'Easy Rider?' 'Rocky?' An eclectic look at patriotic movies

Updated 6/30/2010 11:01 AM
  • Gire and Benson debate patriotic movies

      Gire and Benson debate patriotic movies Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Raymond: Dann, it's nearly Fourth of July and we need to get all hot and patriotic. It's funny, when I look at lists of so-called "patriotic movies," most of them are war pictures. And many of the films that deal with America as a nation I would call "political films" because they're not always patriotic, if you know what I mean. Take Oliver Stone's "Born on the Fourth of July," for example. Very rah-rah in many ways, but critical of our country's involvement in Vietnam.

Dann: Patriotism has never been about going with the governmental status quo, Raymond. If that were the case, we'd still be paying taxes to England. I think the most interesting political films are those with characters so patriotic, they're compelled to act on behalf of American ideals, even when they're in conflict with American practices.

Raymond: Then we've got to include "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." I'd go so far to say it's Jimmy Stewart's greatest performance and it's such an emotional roller-coaster that you can't help but get mad, stand up, and root for him to bring down the corrupt lawmakers! It's Frank Capra at his best - and come to think of it, most of Capra's movies deal with American chutzpah.

Dann: Capra's most popular films, including "Smith," are expressions of faith in the essential goodness of the common man and his ability to defeat the powers of self-interest and deceit with a just and honest heart.

Raymond: You're absolutely right. But let's go back to war movies for a moment. Many of those arouse the American spirit. "Patton" is one of the best examples. Everyone thought it was a hawkish film, but when you look closer, it's got a pacifist heart. Nevertheless, it still makes you proud to be an American. "The Deer Hunter" is also a powerful look at three very patriotic young men who make emotional and physical sacrifices for their country, even though it's an anti-war movie.

Dann: I think today's American audiences are far more receptive to movies that dabble in the gray areas instead of the black-and-white dramas of the past.

Raymond: Remember all those anti-establishment youth films from the late '60s and early '70s? I think the good ones touch on what you mentioned earlier - characters acting on American ideals in conflict with the status quo. The late Dennis Hopper gave us the classic "Easy Rider," the tag line of which was "A man went looking for America... and couldn't find it anywhere."

Dann: Hollywood is way too reliant on "rugged guy single-handedly saving the country" plots. Patriotic efforts tend to be groups of people working together for a common good. So, I suggest the musical "1776" is a wonderfully patriotic film. Let's not forget Ron Howard's splendid "Apollo 13" which is one big, wet, slurpy kiss to American ingenuity and group problem-solving.

Raymond: And then you've got the feel-good movies that touch on the American ideals of never giving up and going the distance. Is "Rocky" a patriotic movie? I think so. So is "Forrest Gump." Tom Hanks' character is really a metaphor for the American idealist, traveling through cataclysmic events in our history with the naiveté of a child.

Dann: And yet the political right claimed "Gump" as a cinematic paragon of conservative values. Does that mean that American idealists are short on IQ points and must rely on freak acts of good fortune in order to succeed? This has suddenly become a depressing chat, Raymond.

Raymond: Nah, just put "Yankee Doodle Dandy" in the DVD player and that'll make you gloriously happy. In fact, I'm going so far to say that this excellent James Cagney vehicle, directed by the versatile Michael Curtiz, is perhaps the No. 1 patriotic movie of all time. The musical numbers are all familiar American standards by George M. Cohan and Cagney gives an Oscar-winning performance playing the composer.

Dann: My favorite patriotic movie has to be "All the Presidents Men," based on the true story of two Washington Post reporters who worked tirelessly to uncover corruption and dishonesty in the Nixon administration.

Raymond: I've been wondering something about our top patriotic films.

Dann: What was Deep Throat's real identity?

Raymond: No. Why exactly would Yankee Doodle take a feather from his cap and call it "Macaroni"?

• Daily Herald film critic Dann Gire and film historian Raymond Benson are the creators of Dann & Raymond's Movie Club, a live program of film trivia, facts and fun. Catch them at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library on Tuesday, July 15 for "Attack of the Zombie Movies! Why the Dead Spread Dread." On Wednesday, July 21, "Saddle Up and Pass the Beans" will examine the greatest American westerns (and their Italian knock-offs) at the Vernon Area Public Library in Lincolnshire.