Overlooked & Underseen: 1776 (1972)
Like most Americans, my family has a movie watching tradition on the 4th of July; that movie, is, of course, Jaws. Granted, this will only be our second year watching it. Last year, we thought our kiddo, at age 5, was ready for such an endeavor. We were pleased as punch last week when, on his own, the kiddo came up to us and asked if we were watching Jaws again this year. We have already peaked as parents. Besides watching that loveable shark, there is another movie option you might enjoy that fits into the holiday even more perfectly (if that is possible) and that movie is 1776.
“A musical about a bunch of white guys coming up with the Declaration of Independence?!” you ask, incredulously. But, hear me out… it’s really interesting. Based on the book from Peter Stone's stage play, with music by Sherman Edwards, 1776 is the story of the 2nd Continental Congress and what they got up to in the two months prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Which, truth be told, was not a whole hell of a lot. They sat around in the Philadelphia heat (which they actually sing about) going over who is on what committee, etc. John Adams (William Daniels) finally has had enough pissing around and decides it’s time to formally declare independence from England. He’s got Ben Franklin (Howard Da Silva) on his side but, as Ben Franklin points out, everyone fucking hates Adams so they have to get someone else to bring up the motion. Once that is done (after another song), they have to get someone to write it.
Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard) wants none of it. He has sat around congress doing nada, keeping to himself, dreaming about getting back to his new wife. No, really, all he wants to do is get laid. When asked by Adams and Franklin to write the document declaring independence from England, Jefferson says no, he won’t write it because he wants to bone his wife. He sings an entire song about how all he wants to do is go home to Virginia to his new bride (Blythe Danner) who he hasn’t seen in six month. Now, I’m not believing for one second that Jefferson wasn’t laying pipe while living in Philadelphia but I guess that’s another movie. Finally, Adams gets the bright idea to bring Mrs. Jefferson to the city so she can satiate him in hopes that he’ll write the damn document.
Eventually, Jefferson turns out the paper but, of course, congress being congress, many of the members have issues with the document. For three days, they change and remove pieces of it. In one nasty bit of business, Edward Rutledge (John Cullum) says he will not vote for independence unless the entire section on slavery be removed from the document. Rutledge sings an entire song about how slavery makes the colonies richer, even the folks in the North who say they are against it. That whole production number made my skin crawl. Jefferson, himself a slave owner, tells Rutledge that he has made arrangements to free his slaves. Adams is adamant that paragraph stay in. Later, in another nasty exchange, Franklin tells Adams that they have to give in to Rutledge and remove the slavery section. Franklin promised Adams they had to get the United States up and running first before they could tackle the slavery issues. Both Jefferson and Adams finally relent on this issue and remove that section of the document. History, of course, shows that promise to abolish slavery in the early years of the United States was not kept.
The performances in 1776 are fantastic, especially from Da Silva and Daniels. Howard’s Jefferson felt right on the money to me, too. Cullum did a fine job portraying Rutledge as the vile man he was. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the performance of Donald Madden as John Dickinson, a member of the Pennsylvania delegation and a main foe to Adams. This was his only film role, which is a shame because he was really fantastic. If you’ve never thought of these men as musical performers, you’re in for a treat. The direction is very stagey but that’s to be expected. Most of the action takes place in what is now Independence Hall so there is only so much you can do with that.
We watched the extended version of the film, which included a musical number about the “conservative” delegation that included the line “…always to the right”. This song was apparently removed from the film by request of Richard Nixon. Other things in this version, removed from the original release, were some of the more bawdy portions of the film. As mentioned above, there is a whole song about Jefferson finally getting to have sex with this wife.
No, this isn’t any light-hearted Schoolhouse Rock! version of how the Declaration of Independence came about. It’s a long, kinda drawn out movie depicting the long, drawn out process of a few rich white men deciding on whether to break free of the tyrannical (Jefferson’s word) King of England and become their own nation. It certainly is an interesting way to learn about our “founding fathers”. It is worth watching on the 4th of July, for sure. 1776 is out on Blu-ray. It’s also available for rental on Amazon and other streaming services.