1776 (1972)

  • Director: Peter H. Hunt
  • Writers: Peter Stone, based on the stage musical by Sherman Edwards and Ray Heindorf
  • Starring: William Daniels, Howard Da Silva, Ken Howard, Donald Madden, John Cullum, Ron Holgate, David Ford, Virginia Vestoff, Ralston Hill, and Blythe Danner
  • Accolades: 1 Oscar nomination (Best Cinematography)
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Long before Hamilton took Broadway by storm, there was another, somewhat more traditional musical about the founding fathers, 1776. It tells the story of John Adams (William Daniels) in the Continental Congress fighting for the ratification of the Declaration of Independence against various skeptics and obstacles. This has become one of those movies about which I am entirely unable to be objective. It was already a favorite of mine, and that was before I got married and we have watched it in our house every July 4 since. Its historical accuracy is occasionally dubious, and yes, it is basically the whitest thing imaginable. But I love it, and we hold the dogs and try to make them dance along to the various songs, and it’s lots of fun.

1776 was a Broadway hit but hardly achieved the cultural levels of “cool” that Hamilton would later upon its release. The late 60s/early 70s, the height of the counterculture, was hardly the time for an earnest, chipper musical about a bunch of old dudes. Then, moreso than almost any other movie adaptation of a stage play or musical I can think of, the movie essentially imported the stage production, including the director and basically the entire cast, to the screen. Director Peter H. Hunt, who had directed the stage musical, made his film directing debut, while many of the cast members made their only film appearance in the production. Movie reviewers were generally nonplussed. The New York Times wrote that “the lyrics sound like they have been written by someone high on root beer,” which was intended as an insult but I would say is a good sign.

For me, 1776 exists not as a movie or a musical to be compared against other versions of those things, but as its own, separate entity. This impression is helped by the fact that the cast features only two actors of any notoriety, William Daniels and Blythe Danner. The part of Martha Jefferson was added to the film version specifically for the purpose of including the latter in a desperate attempt to add some sort of youth appeal to the production. It was sort of the 1972 version of adding Zendaya to something at the last minute. Anyway, I think it helps that this is the only time I’ve ever seen many of these other actors. Among those making their only film appearance were Donald Madden, known for his Hamlet, who plays John Dickenson, the leader of the loyalist faction, and Ron Holgate, who plays Richard Henry Lee with cartoonish aplomb. His character likes to emphasize the “-ly” on the end of all his adverbs, in case you forgot his name (“When do you leave?” “Short-lee!”).

One similarity between 1776 and Hamilton is that both contain both very broad comedy and very serious moments. If there is one thing from 1776 that everyone remembers, its the song about the slave trade by South Carolina representative Edward Rutledge (John Cullum), which includes him imitating a slave auctioneer. In a move that would never be repeated in a million years today, there are no Black people or any other minority anywhere in this movie, but it does spend quite a bit of time discussing the issue of slavery as best it can. The Rutledge song (“Molasses, Rum, and Slaves”) does a far better job of illustrating the actual evils associated with slavery than the tall guy playing Thomas Jefferson (John Howard, whose other best known role is as the basketball coach in the TV series The White Shadow) standing around looking solemn. In any case, whatever energies the movie has toward presenting the point of view of anyone other than white dudes is generally given over to Abigail Adams (Virginia Vestoff), who is depicted singing her letters back and forth with her husband John.

Another song, “Cool, Considerate Men,” was a late cut from the theatrical version. According to rumor that was due to the direct request of the Nixon White House, which felt that the song drew unfavorable comparisons to modern-day Conservatives. They certainly weren’t wrong, in the sense that this the whole point of the song, yes. It goes to show that the debates relitigating the meaning of the 1776 story that are going on all day today on American Twitter are hardly brand new. The song was not in the theatrical version, and producer Jack L. Warner apparently tried to have all copies of the footage destroyed, but he was unsuccessful. If you watch the “Director’s Cut” available today on DVD or streaming, the primary difference is the inclusion of the song.

Its dialogue and lyrics have done such a good job sticking in my brain that, for me, 1776 is the default version of this story. And for the most part, it does a reasonable job of hewing fairly close to actual historical events, though of course there are plenty of inaccuracies. Perhaps the most unjust is the portrayal of Dickenson, who is mostly shown here as a sneering rich dude who opposes the Revolution because he worries that his “property” will be endangered. The real life John Dickenson did, in fact, refuse to sign the Declaration of Independence, but it was because he was a pacifist Pennsylvania Quaker who strongly believed in civil disobedience as opposed to resistance by force of arms. He was, ironically, the first member of the Congress to free his slaves, despite his silence on the issue in the movie. All of this is not to say that there weren’t plenty of loyalists similar to the Dickenson character in this movie, just that Dickenson wasn’t one of them.

Nor did the Continental Congress ever involve a dramatic walkout by the Southern delegates over the slavery issue, though it makes for good movie-making, and Martha Jefferson never visited her husband in Philadelphia as shown in the movie. But some things really did happen, things you might not see on film anywhere else. Delaware representative Caesar Rodney (portrayed here by William Hansen) really did make a dramatic ride in bad weather back from Delaware to vote on the Declaration. And of course much of the dialogue for Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva) is taken from his actual quotations (“I have better things to do than stand here listening to you quote yourself,” Adams grouses. “That was a new one!” Franklin whines), as is Adams’ joke about how the Revolution will one day be remembered: “Franklin smote the ground and out sprang George Washington, fully grown and on his horse. Then the three of them – Franklin, Washington, and the horse – conducted the Revolution all by themselves.”

Look, 1776 is hardly groundbreaking or spectacular from a cinematic point of view. The fact that its lone Oscar nomination was for cinematography frankly baffles me, as with a couple exceptions it basically consists of pointing a camera at the actors as they do the same things they did on stage. Nor was it particularly outside the box as musicals go, especially at the time. But it’s not just because I’ve seen it many times that I can recite the dialogue and sing along to the songs, it’s because the dialogue and songs particularly lend themselves to such things. Hamilton goes out of its way to make this stuff super fun and catchy, to let listeners who like pop music listen to its songs without having to make any kind of an adjustment. 1776 is of a much nerdier strain, and so am I.

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