Directed by Peter H. Hunt. Screenplay by Peter Stone; based on the Broadway play with book by Peter Stone and lyrics by Sherman Edwards. Produced by Jack L. Warner. Music by Sherman Edwards. Photographed by Henry Stradling Jr., Edited by Florence Williamson, William H. Ziegler. Production designed by George Jenkins. Starring William Daniels, Howard da Silva, Ken Howard, Don Madden, John Cullum, Roy Poole, David Ford, Ron Holgate, Ray Middleton, William Hansen, Blythe Danner, Virginia Vestoff, Stephen Nathan.
If there has ever been a more ridiculous concept in the history of Broadway theatre than 1776, I have never heard of it. The show, which is a dramatization of the writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence set to song, has so many elements (even in addition to that dubious premise) that should not work. It is about a bunch of old people debating what is, for the audience, a foregone conclusion. It has a cast of about 25 different, distinctive characters, and mines drama primarily out of sitting them in a single room and having them talk, one at a time. Its parallel love stories involve people who are already married, and just miss their loved ones. It is three hours long. It’s talky.
And yet, despite all odds, 1776 is really a special film, and the key to that success is that it takes its subject seriously. Not reverently, but seriously. It’s no more an overwrought musical comedy than it is a stuffy period piece; instead, it is a tightly-held story of courageous, persuasive politicking, with dollops of comedy and music carefully placed to keep us entertained. That seems foolhardy, to combine drama and music so brazenly, but part of the movie’s curious effect is the way the seemingly-incompatible elements give each other the appropriate space. The songs provide character and theme, which lend extra weight to the main plot, which is essentially a courtroom drama where the fate of an entire country hangs in the balance. You’d be surprised, come to think of it, how many scenes in 1776 have no songs at all, because they don’t need them.
In function (if not in form), 1776 most closely resembles a film like 12 Angry Men, where a stubborn protagonist chips away at the resolve of several men who are positioned against his ideals. But John Adams (William Daniels) is no Henry Fonda, and he’s no pure hero, either: he is outspoken, bullish, a boor. “Obnoxious and disliked” is his own self-appraisal, and it’s one shared by virtually every member of the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, who wish he would just shut up about proposing independence from England, and leave them alone. Even Adams’ cohorts like Dr. Benjamin Franklin (Howard da Silva) think he does more harm than good to their cause by being such a loudmouth. Indeed, Adams’ only notion of tenderness seems to be for his own wife, Abigail (Virginia Vestoff), far away in Boston; the lonely Adams talks to her in his imagination, in sequences that gain a certain poetry by being gauzy and affectionate, yet still prim and proper.
It is Franklin’s brilliant idea to get someone else in congress to propose the idea of independence, since Adams’ reputation is so soiled. So in comes Richard Henry Lee of Virginia (Ron Holgate), who departs as soon as he fulfills his two functions in the story: to break the logjam in Congress by being the first representative outside of New England to suggest an American nation, and supplying a showstopping song-and-dance number (“The Lees of Old Virginia”) about how he is the perfect man for the job. Lee is perhaps just as obnoxious as Adams, but he is certainly not disliked, and before long the proposal is being seriously considered by the sleepy, barely-functioning congress.
We’d be forgiven for assuming that 1776 will, at this rate, continue the way it began, with lively musical comedy and overall goofiness. But we’d be wrong, because now the film moves into more challenging waters, in a lengthy sequence where the different delegates articulate their thoughts on independence: what it means and what it could mean. On the side of the Whigs, we have, among others, the drunkard Stephen Hopkins (Roy Poole), the courageous, cancer-stricken Ceasar Rodney (William Hansen), the Ned Flanders-like Rev. John Witherspoon (James Noble), and of course, Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard), who will become important later. On the side of the Torys, the two key players are the loyalist gentleman John Dickinson (Donald Madden) and the reserved Edward Rutledge (John Cullum), who advise an end to rebellion against the English. George Washington, meanwhile, stays off stage, but his presence is felt throughout as couriers deliver messages of increasing despair to be read aloud to the Congress. We get insight into several of these characters, some lowbrow comedy, and several examples of the screenplay’s fine (if stylized) ear for the kind of dialogue that gentlemen have when they must work towards commonality but secretly loathe one another. It’s practically a forty-minute stretch of film, but it never gets dry.
What is dry, however, is Thomas Jefferson’s quill, in several ways, if you know what I mean, and I think you do. Jefferson, who is charged with writing a little document called The Declaration of Independence (which is charmingly invented on the spot by Adams as an excuse to stall a vote on independence until unanimity can be achieved), desperately misses his wife Martha (Blythe Danner), and has Writer’s Block while trying to draft his essay, and you don’t have to be Freud to figure out what that means. So Adams devises a way to get Martha up to Philadelphia, although he is taken aback when his attempt to drop in on their reunion turns into some afternoon delight (Franklin, knowingly: “Not everyone’s from Boston, John.”) Both Adams and Franklin are quite taken with the woman; not so much to upset Jefferson, but certainly enough to engage in a little flirtatious dance, while she sings an ode to her husband (“He Plays the Violin”), which is a delicious construction of 100% invisible sexual innuendo.
Is this material a vulgarization of our Founding Fathers? Not at all. It is a realization that the names and faces who populate our history books were, once upon a time, real men with flaws. Perhaps it’s easier to believe that great men were always great men, but 1776 adopts the more dramatic tack of seeing them as weak men who must find their strength. The film itself seems to mature and ripen before the viewers’ eyes, as it grows from a bawdy comedy to a somber historical fiction in gradual steps, charged by a haunting interlude (“Momma Look Sharp”) set at night, where the courier (Stephen Nathan) sings about his friends lost on the battlefield. This scene, the only one which does not involve our main characters, makes its theme plain: the very thing that John Adams wants his for his country is the same thing that will send young boys and men to their deaths.
The film’s climax tackles the elephant in the room, slavery, as Jefferson’s completed Declaration submits to outlaw the practice for the new nation. This angers the entirety of the southern states, who walk out just after Adams and his friends make monumental strides in securing votes to their side, and just after a chilling musical number (“Molasses to Rum”), which indicts the North as complicit partners with the South in the exploitation of blacks. The song, which has Cullen’s Rutledge coming suddenly to the fore, gains a lot by Harry Stradling Jr.’s cinematography, which bathes the Congressional chamber in dusk hues that reflect the hellish nightmare of the slave trade evoked by Rutledge’s screed.
I said before that Adams is the protagonist but perhaps not necessarily the hero; instead, I think that responsibility is shared by Adams and the shrewd, urbane Franklin (note how many shots of Congressional debate show Franklin in the background, watching, like a chessmaster). When Franklin urges a compromise while in desperate straits, the resulting argument between Adams and himself is so severe it practically causes a rip in the very fabric of the film. The screenplay (which follows the original Broadway production verbatim) is sneaky in the way it baits us with light musical comedy in the earlier passages and, then slowly shifts to a serious-minded character study. By film’s end, the fate of the entire country rests on the shoulders of two people who must make choices that tear their beliefs in half, in two spellbinding scenes that are as well-acted as anything in the picture, and remarkably well-written. Note the little irony that the final decision maker in the epic final vote is the unlikeliest person in the room, and note how that reflects the journey of Adams, who finally learns in this key sequence the value of speaking quickly and then staying silent.
The film is very well-made, with a style of directing that allows the different characters to grow in stature as more pressure is applied to them. Director Peter H. Hunt values smirking close-ups and numerous setups in the early goings, graduating to more static, wider shots as business becomes more momentous. The film’s final vote plays mostly in one long master, which underlines the stakes, returning to close ups at the end to find the characters more pensive, nervous, now reverential of something just a few days ago they were not taking seriously. As far as the acting is concerned, there is not a weak link in the entire cast, with Daniels’ Adams being only one of many standouts, giving depth to a cast that could play like a simple collection of words from a history book.
History itself was at first not kind to 1776, which came at the tail end of the boon in move musicals that typified the 50’s and 60’s. In many ways, it signaled the end of that period, as the film was cut severely for theaters, and then bombed at the box office anyway. It has gained some vindication in recent years, and even a bit of a fan club; which was enhanced by the long awaited director’s cut DVD that was released in 2002, made possible by the unearthing of footage that had presumed lost.
That director’s cut (which is now the “official” version of the film, and will be the version played during any airing) is an interesting beast. It restores several chunks of footage and removes some pieces of underscoring, which gives the film a more stagey, claustrophobic feeling. This is felt most keenly in the film’s final conversation between John and Abigail, which doesn’t land as well as in the theatrical version, the film’s emotional climax simply does not benefit from removing score. Other sequences, like Caesar Rodney’s departure, are tinkered with unnecessarily.
The most interesting addition to the film is that of an entire production number, “Cool, Cool Considerate Men,” which was removed at the insistence of President Richard Nixon (a good friend of producer Jack Warner), who did not like the way the song illustrated the worldview of the movie’s conservatives, who are essentially the villains of the piece. This complaint (unsurprisingly) feels short-sighted of Nixon, because the script takes pains to paint the conservatives as three-dimensional characters; the removal of the song and several other key exchanges seems to undermine those attempts. Nixon was wrong to see malice here; how else to explain the supremely dignified way that John Dickinson (the “head villain,” as it were) exits the picture? That said, the “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” number does feel a little strained in its construction and delivery. In a way, it is the most precarious number in the show, almost threatening to upturn the delicate balance being struck between history and entertainment. Nevertheless, the director’s cut is now the definitive version of the film, and there’s no “Greedo Shoots First” moment in the restoration. The essence is retained, and the director’s cut is a fine entry point to the movie itself.
1776 is one of those movies that, once you become indoctrinated to it, you watch it every year and are reminded all over again how good it is. It’s a special combination of the acting and writing (and yes, the songs), that give it a real magic, and that is difficult to explain in 2,000 words, no matter how hard I try. The film is just so much better than it sounds; if even one person is inclined to watch it this year on Independence Day, then I consider this loving review a success. I hope it does. It may be true than when you look at the face of it, “a musical set during the signing of the Declaration of Independence,” it doesn’t sound like a very good idea. But then again, neither did the idea of America, at first. And I think that one turned out pretty okay.
Turner Classic Movies will air 1776 on July 4, 2011, at 2 PM EST.
NOTE: My favorite songs in 1776? Probably “He Plays the Violin,” or maybe “The Lees of Old Virginia.” But I’m also especially fond of the goofball shenanigans of “But, Mr. Adams” or the fiery final summation of Adams’ worldview, the almost-nihilistic “Is Anybody There?” It’s hard to choose.
My favorite character, however, is easy: the stringy-haired alcoholic Stephen Hopkins. It’s impossible to dislike any character who says, with the uptmost sincerity: “It’s a medicinal fact that rum gets a man’s heart started in the morning.”
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