5 Classic Patriotic Films for the Fourth of July

                                                James Cagney as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

                                              James Cagney as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

By Maureen Lee Lenker

The Fourth of July is upon us! Time to celebrate Independence Day with fireworks, barbeques, and more. Patriotism is at full blast on our nation’s birthday – from honoring the founding fathers to remembering our veterans and more. So this week, we offer you five classic patriotic films to enjoy with your hot dog and fireworks show.


5. 1776 (1972)

Perhaps remembered more as camp today than classic, this delightfully daffy musical tells the tale of the crafting of the Declaration of Independence and the beginnings of the fight to establish America. In terms of subject matter there’s truly not a better choice on this list for the Fourth of July. Much of the spoken and sung dialogue is taken from actual letters and memoirs from the founding fathers and men involved. Character actors William Daniels, Howard de Silva, and Ken Howard give memorable turns as John Adams, Ben Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson respectively. The original Broadway musical has enjoyed a renaissance of late, getting a brief revival as part of the “Encores!” series.  It’s also a favorite of Lin-Manuel Miranda who wrote another popular musical about the founding fathers. In his Hamilton, there’s even a reference to the iconic tune “Sit Down, John!”


4. Rocky (1976)


It doesn’t get much more American than this tale of a scrappy guy from the wrong side of the tracks who gets his shot at glory when selected to fight the heavy-weight champion, Apollo Creed (Carl Weather). In his red, white, and blue Uncle Sam get-up, Apollo Creed represents the apotheosis of the American Dream – a guy who built a life pulling himself up by his bootstraps. And Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) represents the flip side of that –a guy who just wants to go the distance to prove to himself that he’s not “just another bum from the neighborhood.” The film, with its soaring soundtrack (how can you not want to workout when you hear “Gonna Fly Now”?) and inspiring imagery, spawned 6 sequels. But this original story, with its love story of two meek dreamers who fill each other’s gaps, has the proudest beating heart of them all. The making of the film is almost as good a story as the movie itself – Stallone sold everything he owned, including his dog, to help finance the film and built himself a career from it.


3. Born Yesterday (1950)

It might seem strange to include this tale of a ditzy gangster’s moll who finds true love in her process of trying to better herself. But at it’s heart this is a patriotic tale championing American values over corruption and greed. Screenwriter Garson Kanin wrote the character of Billie Dawn (Judy Holliday in an Oscar winning performance) as a stand-in for America as a whole. Kanin wanted America to receive the same education as his main character and wake up to the corruption invading Washington in the form of lobbyists (a notion that seems quaint by today’s standards). As Billie awakens to corruption in Washington, she finds herself empowered through her education and an embrace of intellectualism. The film has several stunning scenes featuring our National Monuments, including one in which Dawn and William Holden’s Paul Verrall walk around the Jefferson Monument discussing the ideals of the founding fathers. Dawn finds herself quoting from Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” and reveling at the sight of the Declaration of Independence. Born Yesterday is a lovely romantic comedy, but it’s also a patriotic film that deftly balances an indictment of America’s sins and an embrace of its most beloved virtues.


2. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

There are few things more stirring or inspiring than the scene in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington where Jimmy Stewart’s Jefferson Smith single-handedly leads a filibuster in the name of truth, justice, and the American way. When naïve Jefferson Smith is appointed to fill a Senate vacancy, his colleagues are dismayed to find that he will not sit idly by and allow their corrupt plans to move forward.  Smith withstands everything from political wooing to attempts to tar his name with scandal – all the while standing in the shadow of the Lincoln monument and remembering the ideals the government should stand for. The film shot Jimmy Stewart to stardom and made him a favorite of director Frank Capra. It greatly angered many in Washington for its indictment of political dealings, but it remains one of Capra’s stalwart optimistic films about American values. There’s no better day than the Fourth of July to remember Smith’s famous line, “Liberty's too precious a thing to be buried in books, Miss Saunders. 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.”


1. Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

 Though he was best known for his gangster films, Jimmy Cagney was a song-and-dance man at heart and never was that on better display than in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Cagney tap dances his way through the life of composer George M. Cohan, a man so patriotic he was literally born on the Fourth of July.  Cohan captured the American spirit with songs like “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Over There,” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” and the film brims with pageantry in its presentation of these songs on stages and remote battlefields. The biopic so stretched and condensed facts that Cohan reportedly asked whom the film was about after seeing it. Regardless, it presents a portrait of a man who unabashedly loved his country and sought to celebrate it through his music. Cohan became the first non-serviceman presented with a Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, a fact celebrated in the film – and it’s the perfect capper to a great Fourth to watch Cagney tap dance down the White House steps in celebration of his presidential honor.

Whether you’re looking for a musical, a sports film, or a comedy full of sincerity and sentiment, you can’t go wrong with one of these flicks for the Fourth.

Maureen Lee Lenker

Classic Film Correspondent

Maureen Lee Lenker is a writer, actress, and freelance journalist. She has written for The Hollywood Reporter, Turner Classic Movies, BitchMedia, LA Weekly, and more.