For a relatively safe industry, Hollywood has gone out of its way to celebrate good old American patriotism—and not in the most obvious ways either. In the following 4th of July movies, the idea of national pride is examined, torn down and reconstructed. Some of these films have won Academy Awards, some are blockbuster summer movies, one’s a sports movie and one could even be called sci-fi. Collectively, they are the most patriotic movies of all time.
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Most patriotic movies ever
The country was still reeling from Pearl Harbor when this look at the life of George M. Cohan—arguably the most patriotic songwriter ever—provided the Stars and Stripes salve our nation needed. (That Michael Curtiz’s rah-rah film premiered less than a week after Memorial Day was far from coincidental.) It’s an aggressive, toe-tapping ode to the red, white and blue that has everything: James Cagney in full-blown hoofer mode, pro-USA sentiment as thick as hasty pudding, and musical numbers less subtle than a ticker-tape parade led by Uncle Sam. Only baseball and apple pie can be considered more American than this.
A beautifully complex film about why we fight, Howard Hawks’s WWI heart-stirrer comes from the diary of Alvin York, a poor Tennessean and religious pacifist who nonetheless took up a rifle and became an ace marksman. The real-life York refused to let his life story be turned into a movie unless Gary Cooper agreed to play him; call it an uncanny bit of chutzpah. The actor was never more sensitive to the stuff of heroism than he is here.
Watergate can’t have been this exciting. But give director Alan J. Pakula credit for realizing he was making a movie, not filing a report. Check out his unkempt Woodward and Bernstein (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) and tight cutting, worthy of the shrewdest red-pen editor. The movie celebrates the freedom of the press, a virtue as patriotic as it gets.
Some films, like Saving Private Ryan, salute our troops’ sacrifice in WWII; this classic reminds us of exactly what they were fighting for. William Wyler’s Oscar-winning drama deals with psychic wounds and physical trauma, but it gives equal emphasis to what these veterans came home to: family, community, the everyday Midwestern life that others died to defend. That the movie favors domesticity and healing over battlefield victories only makes this look at the postwar American Dream that much more stirring.
One of John Ford’s greatest achievements, this quiet, dignified portrait stars Henry Fonda as a shrewd Illinois lawyer hoping to make a name for himself. When Steven Spielberg made his own Lincoln, we were knocked out by Daniel Day-Lewis, but this older drama actually says more about character, integrity and ethics.
From the awestruck look on Jimmy Stewart’s face when he first sees the Capitol dome to the political-monument montage that follows, Frank Capra’s populist parable pays peerless tribute to the spirit of American democracy. Even a tea-partyer would get misty-eyed over Stewart’s pro-Congress filibuster.
Vincente Minnelli’s musical is the ultimate hymn to the all-American family. Our heroes, the Smiths (of course), live a comfortable life in the U.S. heartland, the daughters’ pining for boys next door and having themselves merry little Christmases. There’s no problem they can’t overcome through the power of kinship.
Ron Howard’s most entertaining movie, about the heroic 1970 rescue of the troubled lunar mission, succeeds despite an overindulged Tom Hanks. The subtext is American ingenuity: When the proceedings focus on ground-based techies desperately spinning innovations out of nothing, it’s inspiring.
Oliver Stone’s biopic of paraplegic Vietnam vet Ron Kovic not only got a career-high performance out of Tom Cruise, it reclaimed the notion of American pride for those at the forefront of the era’s protest movement. Real patriots, the film tells us, don’t just wave flags. They demand accountability.
No list would be complete without a sports movie, and while baseball looms large in our national consciousness, it’s this Stallone-scripted boxing drama—about “going the distance”—that feels most emblematic. A scrappy rejoinder to Watergate and Vietnam, Rocky depicts a warrior refusing to take a dive.