world where their problems don’t amount to a hill of beans.
High Noon (1952): Another Western, this one stars Gary Cooper as a marshal facing certain death as he gets set to square off against a slew of criminals determined to kill him. My kids couldn’t stand the song that constantly nattered away in the background (“Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’”), but besides that, this is almost the perfect Western. When I think about what a true hero looks like, I think of Gary Cooper’s Will Kane.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962): Or maybe a true American hero looks more like attorney Atticus Finch. Played by Gregory Peck (who won an Academy Award for his work here), Finch really does believe that all men are created equal—something that runs counter to the thinking of most of his neighbors in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s. When he’s asked to defend an African-American who’s been unjustly accused of raping a white teen, he takes the case and defends the man eloquently—only to have the verdict snatched away by circumstance. This is a beautiful, poignant story that lauds America’s ideals while acknowledging how far we fall short of them at times.
All the President’s Men (1976): Speaking of ideals gone awry, this movie delves into Watergate—specifically the two journalists who broke the story wide open. With reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein played by two of America’s coolest actors, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, respectively, All the President’s Men is a riveting piece of cinema. And if you don’t think that the exposure of a massive political scandal feels particularly patriotic … well, I, as a journalist, would disagree. There’s nothing more American than the Fourth Estate doing its job.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981): Harrison Ford in his fedora and carrying his bullwhip? Dude, movie heroes don’t feel more American than that. A callback to the days of the Saturday afternoon serial, Raiders is pure movie magic, from the minute that boulder starts rolling to when people’s faces start to melt.
Saving Private Ryan (1998): Ranking as one of the best war movies ever, Saving Private Ryan tells the story of Captain John Miller and a squad of soldiers who are tasked with finding Private James Francis Ryan so he can go back home. The movie is full of heroism and heartache, with soldiers making tremendous sacrifices along the way. In the end, the dying captain tells Ryan, “James … earn this. Earn it.” It’s a great reminder of how precious life, and by extension freedom, are. How much has been sacrificed for it. And we should never take it for granted.