“The Patriot” is a decent revenge narrative about a by the numbers good guy who was pushed too far. But for celebrating the Fourth of July, it’s trash. The Fourth of July shouldn’t be about celebrating warfare or revolution, it should be about celebrating exceptional American freedom.
The British statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke never called what happened here in 1776 a revolution. His most appropriate designator was “civil war.” He was highly critical of the French revolution, as we all should be, as it was a terrifying failure.
What was different about America? Why are we the unicorn of political revolutions? It’s because we didn’t revolt and overthrow a government. We defended our English rights against English tyranny. We were self-governing and had outgrown rule from that little Island.
The author Os Guinness uses this classic example of Captain Levi Preston to demonstrate the point:
“Captain Preston, what made you go to the Concord fight?”
“What did I go for?”
“Were you oppressed by the Stamp Act?”
“I never saw any stamps, and I always understood that none were sold.”
“Well, what about the tea tax?”
“Tea tax? I never drank a drop of the stuff. The boys threw it all overboard.”
“I suppose you had been reading Harrington, Sidney, and Locke about the eternal principle of liberty?”
“I never heard of these men. The only books we had were the Bible, the catechism, the Psalms, Isaac Watts’ hymns, and the almanacs.”
“Well, then, why did you go out to fight?”
“Young man, what we meant in going for those Redcoats was this: we always had been free, and we meant to be free always.”
The American Revolution was self-defense. We were free, and our English brothers were getting in the way. So rather than celebrating something that stirs up violent revolutionary sentiments that would make Jean Jacques Rousseau weep with envy, I propose these films as replacements for “The Patriot” during your July Fourth celebrating.
When you truly love something, you take it as it is, warts and all. Not every film on this list is happy. But all these films are America.
1. ‘12 Angry Men’
This film is proof-positive that ultimately great films are built on great scripts. More than that, this movie is about how American jurisprudence rests on “innocent before proven guilty.” English jurisprudence was built on “guilty before proven innocent.”
Innocence of a crime one didn’t commit is extremely hard to prove. Often, it’s impossible. There are too many people in our prisons, too many needlessly deprived of freedom. This film reminds us that isn’t ultimately the fault of a “system” but often the fault of 12 people.
Jury duty is an important part of our freedom. Let’s be better at it.
2. ‘American History X’
This film is brutal and not for everyone. It’s a tragic tale of a brilliant young man who turns to white supremacy to heal the wounds of losing his father. Sound relevant?
America is one of the least racist places in the world. I’m not trying to Howard Zinn this list. But “American History X” is about how America is an antidote to racism. The tag line—“some legacies must end”—says it all. America was built on principles in conflict with slavery.
Every society on Earth has been built upon slavery. But America said our pillars will reject that. We haven’t been consistent, we have failed. But we have the keys to freedom from racism and, like Martin Luther King Jr., we must grasp tighter to those keys, not looser.
We must become more fundamentalist about American exceptionalism in this regard, more convinced, more impassioned. We must set free the better angels of our nature and stop trying to solve our racial problems from without but look within. Constraints don’t make people good. Racism is ultimately a struggle of the soul, and our founding principles defeat hate every single day, whether we see it or not.
This film is pure Alexis de Tocqueville. The meditating communal institutions of America are what fundamentally facilitate freedom. It’s the governments’ job to remove constraints so that can happen.
In Greenville, North Carolina, there’s a program called “Cops and Barbers” for at-risk youth. It’s a network of men who are watching out for the kids of that community. American freedom resides in the people, but it’s unsustainable without community. This film celebrates that like none other.
This wonderful film has really gone under the radar and should be essential viewing for the Fourth of July. Saorise Ronan beautifully portrays an Irish immigrant who is trying to make a life in Brooklyn. We are a nation of immigrants, and I wish the entire world could live here. I would have no problem with completely open borders if we abolished the welfare state and federal income tax.
But that won’t happen anytime soon, if ever. Conservatives want people to come here because we believe America is exceptional! We want people who want to be free to be able to be free. Here your heart can sing unhindered. This beautiful clip from the film really says it all:
5. ‘Field of Dreams’
Do I even need to defend this one? Baseball. Iowa. Anti-censorship. Unwavering faith. Corn fields. Conflicted relationships with fathers. James Earl Jones. Kevin Costner before “Waterworld.” It doesn’t get any more American than this! I don’t know why you aren’t watching this movie right now. This film is a celebration of everything we are as a nation.
This film is hilarious, but it’s also about fundamental American values. If marijuana and profanity makes you uncomfortable, you may want to skip this one (I’m not a fan but I still love this movie). But ultimately this film is about bullies and standing up to them. It’s about being a man and growing up. It’s about how communities are only as good as their people.
We decide what kind of communities we’ll have. We decide how free we are.
7. ‘The Iron Giant’
This is quite possibly the greatest animated film ever made. Like Brad Bird’s excellent Incredibles films, it’s jam-packed with American nostalgia. It has numerous virtues such as suspicion of power and the simple joys of being a young child running around in the woods.
But its message about appearances being deceptive is probably the most important. America is against pre-judgement. Prejudice kills the soul. “Look, it’s none of my business, but who cares what these creeps think of you? They don’t make you what you are, you do. You are who you choose to be.”
If you’ve never seen this film, you owe it to yourself to watch it this Fourth of July. If you don’t shed a tear at the end, well, then you’re the one made of iron.
8. ‘The Karate Kid’
I said everything I needed to say about this film here. In this article I’ll simply say if the Fourth is about patriotism, then it’s ultimately about fatherhood. “They carried in their souls the spirit of their fathers. The root of the word ‘patriot’ comes from the Greek word patris. Patris means father.”
9. ‘The Last Unicorn’
This wonderful animated film is perfect for celebrating the Fourth of July because America is a unicorn. A unicorn is something that shouldn’t exist, something precious and unique. There has never been a country like this one: A country founded on principles in direct conflict with slavery. A country willing to fight a war over slavery. A country with no nationality or enforced religion. A country with no king. Even the soundtrack to this film was performed by America!
More importantly, this film is about finding things that are lost. And something is very lost in our country today. We need to go looking for it. The keys to freedom have been locked away somewhere and it’s going to require each of us to go on a soul-searching quest to find them.
The lyrics from the theme song are tremendous and oddly evoke our current predicament perfectly:
When the first breath of winter through the flowers is icing
And you look to the north and a pale moon is rising
And it seems like all is dying and would leave the world to mourn
In the distance hear the laughter of the last unicorn
I’m alive, I’m alive.
America is the last unicorn, and she is still alive. We have to go find her and set her free again.
Fundamentally, this film is about the contradictions of the American founding. Slavery existed in the land of the free for a long time. But evil can’t be stamped out with a hammer. It takes wisdom, time, patience, and hard work.
The best line in the film demonstrates this beautifully: “A compass, I learned when I was surveying, it’ll… it’ll point you true north from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps, deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp… what’s the use of knowing true north?”
This film also tells a story about a functioning legislative branch. Nowadays, our representatives and senators are pundits. They’ve grown fat and lazy. Here we get to see what republican democracy is supposed to look like in all its nasty, raw beauty.
We deserve men like Thaddeus Stevens, who was willing to say things that made his heart break in order to free people. I pray for a Congress that calls each other reptiles again to break the shackles of tyranny.
What conservatives want to conserve is not the bizarre caricature of rugged individualism and social darwinism that the Left says we represent. Jonah Goldberg put it very well: “The market system is so good at getting people—from all over the world—to work together that we barely notice how much we’re cooperating. Liberalism, meanwhile, by refusing to give people direction and meaning from above—as every ancient system did, and every modern totalitarianism does—depends on a healthy civil society to provide the sense of meaning and belonging we all crave. Civil society, as I explain later, is that vast social ecosystem—family, schools, churches, associations, sports, business, local communities, etc.—that mediates life between the state and the individual. It is a healthy civil society, not the state, that civilizes people.”
That is what this film represents. It’s Tocqueville versus Karl Marx. The USSR’s hockey team was the incarnation of Communism, and a bunch of college kids defeated it! If you don’t have time to read Goldberg’s “Suicide of the West,” then maybe just watch this film. They’re both about naturalistic miracles.
12. ‘Remember the Titans’
This movie is pure Americana, from the soundtrack to the morals. Sports save lives, sports breed forgiveness, because sports don’t really matter. The stakes are lower with sports, so we can enter into them more lightly. That’s how we discover each other.
This is why Robert Putnam titled his book “Bowling Alone.” You can can’t discover others by playing solitaire. This country is built upon an infinite string of individual relationships. It isn’t ultimately about what happens in DC. It’s about us and how well we can learn to live with each other.
13. ‘Steel Magnolias’
No one needs an excuse to watch this wonderful film, but the Fourth of July is a pretty good one. Our women have always made this country great. They are tough and beautiful, magnolias made of steel. “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.” Enough said.
14. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’
“Now, gentlemen, in this country, our courts are the great levelers. In our courts, all men are created equal. I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system – that’s no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality! Now I am confident that you gentlemen will review, without passion, the evidence that you have heard, come to a decision and restore this man to his family. In the name of God, do your duty. In the name of God, believe Tom Robinson.”
The members of this infamous jury in this famous American book didn’t believe the falsely accused Tom Robinson. Yet freedom requires better of us. It requires that we take responsibility for ourselves and our world.
The Fourth of July means nothing if it isn’t nested in what Thomas Sowell calls “the tragic vision of the world.” This sees that the world is cracked and broken and says we must go to the broken places without idealism, but with tragic conviction that our principles are true even when we fail to live up to them.
This last one is blank. I’m several generations removed from Pacific Northwest Indians, but whenever I visit Oregon the land awakens the echoes in my soul. I pray that someday this spot could be filled by a film about Black Elk, a holy man of the Lakota.
He decided to follow Jesus, whom the Lakota call Wanikiya: “He who makes live.” He was a convert to Catholicism and is being considered for canonization by the Catholic Church. Someday he will be remembered as one of the great Americans, but unfortunately his Christianity runs against the grain of the racist identity politics of American leftism.
Black Elk was at the Wounded Knee massacre, but overcame tragedy with faith. The life blood of America has always been faith. The separation of church and state isn’t designed to protect atheists, it’s designed to protect faith from the state. Without faith there is no freedom, and therefore no America.