In this era of financial belt-tightening, why not celebrate America’s birthday by watching a classic film? Next to baseball, pop music, and cars, movie viewing is the great American pastime. Many great films capture the patriotic spirit. Here are my top ten.
1. Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). James Cagney is at his triple threat best here, singing, tap-dancing, and acting his way into your heart through a bravura portrayal of legendary songwriter-showman George M. Cohan. Cagney performs many Cohan songs that have been American standards for decades, including “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and “Over There.” Cagney more than compensates for mediocre singing with his superb phrasing and infectious energy. His athletic tapping is a joy to behold. Joan Leslie is an able Mary, and the ubiquitous George Tobias is on hand.
2. Sergeant York (1941). Gary Cooper gives a riveting performance as World War I conscientious-objector-turned-sharpshooter Alvin York, who single-handedly captured a German regiment. A lovely and mature 16-year-old Joan Leslie plays his feisty fiancée, Gracie. Character actor George Tobias gives “Sergeant York” a New York flavor as subway conductor “Pusher” Ross. The pre-war scenes in rural Tennessee are almost indistinguishable from a mid-nineteenth century setting populated with hard-working farmers, salt-of-the-earth religious folk, and a contentious turkey shoot. One of the film’s most beautiful and poignant scenes is when Alvin sits with his dog atop a mountain in the waning daylight, alternately reading an American history book and a Bible in order to decide whether to remain in the Army.
3. 1776 (1972). This is a wonderful musical adaptation depicting events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. A young Ken Howard gives a rare singing exhibition and otherwise solid performance as Thomas Jefferson. “1776” also shows some dramatic depth, exploring the political intrigue and personalities of the Founding Fathers. The fiery temper of John Adams (William Daniels) and the outsized ego of Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva) are particularly well done. Beautiful wives, including Blythe Danner as Martha Jefferson, and Virginia Vestoff as Abigail Adams, round out the extravaganza.
4. The Longest Day (1962). An adaptation of Cornelius Ryan’s best-selling book about the Normandy invasion, this stylish film features an ensemble all-star cast, including John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, and Sean Connery. An action-packed 178 minutes, this wide-ranging cinematic work provides both Allied and German perspectives on the planning and execution of the most dramatic battle of World War II.
5. Pride of the Yankees (1942). Love ’em or hate ’em, the New York Yankees are as American as apple pie. With his usual understated charm, Gary Cooper is perfect in the role of Yankees slugger Lou “Iron Horse” Gehrig. Teresa Wright is also excellent as Gehrig’s sweet, long-suffering wife. Babe Ruth, who was a surprisingly competent actor, plays himself.
6. Rocky (1976). The first and best of the “Rocky” films, this installment is set against the backdrop of the American bicentennial. Sylvester Stallone is a washed-up boxer given a shot at the heavyweight title. Talia Shire is Rocky’s shy, supportive girlfriend, and Burt Young is excellent as her crusty, cigar-chomping brother. The superb Burgess Meredith is Rocky’s gruff but endearing trainer, the elderly ex-fighter Mickey Goldmill.
7. Battleground (1949). This film provides a starkly realistic look at the siege of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. An ensemble cast, including a young Ricardo Montalban, provides a diverse character study of American GIs under stress. A dog-faced sergeant (James Whitmore) emerges as an unlikely hero. I love the scenes where an American soldier blows smoke rings into the faces of German emissaries serving a surrender demand, and the Germans react to Gen. Anthony McAuliffe’s reply of “nuts.”
8. Glory (1989). Another superb ensemble cast, including Matthew Broderick and a young Denzel Washington, fills this film that follows a black regiment during the Civil War. The soldiers overcome racial prejudice and rise to greatness in a gritty ending. Morgan Freeman, good as ever, plays a wise sergeant major.
9. The Tuskeegee Airmen (HBO 1995). Yet another terrific ensemble cast, including the great Laurence Fishburne, portrays an African-American squadron of fighter pilots simultaneously battling German aviators and American bigots during World War II. The Tuskeegee airmen escorted bomber crews over enemy territory and never lost a single plane under their charge.
10. Superman II (1980). The best of the Christopher Reeve “Superman” film series involves an epic battle between the “Man of Steel” and three Kryptonian villains, including a sexy, short-haired Susannah York. Gene Hackman plays criminal mastermind Lex Luthor with savvy humor and panache. I include this film here because Superman’s Boy Scout qualities are on prominent display in “Superman II.” For example, while battling the super villains, Superman saves a woman and her young child from being squashed by falling scaffolding. The woman replies with a composed “Thank You!” “Superman II” ends with a literal, rousing flag waving, emphatically stating that it could only have been made in America.