Ten Movies For Independence Day Weekend


I wasn’t going to do this until I ran across a few lists of “Most Patriotic  Films” that made me fear for the taste and the values of my fellow citizens. “Independence Day” ? “Armageddon”? “Rocky IV”?  When did “patriotic” start meaning “crappy”? “Born on the Fourth of July”? If Oliver Stone is your idea of patriotic fare, you and I are going to have a problem.

Here is my very personal list of ten favorite films that bring a patriotic lump to my throat and a remind me of how lucky I am to be born and raised in the U.S.A. Don’t mind the order: it was hard enough narrowing the list down to ten.

1. Apollo 13  (1995)

The only one of the movies on my list that I saw on the others today. Like many of the films here, it makes me wistful for American boldness and confidence that seem to be in retreat today. When the  Apollo re-emerges from radio silence, and Tom Hanks says, with perfect inflection, “Hello, Houston. This is Odyssey. It’s good to see you again,” I lose it, every time.

2. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Yes, this is Capra-corn at its corniest, but from Harry Carey Sr.’s sage and heroic Vice -President, to the power of the people triumphing, to the press trying to expose corruption rather than abet it,  this film reminds us of the best ideals of our government. When we get too cynical to enjoy Jefferson Smith’s struggle to make Washington work the way its supposed to, it will be time to pack it in.

3. The Longest Day (1962)

Longest Helm

Yes, it’s not just about Americans, but it is a great film about one of our country’s  finest achievements, all true, and inspiring without a lot of flag waving and sentiment. Best war movie ever—and my Dad’s favorite.

4. 42 (2013)


A baseball film about the most important thing baseball ever did: help give the civil rights movement a giant boost, thanks to a couple of great Americans and some ordinary athletes who came through in the clutch.  This is a film about America finding its way to doing the right thing after messing up badly —something the country does well, because it’s had a lot of practice.

5. Animal House (1978)

Animal House

Fighting bigots, snobs, bullies, sadists, a corrupt mayor, a totalitarian dean and “double secret probation,” nobody embodies the American spirit of individualism and defiance of authority and enforced conformity better than the denizens of Delta House.

6. 1776  (1972)

“1776,” with the exception of the “John Adams” mini-series on HBO, is still the best and most compelling screen portrayal of the drama behind the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Lots of people can’t handle singing Founders, which just shows how far the suspension of disbelief has fallen when it comes to musicals. The history is a little funky in places, but the performances, most of them straight from Broadway, are superb…and the fact that this miracle occurred against the daunting odds should make every American want to sing.


7. The Alamo (1962)



Heavy-handed, too long, and wordy, but its unrelenting passion for it subject matter gets you, along with the Dimitri Tiomkin score and seeing John Wayne (as Davey Crocket) get killed. As one Texas historian said, “It is factually wrong in almost every conceivable way, but it feels right.”  The best film about one of the most inspiring American stories, part legend and part truth, like the most inspiring stories always are.


8. Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)



Have you really never seen this classic comedy? A British gentleman’s gentleman is won in a poker game by a middle-aged resident of a Wild West town, where he becomes the ultimate “fish out of water.” Yet somehow he becomes as American, and perhaps more, than the locals who take their country’s rare virtues for granted. The great Charles Laughton shows he was as great playing comedy as drama, delivering a film moment to remember when he reminds the cowboys “what Lincoln said at Gettysburg.”

9. “Gettysburg” (1993)


Ted Turner’s ambitious, reverent, historically meticulous, long but emotionally satisfying rendering of “The Killer Angels” is mandatory fare at the Marshall household this time of year, unless we visit the battlefield itself. As the real combatants did during Pickett’s Charge, it is difficult not to feel awe and admiration for all the participants, on both sides of this continent’s deadliest and most important battle.

10. “Lincoln” (2012)


The film shows America’s greatest statesman facing his greatest challenge, with all the utilitarian, messy, cynical and unavoidable trade-offs that democracy requires if something really significant is going to get done.

I hope you can catch at least one of these this weekend.

It’s a great country.

Happy Fourth of July!



54 thoughts on “Ten Movies For Independence Day Weekend

    • I considered it. Well acted, but ultimately a downer. Admired, but not enjoyed. Such a stupid, pointless battle. Also on the back-up list: “All the Presidents Men,” “Pearl Harbor”, a few others.

  1. Growing up, I only saw a TV version of the Alamo, one heavily edited for length. Later in college I actually saw the full version, I actually felt betrayed when the Immortal 32 from Gonzalez were portrayed in the movie as arriving in the back of a friggen chuck wagon…a scene edited out of the TV version. This was opposed to their actual tumultuous arrival each on horseback.

  2. This dates me a bit but I have grown to love “Yankee Doodle Dandy” with James Cagney which is as patriotic as they come. “The Patriot” also gets a nod from me and I think was one of Mel Gibson’s better movies. Also, a movie that I like a lot is “They Were Expendable” staring Robert Montgomery and John Wayne defending Bataan with PT boats during WW2.

    • I
      I agree, The Patriot is one of my regular favorites. I also like In Harm’s Way. But for the ultimate 4th of July experience, nothing beats 1776. The song “Mama Look Sharp” brings me to tears every time, and my heart swells with each bell toll at the end.

        • I like “Mama…” I also like ending the first act with it rather than “Cool, cool considerate men,” which is a lousy song and historically absurd (and was cut out of the film in its initial release.” But the song that gets me every time is “The Egg.”

  3. You could pretty much say ANY of the John Wayne war movies, and “The Alamo” is a war movie. And those 32 guys from Gonzales were SUPER heroes. They rode to the Alamo knowing exactly what they were getting into and went anyway.

    • Yes, but they also have to be good movies. The 32 men from Gonzalez were heroes indeed, but that wasn’t the focus of the movie. It wasn’t a documentary, to say the least. You judge movies by what’s in them, not by what was left out.

    • “They Were Expendable” was a more accurate depiction of an historical event than “The Alamo”. Although the PT boats did not sink a cruiser due to a malfunctioning torpedo, they did sink a couple of barges in The Battle Of The Points off Bataan. Lieutenant Bulkeley did also evacuate MacArthur from the Philippines in PT-41. The movie was not a documentary but has some thrilling scenes in it.

      • Oh, hell, “Bambi” was a more accurate portrayal of a real event than “The Alamo.” It got the spirit of the myth right, and that was all it set out to do. Worked for me.

          • Well, that might have been a slight exaggeration. But really—how many more ways could the movie have avoided the actual events? There was only one attack, the last one. It was at night, not during the day. There was only bombardment during the daytime. Those raids by the Alamo defenders didn’t happen. Bowie’s wife died long before the battle. Bowie wasn’t wounded, he was deathly ill. There was no bedside last stand.The defenders never blew up the powder stores, and Davy certainly didn’t do it. All that junk about Flacca was made up. The stuff about Crockett tricking his men into staying was made up. Bowie didn’t have a slave at the battle, but Travis did. The story was stripped to its basics, and that’s fine, but as a history lesson, it stinks.

            And why did Travis have a British accent?

              • Certainly ENOUGH about it was right. They got the characters right, for the most part. As I said intitially,the movie has a warm spot in my heart, and the most recent version got the facts closer but lacked the heart. And adopting the “Davy was taken alive” story was unforgivable. Give me Fess Parker, swinging “Old Betsy” as the Mexicans swarm over the walls.

                • We’ll probably never know the actual truth about whether Jim Bowie made a last stand from his death bed or whether Davy Crockett and four others were clubbed unconscious and later hacked to death on Santa Anna’s orders. I’d be damned surprised, though, if Bowie didn’t shoot down a few soldiers when they barged into his room. He was one of those guys we refer to as a “natural warrior”. There might have been no credible defense of the Alamo if he hadn’t called out loudly for his men to carry him over the line in the sand. That was the crucial moment in the entire drama. And yes, Bowie was dying from typhus at the time and could barely move.

                  • William Davis says it was probably cholera, not typhus, and that Jim was quite possibly already dead, almost surely unconscious, when they broke into his room. I don’t believe, if he could fight at all, someone like Bowie would have allowed himself to be taken from the battle. You’re right: nobody there was better suited by experience and temperment to fight against overwhelming odds.

                    I love the bedside last stand, and if I were making a movie, I’d include it. We owe Bowie that. But I’m persuaded that it probably did not happen.

                  • Steven, there is no more proud Texan than I, but the line in the sand probably didn’t happen, either. God, I wish that it had and hope that it did. As far as I am concerned, that part of the legend should be real.

                    • It was affirmatively odd that Duke left the line in the sand out, since he embraced lots of other dubious legends in his film. It is great theater, and sounds like something Travis would do.

                    • Coupla more quick comments, then I am going to leave the Alamo. There were, after all, nine other movies on the list.

                      First, Travis would have loved it BECAUSE it is great theater. Finally, we will probably never know exactly what happened during those 13 days, especially given that, for some reason, it has become anathema to some people that a bunch of guys could so love freedom that they were willing to die for it.

                    • As you know, Mrs. Dickinson had an annoying tendency to say whatever she thought people wanted to hear, changed her story frequently, and would have been the worst witness in a trial that I can imagine. Walter Lord concluded that the line in the sand evidence was thinner than thin at best. I trust Walter.

                    • I’m not even familiar with him. After every such event (like Little Big Horn) there are always some who come forth and claim to be survivors. As with today, they get their 15 minutes of fame, get exposed and then get forgotten. Nothing that comes from such characters gets taken seriously over time.

                    • Rose was supposedly a Franco-American who claimed to have left the fort shortly before the final assault, and by some accounts was the one who first described the line in the sand.

                    • To answer Jack’s question, Steven, yes, according to legend, Louis Rose declined to step over the line and snuck out at night. There was even a movie about him, “The Man From The Alamo”, starring Glen Ford. Of course, in the movie, he is depicted as a misunderstood hero rather than the craven coward he would have been if the legend is true.

                    • Most historians, however, seem to think that Rose was a lying publicity-seeker…which is why the line story has always been considered dubious at best.

                    • The “line in the sand” is absolutely noble melodrama. It certainly encapsulates in a short episode the virtue of sticking to your values despite the obvious costs – a certain righteous pig headedness that, when in the hands of a terrible value system gives us suicide bombers and kamikaze pilots, while in the hands of a good value system gives us the Alamo, Wake Island, Bastogne, WWI’s the Lost Battalion, Bataan, Corregidor.

                      The melodrama of the line in the sand, is that although some points in a community’s life, there does come a call for individuals to willingly sacrifice themselves for the whole, however it is very rare. The men at the Alamo, like all men in all delaying actions and sieges operate under the knowledge that their fellows are rushing to their relief. Small unit warfare, such as that, always boiled down to the smaller, guaranteed to be destroyed unit, RUNNING AWAY to fight another day, with no loss of honor. Indeed, during the early morning assault, once the Mexican Army breached the decisive point (secured a foothold on the walls), there is ample evidence to suggest an ad hoc break out attempt to the east (away from the town, towards the heights, and apparently where no Mexican column was present) as several accounts place upwards of sixty Texans found dead outside, to the east of the Alamo.

                      Quite simply, once a battle is lost, there is NO point staying to die, which is why a “line in the sand” promise to die is unbelievable.

                      But it does capture, briefly, the sentiment of righteous pigheadedness needed in just such a situation. The men crossed their line when they stayed to be besieged, most certainly they all knew, by day 11 or 12, with the arrival of Bonham’s depressing news that no relief was coming anytime soon. Yet they stayed.

            • There were several attacks, only one of which Santa Anna intended to be the decisive operations. The rest were probes, the most significant of which, the one on day 3 (25 Feb), involved a little less than half a battalion. Another one, occurring the same night as the Mexican probe, is more mysterious. It seemed perhaps to be an attempt to gain surprise entry over the low walls of the corral and is only mentioned once, in a letter of appeal from Travis. He mentioned that an assault on the “rear” of the fort was dispersed. Of course, we don’t know what “rear” meant to him… his position on the north wall may mean the south was “rear”; the town, to the west may imply that the eastern corrals were “rear”, or even the north side, opposite the main gate could have been “rear”.

              As for the final assault, for dramatic effect, it is portrayed as two separate attacks or at least a temporarily repulsed final assault. This is likely derived from the fact that the final assault, originally designed to attack from four different directions, did not go off without a hitch.

              The southern column, facing the picket fence and Crockett’s Riflemen plus a battery of guns, the “lunette” earthworks and it’s cannon, and the southwest “bastion” featuring the 18 pounder cannon, arguably had the most dangerous front to assault. This column, immediately caught in a tremendous crossfire all diverted to the west and away from the Alamo to the relative cover of some of San Antonio’s outer houses.

              The northern columns and the eastern column, all ended up being driven by withering fire into a seething mass beneath the north wall, which provided a modest defilade from defenders. At 3-4 feet thick, defenders would be compelled to fully expose themselves to a barrage of musketry just to take one pot shot. This and the diversion of the southern column led to a temporary, but noticeable lull in action.

              It wasn’t until the mass of soldiery, seething and coiled with energy beneath the north wall, began breaching the decisive point by scaling the north wall en masse, which opened the hornets’ nest. The battle fully on and furious. The southwest corner, wheeling its cannon about and the other southern defenses began diverting personnel to assist the northern defenses, and that’s when the southern column sprung back to action. They scaled the southwest corner and overwhelmed them.

              Cinematically… it’s every director’s duty to play that lull in the fighting to the utmost. Well done Alamo movies convince the viewers, that despite history… this time, maybe just this once… the Texians might win. The delay during the assault, combined with the appeals for reinforcement, combined with other little episodes are all part of that suspense.

              Raids by Alamo defenders certainly did happen. Wayne’s depiction of a massive cattle drive raid assuredly did not occur, but minor sorties are documented in several Mexican accounts. The day 3 Mexican probe prompted the Texians to destroy the jacales in the immediate vicinity of the southern façade that evening. A similar effort was made the next evening, the 26th. Each of those days also saw quick runs to gather water and food – certainly raids were made, and the Mexican accounts theorize it was for water and food.

              By day 6 or 7 however, the Texians, realizing raids couldn’t get far, and Santa Anna, realizing the Alamo wasn’t going to break easily, the siege settled down to waiting for relief or waiting for starvation respectively. Except for one mysterious incident, documented by Colonel Almont, extremely briefly. It mentions, on the night of 3 March, that a raid against “the mill” was repulsed. Not noting which mill, or other details, some speculate the raid may not have been from inside, but perhaps a group of volunteers attempting to enter much like the men of Gonzales 2 days prior.

              • Good research, Tex! I never had a big picture on the numbers and targets of the various forays that occurred during the siege. I’m sure that the raid in the movie was just an attempt to condense them all into one scene. And, as you say, the final Mexican assault was less than well-coordinated. Of course, the object was to force entry through sheer weight of numbers, which it succeeded in doing, albeit at a terrible cost in casualties.

              • The group waiting for the last, certain to be fatal assault is ahistorical in its specificity, but surely spot on in how the men must have felt. I think its my favorite scene in the film—to the strains of “The Green Leaves of Summer.”

                I’m pretty sure the raid to blow the giant cannot also was fiction, yes? I’ve seen no reference to it anywhere. Nor, presumably, would Bowie and Crocket take part in any raids, such as they were.

              • There is some speculation that “the mill” was actually the flour mill at San Jose mission, which was rather farther away, I would think than would be feasible for an in-and-out raid. However, Santa Ana was using that mill to get flour for his troops.

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