A Hollywood 4th

Celebrate America's birthday with 10 movies that say 'red, white and blue.'

Focus On Films

July 04, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Movie Critic

It's the evening of July 4th. The parade's over, the cookout's over, the fireworks are over, the Boston Pops on TV is over. And yet, you're still in the mood for some flag-waving.

Well, you could tap out "Stars and Stripes Forever" on your armchair, but where's the fun in that? Here's a much better idea: break out a movie.

Patriotism may go in and out of fashion, but celebrating the good old red, white and blue has been a staple of American cinema since the early days.

Here for your consideration are 10 movies, arranged from earliest to latest, that celebrate the American spirit, if not America itself. Some may show up somewhere on TV tonight (Yankee Doodle Dandy, for instance, airs at 8:15 p.m. on TCM); all are available on VHS or DVD.

1. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington


James Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, a rube who's chosen by the party bosses to fill the seat of a recently deceased U.S. senator. He's picked for the job because the bosses are confident he can be controlled, but Smith rebels when their take on how the American political system works doesn't jibe with his idealistic interpretation. Sounds corny, but it isn't: Stewart was never better, and his embittered speech before a hostile Senate says all that one needs to know about standing for principle over politics. If only things really worked this way.

2. Young Mr. Lincoln


John Ford directed this dramatization of Abraham Lincoln's young adulthood, an unashamedly romanticized look at the forces that produced America's most mythic, and perhaps greatest, president.

3. Sergeant York


Gary Cooper won his first Best Actor Oscar for playing Alvin York, a Tennessee pacifist who ends up a hero during World War I. For years, the humble, deeply religious York resisted Hollywood's entreaties to have his life dramatized, finally agreeing, but with two conditions: that a portion of the proceeds from the film go to charity, and that Cooper play him. Good choices.

4. Yankee Doodle Dandy


There is no more patriotic film than this biopic of Broadway impresario George M. Cohan, nor are there many films more enjoyable. James Cagney won one of history's most-deserved Oscars as the redoubtable Cohan; his performance is all energy and joy, with just the right dash of schmaltz -- it's a real eye-opener for anyone who only knows Cagney from his tough-guy roles, or never knew he was a dancer before he was an actor (his stiff-legged style is as unique as it is joyfully infectious).

5. Johnny Tremain


If the kids want to watch with you tonight, here's the movie to get: Hal Stalmaster stars as a young Boston silversmith's apprentice who, spurned by an English nobleman to whom he is related, becomes embroiled in Revolutionary politics, eventually getting caught up in the furor that culminates with the shots at Lexington and Concord.

6. How the West Was Won


There are certainly better westerns out there than this sprawling multigenerational saga of American expansionism, but few so unabashedly celebratory. The cast is first rate, including seemingly every big-name actor alive in 1962 -- for starters, how about James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda? And the epilogue, featuring Spencer Tracy's narration over sweeping panoramas of some of the West's most beautiful vistas, is genuinely stirring. Too bad the movie can no longer be seen in all its Cinerama glory.

7. 1776


The founding fathers were probably not this daffy, but let's not get picky: a handful of catchy tunes and some wonderful performances from William Daniels (John Adams), Howard da Silva (Benjamin Franklin) and Ken Howard (Thomas Jefferson) keep this musical about the events of July 4, 1776, breezy and fun. There's even a touch of irony: Da Silva's career was nearly ruined when he was blacklisted during the 1950s.

8. Glory


The Union Army's first all-black company, led by an abolitionist's son from Massachusetts, is sent on a suicide mission that does nothing for the war effort, but everything for the notion that black men can fight for American ideals as fiercely as their white counterparts. Denzel Washington won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, even though it's hard to single out one performance from a supporting cast that includes Morgan Freeman and Andre Braugher.

9. The Crossing


This made-for-television film, originally aired on A&E, casts Jeff Daniels as George Washington and watches as the nation's first commander-in-chief gambles the future of his army, as well as his nascent country, on a Christmas-night crossing of the Delaware River and surprise attack on the slumbering Hessian soldiers camped in Trenton, N.J. Daniels nicely captures Washington's desperation (historians still debate whether the general really thought there was a chance for success or figured he and his army might as well go out in a blaze of glory). Had his gamble not worked, we might all be snacking on tea and crumpets today.

10. In America


Irish director Jim Sheridan caught all the promise inherent in the American dream in this semi-autobiographical tale of an immigrant Irish couple with two young girls looking for a fresh start in New York City after the death of their son. Few films better capture the city in all its melting-pot glory, or offer a more balanced depiction of the immigrant experience in the new millennium.

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