Saturday, July 4, 2009

Film FridaySaturday: Patriotic Films

Earlier in the week, I set about trying to find a good patriotic film to review in honor of Independence Day. What I found was interesting.

You Say You Want A Revolution. . .

I began by looking for good movies about our founding. There should be dozens of movies about that right? Wrong. Hollywood has made fewer than a dozen films that deal with the American Revolution? The most famous of these are Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), The Howards of Virginia (1940), 1776 (a musical) (1972), Sweet Liberty (a comedy) (1969), Revolution (1985), and The Patriot (2000). Hardly an inspiring lot.

And this isn’t just an issue of recent Hollywood cynicism. Even during Hollywood’s most patriotic era, between World War II and the early struggle against communism, few such films were made. Why?

Some say that audiences can’t sympathize with characters who wear powdered wigs and knee breeches, who use formal speech patterns and write with quills. But this hasn’t stunted the popularity of Shakespeare, or films about the British Kings and Queens, or even movies like Dangerous Liaisons or Sleepy Hollow. And surely civil war characters speak as formally and look as strangely.

Others say Americans aren’t interested in the topic. Good grief. These are some of the most popular topics on the History Channel and the recent mini-series about John Adams was extremely popular. Me thinks, dear Hollywood, the problem does not lie within the simplicity of the viewers, it lies with thee.

Everybody’s Got An Opinion. . .

Denied the chance to review a revolutionary picture, I stumbled upon something even better: a poll.

Blockbuster Video commissioned a poll a few years ago in which they asked Americans what they wanted in their patriot movies. Sixty-three percent wanted America or Americans portrayed as the underdogs. Forty percent felt that the President should be a main character. Thirty percent wanted the movie to involve a war hero.

Here are the top ten movies they chose as most patriotic:

1. Independence Day
2. Born on the Fourth of July
3. Yankee Doodle Dandy
4. Air Force One
5. Forrest Gump
6. Glory
7. Patton
8. Apollo 13
9. The American President
10. The Longest Day
But is this right? Are these really the best patriotic films? We at Commentarama think you can do a lot better.

A patriotic film should make viewers feel good about being American. It should highlight their country at its best. It should put forth a vision as to the meaning of the country, particularly one such as ours, which was formed intellectually rather than by historical accident. We exist as a nation because our founders thought about how we should live, not because we all fell out of the trees together 50,000 years ago.

So let’s go through the list and make some changes.

1. Independence Day

Independence Day fits our test. This is a story of American resourcefulness and determination, of a group of average Americans that answer the call of duty to defeat an all-powerful enemy. This film reminds us of the promise of our country, the goodness of our people, and the greatness we can achieve as a nation. This film reminds us that Americans rise to meet all challenges and it highlights the self-sacrifice so often repeated in our history.

And while this film is criticized because the President’s final speech is internationalist, don’t forget that he never subsumes America to the rest of the world, he asks them to step up and join us, as our Independence Day becomes their Independence Day.

2. Born of the Fourth of July How the West Was Won

This movie is a horrible choice. One wonders if people watched it, or just chose title. Born in the USA anyone?

Many people argue that a film can be patriotic if it rallies the country to a cause. Born on the 4th of July fits that category, as does All the President’s Men, which is also often named as a patriotic films.

But rallying people to a cause smacks of propaganda, not patriotism. It is one thing to highlight the best in our country and to take pride in our achievements, it is quite another to suggest that people must adopt a certain position to be patriotic.

So let us substitute How The West Was Won. This sprawling epic tells the tale of how America grew from a small nation of eastern states to became the America that we know today. This movie shows the hardships that were overcome, it shows the sacrifices that people made, and it does so without idealizing its characters. These people are quite real. Some are good, some are bad, some are heroic, some are cowardly or rotten. Mistakes are made, but successes are had. And in the end, we see the American spirit writ large in the drive of our ancestors to always seek the better America that lies just over the next hill.

3. Yankee Doodle Dandy

Yankee Doodle Dandy is the James Cagney biography of George M. Cohan, who is most famous for writing the songs “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Over There.” It is a feel good story and it’s a little historical. It is an acceptable choice.

4. Air Force One National Treasure

Air Force One is a popular movie, but it’s not a very interesting movie. The President fights terrorists. Ok, cool. But patriotic? Hardly. Below the surface, this is just an action movie. Remove the President and this becomes Die Hard 2.1.

Let us substitute an equally unbelievable action movie, but one with much deeper patriotism: National Treasure. Sure, National Treasure is crawling with conspiracy theories and unbelievable secret societies and hidden puzzles and treasures, but that’s on the surface. Underneath, this movie reveres American history, our founders, and the words (and spirit) with which they founded our nation. And more importantly, the movie manages to pass that pride along to the audience.

5. Forrest Gump To Have And Have Not

Forrest Gump is not a patriotic movie, it is more of a historical drama. It is about a simple man who manages to interact with each of the significant historical events of the 1960s. This movie is often replaced by Rocky on lists of patriotic movies. Rocky is similarly the story of an under dog who overcomes long odds to gain a stunning victory. Both movies are good, but neither movie is particularly patriotic.

Thus, we substitute To Have And Have Not. To Have and Have Not finds Bogart living on the Vichy-French Island of Martinique. He is a symbol of America and Americans at the time. On the surface, he is neutral in the world, concerned primarily with his own business. But he is disturbed by what he sees around him. And beneath the surface, his strong moral code and deep-rooted patriotism, lead him to take a stand, at great personal risk, to do that which he knows to be right. This movie provides both an interesting view of how American attitudes and policy changed at the beginning of World War II, as Americans abandoned their isolationism and took a stand against tyranny, and it is a study in the classical view of American patriotism.

6. Glory Gettysburg

Glory was a good movie, but it was limited. A much better choice would be Gettysburg. Whereas Glory involved a small battle, Gettysburg involved the battle that transformed New Yorkers, Marylanders and Mainiacs into Americans. It also ensured that the Union would survive.

But even more than this, Gettysburg does something truly rare in film, it does a tremendous job of honoring both sides in the conflict by letting each side fairly explain their beliefs and by showing that both sides genuinely believed they were fighting for the good of their country. And in so doing, this movie makes us proud of both Northerners and Southerners, and it humbles us with what they endured for their beliefs.

7. Patton Sergeant York

Patton is a popular choice, but Sergeant York is better. Patton is the story of an American hero, but it tells us little about the American spirit. Patton always considered himself something more than just an American and it comes across in this movie, as he is portrayed as an arrogant man who cares more for his own glory than his country or his men.

Sergeant York, on the other hand, is a truly patriotic movie. York is a pacifist who is called to action. He is humble, heroic and likable. He is the idealized American every-man. He makes us proud, just as he makes the people at home proud. And even better, everyone around him is portrayed positively as well. His fellow soldiers are brave, competent and honest. His family and friends are decent. Even when he is brought to the “big city,” the people he meets are neither shallow nor cynical. This movie represents the best that America has to offer.

8. Apollo 13

Apollo 13 represents Americans coming together to do great things. It shows the courage of the men and women who ran the space race, and it shows how all Americans come together in times of crisis. This movie oozes civic pride, and it is a good choice.

9. The American President Mr. Smith Goes To Washington

No, no, no, no. A movie about an American President who takes a sharp left turn when he falls in love with a lobbyist? In the immortal words of Sergeant Carter, you have got to be kidding me Pyle!

How about Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. This story, about a naive and idealistic man appointed to the United States Senate, shows American government at its idealized best. As Smith discovers the shortcomings of the political process and fights his way through them, we are shown how good American government can be, when its participants act in good faith. It is a hopeful and patriotic film.

10. The Longest Day

Finally, we come to The Longest Day. This movie belongs on this list. The Longest Day shows the incredible determination and bravery of the men who overcame a seemingly invincible foe to free Europe from Nazi oppression. One by one, the great actors in this movie give us glimpses of the better parts of every aspect of American society. And best of all, this movie does not denigrate their achievement by making the Germans out at clowns or sadistic buffoons. As with Gettysburg, this movie honors the men who fought and died for this country.

After a little re-ranking from most patriotic to least, here is your Commentarama certified list:
1. Gettysburg
2. Sergeant York
3. The Longest Day
4. Independence Day
5. National Treasure
6. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington
7. How The West Was Won
8. To Have And Have Not
9. Apollo 13
10. Yankee Doodle Dandy
Thoughts?

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21 comments:

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: Since your final list includes TV miniseries, I think your choice of Gettysburg at top spot is a very good one. As for civilian movies, I put Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in the top spot. And for historical movies which depict the growing independence and uniqueness of the American spirit, I'll go with How The West Was Won.

I have watched Independence Day more times than I care to admit, and I really enjoy the movie. I fault it only for the President's big speech before the battle in which he tosses the Fourth of July into the "we're all human beings in this together" pot, as if most of the world would instantly discover that war is about more than staying alive and grabbing somebody else's land. The Allied victory over the Nazis didn't teach the Soviets a thing about freedom, and that's why I think the speech was a flop. Independence Day is uniquely American, and always will be. So to keep enjoying the movie, I go into the kitchen to get something to eat while the President makes his "one world" speech. I also didn't much care for the President replacing the words of Thomas Jefferson with those of a Welsh poet, however good the poem is. End of rant.

I also agree with you wholeheartedly on the bad choices you struck from the list.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I know that a lot of people did not like his speech. I don't see it as detracting from the overall pro-American flavor of the film.

I have to wonder about the initial list. Like I said, I suspect that many people just voted based on movie name rather than movie content.

The one that I like the least on the list, though I understand its appeal, is Yankee Doodle. I find it too simplistic and rather dull, but that's just a matter of taste.

What amazed me most though, was how hard it was to find a good movie about the American revolution. You would think Hollywood would be stuffed to the gills with those, but they are truly rare. Can you say "opportunity" for an interested screen writer?

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: I have enjoyed Yankee Doodle Dandy many times. It's simple, but I wouldn't actually say simplistic. There's an interesting side story. At the end of the movie, Cagney (as George M. Cohan)is greeted in the White House by President Roosevelt and congratulated for his work and his patriotism. George M. Cohan absolutely despised FDR, considered him to be a near-communist, and reluctantly received the honor solely because of his patriotism and honor for the office, if not for the man.

Born on the Fourth of July is an absolute abomination. Kovic was a coward who got shot in the arse running from the enemy. He wasn't born on the Fourth of July. And he is personally loathsome (I've gotten into it with him a couple of times at SF Board of Supervisors meetings). Tom Cruise was perfect for the part--he's crazy too. It is one of the most un-American movies it has ever been my displeasure to see. I couldn't be happier that you lined it out. The same people who would think that the movie was patriotic just from the title are the kind who chose Born in the USA as a theme song for the Republicans. It should have been the theme song for the movie, since both are completely misleading.

USArtguy said...

I'm not sure this movie meets all your criteria, but I really like "The Crossing". Jeff Daniels gives a fine performance as George Washington leading a ragtag bunch of farmers, hunters and fishermen in a surprise attack across the ice-choked Delaware River against a party of professional soldiers, the Hessians.

Based on real events in American history, this battle in the Revolution was a bold move and took an enormous amount of courage on the part of the men involved. Not just an action flick parading as a costume drama, the film highlights the morale challenges Washington had to overcome (his and his men's); the fact that even though he was the General on the front lines, he still had to deal with politicians; and the strategy of planning the attack.

The film gives life to those few dull paragraphs devoted to the battle in most school textbooks.

AndrewPrice said...

USArtguy,

That is one of the few revolution-related movies/tv shows that I mention in the first part of the article (though I didn't mention this one). It's shocking to me that there aren't more. Seriously. You would think that stories about our founding would be prime turf for Hollywood, but apparently not.

In an interesting bit of trivia about the crossing, one of the six Americans wounded in the battle was Lieutenant James Monroe, the future Fifth President of the United States -- famous for the Monroe Doctrine.

JG said...

Here are the two I would nominate: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Alamo. Really, any classic cowboy movie about true grit, doing what's right (whether as a cowboy or a lawyer, like in Liberty Valance) and loyalty. And what better exemplifies the American media than the line the reporter speaks in Liberty Valance - "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." But really, I love the struggle in Liberty Valance between the Stewart character growing from having a lawbook in one hand to realizing that you need a gun in the other. I include The Alamo because it is very epic, very historic, and my mother requested I put it on. :)

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Excellent list, Andrew!
Happy Independence Day everyone!

I would only add We Were Soldiers to the list, which, although not explicitely patriotic like Gettysburg or Independence Day it was implicitely so, and the best Vietnam War flick I ever saw.

I definitely did feel patriotic after watching it, and like Sargeant York all the main characters are likeable and good.
But unlike Sargeant York, it is more focused on the team effort involved (where even the war correspondent ended up shooting during the battle).
It also clearly embodied the American spirit, and the courage, brotherhood and honor that is so common in our military.

I would love to see more Revolutionary War movies done right.
I suspect that most Americans today have no idea how outgunned, outmanned and out supplied we were during that war, nor how close we came to losing it, let alone the sacrifices of blood, fortitude and treasure it took to win it.

If any war looked utterly futile on paper that was the one, and it's no wonder George Washington and our other Founding Fathers gave credit to Divine Providence as the miracle it took to finally overcome the massively overwhelming British juggernaut on land and sea.

AndrewPrice said...

JG, Good call on both Liberty Valance and The Alamo!

I very much wanted to put both on my list, but I ultimately chose How The West Was Won over The Alamo because it was just a little broader. Also, because Jimmy Stewart is already on the list twice -- in How The West Was Won and in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, I felt that I should avoid giving him a third movie.

That said, either of those movies could be added to the list without any problems at all.

AndrewPrice said...

USS Ben, thanks! And happy Independence Day to you too!

You are absolutely right about the revolution. It was truly an amazing accomplishment, and it was far from a settled result. There are many moments where it looked like the whole thing would end in disaster.

I too would like to see more movies about the revolution. I thought the John Adams mini-series was excellent and I would like to see other perspectives.

P.S. I did consider They Were Soldiers, which I agree is a great Vietnam movie. I left it off primarily because the list already included several war movies. I also considered Band of Brothers, but I chose to stay with The Longest Day because I felt it was more openly patriotic.

LawHawkSF said...

USArtguy: I didn't realize that we were going to go back to the Revolution, or I would have included The Crossing in my top five. Good call.

USSBen: I think you've been reading my comments long enough to know that I was a radical in my college days, and very active in the anti-Vietnam War movement (but not the anti-America movement). So your choice of We Were Soldiers is a particularly good one. It was truly a great movie, and both patriotic and heroic. I've watched it at least three times, and come away with a new lesson and new pride in America each time.

StanH said...

Happy 4th all! All great picks and I agree with USArtguy, “The Crossing” and it’s depiction of the Battle of Trenton exceptional. I to could not come up with any great movies of the American Revolution so I went for American ideals, my picks are: Jerimiah Johnson, for American spirit. Saving Private Ryan, American soldiers dedication and independent initiative. True Grit, American character. Little Boy and Fat Man, as an example of American ingenuity.

JG said...

Andrew: Jimmy Stewart is, to me, quite an American icon, not only in the characters he played, but also for his service in WWII.

I should also add, however, that sorely missing from this or any other list are the homefront movies of WWII. Since You Went Away, for example. That's a side of the American experience that always seems to be overlooked, maybe because they are too "chick flick".

CrisD said...

First, and most important, thanks for the list, Andrew.

As to the Forrest Gump nomination by Blockbuster viewers--

I tried to figure out the popularity of that movie for a long time. It really made no sense until I recognized the Hollyweird agenda. That movie basically told Americans that they were idiots and laughed in their faces.

I guess most people like that. Not me.

BevfromNYC said...

CrisD - I am right there with you on "Forrest Gump". I just didn't get it.

Law - It's "The Alamo" for me because...well...that's the only Revolution that we ever really learned about in Texas. Well, the only one of any real importance anyway! ;-)

Yesterday I watched "Yankee Doodle Dandy" which I always love to watch and one I have never seen before from 1959 "The Devil's Disciple" with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas (written by George Bernard
Shaw) If you haven't seen that one, it was great. Burt and Kirk, well you just have to see it.

Well, I am off to a Yankees game at the new stadium! Have a beautiful 5th of July, everybody!!

AndrewPrice said...

JG, I have to admit that I haven't seen Since You Went Away, though I will check it out now. Thanks!

CrisD, I thought Forrest Gump was on ok movie, but I certainly did not understand the huge appeal it had. I suspect it had more to do with marketing than quality. It may have gotten more acclaim than it deserved because of the gickmicky aspect of inserting Hanks into the footage we already know. But I think you're right that the movie is rather insulting to everyday Americans.

Bev, you Texans! LOL! Believe it or not, it took me years to warm to Burt Lancaster. He's got a hard edge to him that always turned me off somehow. But the more I saw -- particularly Elmer Gantry, the more impressed I became. Kirk Douglas I've always liked.

AndrewPrice said...

StanH,

I like the movies you've mention, with the exception of Saving Private Ryan. I have real problems with the message in that one. I think there is too much of a "why are we fighting" undercurrent in that one. Indeed, it strikes me as very similar to Platoon, only less in your face about the message. And I don't think that message is appropriate in a WWII film.

StanH said...

Hi Andrew. I guess what gets me is the final scene where Ryan is standing in front of Capt. Miller’s headstone and snaps a salute, and the scene fades to the American flag popping in the wind, I always well up. Your point is taken however with some of the political overtones.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan,

Don't get me wrong, there is no doubt that it is an emotional movie, and a movie that I generally enjoy. But, as I said, there is an undercurrent that I really don't like.

It's the same thing with Platoon. I really enjoy Platoon and I respect it as a film, but I don't like the message.

But even Platoon I can understand a litle better because Vietnam was such a controversial war and much of what Stone is expression was what many on the left believed. Also, he is up front about his contentions, so you know where he's coming from. I don't think Speilberg was being as honest in Ryan, where most of the negative messages are much more subtle or are quickly followed up with a "patriotic moment."

Also, I've never seen those sentiments attributed to anyone in WWII, and I don't think they are accurate or fair to what these people did.

I think a much more fair portrayal can be had in Band of Brothers.

LawHawkSF said...

Bev: I loved the original The Alamo too. It belongs on the short list. But you mentioned two stars that triggered me to offer another entry: The original Seven Days in May with Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster. It was made at a time where there was genuine concern over the General Walker episode and a possible anti-democratic takeover of the US government. The true American spirit of the Constitution comes in the form of a hard-bitten colonel (Douglas), and the somewhat weak but duly-elected President (Frederic March) who discover and foil a plot to overthrow the government during a military coup planned by a general (Lancaster). The Constitution prevails.

Andrew: My son (then fourteen years old) insisted that I take him to see Platoon. At the end of the movie, with the Charlie Sheen voiceover, he began to laugh and I began to boo. I hated the negative portrayal of the American soldiers, and he saw through the political propaganda, and we both expressed our contempt for the movie spontaneously and at exactly the same time. I had been an anti-Vietnam War activist who blamed the administration, not the soldiers, and even my fourteen-year old had already developed a fine nose for bulls--t.

freedom21 said...

I've always thought that Top Gun and Rocky IV are the greatest of the "cold war classics". Also, the sound tracks are awesome.

AndrewPrice said...

Freedom21, those are certainly good movies that could be on the list. In the end though, I chose Independence Day because of its broader themes and National Treasure because of its reverence for our history. But either could have made the list.

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