The great American filmmaker John Huston once described Hollywood as a “cage to catch our dreams”.
But, as Americans celebrate Independence Day, how has that cage captured the hopes, dreams and, more intriguingly, the nightmares of US history?
THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940)
If there is one filmmaker whose iconic imagery defined the mythology around the American west, it was John Ford.
However arguably his greatest cinematic achievement was an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s grim novel about the Great Depression. Steinbeck’s masterpiece highlighted the exploitation of itinerant workers by focussing on a family of Oklahoman tenant farmers driven off their land and struggling to make a living in California’s dust bowl.
Ford’s film adaptation is fuelled by Henry Fonda’s charismatic performance as Tom Joad, released from prison and reunited with his family, who is appalled by what he sees in California’s migrant camps. But there are a host of other strong performances in this powerful movie including Jane Darwell as the family matriarch and John Carradine as the disillusioned ex-preacher, Casy.
Evocatively shot by Ford’s long time cinematographer Gregg Toland, the film is best remembered for Tom Joad’s stirring climactic speech about social justice – a speech which would later inspire Bruce Springsteen’s song ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’.
THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON (1941)
Raoul Walsh’s biopic of General George Armstrong Custer is a classic example of how Hollywood has often casually rewritten history.
However it is also a stirring action movie, with Errol Flynn turning in one of his most charismatic performances as the General and Walsh turning in a stunning recreation of the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
In the wake of ‘Little Big Man’ and ‘Dances with Wolves’, Walsh’s movie has justifiably been castigated for the casual racism of its portrayal of the Native Americans and for the way it liberally reimagines history (the real life Custer did not try to make peace with the Lakota Sioux and was primarily responsible for the Great Sioux War).
But as a piece of Hollywood propaganda, its battle sequences are as breathtaking as DW Griffith’s racially questionable ‘Birth of a Nation’ and Olivia de Havilland makes a perfect romantic foil for Flynn’s Custer as Libby Bacon.
INHERIT THE WIND (1960)
A year after the McCarthy witch hunts for suspected Communists, Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee in 1955 went back 30 years for inspiration to the Scopes monkey trial in a play which shone a harsh light on those who sought to stifle freedom of expression.
After a successful run on Broadway, director Stanley Kramer brought the Southern courtroom drama to the big screen with Spencer Tracy as the lawyer Henry Drummond and Fredric Marsh as his friend and rival, the prosecutor Matthew Harrison Brady.
Drummond is asked to defend Dick York’s schoolteacher Bertram T Cates for teaching his pupils Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Gene Kelly plays a Baltimore Herald court reporter EL Hornbeck, covering the trial.
With its scene chewing courtroom speeches, slow boiling tension and a powerful lead performance from Tracy, Kramer’s movie is still extremely brave in the way it challenges fundamentalism and, in particular, its instinct to suppress the individual. Its power has not diminished 52 years later.
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976)
There have many great movies about journalism but arguably the most influential is Alan J Pakula’s Oscar winning thriller about the Washington Post’s exposure of the Watergate scandal.
Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman are mesmerising as the reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein whose dogged probing of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in 1972 ultimately leads to the humiliating resignation of President Richard Nixon.
The film scooped four Academy awards including a deserved Best Supporting Actor gong for Jason Robards as the Post’s Executive Editor Ben Bradlee but there are also exemplary performances from Jack Warden and Martin Balsam as veteran newsmen, the Metro editor Harry Rosenfeld and managing editor, Howard Simons and Hal Holbrook as Deep Throat.
Pakula’s movie and William Goldman’s screenplay inspired a host of Woodward and Bernstein wannabes in journalism courses and newsrooms across the world. That is not surprising, given its skilful depiction of the mechanics of investigative reporting.
There have been many great Vietnam War movies from Michael Cimmino’s Oscar garlanded ‘The Deer Hunter’ and Francis Coppola’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ inspired ‘Apocalypse Now’ to Stanley Kubrick’s harsh ‘Full Metal Jacket’.
However Vietnam War veteran Oliver Stone’s Oscar winning movie remains the most authentic in its portrayal of a doomed military campaign from the perspective of an infantryman, with its terrifying jungle gun battles, gory deaths and harrowing brutality.
Charlie Sheen has never been better than as the college drop-out turned Army grunt, Chris Taylor – torn between the macho white male posturing of Staff Sergeant Bob Barnes (Tom Berenger) and his clique and the more inclusive, drug addled Elias (Willem Dafoe) and his crew.
Along with Sheen, Berenger and Dafoe, there are strong supporting turns from Forest Whittaker, John C McGinley, Kevin Dillon, Reggie Johnson, Francesco Quinn and Mark Moses as a Second Lieutenant who is clearly out of his depth. It is also brilliantly edited by Claire Simpson and shot by cinematographer Robert Richardson, with a jaw dropping use of Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ to heighten the tragedy.
Operating outside the Hollywood mainstream, John Sayles has been a touchstone for independent filmmakers with movies packed full of humanity.
One of his best films is ‘Matewan’ which is based on a little known, real life shootout in 1920 between workers in a West Virginian mining town and detectives tasked by the Stone Mountain Coal Corporation who were sent in to bust efforts to organise a trade union.
Playing like a companion piece to ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ and ‘High Noon’, Chris Cooper gives a stirring performance as the trade union organiser Joe Phelps, who takes up residence in a boarding house run by a coal miner’s widow, Elma Radnor (Mary McDonnell) and her 15-year-old Baptist preacher son, Danny (Will Oldham).
Smartly shot by cinematographer Haskell Wexler and efficiently edited by Sonya Polonsky, Sayles’ moving film expertly builds up the tension and benefits from strong supporting performances from James Earl Jones as Few Clothes Johnson, David Strathairn as Police Chief Sid Hatfield, Bob Gunton as the company mole within the union, CE Lively and Kevin Tighe as a nasty enforcer, Hickey.
American Civil War enthusiasts will no doubt cite Ronald F Maxwell’s epic ‘Gettysburg’ and ‘Gods and Generals’ as the definitive movie accounts of the war which ended slavery.
However ‘Thirtysomething’ creator Ed Zwick’s stirring movie highlighted the overlooked story of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw’s 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first unit of African American soldiers in the US army.
Told from the perspective of Shaw, Matthew Broderick is noble in the lead role but the movie belongs to Denzel Washington’s Oscar winning performance as the angry escaped slave and the ever reliable Morgan Freeman as a gravedigger-turned Sergeant Major, Rawlins. There are strong supporting roles too for Cary Elwes as Shaw’s second in command Major Cabot Forbes, Andre Braugher and Jihmi Kennedy as infantrymen and Bob Gunton as a corrupt General.
Zwick and his cinematographer Freddie Francis handle the battle sequences with great panache and there are many memorable sequences right up to the catharsis of the final battle scene including the public flogging of Trip for desertion and a breathtaking moment where the unit marches past the homes of black sharecroppers whose children are stunned to see a uniformed African American army unit.
MALCOLM X (1994)
In much the same way as ‘JFK’ was a labour of love for Oliver Stone, this stylish biopic of the radical African American Muslim leader consumed director Spike Lee.
Denzel Washington turns in arguably his best performance as Malcolm X, in an epic movie which covers his early days as the zoot suited Harlem hustler, Malcolm ‘Detroit Red’ Little to his conversion to Islam in jail, his emergence as a powerful and uncompromising minister and national spokesman for the Nation of Islam and his eventual betrayal.
Angela Bassett shines as his loyal wife, Dr Betty Shabazz but there are terrific performances too from Lee as Shorty, Delroy Lindo as the Harlem crime boss, West Indian Archie, Albert Hall as Malcolm X’s prison mentor, Baines and Al Freeman Jr as the Nation of Islam leader, Elijah Muhammad.
Stylishly shot by Ernest Dickerson (especially the early Harlem sequences) and brilliantly edited by Barry Alexander Brown, Lee and Washington give audiences a revealing insight into an important figure who was not the one dimensional demagogue some believed him to be. The use of footage of LA police assaulting Rodney King and actor Ossie Davis’s stirring eulogy bookend a film whose themes still resonate.
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998)
Oliver Stone’s ‘Platoon’ may have changed the way wars were depicted onscreen but the opening 27 minutes of Steven Spielberg’s movie surpassed it, with its graphic recreation of the Normandy landings.
To the sound of whizzing bullets plunging into the sea, thudding explosions and the rattle of gunfire, Janusz Kaminski’s jerky camera movements and Michael Kahn’s editing bring audiences right into the heart of the sheer terror of Omaha beach on D Day in a tour de force of filmmaking that deservedly netted Spielberg a second Best Director Oscar.
And while Spielberg’s movie never quite scales the heights of its breathtaking opening half hour, it shines a light on the horrors experienced by soldiers on the battlefields of World War Two by shattering the romanticism of previous movies.
Tom Hanks is outstanding in the anchor role of Captain John H Miller leading his unit in their search through battle scarred Normandy for Private James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon) and is ably supported by a cast which includes Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Giovanni Riblisi and Jeremy Davies as the petrified cartographer, Upham.
UNITED 93 (2006)
Emotions around Al Qaeda’s attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC on September 11 still remain raw almost 11 years on.
And it is this which gives added potency to English filmmaker Paul Greengrass’s tribute to the bravery of the terrified passengers of United Airlines, Flight 93 who foiled an attempt to steer their fourth hijacked jet into another target by forcing it to crash into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Adopting the same neo-realist style he deployed in the equally powerful ‘Bloody Sunday’, Greengrass mixes a largely unknown Hollywood cast with real-life participants in the events that day – most notably Ben Sliney, who was in his first day in the job as a National Operations Manager with the Federal Aviation Administration when the hijackers struck the Twin Towers.
Aided and abetted Barry Ackroyd’s smart cinematography and Clare Douglas, Richard Pearson and Christopher Rouse’s intelligent editing, Greengrass casts his audience in the role of hapless bystander as the events unfold and brilliantly captures the initial confusion and horror of passengers, crew, the military and federal aviation employees.