There is a lot of daylight before the fireworks begin. One good way to make the time fly by is to watch some movies. Pop some popcorn and make a pitcher of lemonade and fire up your amazon instant video or Netflix. Or, if you’re like me, you own a few of these on DVD. These are my top half-dozen movies for the 4th of July:
1776 – My number one choice for 4th of July viewing. Besides just being appropriate to the holiday, it is a good movie. This musical is drawn from the Congressional Record, biographical journals, family accounts, personal letters, and other documents having to do with that July day in 1776. The writers took poetic license, as all writers do. But there is much that is factual in the screenplay and even the songs. Large portions of spoken and sung dialog are taken directly from the letters and memoirs of the actual participants. While it isn’t a perfect history lesson, it is enough to get one headed in the right direction. I dare you not to tear up when the final words are read out: And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor. The last song is sung by William Daniels as John Adams and based loosely on Adams’ writings about the day and how he believed it would be celebrated. It always gives me chills and brings tears to my eyes.
I see fireworks!
I see the pageant and
Pomp and parade
I hear the bells ringing out
I hear the cannons roar
I see Americans – all Americans
Free forever more!
I highly recommend that you give this one a shot, even if musicals are not your thing. Especially considering that the subject matter and the holiday could hardly coincide more happily. Amazon instant video
Captain America: The First Avenger – What would the 4th be without a genuine American hero? And Cap fits the bill for me. Sure, I love Superman but Cap is more human and easier to identify with, for me. Besides, Chris Evans is pretty easy on the eyes. Captain America starts life as weakling Steve Rogers (the effects they use to make Evans fit this description are clever) but when he is chosen for an experimental super-soldier program, he becomes Captain America… USO war bond shill. On an overseas trip to entertain the troops, Cap begins to throw off the rules and head off on his own. He manages to kick a lot of Nazi butt and save his buddy with the help of Howard Stark (yep, Tony’s daddy). Cap chases down the Big Bad and ends up crashing his plane into the sea (with a really cool MacGuffin that sets up The Avengers, which you could watch after the fireworks). He wakes up in the present, having been in suspended animation since 1941, to have it all explained to him by Nick Fury. Well, maybe not all. I enjoy this film because I love comic book heroes. It’s perfect for July 4th because, hey, Captain America! Amazon instant video
The Patriot – The only other film actually set during Revolutionary times on the list, this historical drama boasts some excellent performances by Heath Ledger, as Mel Gibson’s eldest son, Gabriel, and Jason Issacs (Malfoy the elder from Harry Potter) as British Commander Tavington. It also features one of my favorite character actors, Rene Auberjonois. Gibson stars as a veteran of the French and Indian War, a widower raising his seven children in South Carolina. He tries to stay out of the escalating revolution but his older boys are keen to get involved. They travel to Charleston to attend a meeting of the South Carolina legislature who, against Mel’s advice, votes to join in the war. Ledger joins up without telling Dad. A couple of years later, there is a battle near Mel’s farm and, for helping all of the fallen (ours and British), he is repaid by the nasty Tavington by having his second eldest son shot and his home burned. This is enough to get Mel to fight. It ends up becoming a bit of a revenge flick when Tavington kills Gabriel, too. You can’t help but cheer when Mel wins out in the end. Though there is some historical accuracy, the usual poetic license is taken for dramatic effect. It’s good to get an idea of how we won our independence; with blood and tears and pain. Amazon instant video
Glory - If all you know of Matthew Broderick is Ferris Beuller or The Producers, you’re in for an eye-opening treat. Matthew plays Col. Robert Gould Shaw, the commanding officer of the first all-black Union regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Some of the actors making up that regiment are among the best actors today: Denzel Washington, Andre Braugher and the inimitable Morgan Freeman. The 54th is seen by some as “for show” and many believe they will never be called into action, but they train hard nonetheless. Shaw uses a bit of blackmail (no pun intended) to get his C.O. to allow his men to fight. They win a few battles and gain some respect. They are eventually ordered to aid in the campaign to take Charleston harbor, and end up volunteering to lead the charge. As you would expect – and might already know if you’re a history buff – it doesn’t end well for the regiment. But their bravery inspires the Union to recruit more black soldiers who go on to help the North win the war. This is a wonderfully acted film that should make anyone with a heart cry at the end. But you will never forget this group of men, both real and on-screen. Amazon instant video
Independence Day – If you enjoy action/adventure with a bit of sci-fi thrown in, then you will love this one. This film made Will Smith a hot box office commodity and also showed that he can swash a buckle or two. Smith stars as a Marine Hornet pilot who ends up saving the world when it is threatened by aliens. Along with Jeff Goldblum (as the scientist who figures out the aliens’ game), Bill Pullman (as the President) and Randy Quaid (well-cast as a crazy guy with unfinished business), Smith takes one of the enormous ships out, leaving only dozens more. To defeat the aliens they have to take out the Mothership, high in orbit above the earth. A plan is hatched that you could drive a Mack truck through (aliens use a Mac OS – who knew?). But it’s all a rousing good time and with minimal objectionable stuff for the younger set. Amazon instant video
Yankee Doodle Dandy – Many people don’t know that Jimmy Cagney was a song-and-dance man before he was a tough guy onscreen. In this classic musical he goes back to his roots and portrays George M. Cohan, the man who wrote the title song. The story is told in a clumsy flashback fashion but once you get into it, that doesn’t matter. Cohan, who actually was born on the 4th of July and, as the narration tells it, thought the country was celebrating his birth until he was 6 (my sister was born on July 4th, too, and we told her that same thing for about as many years). Cohan’s life is mythologized, as these sort of films do, but it’s the age-old tale of patriotism and success so it’s hard to frown on that. Cagney’s performance won him a Best Actor Oscar and remains one of the screens best-loved musical roles. If you’re into cinema minutiae, the cinematography was done by the brilliant James Wong Howe and the film was directed by Michael Curtiz, the man who gave us Casablanca. As one of my heroes, Roger Ebert, wrote about Cagney’s performance:
He doesn’t dance so much as strut; he doesn’t act so much as sell you his desire to entertain. In dialogue scenes, when other actors are talking, his eyes dart across their faces, silently urging them to pick up the energy; he’s like Michael Jordan impatiently willing his co-stars to keep up with him. And when he’s in full sail, as in “Give My Regards to Broadway” or “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” it’s like regarding a force of nature.
And what better way to set up your fireworks display than with the title song? Amazon instant video
There are many other films that could be a part of a July 4th film fest, some of which appear on this list. It all depends on what you want to celebrate: history, music, action, romance… whatever floats your boat. But if I don’t get to see at least one of these six films my 4th of July just isn’t complete. Maybe one or two (or all six) could make your holiday that much more fun while emphasizing the things we celebrate on July 4th. As I see it, if you don’t take just a few moments to remember those who sacrificed for us to have something to celebrate about, then you aren’t properly honoring the day. Besides, what’s more American than a movie and all that goes with it? You’re making hot dogs anyway, right?