The 4th of July is about more than just celebrating the birth of America. It is important to remember that for many people July 4th day tends to be more about fireworks and fixings than freedom. Sure, you could plop down in front of the TV to witness the truly surreal spectacle of Jefferson, Adams and Franklin singing and dancing on Turner Classic Movie’s annual airing of “1776,” but why limit yourself when this most American of calendar dates has become about so much more than jotting down your John Hancock?
“I gave up my independence ten years ago today,” asserts Joe Starrett during a 4th of July dance in which the mysterious stranger named “Shane” dances with Joe’s wife a who is the thief that stole the farmer’s independence a decade earlier. Independence Day is not overplayed in this most subtle of all the classic westerns, but its placement within the story is of monumental importance. The iconic struggle for little Americans to break free from the domination of more powerful adversaries is at the very heart of this retelling of the Johnson County Wars.
If “Shane” refers back to the prototypical importance of July 4th in American history, then the movie that refashioned the film industry indirectly comments on the holiday’s contemporary placement within American consciousness. For Americans living 150 years after independence was declared in Philadelphia, July 4th is more about heading outside for some recreation under the sun than it is about celebrating freedom from British oppression. “Jaws” begins with a shark attack, but the audience remains a member of the privileged few who fully understand the consequences of those attacks until tourists descend on Amity Island on Independence Day. One fake shark fin and one slowly sinking human leg later and all hell has broken loose on this Independence Day off the coast off Massachusetts.
About the last movie setting you’d expect to contain a vital sequence taking place during a 4th of July celebration is a Native American reservation. And yet that is exactly how “Smoke Signals” opens in a positively brilliant way that makes this one of the most entertaining choices you could make for a film to watch on Independence Day. The irony of Native Americans celebrating Independence Day is matched only by the irony of celebrating a day based on the concept of all men being created equal as the brainchild of a few dozen men who owned other human beings at the time. The irony rises to a blistering inferno once you reach the point in the movie where the truth of Arnold Joseph’s bewildering reply that he didn’t mean to do a good thing is painfully revealed.
Fireworks are as much a part of July 4 celebrations as the ability to recall whether it was Jefferson or Adams that wrote the Declaration of Independence. Independence Day parades aren’t as omnipresent as they used to be, but you can still find them slowly traveling down Main Street in some towns. Martin Scorsese took both the parade and the fireworks motifs common to July 4th celebrations and infused them with the kind of sickly truthful malevolence that only he used to be capable of pulling off. Scorsese’s remake of “Cape Fear” utilizes Independence Day celebrations as a metaphorical reminder that Max Cady may well have done some bad things, but he was still entitled to fair legal representation. The noble perversion of Max Cady as a streetwise combatant for the very rights being demanded by those attending the Continental Congress usually passes over the heads of “Cape Fear” viewers; probably because to consider Max as the contemporary offspring of Sam Adams and John Hancock is just too much perversion to bear.