Today marks the 240th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In honor of this milestone, I will be reviewing three films that capture the innovative and pioneering spirit that the United States was founded upon. Happy Independence Day!
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: Few genres are as unique to American culture as the Western and few actors are as synonymous with America as John Wayne. This 1961 film provided a unique take on the western that exposed the grit and lawlessness that made up life in the early West and left the genre forever altered. The film begins with US Senator Ransom “Ranse” Stoddard (James Stewart) traveling from Washington with his wife, Hallie (Vera Miles), to attend the funeral of rancher Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) in Shinbone (a fictional town in an unnamed state). When a reporter questions why a senator would go to so much trouble to pay respects to a rancher the film launches into a flashback of the incident that put Ranse on the path to political success. The film then chronicles law-abiding Ranse’s efforts to rid Shinbone of local gunslinger Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), while still remaining within the boundaries of the law. What begins as a simple story of citizens versus gunslingers quickly spirals into a masterfully told tale of a region coming to grips with its place in an emerging nation, as the citizens of Shinbone contemplate impending statehood. The film excellently depicts the democratic process at work through its portrayal of town hall meetings, political debates, and a free press. While the plot focuses upon the benefits of statehood and the American political system, it reveals the resistance that statehood was often met with and the ways in which the political system is all too often manipulated. The film also examines the meaning of bravery and grit through its focus upon the initially pacifist Ranse rather than his macho counterpart, Tom. Furthermore, the film turns the typical structure of the Western on its head as it argues in favor of restraint and rule of law and only shifts its focus to genre staple Wayne after his character defies genre expectations and sacrifices both the glory and the girl for the greater good. While the film does not shy away from America’s gritty past, it does highlight the principles that this nation was founded upon through its emphasis upon the best aspects of our legal and political system and reminds us of the hope and promise which those systems were founded upon.
Moscow on the Hudson: This 1984 film portrays modern America from the perspective of a newly arrived immigrant. The film begins with musician Vladimir Ivanov (Robin Williams) trying to eke out a living amidst the financial hardships and political repression of 1980’s Moscow. Eventually he tours the world with a circus, and after his first glimpse of life beyond the iron curtain, he realizes that he can no longer stand the deprivations and repression of Soviet life. In a scene that is at once heartfelt, suspenseful, and comical Vladimir ultimately defects to the US in the middle of a Manhattan Macy’s. The film then chronicles his efforts to assimilate to US life and struggles to make a new life in a strange land. While the film does offer commentary on democracy vs. communism and is very much of the Cold War era in which it is set, Vladimir’s tale of immigration and assimilation is one that both recalls the immigrants who founded this country and those who continue to arrive today. The film realistically portrays the struggles with language and culture that many immigrants face as such simple activities as shopping at a supermarket inspire culture shock and Vladimir struggles to understand the slang used by his coworkers and roommates. Although the film is perforated with fish-out-of-water shenanigans, it also provides a serious look at the immigrant experience as Vladimir faces prejudice, isolation, and financial hardship and ultimately begins to question if defecting was the right decision after all. Throughout his various ups and downs, however, the film maintains an infectious sense of optimism and a central message that the freedom to live your own life, regardless of how difficult that life may be, is something to be cherished.
|Who says tough guys can't dance?!|
Yankee Doodle Dandy: No Independence Day film list would be complete without this 1942 musical biography. The film chronicles the life and work of turn of the century composer George M. Cohan (James Cagney), best known for such patriotic standards as “You’re a Fine Old Flag”, Over There”, and of course “Yankee Doodle Boy”. The films begins towards the end of Cohan’s career as he meets President Franklin Roosevelt and is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in recognition of his contribution to American music. The film then launches into a flashback starting with Cohan’s birth to Irish immigrant vaudeville performers (Walter Huston and Mary Decamp) on, of all days, the fourth of July. The film then chronicles his years as part of the family vaudeville act alongside his parents and sister (Cagney’s real-life sister Jeanne) and the trouble the family faces when his adolescent arrogance gets them blacklisted by producers and directors. Eventually he sets out on his own and attempts to sell his songs while courting a struggling chorus girl (Joan Leslie), before finding success and humbly asking his family to rejoin him onstage. While the film’s focus is upon Cohan’s life and career, it is permeated with the same patriotic spirit found in Cohan’s music in its celebration of both American music and the American Dream. Interestingly, the film’s emphasis upon Cohan’s patriotism was in part inspired by Cagney’s efforts to highlight his own patriotism after the House on Un-American Activities Committee unjustly accused Cagney of being a communist. In an effort to redeem his public image, it is reported that Cagney overcame his personal dislike for Cohan, who had sided with producers during a 1919 Actors Equity Strike, and set out to make the “goddamnest patriotic picture ever made”. One viewing of Cagney and company’s stellar performances, and it is there is no doubt that Cagney succeeded in doing just that.