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10 of the Greatest 4th of July Films Explored

These films are perfect for your epic 4th of July movie night!
by Martin Keady on July 1, 2022

Even for non-Americans, the words “4th of July” have enormous resonance, instantly invoking ideas and ideals of independence, defiance, and celebration. The German director Roland Emmerich realized as much when he called his 1996 alien invasion blockbuster Independence Day, with the title alone making it one of the great 4th of July films.

But what are the other quintessentially 4th of July films? Martin Keady, our resident cinema historian, names nine others. 

Independence Day (1996)

Directed by Roland Emmerich
Written by Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin

It’s impossible not to begin any assessment of 4th of July films with Independence Day, not least because the film ends, after the invading aliens have been defeated, with a sincere wish by the US President, played by Bill Pullman, that henceforward 4th of July will be celebrated as “Independence Day” for the whole of Planet Earth. 

More than a quarter of a century since the release of Independence Day, the film itself almost stands as the highwater mark of US triumphalism at the end of the 20th century. Released just a few years after the collapse of the old Soviet Union, when historian Francis Fukuyama wrote and talked earnestly about “The End of History” and the triumph of US capitalism, liberalism, and democracy, it imagined the whole world being united under the USA in a common cause.

Now, however, as the Second Cold War begins in earnest and US democracy itself faces an existential crisis, it is hard not to think of Independence Day as being almost as dated, even anachronistic, as a silent movie.

No wonder the sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence, which was released in 2016, the same year that Donald Trump won the US presidency, was a relative flop by comparison. 

Born On The Fourth Of July (1989)

Directed by Oliver Stone
Written by Oliver Stone and Ron Kovic, based on Kovic’s book of the same name

The only film that can rival Independence Day for sheer “4th of July-ness” is Born On The Fourth Of July, Oliver Stone’s screen adaptation of Ron Kovic’s autobiographical account of how he went from being a US Marine Corps Sergeant to an anti-war activist after being wounded and ultimately paralyzed in the Vietnam War. Kovic was indeed born on the 4th of July, making him almost the literal embodiment of the classical American ideals of independence and self-determination — ideals that were challenged, if not crushed, by his being confined to a wheelchair after his military service. 

Oliver Stone had himself served in the US Infantry in Vietnam before becoming first a screenwriter, winning the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Midnight Express (1978), Alan Parker’s harrowing adaptation of Billy Hayes’s autobiographical account of being incarcerated in Turkey for drug-smuggling, and then a director. And Born On The Fourth Of July was part of Stone’s remarkable run of films in the 1980s — including Salvador, Platoon, and Wall Street — in which he forensically examined American values, especially as they were enacted overseas, to consider whether they withstood scrutiny. Invariably, he found that they did not. 

Top Gun (1986)

Directed by Tony Scott
Written by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., based on the magazine article "Top Guns" by Ehud Yonay

If any actor could be said to embody the spirit of the 4th of July and its associated ideals, it is almost certainly the man who played Ron Kovic in Born On The Fourth Of July, Tom Cruise. Cruise’s performance in Born On The Fourth Of July, alongside that in Rain Man from a year earlier, proved that he could be more than just a pretty-boy movie star. However, he was only offered such challenging and provocative roles because of his box-office clout, having been the definitive 80s movie star, and nowhere more so than in 1986’s Top Gun

It probably says everything about Top Gun that, unlike so many of the great 1970s Hollywood films such as The Godfather and The Exorcist, it was based not on a book but on a magazine article written by Israeli journalist Ehud Yonay in 1983 and famously read by Top Gun’s producer, Don Simpson, while awaiting a doctor’s appointment.

In many ways, Top Gun is simply that magazine article, with its at-the-time astonishing aerial photography, brought to life, and with all the attendant lack of depth and characterization that that description implies. Nevertheless, Simpson, who was undoubtedly the great 1980s movie — or rather, blockbuster — producer, instantly realized that Top Gun crystallized so many American ideals of military might and political right (in both senses of the word). Its legacy or at least its box-office success was such that, more than 35 years on, a sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, could be released this year. 

Hamilton (2020)

Directed by Thomas Kail
Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, based on his musical of the same name

In some ways, the film of Hamilton is not a film at all but a recording of the extraordinary musical of the same name by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which may be not just the greatest musical of the 21st century so far but possibly the greatest musical ever written, as even many historians of musicals have argued. Miranda has often said that he would love to write an actual screen adaptation of the musical, rather than just recording the stage performance, but, being the canny producer that he is, he wants to make sure that everyone has seen the musical first. 

Such has been the unprecedented success of Hamilton the musical, which itself was based on Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of the then largely unknown Founding Father, that Miranda may not have to wait long for the full-screen adaptation of Hamilton to happen. The musical, a hip-hop rewriting of American history, is phenomenal, with the songwriting alone — “My Shot”, “The Room Where It Happens”, et al. — suggesting that all the great pop songwriting of the second half of the 20th century was now to be found not in the pop charts but in this one Broadway show. And if the film is little more than a record of that show, it is still a remarkable celebration of African-Americans’ unique contribution to the American story, which only makes one long for the full, widescreen, epic film to be made. 

Lincoln (2012)

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Tony Kushner, based on the book “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Lincoln is Steven Spielberg’s cinematic love letter to the man who was arguably America’s greatest ever President, who won the US Civil War and ended slavery but paid with his life, in the most extraordinary theatrical assassination since Alexander The Great’s father, Philip of Macedon, over two millennia earlier. 

Lincoln was based on “Team of Rivals”, a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which was adapted by Tony Kushner, the Tony Award-winning playwright of Angels In America (1993) who has subsequently become Spielberg’s go-to-screenwriter, most recently updating West Side Story (2021). Consequently, Lincoln is a sober, thorough analysis of the political machinations that engulfed the Lincoln presidency during the last few months of the Civil War, which would also prove to be the last few months of Lincoln’s life. Un-jingoistic and often un-celebratory, Lincoln is a necessary antidote to the thoughtless tub-thumping of so many 4th of July films, and features one of Daniel Day-Lewis’s greatest screen performances. Given that he was probably the greatest screen actor of his generation before apparently retiring definitively after The Phantom Thread (2017), that is the highest praise imaginable. 

Glory (1989)

Directed by Edward Zwick
Screenplay by Kevin Jarre, based on the novels “Lay This Laurel” by Lincoln Kirstein and “One Gallant Rush” by Peter Burchard

Fittingly for a film about the importance of comradeship, esprit de corps, and sheer teamwork, Glory is based not on one novel but on two, which both examined the previously under-explored role of African-American soldiers in the US Civil War. And in another classic case of “doubling”, Glory would make the perfect double-bill with Lincoln for anyone wanting to celebrate their 4th of July by reconsidering some of the myths of American history. 

Glory tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, one of the first African-American units established by the Union Army. But typically for the time, when even the supposedly slave-freeing Northerners were often racists themselves, these black men fight under a white officer (played by Matthew Broderick), with all the inevitable tensions that generated. The breakthrough movie of Denzel Washington, who played a rebellious private who did not easily take to being ordered around (especially by a white man), Glory, like Lincoln, is a necessary corrective to many of the falsehoods about 19th century America in general and the US Civil War in particular, which are still propagated today, showing how black and white men fought together against the slave-owning South, but not without complication and certainly not without conflict. 

A League Of Their Own (1992)

Directed by Penny Marshall
Written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel

It is fitting that so many of the best 4th of July films are set during wartime, given that the original 4th of July celebrations marked the end of the original American war, that of independence from the British Empire at the end of the 18th century. However, Penny Marshall's A League of Their Own has a different take on war, showing, to quote Talking Heads, “Life During Wartime” and in particular telling the extraordinary story of the women’s baseball league that briefly flourished during WWII, when so many American men (including baseball players) were overseas fighting in Europe or the Pacific. 

There are many fine films about baseball, which until WWII was undoubtedly “America’s Pastime”, although it has subsequently been overtaken, certainly on the global stage, by both American football and basketball. They include Bull Durham (1988), Field of Dreams (1989), and, above all, The Pride of the Yankees (1942). However, while Gary Cooper was playing the legendary Lou Gehrig in the latter, A League Of Their Own shows that at almost exactly the same time American women were playing baseball for real in front of huge crowds. As such, it is the great female baseball movie and one of the great “alternative” 4th of July films. 

The Sandlot (1993)

Directed by David Mickey Evans
Written by David Mickey Evans and Robert Gunter

If A League Of Their Own is the great female baseball film, then The Sandlot is the great children’s baseball film, telling the story of a young team in the historically resonant summer of 1962, a year before, as Philip Larkin famously wrote, “Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three/(which was rather late for me) - /Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban/ And the Beatles' first LP”The Sandlot captures that almost Edenic spirit of innocence as it charts the trials and tribulations of children on the cusp of coming of age in arguably the most momentous decade in human history. 

The Sandlot has, at its heart, one of the great 4th of July moments, or rather sequences, in film. Illuminated by the regulation celebratory fireworks, the team plays a night game against a local rival and not only wins but, even more importantly, learns the supreme importance of baseball, which remains arguably the greatest sporting metaphor for human existence. As the magnificently named Benjamin Franklin Rodriguez (a name that combines both the spirit of the original Anglo-American founding fathers and the increasing “Latino-fication” of America in the late 20th century) puts it, “Baseball is life”. In this film, at this point in history, it is certainly American life at least, and The Sandlot captures it forever.

Selma (2014)

Directed by Ava DuVernay
Written by Paul Webb

The finest 4th of July films show that independence — freedom — is for everyone, and not just the Founding Fathers and their white descendants. And just as Benny Rodriguez in The Sandlot shows how Latino-Americans have as much right as anyone else to celebrate American independence, so Selma shows the incredible, indeed existential, struggle that African-Americans went through to gain their own civil rights, including the right to be independent and to celebrate that independence. 

Selma is the story of the voting rights marches in Alabama in 1965 by African-Americans, led by Martin Luther King Jr., between the cities of Selma and Montgomery. They were met by probably the most brutal resistance that any civil rights marches of the era encountered and the film does not flinch from showing that brutality in at times truly gut-wrenching detail. But ultimately Selma is a great 4th of July film for showing that the original American War of Independence, at the end of the late 18th century, still continues today, albeit in different forms.

Consequently, one looks forward in the future to the great LGBTQI+ 4th of July films that show how, as the immortal Maya Angelou put it, “The truth is, no one of us can be free until everybody is free”. 

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939)

Directed by Frank Capra
Written by Sidney Buchman and Myles Connolly

And finally, to round off this assessment of 4th of July filmic fare, an absolute and undisputed classic: Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, in which Jimmy Stewart plays a Montana Senator who goes to the capital to demand an end to the corruption engulfing the American political system. It was the film that made Jimmy Stewart, who plays the titular Mr. Smith, a star and, even more importantly, cemented his position as arguably The Most All-American Movie Star Who Ever Lived. 

There are two main reasons why Stewart is deserving of that accolade. The first is that among all the many masterpieces he made, from Harvey to Vertigo to The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance, two still stand out because they have become classic holiday staples — indeed, almost as much a part of that holiday as the associated food and drink. The obvious one is It’s A Wonderful Life, probably the greatest Christmas film ever made. And if Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is not quite as synonymous with the 4th of July as It’s A Wonderful Life is synonymous with Christmas, then perhaps it should be, because it embodies all the initial idealism and optimism that drove the original American War of Independence. 

The second reason is simpler — Stewart was an authentic hero in life, as well as on-screen. He was the first major American movie star to enlist to fight in WWII, at a time when studios (and even politicians) were eager to keep their biggest box-office earners away from the frontline, not least because of the propaganda victory that it would have afforded the enemy if they were killed. But Stewart insisted on fighting, and in particular flying, as part of the bomber missions over Europe that were so crucial to winning the war but so deadly for those involved. However, Stewart survived and returned to America to make many of the greatest American films.

That is why perhaps the ultimate 4th of July/American independence film is yet to be made. It is “Jimmy”, a biopic of Stewart, the ultimate All-American hero, and even if Frank Capra isn’t around to direct it, it should still be magnificent. 

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