This Fourth of July weekend, moviegoers' choices at the multiplex include the big-budget spectacle of Michael Bay's "Transformers: Age of Extinction," the everywoman antics of Melissa McCarthy's "Tammy" and the politicized proclamations of Dinesh D'Souza's "America."
The variety of films on display is a testament to the particular elasticity of the subgenre of Fourth of July films, which run the gamut from movies dusted with a light coating of Americana to those that wear their patriotism proudly on their sleeves — in red, white and blue, of course.
These days, in a sharply divided and partisan country, it's hard to find movies that appeal to a wide spectrum (one side or another is sure to charge that a film is anti-American or ethnically insensitive or just plain wrong).
So we looked to the past for examples of movies that either have a patriotic theme or use the holiday as a key plot element. Taken together they tell a story of America — as seen by Hollywood.
"Yankee Doodle Dandy": An all-American rags-to-riches story with a rousing soundtrack to boot. Tough-guy actor James Cagney returned to his roots as a vaudeville hoofer and comedian with this 1942 musical about the song-and-dance man George M. Cohan, who rose from humble beginnings to become "the man who owned Broadway."
With its flag-waving musical numbers like "Over There" and "You're a Grand Old Flag," "Yankee Doodle Dandy" proved a hit with World War II-era moviegoers and became the highest-grossing movie of the year. It also won three Oscars, including one for Cagney for best actor.
"Jaws": The quintessential summer blockbuster, Steven Spielberg's 1975 thriller about a great white shark terrorizing a seaside resort town is partially set over Independence Day weekend, as unsuspecting tourists flock to fictional Amity Island. As Murray Hamilton's Mayor Vaughn famously says in the film, "You yell 'Shark!,' we've got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July."
At a time when Hollywood studios still preferred to roll their movies out slowly to capitalize on word of mouth, "Jaws" opened two weeks before the July 4 holiday in what was the largest and most ambitious theatrical release to date; the rest is history.
"Born on the Fourth of July": The second of director Oliver Stone's trilogy of films about the Vietnam War (along with "Platoon" and "Heaven & Earth") tells the searing story of Ron Kovic, a real-life veteran who was paralyzed in battle and became a staunch antiwar activist.
Once a patriotic small-town athlete, Kovic (played by Tom Cruise) became thoroughly disillusioned by the horrors of war, a harrowing stint in a veterans' hospital and the difficulty of rejoining society. Released in 1989, "Born on the Fourth of July" remains socially relevant, perhaps troublingly so, to this day.
"Forrest Gump": Robert Zemeckis' sentimental pop fable stars Tom Hanks as the slow-witted but full-lived Southerner Forrest Gump, whose story conveniently mirrors the arc of America from the 1950s through the '80s. Swept along in the current of history, Gump bears witness to the civil rights movement, the assassinations of JFK and RFK, the moon landing, the Vietnam War, hippie culture, the Watergate scandal, the thawing of U.S.-China relations, the onset of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and more.
Released on Fourth of July weekend in 1994, the film proved a critical and commercial hit and won a slew of Oscars, including best picture, actor, director and adapted screenplay.
"Independence Day": Alien invaders picked the wrong day to mess with Earth in Roland Emmerich's 1996 disaster movie starring Will Smith as a hotshot pilot, Jeff Goldblum as a world-class hacker and Bill Pullman as the planet-defending president of the United States.
Silly, flashy, jingoistic and yet undeniably fun — at one point Smith's character punches an alien and snarls, "Welcome to Earth!" — "ID4" was a mammoth hit, grossing more than $817 million at the worldwide box office. Unsurprisingly, a sequel is in the works, slated for July 1, 2016.
"The Patriot": Yep, another "Go, USA!" movie from German director Emmerich. Don't expect to get a history lesson from this Revolutionary War epic starring Mel Gibson as a reluctant hero who is dragged into the conflict when — spoiler alert — his son is killed.
Gibson's character, Benjamin Martin, is a composite of historical figures, and Emmerich's team consulted with the Smithsonian Institution on props and sets, but "The Patriot" (2000) resides firmly in the realm of fiction. To that end, it does offer a committed performance from Gibson and some sweeping battle scenes, if you're into that sort of thing.
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