Directed by Peter H. Hunt
Produced by Jack L. Warner
Written by Peter Stone
Based on the stage musical “1776” with music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and a book by Peter Stone
The members of the Continental Congress are thisclose to signing the Declaration of Independence but Edward Rutledge (John Cullum) the representative from South Carolina is adamant in wanting the slavery clause removed before he will sign it. John Adams (William Daniels) is just as adamant in that it stay in. Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva) begs his friend to give in just this once. Adams replies that posterity will never forgive them if they do. Franklin’s answer is one that I think says exactly why I love 1776 so much: “That’s probably true, but we won’t hear a thing, we’ll be long gone. Besides, what would posterity think we were? Demi-gods? We’re men, no more no less, trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous God would have allowed.”
1776 treats the Founding Fathers as just that: men. Oh yes, they’re men of staggering accomplishments, intelligence and talents. But still just men. John Adams is obnoxious and disliked, even by his closest friends. Benjamin Franklin hides a devious manipulative nature and a tsunami-sized ego behind jocularity and razor sharp humor. Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard) would much rather be home knocking boots with his hot wife (Blythe Danner) than creating a new nation. John Hancock (David Ford) just wants to be somewhere other than Philadelphia in the stifling hot summer. Richard Henry Lee (Ron Holgate) is a raging narcissist with an ego equally the size of Franklin’s but he’s only got half the brains. Stephen Hopkins (Roy Poole) is a cantankerous old bastard who apparently has joined Congress mainly because of the free rum he is constantly being served by the long suffering clerk McNair (William Duell).
I think that by presenting such towering historical figures in such a down-to-earth manner is exactly the way to go with 1776 which tells the story of how The Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4th, 1776. John Adams of Massachusetts heads up one faction that favors independence from England. John Dickenson (Donald Madden) of Pennsylvania leads the faction that wants to reconcile with England. Through debate and song we watch as these two factions discuss and argue the fate of their fledgling nation and it’s a lot of fun to watch them as they do so.
It was a solid creative decision on the part of producer Jack L. Warner to cast the movie with actors who had been in the Broadway stage performance of 1776 as they know this material inside and out and play it accordingly. Howard Da Silva and William Daniels are tied with the acting honors in this one. Most people think of William Daniels as either the voice of K.I.T.T. from “Knight Rider” or Mr. Feeney from “Boy Meets World.” I always think of him as Dr. Mark Craig from “St. Elsewhere” or as John Adams here. Yes, his John Adams is abrasive and lacking in diplomacy but his motives are honorable and that softens his edges. And I think it’s an excellent idea to have two songs back to back: “Sit Down, John” and “Till Then” that show Adams from two different perspectives. “Sit Down, John” is sung by Congress and displays their disgust with him while “Till Then” is a tender duet Adams sings with his wife Abagail (Virginia Vestoff) where we see his softer side. Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson is also a standout, particularly in the later scenes where Congress ruthlessly tears apart the precious Declaration he has poured his soul into with their petty debates over the wording. Howard says more with his silence and the expressions on his face than he could have with pages of dialog.
But a musical has to stand and fall on the music and 1776 stands tall in this respect. “Sit Down, John” is a rousing way to start the movie, full of vigor and humor. “But, Mr. Adams” is both clever and witty as Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Roger Sherman (Rex Robbins) and Robert Livingston (John Myhers) argue in song about who should actually sit down and write the Declaration. My favorite is “The Lees of Old Virginia” which for me is one of the greatest show stopping songs in musical history. In fact, my only complaint with 1776 is that“The Lees of Old Virginia” comes twenty minutes into the movie and there’s really no other song after that one which comes close. Especially as sung by Ron Holgate who tears it up with such magnificent energy you can’t help but smile and sing along. And toward the end, the songs get darker and more somber such as “Is Anybody There” where John Adams really lets loose and expresses his frustrations. And “Molasses To Rum” sung by Rutledge in which he lays out explicitly the hypocrisy enjoyed by the Northern states when it comes to the issue of slavery. If you’ve never heard John Cullem sing, you’re in for a treat when you watch 1776.
And should you watch 1776? If you’re a lover of musicals, you probably already have. If you’ve never seen it, I envy you watching it for the first time. It’s an absolute joy to watch from beginning to end. The cast is first rate and the songs are wonderful. Every year for the past ten years I’ve made it a point to watch 1776 every 4th of July as Turner Classic Movies faithfully shows it on that day. The only reason I don’t watch it more often is because I’m holding out for the Blu-Ray. But don’t you wait. If you’ve never seen 1776, get hold of a DVD copy and enjoy.