Free Film School #106: America is Dandy!

Happy 4th of July! CraveOnline‘s Free Film School wishes you a happy Independence Day. The nation’s 237th birthday is nearly upon us, and doubtless you already have big movie plans. If I have any say in your film selection for the holiday weekend, might I suggest Roland Emmerich’s delightfully daffy Die Hard knockoff White House Down, which not not only wholly entertain you, but also give you a gentle and loving caress on your patriotism gland. The film may not be about the details of our nation’s government or the secret minutiae of the Founding Fathers’ personal lives (see the National Treasure movies foe that sort of thing), but its White House setting and gloriously oversimplified view of American politics (made, incidentally, by a German director) might have you feeling a little bit of that wonderfully corny passion for your country.

This week in the Free Film School, in honor of our nation’s most wondrous moment of perfectly justified self-congratulation, I am going to be looking at the phenomenon of patriotism in movies (most specifically American patriotism), and how many films – more often than you realize – perhaps stand for American ideals. America is celebrated in many, many American films as the perfect version of a country, and while that can occasionally smack of elitism or propaganda, you have to admit that elitism and propaganda can be perfectly exhilarating.

The notion of “America First!” movie patriotism did not actually develop alongside the evolution of the medium. Early silent films, and pretty much all of the 1920s, America was seen as a sort of incidental background setting for most stories. Not all the stories were necessarily positive or hopeful (some of the most harrowing, depressing, and terrifying movies I have ever seen come from the silent era; do I have to point you to Broken Blossoms?), but patriotism wasn’t seen as a hugely important cinematic trait throughout the first few decades of cinema. It was a time when American filmmakers – most of which were European expatriates working in America – were sussing out storytelling, imagery, and all the other aesthetic and technical traits of the form we are still taking advantage of to this very day.

One very notable (and very popular) silent film, however, spoke directly to national pride and the boldness of history by depicting one of the most notable events in American history. With one of the larger budgets in Hollywood history, and directed by D.W. Griffith – easily the most popular film director at the time – this film boasted a cast of thousands, gigantic realistic battle sequences, and a dramatic and turbulent period in America’s history. The film was Birth of a Nation, which starred Lillian Gish, and came out in 1915. Birth of a Nation is still hailed by many critics and professors as one of the best films of all time. Some of the cinematic storytelling techniques pioneered in that film are still being used today; I addressed one of its primary cinematic contributions in an early Free Film School lecture on cross-cutting.

As its title implies, Birth of a Nation (a three-hour film which you can watch in YouTube, albeit in an edited and un-tinted form) is about the way the U.S. came into being, leading from its inception by the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and leading up through (and spending most of its time detailing the causes and effects of) the Civil War. War is pretty dramatic stuff, and some of the red-tinted battle sequences of the film are the grandest in cinema history. Real cannons were fired, hundreds of real people were choreographed, and, reportedly, there were even some real injuries. Birth of a Nation is a great filmmaker working at the top of his game. He looked at the threats to the pure American way of life, and depicted a resolute and enterprising people who worked hard and stuck to their ideals to ensure that the South would not rise again, and that women and children would remain protected. In concept, Birth of a Nation is one of the more exhilarating pieces of patriotism that the cinema has seen outside of Frank Capra.

Of course, all of this is rarely discussed in film classes because Birth of a Nation is disgracefully and unforgivably racist. Those resolute and enterprising protectors of American justice? Yeah, that was the Ku Klux Klan. The evils they perceived? Black people who would do harm to pretty young white women. The Klan are not even seen as a necessary evil through the eyes of the filmmakers. They are seen as unabashed and truly inspirational heroes. Any and all modern audiences bristle openly at the outright racist horrors on display in the flick. In 1915, it was still illegal for black people to appear in central film roles, so all the central black characters were played by white actors in blackface, only making all the racist themes even worse. Birth of a Nation is an awesome film and an important one in terms of cinematic history, but no one living in a modern age will be able to get through its KKK-glorifying themes. I recommend that all serious film students watch Birth of a Nation, and try to look past the plentiful racism, and see that it was attempting to make an anti-war, pro-American film of the highest order. Casual audiences may want to wait on Birth of a Nation, and perhaps watch it more of an intellectual exercise or a time capsule than a Capital-I-Important movie.

Birth of a Nation was seen as offensive and racist even in 1915, however, and Griffith was operating more out of ignorance and a generally racist milieu than out of any sort of genuine hatred. In response to accusations of racism, Griffith made his magnum opus, Intolerance the following year. Even longer, and spanning more history, Intolerance is one of the grander films of the already-grad silent era, and almost – almost – absolves Griffith.

There were plenty of war movies to come out of the silent era and the early 1930s (films like Wings and Hell’s Angels are rollicking WWI-themed dogfight movies), but those movies were more about the drama of war, torn relationships, and action-packed flying sequences than they were about America or American ideals. They celebrated drama over anything strictly patriotic. No one in those old dogfight movies talks about how great it is to serve their country. They merely do. The stories all hinge on when they’ll return from the war, and the friends they have to protect during the violence. It is not a soldier’s duty, after all, to ask why the war got started. It is their job to fight in it.

It wouldn’t be until the 1930s that American patriotism would begin to become a regular sticking point in American movies. Frank Capra, the Italian-born cinematic master, made a series of very optimistic American movies in the 1930s, including one of the cornier and more inspiring American tales Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – about an idealistic young senator (James Stewart) who finds himself unwittingly caught up in the various grafts and scandals of Washington’s long-time political denizens – is another one of those Great American Movies that just about everyone should see. America was facing a Great Depression in the 1930s, and when movies weren’t working hard to distract people from the horrible poverty that was running rampant outside (there’s a reason the 1930s saw so many frothy musicals and romantic comedies), it was occasionally looking to itself, reassessing the perceived “greatness” of the nation and, more often than not, finding that American ideals were still valid and still necessary. Depression-era movies like American Madness, or even other class-based classics like City Lights or It, all pointed out that there was still compassion and hope in a nation of flagging finances. Films of The Great Depression are, for the most part, not at all depressing.

The notions of American power, though, were floating around the public consciousness and in 1939, Adolf Hitler became an infamous figure, ripe for mockery and parody (1940 saw the release of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, one of Chaplin’s only talkies, and a churlish spoof of Hitler’s mannerisms and transparent need to dominate the world).

On that one infamous day in 1941, when America was forced to join the fray of World War II, patriotism entered the picture(s) in earnest, and pro-American sentiment immediately began to ride high. Suddenly, America had a single rallying cry and a clear enemy. There were Axis and Allies, and war became a noble and righteous endeavor for good people to overcome bad people. It was our job, the scrappy, Depression-stricken underdogs to pull ourselves up, fight the clear-cut evil policies of Germany, and topple the dictatorship. This shows in our movies, even to this day, where Nazis are a handy shorthand for “evil,” even to the point of stylized schoolgirls fighting steampunk Nazi mummies in a trash-fest like 2011’s Sucker Punch. Most all of the movies made during the early 1940s in America, even some of the greatest classics, were largely about the nation, how it operated, all in the perspective of how we reacted to the war. Casablanca (1942), for instance, still one of the best of all American movies, was all about how a largely cynical and heartbroken American expat living in Morocco learned to stand for something, and affect a manner of patriotism. Sure, he was fighting for the French underground and not the American government, but it’s hardly insignificant that he is himself and American and runs a café called “The Café Americain.” The implication is, of course, that freedom from the Nazi regime can be provided by an American locale. And where are Ilsa and Victor running off to at the end of the movie? America. Casablanca may not have the bold flag-waving of, say, some of the movies that John Wayne starred in at the time (see: Flying Tigers, The Fighting Seabees, etc.), but its messages are most certainly pro-American.

Heck, even some of the Bugs Bunny cartoons at the time featured appeals to buy war bonds, join in the war effort, and keep American strong. Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips (1944) was a real film. As was Popeye’s cartoon You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap (1942). This was a time when short films and news reels about helping the war effort, donating time and scrap metal to the military, and generally remaining positive were plentiful. Yes, many of the pro-American films smack of propaganda, and were not necessarily the whole-cut truth about the war, but this was a rallying cry, not journalism. Besides, watching these old WWII-era movies is still fun and, as I said above exhilarating. When watching these movies, we’re not encouraged to feel sympathy for the other side. It’s all about us. And that kind of us-vs.-them mentality is one of the easier ways to impart drama.

I would say the best and most patriotic of the WWII-era movies (other than Casablanca, of course) is Michael Curtiz’ 1942 musical Yankee Doodle Dandy, most assuredly being played on TV on July 4th as it has been almost every year. Staged as a biopic about famed songwriter George M. Cohan (James Cagney), Yankee Doodle Dandy is a joyous and playful film that depicts not just how music can while away a pleasant three minutes, but how a well-placed song (in Cohan’s case, “Over There”) can contribute more goodwill to soldiers and to the international war effort than any number of advanced bombs or planes. This July 4th, you couldn’t do much better than to watch (or re-watch) Yankee Doodle Dandy. Innocent? Yes. Naïve? Perhaps. Great? Most assuredly.

In the modern era, we tend to look at America with a note of cynicism. Indeed, all the film about and surrounding the Vietnam war are typically about lies, deceit, damage, misery, and the actual physical, metals, political, and historical consequences of an ill-fought war. Some of the films about the Vietnam war are great classics (Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Coming Home, etc.), but none of these films tend to look on America is a glowing light. I could fill an entire series of essays on disillusionment and American cynicism in the cinema of the 1970s. Indeed, when we tend to think of more modern films about the history of the nation, and the effect America has on the rest of the world, they tend to be dark satires or calculated films intended to take the wind out of patriotism’s sails. Think of something like 2007’s There Will Be Blood, a microcosm tale of the evolution of American capitalism, and the soulless type of personality that is required to make American businesses grow. Or the same director’s The Master from last year, which is most certainly not about how strong personalities shape this nation for the better. Even great directors like Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone have made movies like Gangs of New York and W., intending to kind of deflate the oft-repeated edict that America is Great, so often mouthed by dishonest politicians that we no longer trust.

America-as-Hero seems to be a bit passe in the modern era. Or is it? What are the most popular films in the modern era? Usually story-heavy sci-fi action spectaculars about superpowered or extremely capable heroes fighting the good fight. While their principals are never fully stated in the bulk of these summer blockbusters (it’s rare to have a speech about ideals anymore), the heroes therein tend to be “good guys” fighting “bad guys.” And while some would reduce this to a vague battle of good against evil, more helpful and more specifically, these heroes are fighting for what is essentially an American idealism. Iron Man, for instance, is fighting to clean up the war-mongering mess he made (which was a greed- and self-based lifestyle), and try to work for peace, cleanliness, and general civil responsibility. He is not fighting to prove his strength. He is fighting to end tyranny and promote equality and freedom. Equality and freedom. Words repeated often in American founding documents. While some are clearer on this point than others (I still think Man of Steel, to cite a recent example. is far too vague when it comes to its central hero’s principals), most modern American blockbusters are very positive and optimistic about the lasting power of American ideals and of democracy. In a way, many of your favorite movies, however frivolous, are patriotic movies.

Happy 4th. Now go watch an American movie. It’s your civic duty.

Homework for the Week:

Are all American film patriotic? Which is the most patriotic movie? The least? Do you mind when a film has a clear pro-American agenda? Is it ever a good thing? Is it always a bad thing? What movies fill you with pride in your nation? Are they positive or negative or a mixture? 

Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and co-star of The Trailer Hitch. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies Extended, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind. If you want to buy him a gift (and I know you do), you can visit his Amazon Wish List


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