Valerie Kalfrin

Red, White, Blue, and the Silver Screen: 8 Films That Fly the American Flag

CapAmericaFirstAvengerBy Valerie Kalfrin
Signature Reads, July 4, 2013

It’s Independence Day. Time to fly the flag, enjoy a parade, light the barbecue and … battle an alien invasion? Its title alone guarantees the 1996 blockbuster “Independence Day” an audience on July 4 — and it’s hokey fun, with explosions galore and a still-rousing Presidential speech from Bill Pullman: “Should we win the day, 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!”

But hey, you’re free to admit it’s not your style. Here are some other options to try before the fireworks.

“1776” (1972)
The Founding Fathers sing as they spar in this adaptation of the Broadway musical comedy about the creation of the Declaration of Independence. John Adams (William Daniels), Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva), and Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard) drive the plot that mixes history with affectionate humor and frustration, as in songs like Adams’s lament “Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve”: “A second flood, a simple famine, / plagues of locusts everywhere, / or a cataclysmic earthquake, / I’d accept with some despair. / But no, You sent us Congress! / Good God, Sir, was that fair?”

“Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942)
Speaking of music, James Cagney won an Oscar for his portrayal of playwright, actor, dancer, singer and composer George M. Cohan, who published more than 300 songs during his lifetime. (Cagney reportedly improvised his dance down the stairs of the White House after Cohan meets President Franklin D. Roosevelt.) The film, which also won an Oscar for its musical score, features toe-tapping tunes such as “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Over There,” “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” and “Give My Regards to Broadway.”

“Johnny Tremain” (1957)
Walt Disney Productions adapted Esther Forbes’ 1943 children’s historical novel for this tale about a youth (Hal Stalmaster) drawn into the Revolutionary War. Some critics find it “shallow and childish” with some “cringe-inducing” singing from the Sons of Liberty, but it’s all right for younger viewers.

“Schoolhouse Rock!” (1976)
If you’re a child of the ‘70s, you’re bound to recognize the catchy ditties from these animated shorts. Among our favorites? “The Preamble,” with the opening to the Constitution, and “Fireworks”: “The Dec-la-ra-TION of In-de-pen-DENCE (oh, yeah!) / In se-ven-teen HUN-dred se-ven-ty SIX (right on!) / The Continental Congress said that we were free (free!) / Said we had the right to life and liberty … and the pursuit of happiness.”

“National Treasure” (2004)
Cryptologist and historian Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) deciphers a treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence to find legendary loot that Freemasons stashed during the Revolutionary War. We don’t imagine real historians like the lemon-juice decoder ink he uses, but the film’s settings (including Philadelphia’s Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell) make for fun viewing. David Bordwell, a film-studies professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said it reminds him of 1950s Disney adventures like “Treasure Island.”

“Miss Firecracker” (1989)
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Beth Henley adapted her play “The Miss Firecracker Contest” for the screen, with Holly Hunter reprising her stage role as a small-town Mississippi woman determined to win the Independence Day beauty pageant. Mary Steenburgen, Alfre Woodard, Tim Robbins, and Scott Glenn round out the supporting cast. Some critics thought it worked better on stage, but Hunter sparkles as always. “What finally makes ‘Miss Firecracker’ special is that it is not about who wins the contest, but about how all beauty contests are about the need to be loved and about how silly a beauty contest can seem if somebody really loves you,” Roger Ebert wrote.

“The Patriot” (2000)
Director Roland Emmerich (“Independence Day,” “White House Down”) helmed this action-adventure about a widowed farmer (Mel Gibson) who fights with his son (Heath Ledger) in the Colonial Militia during the American Revolution. Although not historically accurate, the film nonetheless is “a satisfying way to spend a summer evening,” The New York Times said. “It’s got big battles and wrenching hand-to-hand combat, a courageous but conflicted hero and a dastardly and totally guilt-free villain, thrills, tenderness, sorrow, rage and a little bit of kissing.”

“Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011)
On the nation’s birthday, we’d be remiss not to mention Captain America, the red-white-and-blue hero from Marvel’s comics (and one of my son’s favorites). Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is honest, brave, bright, resourceful … and too frail to serve in World War II when he’s picked for a secret government project that turns him into a muscular super soldier. Evans projects Rogers’ innate decency as he adapts to his newfound strength, making him the perfect foil against the villainous Red Skull (Hugo Weaving). Director Joe Johnston (“The Rocketeer”) deftly balances the action and humor (including Alan Menken and David Zippel’s USO number, “The Star Spangled Man”), crafting “a whizz-bang, retro-futuristic adventure … that perfectly captures the enduring optimism of the 1940s,” TV Guide said.