Politically speaking, I do have qualms about excessive patriotism. Patriotism can lead to a kind of blindness, a lack of critical self-awareness, which is not a good thing. But patriotism also offers something important. It offers a sense of pride that isn’t directly attached to success. Again, blindness towards this detachment can be a problem, but the detachment is healthy nonetheless. By taking pride in our setting, we endeavour to live up to that pride. We are inspired to match the ideas we have in our minds.
Americans have been consistently accused of excessive patriotism, and one look at the rhetoric in the Rebuplican presidential race shows just how blind and idiotic that patriotism can be. I know something else about America, though. I know that through its history, America has been a fraught but remarkable country. Americans often refer to their democratic system as “The Great Experiment” and I it’s not hard to see why. It was an unprecedented idea and implementation, and it has essentially become the model for developed and developing countries around the world.
All this is to say that America truly is just as special as Americans claim. Maybe not always in the terms of pure action, but in terms of the foundational ideas of the country it’s difficult to find a country more worthy of patriotic pride. I suppose it’s for this reason that when I see lots of American flag-waving in films I have very little problem with it. What got me thinking about this was an old blog post I read recently over at Ryan McNeil’s The Matinee in which he complains about the rampant flag-waving in Hollywood films. He’s complaining from the perspective of a Canadian, and I understand his concerns. We Canadians live so close to America, and are so similar, and consume so much American media that being irked by American flag-waving is natural. The thing is, though, I have no hard feelings about it, and I only wish Canada had a cultural and ideological tradition strong enough to warrant that kind of flag-waving.
That’s not to say we can’t or don’t wave our maple leaf-adorned flags. We Canadians often take a lot of pride in our nation, and in recent years the flag has become even more visible. The best example of this was at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Not only were the games a huge success, with much of the world marvelling at the warmth and excitement of the host cities and country, but it was also Canada’s chance to show off, to brag and boast and feel like it was justified. Our athletes won plenty of medals. We put on a great games. We were all able to stand together, natural-born citizen and immigrant alike, and wave a flag and gloat about the achievement that is the great dominion of Canada.
The problem is that this clear, unfiltered show of patriotism is harder to express in art and in film. The British can do it because they have an extremely long cultural tradition to take pride in under the flag. Americans have an established culture, as well as a foundational ideology and mythology over which to wave a flag. Canada has none of this. Our culture is a hodgepodge of British, French and American influences. Our nation was founded through a negotiated series of conferences, not a war or a succession of monarchs. There was never a distinct Canadian ideological message, though in the last century we have developed a general attitude of simple kindness and social responsibility. Sure, in many ways Canada offers great opportunity and freedom just like our neighbours to the South, but there’s no grand basis for our thinking that makes us particularly unique.
When it comes to patriotic Canadian films this makes it tough. Where an American film can wave a flag and everybody in America—and many people around the world—will understand what that flag has come to symbolize, do the same with a Canadian flag, which naturally symbolizes very little, and the show of patriotism is likely to feel forced rather than genuinely motivated or inspired. Even a Michael Bay film can wave an American flag, and like it or not this conveys a sense of strength and will and independence. Wave a Canadian flag and all you’re saying is, “Check it out! Canada!”
Interestingly, one of the most boldly patriotic Canadian films is not a Canadian film at all. Powell and Pressburger’s WWII propaganda film, The 49th Parallel, was able to feature stupendous patriotic messages about Canada that still ring true. Crucially, though, those messages came about in the face of grave existential threats in Europe. In the video above, Anton Walbrook gives one of the great speeches in cinema, about the greatness of Canada as a free, multi-cultural country. One thing to note, though, is that you could probably replace every instance of the name “Canada” with “America” and the speech would still work. This is because in the context of the war, the Allied forces all represented one mindset against a fascist alternative.
In his blog post, Ryan talks about the way he was turned off by the flag-waving and narrow focus on American troops in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. There are a couple of points here where I feel he’s wrong to complain. The first is that it happens to be an American story told by an American as a means of reflecting the American experience during WWII. That specificity is a part of the film, and it doesn’t for a second hamper the film’s universal messages about the nature of war or WWII’s morality. As for the actual flag-waving, I think it’s too easy to see an American flag as a foreigner and have a gut negative reaction. When you actually consider how the flag is used in the film you see that it’s extremely important, and hardly mindless propaganda. In fact, Saving Private Ryan is very specifically about what it means to fight in a just war even when the smaller missions are difficult to justify. It’s about how meaning of fighting “for one’s country” and the flag is there to symbolize what they fought for. And crucially, the flag in Saving Private Ryan provides a backdrop for all that is potentially good and bad about what America stands and what Americans actually do. To only focus on the gut reaction is to miss the complexity Spielberg explores in a film that is distinctly about the soldier’s patriotic relationship with his country and his countrymen.
I return, though, to the idea of the flag as a symbol. It’s a symbol of a country, yes, but it also takes on the things that country symbolizes. I ask you, what does Canada symbolize that is easy to boast about? Peace? Tolerance? Sure, I guess. Those are nice things, though I sometimes wonder how much we truly live up to those ideals. But they aren’t foundational. They aren’t core. They aren’t ingrained. America, as a nation, as the country that introduced modern democracy to the world, as a country that had both a revolution and a revolutionary constitution, has been a great symbol. The American flag takes on that symbolism. I think that while some of it is justified, a lot of the negative reaction to American flag-waving in movies and in general is a product of resentment. It’s a resentment that stems from America representing things that other countries can’t or don’t. Me? I have no such resentment. I love America, and I think it represents grand ideals, even when it rarely lives up to them. At the same time, I’m very secure in my love of Canada. I feel connected to Canada. It’s my home. I love living here, and other than the weather I have little inclination to move to America or any other country permanently. Canada offers me what I need and offers it in great supply and with great ease.
Though I’m Canadian, I understand the impulse to brag about America. I even understand the egocentricity that’s a slightly unsavoury result. I don’t mind it all that much, and in a weird way I take a certain level of vicarious pride in America when I see effective flag-waving in Hollywood films. And as I said, pride can be a very good thing. Though it’s sung to satirical effect in Team America: World Police, I do think there’s some visceral truth to their glorious statement: America, fuck yeah!