When Patriotic Movies Go Awry

Happy 4th of July! You know how "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel?" These movies may seem patriotic, but have darker messages.

When Patriotic Movies Go Wrong

Patriotism is a funny animal, if only because no one can ever agree on what it means, exactly. Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin felt those citizens who questioned and rebeled against an intrusive government were the truest of patriots, while only a few years later John Adams outlawed badmouthing the government. Was Joe McCarthy a patriot for trying to defend the democracy against subversive encroaching communism, or a sweaty, paranoid, power-mad psychotic? Is Edward Snowden a patriot for letting the American people know what their government was up to, or history’s greatest traitor for revealing US intelligence secrets to the whole world?

Well, you get the idea.

Still, for filmmakers patriotism has always been an easy card to play, and a sure-fire crowd pleaser. People sure do love to wave little American flags and chant “U-S-A! U-S-A!” when given the chance. Thousands of films have been made over the past century which celebrate American individualism, ingenuity, tenacity, and firepower. Mostly firepower.

But if you look at any major media outlet’s list of top patriotic films (and there are a bunch) you keep finding the same damn titles over and over again: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Forrest Gump, Glory, Patton, 1776, Band of Brothers, The Patriot, Independence Day, Saving Private Ryan, Rocky IV. You can probably guess the rest.

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Quick sidenote: In his snide Time magazine review of Rocky II, Richard Schickel quips that at film’s end, he half expected Stallone to wrap himself in an American flag in the middle of the ring. Little did he know Stallone was keeping that one in reserve for sequels down the road…

I think the reason the mainstream list of the best patriotic movies is so limited can be blamed on those endless unexpected jokes history keeps pulling on us. So many films are made with the best intentions, their rah-rah, gung-ho Americanism is so deeply felt and a reflection of the national mindset at the time, but if you go back and take another look a few years later, they can seem, well, a little creepy.

Take D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic about the post-Civil War Reconstruction, Birth of a Nation. The film was made with all the best intentions as a serious and exciting drama about the efforts to make the country whole again, a picture whose goal, according to Griffith, was to reveal the dark side of evil and the struggles of the good and virtuous to contain it. That’s all well and good, but considering the film’s original title was The Klansman, and the film focuses on the “virtuous and heroic” KKK’s efforts to restore order to an anarchic black-ruled South, well, ummmm…let’s just say it doesn’t make many Top Ten lists of any kind. He really meant well, though. Sure.

Gabriel Over the White House

In 1933’s Gabriel Over the White House, President Judson Hammond (played by Walter Huston), having been possessed by the Angel Gabriel, brings the Depression to an end by dissolving the Legislative and judicial branches of the federal government, concentrating all political power within himself. He then declares martial law, single-handedly battles the mob, puts the Army of the Unemployed to work on a public works project, and uses the threat of military force to strong arm the other nations of the world into signing a peace treaty. Made in the depths of the Great Depression and confronting many of the problems facing Americans at the time, it’s all portrayed as a very good thing.

Upon seeing it, an historian I know noted that it was the only film he could think of in which fascism was presented not only as a cure for America’s troubles, but as a force of goodness and light working to protect the common man.

The film’s message was a popular one upon its initial release, but then that damn Hitler had to come along and ruin everybody’s dream. Warner Brothers pulled the film out of circulation for the next 70 years.

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Two years before Gabriel Over the White House, writer W. Scott Darling and director George Seitz took the idea of friendly fascism one brutal step further in Night Beat. The film opens much like The Roaring Twenties, with a couple of army buddies (Jack Mulhall and Walter McGrail) in the trenches during WWI. We soon learn their paths would diverge wildly after their return to the States. It’s a fairly standard opening, and doesn’t promise much.

The first sign that something is a little off here—terribly, terribly off to modern audiences—comes in the next scene, in which an immigrant shopkeeper is sending his children off to bed. “Who is the greatest Italiano in all the world?” he asks them, to which they shout back merrily, “Mussolini! Mussolini!”

Well, that was unexpected.

When the shopkeeper refuses to pay the mob for protection, his shop is blown up in retaliation. He reports the incident to the police, and has the following exchange with the district attorney (McGrail):

“What you need in this country is a Mussolini! He get ridda all the crooks. He make the big crooks catch the little crooks!”

“It’s not a bad idea,” the D.A. replies. He promptly tears the Constitution into tiny pieces, adopts Mussolini’s slogan, “Get Out or Get Shot,” and hires one of the biggest mobsters in the country (Mulhall), giving him the blunt order to kill all the other mobsters in town. His reasoning again is he’s protecting the good citizens of these United States by murdering the bad ones wholesale. There is nothing subtle about it. The D.A. explains that the justice system is useless and ineffective, and so gives the mobster police authority to kill all the people he would’ve been killing anyway.

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It’s a mobster’s dream ticket and he undertakes the task with relish, but at the end of the film he admits to a member of his gang that he’s been “a good cop.”  “My line may not’ve been according to Hoyle,” he says, “But it worked.”

Night Beat is a tricky one, because again at heart it’s a movie about trying to restore order to a country that was in disarray during the Depression. Modern audiences react in amused shock to the Mussolini references, but they’re forgetting that in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, Mussolini did in fact use strong arm tactics to quite effectively send the Black Hand scurrying. The Mafia either went underground or fled the country entirely. Point is, it worked. Audiences also tend to forget that before a couple more of those little jokes of history, Mussolini and Hitler were both considered heroic figures, not only to their own people, but to many in the West as well (as Night Beat illustrates). Then the war came along and we all wised up.

One has to wonder, though, how deeply those historical lessons have taken hold. Audiences nowadays might react to a name, but what about the message of the film itself? It seems to me the message is just as popular now as it was then, if not more so. If the idea of doing away with the legal system and just killing what we perceive to be “bad guys”  bothered people, you need to wonder why Dirty Harry and Death Wish drew crowds like bloodthirsty flies. They still want a Mussolini—but, y’know, with a different name.

Speaking of which, more or less, when you’re talking patriotic cinema, war films are almost a given as they tend to be patriotic by nature (unless they’re made by some commie pinko like that Oliver Stone). But even war movies can (and often do) confuse patriotism with cold-eyed jingoism. I was a little astonished that none of the patriotic film lists I found contained a single John Wayne picture. What the hell? After all those war films and cowboy movies? C’mon, The Duke was as American as American can get!

Then I remembered history again, and that it is absolutely not okay to call Native Americans or football teams “redskins.” I also remembered The Green Berets.

The Green Berets

In his book Vietnam at the Movies, Col. Michael Lee Lanning, a retired U.S. Army officer, rips apart hundreds of films that dare to include a crazy vet, get uniforms or equipment wrong, try to pass off the Philippines as Cambodia, or even mention the war in passing. He hates them all, because nobody ever gets it right. Buncha goddamn liberal pinkos is what these filmmakers are, probably hid their sissy asses in Canada during the war. The only film, for all the films he reviews, to come away unscathed is The Green Berets, which he insists is the only accurate portrait of the Vietnam War ever made.

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As a war movie and an action adventure film The Green Berets isn’t nearly as bad as most would like to claim. But looking beyond that it’s still a weirdie, a clear-eyed, simple minded, and heavy handed bit of political propaganda. Co-directed by Wayne himself, the 1968 picture was the first major studio attempt to deal with the situation in Vietnam. It was also made with the full cooperation of the US military, and was filmed entirely at Ft. Benning, Georgia. So let’s just say it ain’t exactly Platoon, Apocalypse Now, or the middle third of The Deer Hunter. No, they toed the company line pretty closely.  

Its purpose is laid bare in the opening scenes, in which a group of simpering and ill-informed journalists ask officers like Aldo Ray why the US is in Vietnam in the first place. The answer is really, really simple. The Viet Cong are supported by the Soviets and the Red Chinese, see, so we’re trying to stop the commie drive to conquer the world. Also, the Viet Cong are a bunch of ruthless savages and we’re the only ones who can protect the poor, backward, primitive, and superstitious people of South Vietnam. That’s no doubt what Wayne believed, and wanted to pass this understanding along to the American public.

Unfortunately, 1968 wasn’t exactly the year to try and do that.

Not helping matters was the film’s weird and wiggly tone. Given Wayne’s uncomplicated worldview, even the use of Vietnam-specific terminology (“charlie,” “Da Nang,” etc.), it’s essentially a WWII movie plopped down into Southeast Asia. Also, nearly half the film is played for laughs, right down to the introduction of a cute and smartmouthed Vietnamese orphan. All the grunts and officers alike are lighthearted and jovial and seem to be having a mighty fine time in their jungle camp. In and amongst all the wisecracking and jocularity, in other scenes we hear about Viet Cong atrocities and witness the torture of a captured VC operative (which Wayne’s character justifies and promptly dismisses as no big deal).

Although not as ugly as the book it’s based on, things do get pretty nasty, and it’s made clear the rarely-seen VC are nothing more than cruel animals who care nothing about human life. Americans, and specifically the Green Berets (even as they adopt VC tactics), are a beacon of light in the world, warmhearted, almost Christ-like saviors. By the end of the film once-skeptical and cynical journalist David Janssen becomes convinced of all this, and finally understands that our mission over there is a good and true one. Too bad that whole “history” thing had to come into play again.

Far be it from me to claim it’s only right-wing extremists who can push their idea of patriotism to crazy, even wacko lengths. The same year The Green Berets came out, writer/actor/director/politician/health guru/all around nutjob Tom Laughlin introduced the character Billy Jack in The Born Losers. Billy Jack is a former Green Beret who was drummed out of the Corps after refusing to take part in a My Lai-style massacre in Vietnam. Now he lives in the desert with his half-tribe learning the ways of the Indian mystics and protecting the students and teachers at a nearby hippie school from assorted evil right-wing assaults.

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Over the course of four films, Billy Jack defends hippies, children, Native Americans, horses, and the nation as a whole against outlaw bikers, evil corporations, cops, politicians, and the military. He does this by kicking the shit out of anyone who disagrees with him.

The films are preachy, righteous paranoid liberal fantasies that argue not only are the above conservative nogoodniks a direct and daily personal threat to the freedom and well-being of hippies, but to the sanctity of the United States itself. It’s perhaps best expressed in the last Billy Jack film, 1977’s Billy Jack Goes to Washington. After somehow obtaining the rights to Frank Capra’s original celebration of personal sacrifice and American idealism, Laughlin set about tweaking the script a bit. Now along with filibustering before Congress and illustrating both the rules and the sleazy realities that run the government, Billy Jack also, yes, kicks the shit out of anyone who disagrees with him. And dammit, if that’s not the American way, I don’t know what is! As liberal and (mostly) gentle and hippie-loving as he is, more than one reviewer called the Billy Jack movies fascist films, the same charge they hurled at the Dirty Harry series. So there you go.

Once it reaches the red zone, what is taken to be fervent patriotism tends to spawn conspiracy theories both on the right and left regarding perceived threats to the nation’s well-being and security. Whatever side the conspiracies fall on, they tend to be equally fantastical and self-serving. The JFK assassination has offered plenty of fodder to prove me right.

The first of the JFK conspiracy movies, 1973’s Executive Action, illustrates that first idea up above there, that no one can ever agree on what patriotism means. Three men, a rogue intelligence officer, a wealthy industrialist and a right-wing politician, sit around in one guy’s rec room, drinks in hand, plotting to kill the president. Director David Miller’s perspective is clear: he’s saying in essence, “here’s a cabal of representatives of all the evils in America today, and just look at what they’re doing! Why, they’re a greater threat to the country than communism!” This idea is driven home by the closing credits, where we are shown pictures of all the people somehow connected to the assassination (often innocently) who died of unnatural causes over a few short years following Kennedy’s death.

You see? They’ll kill us all to get their way, and it’s our patriotic duty to stop them!

Ah, but the tricky part here is that the members of the evil cabal  in question (Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, and Will Geer) feel it’s their patriotic duty to eliminate a power mad president who would destroy the country by pulling out of Vietnam, signing a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviets, and pushing forward on Civil Rights legislation. Why, Kennedy is a bigger threat to the country than communism!

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So yes, here we are again, with questionable and personal interpretations of patriotism being used (like religion) to justify whatever kind of crazyass nonsense you choose, so long as you can point a finger at someone you don’t like. In 1991, Oliver Stone’s assassination comedy, JFK, would simply push that idea to outrageous and hilarious new heights.

As far as Patriotism Gone Mad films go, however, there was no topping the 1980s for sheer cartoony shenanigans (or a newfound Hollywood sense of realism, depending on your perspective). The Red Scare of the 1950s may have given us anti-commie propaganda like I Married a Communist and 1952’s Invasion USA, but those were serious and thoughtful exercises in fear mongering compared with a Reagan-era flood of pictures that not only mongered fear, but rewrote some of the darker periods in US history so we finally come out the winner the way we were supposed to in the beginning.

So Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, and even Gene Hackman each went back and won the Vietnam War, which I guess is a nice thing considering it was something even John Wayne couldn’t do. As John Rambo, Stallone also single-handedly defeated the Soviets in Afghanistan (though my mom probably could’ve done that) and beat up a bunch of yokel cops. Which is also cool, I guess, though Mr. Stallone really needs to take a remedial class in sequel numbering.

More interesting than the rampant historical revisionism  were all the remakes of that ‘52 Invasion USA, though apparently no one involved in any of the ‘80s films bothered to watch the last ten minutes of the original.

Foremost among them was John Milius’ 1984 Soviet invasion fantasy extravaganza, Red Dawn. It’s been said that exactly one half of the people who saw that film took it to be a perfect artistic representation of the threat facing America at the time. The other half took it to be a nutso bit of conservative fantasizing, in which all those namby-pamby liberals out there will finally get what they deserve.

Red Dawn

Sitting in the theater when it was first released I guess I fell into the latter camp, but found myself sitting directly in front of a young member of the former. After the scene in which the Wolverines execute one of their own for apparent treason, the kid behind me whooped and shouted “Yeah! Fucking traitor got what he deserved!”

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I considered for a moment engaging this young man in a healthy debate concerning the actions of the Wolverines and what, exactly, they were fighting to preserve, but suspected it would end with me unconscious and bloodied on a sticky movie theater floor. By film’s end, the kid was telling his girlfriend he’d decided, solely as a result of what he’d just seen, to join the U.S. Army Special Forces. I was thinking of that red-blooded kid again about a decade back, when it came out that the US military’s operation to depose Saddam Hussein had been code-named Red Dawn. I was somehow not surprised.

A year after Red Dawn, Chuck Norris topped Milius in the scary cartoon paranoid fantasy game with his sort-of remake of Invasion USA. It’s best not to ask too many questions about the logic at play in the film, and I suspect very few members of the target audience did.  Richard Lynch is a Soviet terrorist with a beef who, along with oh, maybe a dozen other America-hating commie  terrorists, lands on the beaches of Southern Florida. A few days later not only are terrorists striking all over the country (mostly soft targets like school buses and chirches and shopping malls), but normal red blooded Americans are turning against each other and blowing up crap, too. Things go so bonkers martial law is instituted nationwide to make sure those commie terrorists, ummmm…don’t win.

Lucky for us Chuck Norris not only has the ability to sense where the rotten commie terrorists will strike next, but he can materialize anywhere in the country in a moment’s notice to save the day, eeven if that involves shooting up a few crowded shopping malls himself. At film’s end there’s no indication whether or not the newly-instituted martial law will be lifted. After all, who really needs freedom so long as you have security?

Yes, it’s all mighty silly, and I’m not exactly sure what passes for “patriotism” here, except for Norris’ efforts to defend a nation where the population is ready to turn on itself at the slightest inconvenience. But at least there are lots of explosions and precious little dialogue to fog the issue. The one thing I will give the film, and why I keep returning to it, is that it contains the Greatest Single Christmas Scene in Any Movie Ever. And that’s worth a lot. God bless America!

Apart from a few stragglers, Patriotism Gone Mad films, as a genre, took a bit of a breather after Reagan left office and the Soviet Union collapsed. Suddenly we were without any tangible, large-scale threats to the American Way of Life. There was no one we could point at and say, “he hates our freedom and human life means nothing to him.” So what the hell were filmmakers supposed to do?

Yeah, history’s a funny thing. In the 20s and ‘30s we were after anarchists and communists (which boiled down to Italians). In the ‘40s it was the Germans and the Japanese and the Italians. In the ‘50s it was the North Koreans and the Russians. In the ‘60s it was the Viet Cong and the Russians. In the ‘70s and ‘80s it was just the Russians. Now it’s Islamic extremists. But for all our external enemies, at every step of the way we’ve always really just been after ourselves, or those among us we consider traitors to what we believe personally. This has never been embodied so perfectly in a film than it was in 1996’s Uncle Sam, which may explain why Uncle Sam has been my annual and unquestioned choice for Fourth of July viewing for the past fifteen years.

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Uncle Sam movie

Three years after making the last Maniac Cop film, William Lustig and Larry Cohen rounded up an all-star cast to make a movie that took on many of the same themes dealt with in Maniac Cop, but with a twist. Uncle Sam is a curious picture in political terms because I know people on the Right who see it as a celebration of American values, and people on the Left who see it as a dark satire of the dangers of extreme patriotism. Take your pick.

The setting is a picture postcard model of small town America, complete with picket fences and a town-wide Fourth of July picnic in the park. The streets are clean and safe, the people are happy, the sun is always shining, and finding all that in a William Lustig film immediately seems to scream “satire,” but maybe that’s just me.

Sam Harper was a proud soldier, a True Believer, a real flag waver, who filled his nephew Jody’s head with a true blue American Spirit (as well as making clear to the boy who America’s enemies were, like those damned hippies and liberals). Thanks to his, yes, Uncle Sam, Jody is bound and determined to become a soldier himself some day. Not too many other people around town liked Sam, especially his wife and sister. He was a drunk, a wife beater, a bully, and an all-around asshole. So when he’s killed by friendly fire during the first Iraq War, nobody’s much broken up about it except Jody, whose patriotic fervor becomes more hardcore and self righteous than ever. There are few things in this world quite so annoying as a self-righteous 9-year-old.

When Sam’s coffin arrives home and is placed in the living room, we begin to get the parade of America’s enemies: the army officer (Bo Hopkins) who helps with the arrangements while making move’s on Sam’s widow; the lawyer who brags about cheating the government by setting up tax loopholes for his clients; a grade school teacher who was a draft dodger during Vietnam; a corrupt politician; disrespectful teenagers; pot-smokers; perverts, and everyone who isn’t currently enlisted. There’s nothing subtle about it, but beyond simple audience manipulation, here Lustig and Cohen are setting up a point.

Enter Isaac Hayes, a retired soldier with a wooden leg who is wracked with guilt for filling a young Sam’s head with war stories the way Sam later filled Jody’s. He’s since become disillusioned with the glories of war, and hopes to make up for what he did to Sam by deprogramming Jody, who isn’t much interested.

As the film’s amazing poster and tagline might suggest, when some drunken rebellious teens in a nearby park burn an American flag, Sam’s corpse crawls out of its coffin to take care of the above checklist in a way he’d never been able to when he was alive. Some pretty great scenes follow, but there’s just no topping a peeping tom on stilts being chased down the street by a vengeful murderous zombie soldier. Yes, it’s over the top and obvious, but it’s still sharp and funny, the pacing is snappy, and it has a point to make. Leave it to Larry Cohen to write a slasher/zombie/revenge satire about patriotism gone mad. Or celebration of American values, however you care to look at it.

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Lesson here being that good ol’ Sam Johnson was right again. For most people, liberal, conservative, Lutheran, whatever, patriotism seems to be the drive to protect a nation in which everyone thinks and believes all the same things they do, and those who don’t should be exterminated. Maybe that’s an extreme and crazy interpretation, but that’s what the movies seem to be telling me. Ah, sweet land of liberty. So just be careful where you toss those M-80s.