The History of America In 12 Movies

The History of America In 12 Movies

Here in Boone, NC,  the most perfect and beautiful spot in all of America (and therefore the universe), the sky is blue and the air is cool and dry. For that reason, a movie festival is probably not on my agenda this holiday weekend. But for those of you stuck inside, what better way is there to celebrate the 4th of July than with a movie binge that takes you through the history of this great country of ours.

My list is not perfect. Lists never are. It’s a starting point. Feel free to make your own recommendations.

Enough with the preliminaries, I have slabs of fear to fry and illegal fireworks to light…


1. America’s Founding – John Adams (2008)

Oh, no, right away he’s cheating — “John Adams” isn’t a movie, it’s a television miniseries!


HBO poured $100 million dollars and none of its own politics into this 7-episode, 8 hour adaptation of David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize winning historical biography of the same name.

The result is absolute perfection.

I’ve read McCullough’s book twice now. It’s one of those reads you’ll never live long enough to take in as much as you would like. Producer Tom Hanks, director Tom Hooper, and stars Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney not only do McCullough’s masterwork justice, they do America justice.

By focusing on the long, troubled, and incredible life of one amazing but very flawed man, we witness the birth of an extraordinary country that began with the seed of a crazy idea:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

“John Adams” is about the history of our founding. Better yet, though, it is about the idea of our founding, and the sacrifices so many made to turn a wild experiment into mankind’s only hope.


 2. The Civil War – ‘Glory’ (1989)

As much myth as it is movie, by focusing on the true story of the first American Civil War Army unit made up of only black troops, Edward Zwick’s “Glory” is a potent reminder that even those horribly wronged by America’s flaws still believed that the potential of our country was something worth fighting and dying for.


3. The American West – ‘Fort Apache’ (1948)

The first of director John Ford’s trilogy of cavalry films, “Fort Apache” is a mature, reasoned, and honest look at the long, bloody and tragic war to settle the American West.

Ford’s undying love for American tradition, family, song and most especially the everyday soldier just doing his duty, is only matched by the director’s respect for the Apache Indian. If all men were as honorable as these men, Ford’s film screams, what a world it would be.

But in life there is always a Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda), a vain arrogant and stupid bureaucrat empowered by a vain, arrogant, and stupid federal government.

Thursday (an obvious stand-in for Custer) eventually gets what he deserves. But nothing good comes from it. Honorable soldiers needlessly die with him and the twisting of the story of Thursday’s death will be used against the Apache until they are no more.


4. World War I – ‘All Quiet On the Western Front’ (1930)

Yes, I know director Lewis Milestone’s Oscar winner has nothing to do with America or the American soldier. Still, 84 years later, this uncompromising story of a German schoolboy seeking glory and finding only horror, is still one of the best and most harrowing movies about war — any war — ever made.

Furthermore, the anti-war themes and depictions of the trench warfare that defined the War to End All Wars, are universal.

Don’t make the mistake some have in believing “All Quiet On the Western Front” is a pacifist film that says wars should never be fought for any reason.  

Keep in mind that the characters turned into idealistic cannon fodder are victims of a dishonest government, specifically a dishonest government bureaucrat (a schoolteacher). Erich Maria Remarque, the author of the novel the film is based on, disputed the notion his work was pacifist. He also published his 1929 masterwork in his home country of Germany.

His novel was one of the first the Nazis burned.

“All Quiet on the Western Front” is about knowing who the real enemy is.


5. The Great Depression – ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ (1940)

Director John Ford makes his second appearance on this list with 1940’s “Grapes of Wrath,” a remarkable adaption of John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel about an Oklahoma family battered to pieces by an economic Depression and the Dust Bowl.

Produced in 1939-1940, when the Depression was in full-effect and WWII was still two years away, Ford, producer Daryl Zanuck, and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson made a calculated risk to make a film that is ultimately optimistic and hopeful about the future.

Whereas as Steinbeck’s novel is almost oppressively bleak, the filmmakers had not yet lost faith that America wouldn’t come back, and they certainly hadn’t lost faith in the indomitable strength of the American family.

Ford doesn’t shy away from the Hell on Earth the Joad family — a symbol for millions — faced. He’s just not ready to throw in the towel.

“The Grapes of Wrath” and the overall story of the Depression and Dust Bowl is also good to share with Global Warming Truthers. Compared to 1929, our current climate is a Garden of Eden.


6. World War II – ‘The Longest Day’ (1962)

Though there are four credited directors, “The Longest Day” is really a producer’s picture and that producer was Daryl F. Zanuck.

Starting with the agonizing days in the lead up to D-Day and ending with the moment when the Allied forces had finally secured territory in France (and therefore secured victory), “The Longest Day” has it all — a story that focuses on the everyday soldier, the commanders (straight up to General Eisenhower), the civilians living under Nazi tyranny, the Nazi high command, and the brave resistance fighters.

“The Longest Day” is about how we fought, why we fought, who fought, and who we fought for.

It is also about a day that, without hyperbole, can accurately be described as the most important and consequential of the 20th Century.


7. The Civil Rights Era – ‘Malcolm X’ (1992)

Director Spike Lee’s controversial and brilliant biographical epic of Malcolm X, the firebrand Muslim street preacher assassinated in 1965, is not only one of the best films of the 1990s and a look at the Civil Rights era from a point of view that involves no one white, it’s also a reminder of how America really is a kind of Shangri-la where  you can reinvent yourself again and again.

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in 1925. In 1946, the street hustler and drug addict was thrown in prison for burglary. After his release in 1952, he reinvented himself as a leader in the Nation of Islam, a black supremacist group that lashed out at the injustice of racism and segregation. In 1964, a disillusioned Malcolm X left the Nation, saw the evil of his own racism, and sought to reinvent himself again before being gunned down by a member of the Nation.

Lee’s movie is broke into those three sections, and like its subject is unsparing in its condemnation and depictions of government-approved and enforced racism.

There’s no white liberal hero here. Just black men no longer willing to accept injustice at the hands of the American government.

“If you don’t listen to Martin Luther King,” Malcolm X seemed to say, “Then you are going to have to deal with me.”


8. The Space Race – ‘The Right Stuff’ (1983)

Director Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s bestseller looks at America’s race to beat the Russians into space from the point of view of the Mercury Seven astronauts and their godfather, legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard).  

Sporting a who’s-who cast that would go on to enjoy careers that extend to this very day, the film is perfectly quirky, laugh-out-loud hilarious, inspiring, and unforgettable.

This country creates extraordinary men.


9. The Vietnam War – ‘The Killing Fields’ (1984)

The political and cultural battles here at home are not what the Vietnam War was about. The war was about the people of Southeast Asia, millions of innocents who fought and died by our side to save themselves from the horrors of tyranny.

America won that war. The South Vietnamese won their right to self-determination. There was an uneasy peace that could still be in place to this day. But…

America’s Democrats lost that war after announcing they would stop giving our Vietnamese allies the funding and supplies necessary to defend themselves and keep that peace in place.

Saigon fell, and so did dominos called Cambodia and Laos.

Director Roland Joffe’s “The Killing Fields” is the real history of the Vietnam War — the holocaust that didn’t need to happen. Millions of innocent lives were needlessly lost but the American Left see them as only necessary sacrifices to The Cause of undermining America.

Currently, Obama’s one inept, uncaring, and un-American decision away from ensuring there’s a sequel set in the countries of Iraq and Afghanistan.


10. Watergate – ‘All the President’s Men’ (1976)

A look at Watergate from the angle of what’s right about America — or was right.

Seeing  “All the President’s Men” as a ten year-old blew my mind. Until then my head had been filled with movies about evil and powerful men who would murder, maim, and kill anyone who threatened their power.

But here was a true story about two nobody reporters taking down an American president without a shot being fired.

What a system. What a country.

Today our corrupted and co-opted media defends Nixonian behavior with Orwellian language, lies, and nonsense. They worship government and battle for its control over us. They are no longer the media, they are the Palace Guards.

Still, there’s a new media battling them and their precious Emperor … without firing a shot.

What a system. What a country.


11. The Cold War ‘The Hunt for Red October’ (1990)

Director John McTiernan’s brilliant Cold War thriller is based on Tom Clancy’s fictional novel, but its themes are what ring true.

The stakes in the Cold War were not only real, they were existential. But we were right, they were wrong, God was on our side, and we kicked their commie asses.


12. The War on Terror – ‘Lone Survivor’ (2013)

Iraq, Afghanistan, 9/11, Benghazi… Director Peter Berg’s outstanding retelling of Marcus Luttrell’s non-fiction book, encapsulates the overall War on Terror unlike any film so far released.

The valor of our troops – check.

The subhuman savagery of our totalitarian enemy – check.

The humanity of our allies in Iraq and Afghanistan who face unspeakable horrors should our government (enabled by the media) cut and run – check.

“Lone Survivor” is a story of four men over the course of a few days in a remote part of Afghanistan, but it is really about something much, much bigger.

Happy Birthday, America.

Love you.

Mean it.



Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC