“I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace; that two are called a law firm, and that three or more become a Congress!”
It’s amazing when historical sentiment remains so timely….
As I sat down to contemplate this month’s theme (Classic Film and “The Colonies”) I knew 1776 had to be included. The Broadway turned Hollywood musical is a longtime favorite of mine and is certainly one of the ultimate “July 4th” movies in the United States. Granted, as with any historical analysis, a look at this distant period in history proves complicated. While I’ve watched and enjoyed this movie plenty as a fan, I wanted to take a deeper dive into the period musical with my ‘critic glasses’ on. How does the movie hold up? Would I still give it a good review? Well, here’s what you need to know.
1776 is a musical set in and around Philadelphia in the days and weeks leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence as John Adams (William Daniels) and Ben Franklin (Howard Da Silva) do their best to wrangle the votes needed to reach their goal of declaring Independence from Great Britain. Ken Howard, Donald Madden, Blythe Danner, John Cullum and Virginia Vestoff co-star in the film. Peter H. Hunt directs 1776 from a script by Peter Stone. The work is adapted from the Broadway musical of the same name which opened in 1969.
I’ve always struggled more than a little bit to find an “in road” to Colonial culture in the United States. Sure, it’s easy to remember the names and faces preserved in the paintings in our history textbooks. However, it is more difficult to wrap one’s head around the time from a personal level. It’s hard to connect with these revered personalities in a time which is so different than our own.
As a film, 1776 is one of the few instances where I’ve felt the history come alive. Sure, it is a musical which automatically causes it to struggle a bit as it relates to realism. I mean, John Adams didn’t just burst into song when the situation called for it. However, as the action plays out on screen, the names, faces and characters suddenly become so clear. All of a sudden, the figures from dusty history textbooks feel human. They’re men with personalities, likes, dislikes and… urges.
With that being said, the performances in the film are unanimously amazing. Of course, William Daniels is probably the biggest stand-out among the cast. Millennials out there who only know the actor as Mr. Feeny from Boy Meets World should make time to check out his delightful work in this picture. He’s magnetic, vibrant and very much carries the film on his shoulders with his dynamic vocal performance. His third act rendition of “Is Anybody There” is one which shouldn’t be missed.
At the same time, Howard Da Silva and Ken Howard absolutely shine in their portrayals of Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson respectively. Each of the leads took on the film roles after originating their parts in the original Broadway cast. As Franklin, Da Silva is iconic. He gives a vibrant, tongue-in-cheek performance, which can certainly be called one of the most memorable portrayals of the Founding Father.
In fact, there’s a tounge-in-cheek sense to the entire narrative which goes such a long way to making it accessible for a more modern audience. This movie hit theaters in 1972, so this isn’t a glowing and innocent portrayal of the Founding Fathers. Throughout the film, we see cynical injections that the political establishment has always been horrible. At the same time, the narrative reminds us that the signers of the Declaration were privileged men away from their families on business. Thomas Jefferson hasn’t seen his wife for six months and is desperate to “play the violin” for her. Benjamin Franklin leaps to his feet at the potential of “whoring and drinking” in New Jersey. There is no chastity here.
These moments are very funny in the context of the narrative and are very much a part of where this film sits in history. As mentioned, the movie hit theaters in 1972 as the United States was quickly remembering that the political establishment was in fact, terrible. At the same time though, we are almost fifty years removed from 1972. So, while 1776 presents a funny and human portrayal of these men, contemporary eyes might struggle with the fact that other elements of their history is missed (or glossed over) and feels (to 2021 eyes) like a glossy and idealistic portrayal.
It is particularly complex that Ken Howard’s best scene as Thomas Jefferson comes in an argument with South Carolina Representative Edward Rutledge (John Cullum) over the question of slavery. As Jefferson, Howard is very young, a bit naive and very much personifies the Independence movement as it is depicted in the history books. In the almost fifty years since this film’s release, facts have become common knowledge about Jefferson’s treatment of his slaves which sit like a cloud over such clear eyed portrayals of Jefferson. History ultimately has 20/20 vision and it’s hard to look over these revelations (which might not necessarily have been common knowledge at the time of production).
At the same time though, it’s interesting that the question of slavery is still discussed in the film. 1776 shines a light on the struggle as Congress debates a clause outlawing the practice in the Declaration of Independence. The paragraph is ultimately scrapped in the interest of getting the southern colonies to vote for Independence.
This is a moment which will undoubtedly sit different for many. At one level, it’s a cynical reminder of how social struggles don’t truly have to be the way they are. Things could have changed and they could have changed centuries ago. However, as Franklin urges Adams to put aside his desire to end slavery, reminding him they’ll be “long dead” when their failures are brought to the forefront, we’re reminded once again that these characters aren’t the giants and godlike figures that the history books crafted them. They are men with all the complexity and human frailty that comes with it and ultimately, freedom isn’t free. Ultimately though, the reading of a film like this has become so complex with the passage of time that neither interpretation is truly wrong.
All in all though, 1776 is truly a delightful, joyful film (particularly around this time of year). This is one of the few movies which manages to present (for me, at least!) the Colonial era in United States history in such a fun, enjoyable way. While narrative interpretation is necessary with the passage of time, 1776 is on its own a surprisingly complex post, studio system musical. While it may look like an idealistic examination of a well-studied period in history, to say that would be an oversimplification of this fascinating watch. Sure, there are some struggles, but every movie is a product of its time.
1776 is available here!
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Podcaster, film historian, and general lover of all things classic film and television. Studying the contributions of women behind the camera in classic television.
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