|Synopsis||It's the eve of the American Revolution! War is imminent with Britain and the continental congress is trapped in gridlock during an overwhelming heat wave. Representative John Adams struggles to convince the group to declare independence without coaxing.|
|Length||2 hours, 21 minutes (Theatrical Cut). 2 hours, 48 minutes (Remastered DVD)|
|Release Date||November 17th, 1972|
|Distribution||Columbia Pictures (theatrical), Sony Pictures Home Entertainment (Blu-ray/DVD)|
|Directing||Peter H. Hunt|
|Composition||Sherman Edwards (music and lyrics), Ray Heindorf (music score)|
|Starring||William Daniels, Howard Da Silva, Ken Howard, Donald Madden, John Cullum|
Happy Fourth of July to all of our American readers (and a happy regular day to all our international readers)! Today happens to commemorate many important days in our country’s history, from the signing of the Declaration of Independence to the day the Union Army won the Battle of Gettysburg. While certainly the concepts of American national identity and liberty have faced much scrutiny in recent years, the holiday remains a wonderful chance to celebrate freedom with family over food and high explosives!
This year, I also wanted to celebrate the birth of my nation by bringing some extra attention to a particular film that I’ve fallen in love with of late!
Violence/Scary Images: None.
Language/Crude Humor: Some heavy language throughout including D*** and G**.
Drug/Alcohol References: Rhode Island’s representative is depicted as an alcoholic constantly asking for rum.
Sexual Content: Nothing inappropriate depicted, although there are numerous references to sexuality and sexual frustration throughout the film.
Spiritual Content: The majority of the characters are implicitly religious although religion isn’t a major plot point.
Other Negative Content: Some crass content and discussion ill-suited for very young viewers.
Positive Content: Themes of self-sacrifice, bravery, intelligence and wisdom.
1776 feels like a film from a completely different epoch than the one we live in now. Not only is it quieter, more simplistic, more patriotic, and more earnest than almost any film in the last fifty years, but it’s also a movie that feels like it shouldn’t have even been made in the decade it came out. In 1972, Hollywood was just entering the phase of the American New Wave, releasing films like The Godfather, Deliverance, Solaris, Aguirre: Wrath of God, and Fritz the Cat, pushing cinema in a much darker and more cynical direction. 1776 competed that year against the critically acclaimed, and VERY dark, musical Caberet which contrasted the decadence of the Weimar Republic with the rise of Nazism. This was at a time when bleak disaster films and vigilante flicks like The Poseidon Adventure, Joe Kidd, and The Mechanic were THE most popular entertainment. This movie was released in theaters while Watergate was being investigated by The Washington Post. It notably precedes the Reagan-esc optimism of films like Star Wars, Superman, and Rocky by half a decade.
Yet there 1776 stands as this oddball patriotic musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It’s a film with the look and pace of an early 1960s big-budget musical that looked like it could sit alongside something corny like Yankee Doodle Dandee or South Pacific. Naturally, it was a box office bomb, barely making half its $6 million budget back upon release. It was also pretty heavily savaged by critics who called it “unremarkable” and even “an insult to the real men”, filled with “dreadful” performances, according to major critics like Roger Ebert and Vincent Canby.
Watching it for the first time last year, I was taken aback by how deeply this film was savaged by the culture around it. I’ve watched it at least three times now and every time I watch this film I find 1776 to be a movie that blossoms and grows more endearing. Admittedly, part of that has to do with the novelty. There aren’t very many films about the American Revolution out there besides Drums Along the Mohawk, HBO’s John Adams and The Patriot. Very few films have ever tried to directly depict the Founding Fathers as they were. One of the only examples I can think of in recent memory was Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton (which itself is heavily based on 1776 and references it multiple times).
1776 itself is based on the Broadway musical of the same name that premiered in 1969 to riotous success, over 1200 performances, and three Tony Awards. Jack L. Warner, of Warner Brothers fame, bought the rights to the film adaptation and quickly set about adapting it for the big screen. I can’t speak for the qualities of the stage version of the show as I’ve neither seen the 1997 revival tour nor the upcoming 2021 Broadway revival. That said, I could definitely see it being a bit more laid back than the filmed version.
The film of 1776 can be rather breakneck and whimsical for a topic such as the revolutionary war. The film is set just on the eve of the Revolution in June of 1776. The Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775 have put the two nations in a state of war with one another but the thirteen colonies had yet to technically form themselves into a legally distinct entity, even as George Washington was busy digging in his troops into New York City in preparation for a massive British siege.
The Continental Congress itself in Philadelphia is a mess. Dozens of irritated representatives spend their days arguing minutia and refusing to agree with one another over vitally important matters of state. John Adams, the representative from Massachusetts, spends his days aggressively trying to convince Congress to officially declare the United States’ independence from Britain but without an unanimous vote from every colony. And there are plenty of reasons why each colony would NOT want independence. The southern colonies are wary of northern hegemony and want to maintain their economic monopoly through slavery. Additionally, news from the front of war is very negative and it sounds likely that General Washington will lose the Battle of New York, resulting in anyone caught standing by him being publicly executed for treason against the crown.
The reputations, wealth, and lives of every member of the colonies are at stake and there’s no guarantee that standing up for principal will ultimately save the fledgling United States. Yet John Adams is determined to try and declare his new nation’s independence anyway on the off chance that it will be the spark that inspires the colonies.
Struggling to rally Congress and convince the most skeptical representatives among them, Adams convinces them to allow him an opportunity to write up a potential declaration that would serve as the ideological foundation for a new nation on which Congress ought to vote on. With limited time and emotions running high, Adams assigns the job of writing this document to Virginia’s young, enigmatic and quiet representative Thomas Jefferson while he and representative Benjamin Franklin conspire how to persuade the southern states to their side.
As a drama, I find 1776 to be enrapturing as it lets the yarn of each character and their VERY OBVIOUS faults unfurl before the audience. William Daniels as John Adams delivers an amazing lead performance, one that’s vital to serving as the emotional core of the story and doubles as an amazing antithesis for how the characters ultimately accomplish the task of achieving independence for their country. John Adams is, to put it delicately, an unpleasant and disagreeable person. Seemingly the only person who wants to be around him is his estranged wife, Abigail Adams, who desperately misses having a husband to return home to every night. As a result, the story ends up being a drama of alliances and double-crosses. Adams, being the most aggressively pro-revolution patriot in congress, can only achieve his desired outcome and return home to his wife if he learns to rely on others and place his trust in other people’s ability to stand up for what’s right.
So much of this sets up 1776 to be such a bleak and emotionally overwhelming film, but in reality it’s a tremendously whimsical and joyous movie. There’s a youthful exuberance to the film that captures the soul of a young nation early in its experiment. Benjamin Franklin captures it beautifully in my favorite quote of the film:
“Never was such a valuable possession so stupidly and so recklessly managed than this entire continent by the British crown. Our industries discouraged, our resources pillaged, worst of all our very character stifled. We’ve spawned a new race here… rougher, simpler, more violent, more enterprising, less refined. We’re a new nationality. We require a new nation.”
All of the characters we meet are young, energetic, snappy, educated and frustrated people in the prime of their youth. They’re thirsty to prove themselves as equally as they are eager to—to put it gently—spend their evenings at home with their wives (sexual frustration being a surprising, frequent and weird motif throughout 1776).
Most of the songs are bubbly and goofy, reflecting the young enthusiasm and pride of this fledgling generation. Representative Richard Lee prances into his first scene on a horse singing a song about the glorious Lee family and rhyming every word with Lee/-ly. Thomas Jefferson’s wife sings a song about how she fell in love with his violin skills. John Adams repeatedly gets into arguments with his wife during songs where he imagines seeing her.
When the film does get serious, there’s a fascinating and haunting weight to it. You see the fear and uncertainty in the characters’ eyes as they realize the fate of the Republic will fall onto their decision, there and then. When John Adams realizes that he has to sacrifice the abolition of slavery to achieve independence, you feel the sadness of the realization of what that decision will ultimately cost less than a century later. The film ends with the famous signing of the Declaration of Independence and even then ending is quite dark and uncertain, as these characters don’t know what the future holds past July 4th, 1776.
Historically speaking, of the 56 signers, nine died in combat, five were captured and tortured by the British, and at least a dozen had their homes destroyed. Many were financially ruined by the revolution or lost their beloved family members in combat. The ominous bleakness of the final shot of this movie isn’t uncalled for.
There’s incredible humanity on display in 1776 that captures something quintessentially fascinating about the Founding Fathers as they were on the eve of the American Revolution. Even setting aside the novelty of seeing John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin on the big screen, I can’t help but admire just how much the film managed to capture in this relatively whimsical and colorful comedy. For all it romanticizes and likely downplays some of the less savory aspects of the founding father’s very well-documented hypocrisies, 1776 does the work to make these flawed people and their flawed actions relatable. We’re shown just how and why these men came to the conclusions they did, shown just how uniquely brilliant they were, and we are led to admire just how brave they had to be to sign their name on a document that would shortly get many of them killed.
I can’t help but feel a film like 1776 is overdue a cultural reexamination!
+ Wonderful musical soundtrack
+ Solid performances from the major actors
+ Great balance of whimsical fun and serious themes
- Some excessively corny performances and goofy characterizations
- Occasionally stagey set design
The Bottom Line
1776 didn't get much love in 1972 but maybe there's a more welcoming audience in our cynical times now! It's a wonderful musical and whatever flaws you can place against it as a film, it's an intoxicatingly novel and fun piece of cinema that is well worth your holiday viewing, especially if you're already a fan of its spiritual successor, Hamilton.