When you look at how we United States citizens typically spend our Fourth of Julys, not much of what we often do is, technically, American. Fireworks? An ancient Chinese invention. Baseball? English cricket, greatly modified. Hot dogs? German bratwurst without the kick.
All these things are still, paradoxically, quite American. After all, most of us are imports ourselves, after a fashion, with our ancestors hailing from every point around the globe. I think part of our national genius is retooling other countries’ creations and making them our own. But if we wanted to spend our Independence Day partaking in a truly homegrown pastime, we might want to watch a movie. It’s hard to think of anything more quintessentially American.
Even here, we’re cheating a little. The first “motion picture” was created by Britain’s Eadweard Muybridge in 1878. But no less than Thomas Edison was instrumental in furthering the technology—unveiling his Kinetoscope during the 1893 World’s Fair. (The technology was encased within a big box, and viewers would watch short films through a tiny peephole.) And while Europe created some of the most notable works early on, it wasn’t that long before the United States really came to dominate the form.
While it may be arguable whether we make the best movies in the world, but there’s no question we make the biggest. In 2011, the U.S. exported $14.3 billion worth of cinematic goods to the rest of the world. Last weekend, we reported that Transformers: Age of Extinction made $301 million—two thirds of that overseas.
These days, when the world thinks of America, they think of our movies. For better or worse, they’ve helped define us—both to ourselves and to others. Take a glance at the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Greatest American Films of All Time (a list last updated in 2007), and you’ll see that the Top 5 tell uniquely American stories.
1. Citizen Kane (1939), the rags-to-riches story of a (semi) fictional newspaper tycoon, fueled by a blend of ambition, idealism and avarice that might be viewed as stereotypically American.
2. The Godfather (1972) tells the story of an Italian-American family that capitalized on a skewed, bloody version of the American dream.
3. Casablanca (1942) zeroes in on Rick Blaine, a too-cool-for-school expat who, through meeting an old flame, takes up the fight against Nazi Germany in his own way.
4. Raging Bull (1980), where boxer Jake La Motta climbs to the top of his profession through hard work (an American value), then loses it all through dint of excess (an American sin).
5. Singin’ in the Rain (1951), a movie about … the making of American movies.
Now, obviously, some of these films wouldn’t get raves from Plugged In. But these movies, and scores of others on AFI’s list, nevertheless capture snippets of the American story—for better or worse. Oftentimes, these movies show America and Americans as we’d like to see ourselves: High Noon, for instance, or To Kill a Mockingbird. Others poke at the more sensitive parts of our national psyche, forcing us to look at aspects we’d often rather avoid. Our movies have been instrumental in defining who we are, who we fear we’re becoming and who we’d like to be. And they’ve helped define us for the rest of the world, too.
Which makes me wonder just how a movie like the latest Transformers flick are defining us for worldwide audiences today. What, exactly, does that movie say about America? What does it say that we value?
Just because movies are quintessentially American doesn’t mean we should go out of our way to watch ’em, of course—even on the Fourth of July. But if you and the fam want to settle in to watch a clean, classic film together this holiday weekend, there are probably worse ways to spend your time. Plugged In has even done Movie Nights discussion guides on several of them, including Ben Hur (No. 100 on AFI’s list), It’s a Wonderful Life (No. 20), The Lord of the Rings (Fellowship of the Ring made it to No. 50), To Kill a Mockingbird (No. 25) and Toy Story (No. 99).