In recent decades, Hollywood films have been decidedly ambivalent in their attitudes toward the United States as a nation and the American people. A very large number of films have probed the less-savory moments of our nation’s history, and some of them have achieved reasonable box-office success. There are also, however, many exhilarating moments of patriotism and appreciation of the American character and the exceptional nature of America in hugely popular films such as Captain America: First Avenger, Independence Day, National Treasure, Rocky IV, Olympus Has Fallen, and Pearl Harbor. In addition, the unique qualities of America and the American people are explored with intelligence and grace in films such as The Patriot, The Pursuit of Happyness, and Patriot Games.
All of those films, and many others, are worth watching for their explorations of the American character. (See the list below for many more suggestions.)
Older Hollywood films also probed the many problems facing the American people over the years, but they tended to embed those dramas and comedies in a more positive view of the United States and the American way, which they presented as prizing independence, hard work, freedom, competence, confidence, love of home and family, voluntary assistance of the less-fortunate, and faith in God.
Classic Depression-era films such as The Roaring Twenties, Manhattan Melodrama, and Meet John Doe didn’t shy away from exploring the nation’s problems, but they posited the elements of the American character as the solution. In these films, the central characters become criminals after undergoing hard times, but none of these movies excuse the characters’ criminality in any way. On the contrary, the central characters always learn their lesson, and other characters in the films demonstrate the right way to go about their lives. Thus, filmgoers could see that even when government and businesses were corrupt, doing the right thing was always the truly honorable course.
With that in mind, it’s interesting and educational to look at some clips from films of Hollywood’s Golden Age and afterward, which you may not know about or have forgotten.
Enjoy the film clips, discuss their significance to you, suggest other patriotic American movies and film moments in the comments section, tell your friends about the patriotic scenes in movies you like, and return often to continue the discussion.
“The American Grizzly Bear Is a Symbol of the American Character,” from The Wind and the Lion https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4rRgx3hRwK4&index=3&list=PL2PMnBj6_BtZ-10mPqJ-0x94AkVhjw8Yl
In this brief scene from John Milius’ brilliant 1975 film The Wind and the Lion, President Theodore Roosevelt eloquently describes the American character by comparing the nation to one of its most fearsome—but lonely—creatures, the grizzly bear. Note the defense of private property when Roosevelt mentions who owns the valley where a grizzly bear was killed. Every American schoolchild should see this scene.
“Grand Old Flag,” from Yankee Doodle Dandy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rxZvDTnlvKM
Jimmy Cagney leads a rousing performance of George M. Cohan’s song “Grand Old Flag” in the 1942 biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy. It’s unabashed patriotism at its best.
“Yankee Doodle Boy,” from Yankee Doodle Dandy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fktxkO37zNM
In a scene depicting a song from one of George M. Cohan’s plays, Jimmy Cagney sings and dances through a celebration of the American character: independent, confident (even brash), hard-working, accomplished, dedicated to his sweetheart, patriotic, and full of the joy of life.
Finale from Yankee Doodle Dandy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v1rkzUIL8oc
Despite his personal flaws, Cohan achieves great success as a songwriter, performer, and playwright, and receives high praise from the president of the United States in the finale of the 1942 biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy. The film celebrates America’s capacity for enabling people to rise from the humblest origins to achieve great things through talent, hard work, and devotion to family and faith, and this scene sends the audience home with a real appreciation of the boundless possibilities of life in the United States.
“Do You Think They’d Let Us?” from I Was a Male War Bride https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V7aB6E9hdnE
Howard Hawks’ underrated 1949 film classic comically depicts the maddening nature of government bureaucracy, which had been expanding since the Progressive Era in the early years of the twentieth century and reached a point of absurdity during World War II, when the national government regulated all areas of American life, even deciding what people could eat and how much they could drive their cars. In this short, simple scene, Cary Grant and Ann Sheridan showcase how good old American ingenuity and self-reliance conquer an inconvenience created by military rules. Notably, the soldiers help the Grant and Sheridan characters to circumvent the rules. Nobody likes the bureaucracy.
“Darling Business” from I Was a Male War Bride https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJjEuVkVAPg
Even when they weren’t allowed to vote, American women typically enjoyed much more freedom than those in other countries. In this scene from I Was a Male War Bride, as in many of Hawks’ films, the female is shown to be every bit the equal of the man, and she is in fact in charge here and throughout the movie, reflecting this very positive aspect of American life.
“Remember, You’re a Lady,” from I Was a Male War Bride https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RdUsDhuaVBY
Because he has married a member of the U.S. armed forces, French military officer Henri (Cary Grant) is declared a “war bride.” That means he can’t board a ship bound for the United States unless he can pass himself off as a bride, which everyone takes to mean a female. Cary Grant, in a wig made from a horse’s tail, plays the scene to perfection as the inflexible bureaucracy emasculates Henri, encapsulating how government forces people to go to great lengths to do the simplest things, thereby wasting the American people’s hard work and good sense.