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Sean SalaiJuly 03, 2014
Robin Wright as Mary Surratt in the movie "The Conspirator" (CNS photo/Roadside Attractions).

Like many Americans, I enjoy a good historical film on the Fourth of July. But as a Catholic, I sometimes have a hard time finding a movie on Independence Day that tells America’s story from a Catholic perspective.

Many of our beloved July 4 classics retell American history from the victors’ standpoint, glorifying the Great Protestant Men who long shaped our nation’s destiny. Our founding fathers were undoubtedly great men, but sometimes it’s hard to cheer for these films. At times, we applaud them even without any clear personal connection to the stories.

In his 2012 list of “Top Ten Movies for the Fourth of July,” Mark Hughes at Forbes Magazine gives us a roster of typical chest-thumping action films, with a few notable exceptions like “Rocky” (1976) standing out. His list includes historical dramas like “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989) alongside fictional adventures like “Jaws” (1975) and “Red Dawn” (1985) — the latter earning his praise for its “over-the-top patriotism mix[ed] with a few nice moments of moral ambiguity.”

With all of these patriotic films glorifying American exceptionalism, what’s a Catholic to do?

For one thing, we might start by recalling that there are more than a few moments of moral ambiguity in American history, and that we sometimes forget on July 4 that immigrants have not always been welcome on our shores.

And while moral ambiguity may seem uncommon in Fourth of July films, there are a few good historical movies that depict the American Catholic experience in a way that evokes compassion for those who fought and those who still fight to be part of this nation’s great history. Without bashing America, these films give a more balanced perspective on our nation’s virtues and vices.

Some of these historical dramas are well known and others are obscure, but they are all worth checking out. They are films that celebrate American virtues while making us think critically about American vices. They manage to inspire us as patriotic Americans, but without glorifying things which may give us a false sense of moral superiority.

So in historical order, here are my 12 best Catholic Films for the Fourth of July:

1. A Time for Miracles (1980) – A young Kate Mulgrew plays St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in this ABC TV Christmas special. Filmed after Pope Paul VI canonized Seton in 1975, and after the U.S. bicentennial of 1976, this biopic tells the life story of America’s first native-born saint. Seton starts life as a New York Episcopalian socialite, born two years before the Declaration of Independence. Widowed in 1803 during a trip with her ailing husband to Italy, she turns to Catholicism and brings her children into the church as well. Dressed in mourning clothes, she begins teaching poor Irish children, leading Bishop John Carroll (warmly played by Lorne Greene) to ask her to be mother superior of a new congregation of teaching sisters.

Bishop Carroll, a Jesuit who was America’s first bishop, is more talented at founding schools than he is at protecting Seton’s flock from anti-Catholic bigotry—one scene involves a mob outside the church of a priest played by Milo O’Shea—or the sufferings of illness and poverty. Her own compassion does that. Played with sensitivity by the Irish Catholic Mulgrew, Seton comes alive in this Emmy-nominated film that is unusually poignant and uplifting despite its moments of great sadness. The film gets bonus points for framing its narrative with scenes depicting Seton’s canonization trial (she was short one miracle) and with actual footage of Paul VI canonizing her in St. Peter’s Square.

2. One Man’s Hero (1999) – This film depicts a little-known episode of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), in which a group of mistreated Irish Catholic immigrants defect to Mexico from the Protestant-dominated U.S. Army. Mexico and Ireland honor them today as heroes, but they are largely forgotten in the United States. The movie’s title refers to the idea that “one man’s hero is another man’s traitor.”

Tom Berenger does perhaps his best work here as the Irish ringleader Sergeant John Reilly. Himself an Irish Catholic from Chicago, Berenger nails the accent and understands his character, a military man who cares more for his faith and for his men than he does for U.S. military designs on Mexican territory. Despite the modest budget and some heavy-handed moments in the screenplay, there are occasions of real greatness in this old-fashioned film, which asks viewers to root for a motley crew of Irishmen and Mexicans against the expansionist U.S. government in the age of Manifest Destiny. How many patriotic American films ask you to root against America? You might be surprised at how much this one moves or disturbs you, depending on your perspective.

3. The Courage to Love (2000) – In this Lifetime TV movie, Vanessa Williams plays Ven. Henriette Delille (1813-1862), a free Creole woman of color who lived in pre-Civil War New Orleans. Born into the placage system where white Frenchmen fathered children with black servants and protected them by financial arrangements, Delille was the child of a white father and black mother, making her a target of racism when white Southerners entered Louisiana after Napolean sold the territory to the United States.

Torn between her romantic love for a Frenchman and her desire to care for Catholic African-American slaves, Delille chooses to become Mother Henriette, founding the Sisters of the Holy Family as the first religious order for blacks. She gathers well-educated black women around her to serve the poor throughout Louisiana. This movie offers a rare look at black Catholicism in Louisiana at a time when American influence was displacing French colonial rituals. There are some insights into race relations of the time. It’s also the only film I know that depicts an African-American saint, or at least a woman whose cause for canonization is progressing. Williams is excellent as the good-hearted Henriette, who heroically devotes her life to God in service of a better world, despite feeling torn by what might have been.

4. The Conspirator (2010) – Robert Redford directs this indie film on a little-known episode of the U.S. Civil War, the trial of Abraham Lincoln’s co-conspirators in 1865. The titular character is Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), a Catholic Southerner who ran the boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and his allies planned Lincoln’s assassination. Surratt, the only woman tried for Lincoln’s assassination, became the first woman executed for treason by the U.S. government after she refused to compromise her son—a conspirator who fled the country through Catholic sanctuary routes and was never caught. Nevertheless, there has never been conclusive proof that Surratt knew anything about the plot to kill Lincoln.

Courtroom-bound and cerebral, the film raises important questions about the morality of prosecuting one’s own citizens for treason in a military tribunal, suspending their civil liberties to satisfy a public demand for justice. Redford seeks to tweak our collective moral conscience, giving us numerous scenes that  suggest analogies between the Lincoln Administration’s suspension of habeas corpus and the post-9/11 detention of terrorism suspects in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Excellent work comes from a familiar cast that includes James MacAvoy as the conflicted Union war hero assigned to defend Surratt; Tom Wilkinson as a sympathetic U.S. senator; Kevin Kline as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton; Evan Rachel Wood as Surratt’s daughter; Danny Huston as the prosecuting attorney; Stephen Root as an unscrupulous prosecution witness; and Colm Meaney as the presiding tribunal general. Wright plays Surratt as a historical enigma, but occasionally lets us glimpse an iron determination beneath her mask of righteousness: She may be guilty, or she may not know that she is guilty, but she’s sure as hell not going to betray her son or her church to the U.S. government.

5. The Molly Maguires (1970) – Sean Connery and Richard Harris star in this Oscar-nominated social drama about the downfall of an illegal Irish-American terrorist organization in the coal mines of 1870s Pennsylvania. Based on a true story, the film follows Pinkerton detective James McParlan (Harris), whom the mining companies hire to infiltrate the underground world of “Black Jack” Kehoe (Connery), who leads the Mollies as a secret organization within the Irish Hibernian Society.

While there is historical debate about the guilt and the activities of the Mollies, whose group arose in response to the economic despoliation of Irish immigrants at the hands of mine owners in a time before labor unions, the film tends to minimize these grievances to focus on sabotage-murder-revenge plots between the Irish immigrants and the mining police. The Mollies in this unromantic pic are clearly thugs, ignoring the pleas of a local Catholic priest for love and forgiveness. But the mine owners are also thugs, determined to use violence in profiting on the labor of the poor. What makes this quiet film work is the fine acting of Connery (a lifelong practicing Catholic) and Harris. Their searing performances as immigrants fighting to escape poverty in different ways, each morally problematic, is a compelling struggle. If revenge-minded Connery finally gets the edge on guilt-ridden Harris in the audience’s sympathy, it’s only because Connery makes the point that he fought for his friends rather than for money. He wasn’t a martyr, but he didn’t sell out to the forces of greed and power. It’s an old theme in Irish Catholic history.

6. The Staircase (1998) – This CBS made-for-television film is an uplifting Catholic Western set in 1870s New Mexico. It packs a deep spiritual punch that sets it apart from other faith-based films. Barbara Hershey plays an ailing mother superior whose dying wish is to see the Sisters of Loretto chapel in Santa Fe completed. The only problem: The architect forgot to put in a staircase to the choir loft and there’s no room now to build one of normal design. Diane Ladd is a sympathetic fellow nun and William Peterson (“CSI”) is the mysterious carpenter who volunteers to build a spiral-shaped staircase without nails. Based on the real-life Loretto chapel, now a museum attached to a hotel in Santa Fe, this film excels at suggesting the miraculous in everyday human life rather than hitting the viewer over the head with corny special effects or heavy-handed allegory. The relationship between Hershey and Peterson, despite Hershey’s inconsistent Irish accent and Peterson’s anachronistic style, grows unexpectedly poignant as the pic progresses. The message of the miraculous staircase is ultimately about trust, perseverance, and faith—not magic.

7. Boys Town (1938) – Spencer Tracy won Best Actor for his portrayal of Father Edward Flanagan, an Irish Catholic priest who in 1917 founded an Omaha home for unwanted boys. This heartwarming tale starts with Father Flanagan’s early struggles to open Boys Town, but then settles down into a battle of wills between Flanagan and a young delinquent played by full-throated Mickey Rooney, whose hoodlum brother entrusts him to the good father’s care. Father Flanagan’s message that “there’s no such thing as a bad boy” quickly earns him enemies, but resonates with the marginalized and abandoned kids who flock to him. He propounds the educational theory that every boy can become a productive member of society if he’s given a chance — i.e., raised in an environment of love and care when he’s young enough to change. The real Father Flanagan was alive to see Tracy play him on film, but died of a heart attack in 1948. He was buried on the grounds of Boys Town, which still exists today. “Boys Town” is one of those rare Hollywood classics that feel as fresh today as when they opened. It offers a timeless message of God’s kindness and mercy that is likely to tug at your heartstrings. Father Flanagan is now a Servant of God whose cause for sainthood is progressing.

8. Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story (1996) – Moira Kelly isn’t totally convincing as Dorothy Day and Heather Graham is too overwrought as her troubled friend, but “Entertaining Angels” (110 minutes) from Paulist Pictures is a well-intentioned biography of the New York social worker who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. In 1920s New York, Day runs around with radical political writers, having both an abortion and a daughter out of wedlock before her common-law husband Forster Batterham leaves her. Converting from communist atheism to Catholicism, she devotes herself to living with the poor in New York’s streets, starting a national social justice newspaper and soup kitchen with the help of an eccentric Frenchman named Peter Maurin.

Martin Sheen lends gentle comic gravitas to his role of Maurin, Melinda Dillon shows up as a sympathetic nun whose generosity influences Day’s conversion to Catholicism, and Brian Keith appears as a cardinal who permits Day’s work despite his concern for its effect on the church’s public image in an anti-communist era. The Irish American actress Kelly excels in her scenes as the young Day, surviving ideological disillusionments to dedicate her life to God, but she is weaker in unconvincing old-lady makeup as the elder Day in the film’s framing scenes. The film’s title comes from the Biblical statement that we have “entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:2) when we have welcomed the poor into our homes. Like Father Flanagan, Day is now a Servant of God whose cause for sainthood is open.

9. On the Waterfront (1954) – This film is a Hollywood classic. Marlon Brando plays Terry Malloy, an Irish Catholic dockworker in New York City who is forced to choose between his mobster brother (Rod Steiger) and the girl (Eva Marie Saint) whose brother he set up for a mob hit. Two competing influences on Malloy’s moral discernment are the mob-affiliated labor boss (Lee J. Cobb) and the local Jesuit priest (Karl Malden) who is stirring up dockworkers to testify. Based on the waterfront crime commission that exposed corruption in the New York longshoremen’s unions in 1949, “On the Waterfront” won eight Academy Awards — including Best Picture and Best Actor — on the way to becoming perhaps the greatest Catholic social justice film ever made. It’s actually a fictionalized account of Father John “Pete” Corridan, S.J., the real-life labor priest who persuaded the dockworkers to finally stand up to the mob running their union. As the ex-boxer Malloy, Brando came away from the film with a classic line: “I coulda been a contender.” But the film’s biggest punch comes in its stark moral lesson. When you stand up for what’s right, people respect you. But when you do the wrong thing for money because everyone else does it, you get a guilty conscience and a ticket to hell. It’s a tough idea, but director Elia Kazan presents it powerfully in this exciting true-to-life tale of moral corruption.

10. Rudy (1993) – It’s hard to talk about patriotic Catholic films without mentioning at least one sports drama. And “Rudy” is one of the best. Based on the life of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, it tells the story of a young man’s determination to play football for Catholic powerhouse Notre Dame University in the 1970s. The only problem is that Rudy, played with pluck by Sean Astin, lacks the natural talent, intelligence and size to make it. So he substitutes determination instead. Moving from his Joliet Catholic high school to a factory job, Rudy eventually quits work and pursues his dream. Working his way through a junior college to earn acceptance to Notre Dame, he finds mentors in a retired priest who is the former university president (Robert Prosky) and in a groundskeeper (Charles S. Dutton) who knows everything about football. He also befriends two fellow students played by Jon Favreau and Lili Tayler, who support him in his unlikely effort to take the field for Notre Dame. From the producers of “Hoosiers,” this film includes some electrifying sports photography and uplifting moments, celebrating the great icon of the American underdog.

11. The Mighty Macs (2009) – This movie is like the Catholic women’s version of “Hoosiers,” even opening with a similar retro montage where a basketball coach (Carla Gugino) drives to her new school through the countryside, this time a college in Pennsylvania rather than a high school in Indiana. Like “Hoosiers,” it’s based on the true story of an unlikely basketball championship, this time a 1970s basketball team at a small Catholic women’s college. It even features the same underlying theme of religion (this time Catholicism rather than Protestantism) as it relates to basketball as a metaphor for life. Above all, “The Mighty Macs” works because it treats basketball as a game, not as a pseudo-religious substitute for the divine. Gugino gives an understated and sincere performance as the Baptist basketball coach hired to run the team at a small Catholic school in danger of bankruptcy. Ellen Burstyn plays the school’s mother superior. This fun and lighthearted film reminds us that the games we learn in childhood are ultimately gifts from God for our enjoyment rather than for our profit. God is God, but a game is just a game.

12. Dead Man Walking (1995) – ”Dead Man Walking” is an Oscar-winning Tim Robbins film based on the memoirs of Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., who worked with death row inmates at Louisiana’s Angola state prison in the 1980s. Played by Susan Sarandon, Sister Helen walks into the life of a death row inmate played by Sean Penn, whose tough-guy routine masks great fear for his impending execution on charges of homicide and rape. Based on a composite of real cases, this searing drama takes you right into the lethal injection chamber, showing you every step of a state execution in all its sad detail. Look for Jack Black in an early role as Penn’s younger brother. There are moments of great beauty and compassion, but also a fiery message against the death penalty here. “Dead Man Walking” is definitely not an uplifting way to celebrate America’s birthday, but it may be of interest if you’re in more of a reflective mood this year.

I have limited this list to historical dramas, but there are many other titles both fictional and non-fictional out there. Please feel free to list some of your own favorites. Happy Fourth of July!

Sean Salai, S.J., is a summer editorial intern at America.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
David Pasinski
9 years 9 months ago
Thanks for an intersting column, I'bve sen only a few of these, but agree that they are engaging if somettimes over the top and with some contested history and historical perspectives that display aspects of catholicism of another era. I wonder what this era will produce ???? I know you mean Mickey Rooney (rather than Rourke) and Terry Molloy.
Sean Salai, S.J.
9 years 9 months ago

Thanks for reading. I've corrected the text on "Boys Town" to give the late, great Mickey Rooney the credit he deserves! I also corrected the typo in Terry Malloy's name for "On the Waterfront."

Richard Moore
7 years 9 months ago
How about Sleepers...De Niro plays a pretty cool priest!
Doris Smith
7 years 9 months ago
Gee, I would have thought that Lilies of the Field, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0057251/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1, could have gotten a nod here. Granted it's not terribly historical, but still... And Sidney Poitier was the first African American to have picked up an Oscar awarded to an Actor in a Leading Role.
Brewster Campbell
7 years 9 months ago
The Fugitive (The Power and the Glory).

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