The Fourth of July is a time for barbecues and family, hot dogs and fireworks, and red, white, and blue decorations. But is there more to it? Sure there is, and these movies offer a sampling. Some of the movies are out of history (although, weirdly, very few movies were actually made about the first Independence Day), and some merely depict the celebrations and activities of the holiday itself. Some of these visions are dark, and some are heroic. But they all invoke a sense of freedom and the American spirit—that drive to keep going, to keep trying, even if the odds are impossible.
Young Mr. Lincoln (Netflix)
For my money, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) is the best July Fourth movie ever made. There was no more American filmmaker than John Ford, and his complete filmic output (with a few Irish exceptions) coalesce into a great American epic poem. His portrait of Abe Lincoln (Henry Fonda) as a young, idealistic lawyer in Illinois is full of life, beauty, warmth, schmaltz, romance, humor, and suspense. At the Fourth of July celebrations, Lincoln enjoys a pie contest (ever the diplomat, he can’t decide which pie he likes better and keeps on sampling) and a tug-o-war match.
But at the celebrations, there is a murder, and two brothers are accused; both brothers claim responsibility, fearing that the other will go to prison. With effortless calm and unfailing reason, Lincoln gets in on the case and tries to crack the seemingly uncrackable mystery. Meanwhile, he also meets Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver) and stumbles upon some of the things that would become his trademarks later in life. Ford regulars Donald Meek and Ward Bond co-star. At the time, Ford’s two other 1939 releases, Stagecoach and Drums Along the Mohawk (talk about a great year), overshadowed this one, but it is now an unalloyed masterpiece.
Yankee Doodle Dandy (Rental: Amazon Prime, iTunes, etc. - from $2.99)
James Cagney was mainly known as a tough guy in gangster movies, but he was also an exuberant song-and-dance man, and it’s no wonder he won his one and only Best Actor Academy Award for his performance in the ultra-patriotic Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). It’s a biopic of George M. Cohan, a veteran of Broadway who also wrote the songs “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “It’s a Grand Old Flag” (as well as “Give My Regards to Broadway”). In the movie, Cagney ages from a teenager to middle-age, effortlessly (Cagney himself would have been about 42).
It begins as Cohan is performing onstage as President Roosevelt in the early days of WWII. He is sent to the White House to meet the real president and receives a Medal of Honor, from there it’s a flashback to Cohan’s vaudeville days, his ascendance to Broadway, and all his various setbacks and successes. Director Michael Curtiz, a veteran Warner Bros. man who had directed Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), brings his usual effortless, invisible craftsmanship and turns in a solid movie. Even though it’s a bit long (125 minutes), Cagney’s high-energy singing, acting, and dancing is enough to make you stand up and cheer.
This larger-than-life Oscar winner came along right at the end of the “Peace-n-Love” era and in the middle of the Vietnam War, and, had the breeze blown the wrong way, it could have seemed out-of-touch, hopelessly old-fashioned. Yet Patton (1970) paints a fairly complex portrait of three-star General George S. Patton Jr., not necessarily as a hero, but as a scrappy outsider, a rebel that regularly butted heads with colleagues and commanders. He was a steadfast soldier that believed firmly in reincarnation, colorful language, and the glories of war. (The film’s most indelible image is that of Patton standing in front of a giant American flag.)
Beginning in the thick of WWII, Patton (George C. Scott) wins several decisive battles, frequently disobeying orders to do so. But when he happens upon a young soldier suffering from battle fatigue, Patton slaps him and calls him a coward. The incident makes headlines all over the world, resulting in Patton’s banishment. But there’s still one battle left in the old warhorse. Franklin J. Schaffner (Planet of the Apes) shoots the movie in wide-open shots, with lots of exteriors, and it all seems huge and mythical, yet he simplifies the ambiguities of war in favor of celebrating his subject. Nonetheless, the movie took home seven Oscars, including one for a young, pre-Godfather Francis Ford Coppola, for his screenplay.
Jaws (Rental: Amazon Prime, iTunes, Vudu, etc. - from $2.99)
“You yell barracuda, everybody says, ‘Huh? What?’ You yell shark, we’ve got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.” The movie credited for starting the summer blockbuster phenomenon actually took place during the summer, where swimmers at Amity Island were suddenly forced to dodge a killer shark. In Jaws (1975), Roy Scheider plays Police Chief Martin Brody, who wants to close the beaches to protect the people, but the mayor (Murray Hamilton) thinks only of the economy and how much money will be lost without tourists. Eventually Brody joins shark expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and captain Quint (Robert Shaw) in an effort to hunt and kill the beast.
It holds up remarkably well many years and many viewings later. Director Steven Spielberg was only 26 when he took the helm, and already showed all the earmarks of a master filmmaker; his level of technical skill as well as inventiveness and sense of emotional impact were extraordinarily sharp and honed. The sneaky use of John Williams’ score was another of the movie’s most brilliant achievements. It had already been a bestselling book (by Peter Benchley), but the movie raised the stakes; people were afraid to go to the beaches that summer, but they flocked to the movies, making this the highest grossing film of all time, until Star Wars came along two years later. They could definitely afford a bigger boat.
All the President’s Men (Rental: Amazon Prime, iTunes, Vudu, etc. - from $2.99)
One could argue that this is a very un-patriotic movie, in that two journalists work to take down the President of the United States. Or, one could argue that it’s a very patriotic movie, wherein two journalists use powers given to them by the Founding Fathers to maintain justice and a sense of right. All the President’s Men (1976) was released quite quickly after the original events took place. It began when Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) were assigned to cover a break-in at the Watergate building, the headquarters for the Democratic National Committee.
It led all the way up to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in August of 1974. Written by celebrated scribe William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride, etc.) and directed by Alan J. Pakula, this is actually one of the great journalism movies, depicting the many hours spent on the phone, taking notes, speaking to sources, tracking down leads, and finding that ever-elusive second source to confirm a fact. But the great cinematography by Gordon Willis frames the characters in emotionally resonant spaces, such as the Washington Post offices, divided by huge columns, as well as the infamous parking garage where the meetings with “Deep Throat” took place. Jason Robards is superb, and won an Oscar, as Post editor Ben Bradlee.