“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”
It’s the most famous phrase from the United States Declaration of Independence. These words have proven to be so influential, they have shaped not only our government, but the country as a whole. From politics to religion, economics to artistic expression, the notion of freedom is of the utmost importance in American Culture.
Upon revising the Declaration of Independence, John Adams wrote to his wife, saying that the day would be marked in the future with “pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations.” And while we don’t really celebrate the Fourth of July with guns (at least not anymore), Adams was completely right. Independence Day means breaking out the American flag, lighting up the sparklers, and watching stuff explode.
The notion of freedom is such an important part of American culture, it’s no wonder that it translates over to the world of film.
Yes, films that honor our independence are as American as apple pie. And below is a list of the Top 10 best films that celebrate that Independence. Some of these films have the literal backdrop of the Revolutionary War, while others embrace the deeper values that the Fourth of July has come to represent. Whether they depict the struggle to maintain individual rights or the challenge of keeping the government in check, these films signify the fundamental essence of what independence means to America.
So rock that red, white, and blue speedo. Eat some pie. And Light stuff on fire. After all, it’s your right.
10. 1776 (1972)
The film version of the Broadway musical comedy hit the screen in 1972. And while Vincent Canby of The New York Times said the musical numbers sounds as if they were written by “someone high on root beer,” 1776 has become somewhat of a guilty pleasure in some circles. The film follows General George Washington as he struggles against the British Empire, as well as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson in the days leading up to July 4, 1776.
Large portions of the film are taken from letters and memoirs from the actual people, and performed in monologue and song. 1776 takes a stab at portraying American history… if not in a condensed, Broadway kind of way. The film is entertaining to say the least. I mean, what other movie depicts your favorite Founding Fathers breaking into song and dance?
9. United 93 (2006)
“September 11, 2001. Four planes were hijacked. Three of them reached their target. This is the story of the fourth.” United 93 is a film that recounts in real time the events that happened on board United Flight 93. The plane was hijacked on 9/11, and crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania when passengers on board took control and foiled the terrorist plot of reaching Washington, D.C. As a fact-based film, United 93 is emotionally wrenching.
It depicts not only the passengers attempting to subdue the terrorists, but the chaos inside Air Traffic Control. The film not only chronicles the most tragic events in United States history, but it tells the story of courage and bravery in the face of death. While the extent of heroism is hard to articulate on screen, the film does the best it can and ultimately delivers a harrowing look into one of our darkest moments.
8. Red Dawn (1984)
World War III. A group of teenagers band together to defend their town and country from invading Soviet forces. The teens struggle to survive a harsh winter as Soviet KGB patrols hunt for them. Realistic? No. Entertaining? Absolutely. Starring Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, and Jennifer Grey, this film kind of embodies what the 80s were all about. U.S.A. vs. U.S.S.R. Though America didn’t know it, the Cold War was starting to come to an end. If anything, the film is a testament to how heated the Cold War became in American Culture. The film garners a lot of criticism to this day.
Not only for the extensive violence, but because it is commonly held as a piece of propaganda. The film showed Soviets as one-sided villains, furthering an American paranoia of invasion. It is even commonly described as a “blueprint for the Bush Doctrine.” So Red Dawn takes celebrating independence on to a whole other level… a bloody, commie-hating, red-blooded American level.
7. Independence Day (1996)
Okay, maybe IndependenceDay is your go-to cheesy, action movie. But here in America, we like cheese. A lot. In fact, the film has a domestic gross of over $306 million. The blockbuster hit tells a story about an Alien invasion of earth. A group of individuals and families bound together to launch a last-chance counter attack on July 4th. I once heard Independence Day described as, “Aliens arrive. They kick our ass. We kick their ass. The end”… and there is nothing wrong with that. No doubt, the scene to be remembered happens as the President of the United States makes his speech.
He calls for everyone to set aside their differences and unite as mankind saying, “you will once again be fighting for our freedom… not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution… but from annihilation.” The music builds as he goes on, “We are fighting for our right to live. To exist.” And finally the President declares that if they prevail, “the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: “We will not go quietly into the night!” We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day!” Whew. It kind of makes you tear up, doesn’t it? Well, in that cheesy sort of way.
6. The Patriot (2000)
It’s 1776 in colonial South Carolina. When his son is murdered by a British Officer, a peaceful farmer, Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), is driven to lead the Colonial Militia during the American Revolution. Let’s just put it out there that this film isn’t historically accurate. While the costuming and aesthetics are up to par, the film has been attacked for its historical inaccuracies- particularly when it comes to the issue of slavery and race relations.
Regardless, the film distills the essence of the Revolutionary War. Martin is noble, and he plays the part of a hero doing whatever it takes to right the wrong. The film portrays the reality of sacrifice and the harsh conditions of the Revolutionary War. And it ends with the Seige of Yorktown, where the British are defeated and America gains her independence. You know the scene. Mel Gibson runs through the field. His ponytail whipping in the wind, an American flag in hand. He stabs one of the British soldiers’ horse with the handle of the flag before claiming victory. Ah, patriotism. It’s a beautiful thing.
5. Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Born on the Fourth of July is a film adaptation of a best selling autobiography of the same name by Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic. Oliver Stone co-wrote the screenplay with Kovic, and it was nominated for eight Academy Awards. Born on the Fourth of July tells the story of Kovic as he becomes paralyzed in the Vietnam War. Feeling betrayed by his country, Kovic goes on to become an anti-war and pro-human rights activist.
At the core, this film is really about America. It takes the audience from the 1950s-1970s. Stone shows the transition as the country goes from the idyllic 50s to a nightmarish period- one that is shrouded in the ugly realities of War. Born on the Fourth of July depicts all this, while showing the downward spiral of a fragmented Veteran. Kovic’s individual struggle against alienation is paired with a dynamic shift of American culture, and it makes a memorable and haunting film. It’s a film that is almost hard to watch, grounding us in the reality of war and politics.
4. Patton (1970)
Patton is the biographical war film about General George S. Patton (George C. Scott), a famous tank commander during World War II. Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, the script was written by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North, who based their screenplay on the biography Patton: Ordeal and Triumph. The film won seven Academy Awards, including best picture and was classified by the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” The film opens with a monologue of Patton’s famous military “pep talk.”
Set against a huge American flag, there is a close up of his salute, then his medals, then his helmet. His gravelly voice declares, “Americans traditionally love to fight. All real Americans love the sting of battle.” He continues, “That’s why Americans have never lost, and will never lose a war… because the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans.” The speech is one of the most iconic scenes in movie history, and Patton has proved to be one of the electrifying figures in film. When visualizing freedom, one doesn’t immediately think of a General. However, Patton embodies the gritty reality that exists in the military and in war time. He represents an attitude of a generation, an age that was once common in American culture.
3. All the President’s Men (1976)
1976’s All the President’s Men is a film about two reporters who uncover the Watergate scandal – a discovery that led to President Nixon’s resignation. Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) discover that what they thought was a small break, is actually a sordid trail of deception that leads all the way to the White House. The two men refuse to give up their story, pursuing truth at any cost
. This film is great for two reasons. First, All the President’s Men is acclaimed for its historical accuracy and authenticity. Second, the film hits on two of the most important elements in American culture and government. All the President’s Men shows that freedom of press is one of the most important aspects of governing. In fact, this film portrays journalism at its best. Not only that, but this film warns of what happens when a government is left unchecked. Over thirty years later, and this film is still an example of how Washington can become a monster if left on its own.
2. Glory (1989)
Widely recognized as one of the best Civil War films ever made, Glory interweaves personal stories and historical accuracies seamlessly. Based on the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the film is told through the eyes of Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Brodrick), a Colonel during the Civil War. It’s an emotional film that touches on the most decisive time in American history. Glory portrays the 54th regiment, which was the first formal unity of the United States Army made up entirely of African American men. Their story is relatively unknown because of the history of racism in the United States.
In this film, the men of the unit are denied virtually every amenity that their white counterparts receive despite the fact that the Civil War is being fought on the grounds that “every man is equal.” The story is thought-provoking, intricate, and poignant. It’s not only a great war epic, but a story of human ingenuity and strength. In one scene, Col. Shaw professes that they are fighting not only to restore the Union but “for men and women whose poetry is not yet written, but which will presently be as enviable and as renowned as any.” This sentiment is powerful. The struggle these men faced continued on for more than a hundred years, and Glory stands as a beautiful testament to it.
1. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
It’s commonly held as one of the greatest films of all time. Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is the story of a naive, but patriotic man who refuses to back down after coming face to face with political corruption. The film is a classic “David vs. Goliath” story with the honest Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) pursuing the righteous path. Not only does the film deal with the notion of freedom, but the real-life story of it mirrors this American ideal as well.
When the film was released, it was torn apart by the Washington press. Congress declared the film “anti-American” and “pro-communist” with its depiction of political corruption. Frank Capra even said that some Senators walked out of its premiere in Constitutional Hall. The film was banned in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Soviet Russia, and Spain.
However, the film’s message proved too strong to be deterred. Mr. Smith’s perseverance and belief that one person can make a difference has spanned decades and ultimately has made this film an American classic. Mr. Smith said it best when he addressed the importance of being free: “Liberty’s too precious a thing to be buried in books… Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say: I’m free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn’t, I can, and my children will.” This Fourth of July, I’ll drink to that.