Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? A starchy, prosaic musical about our Founding Fathers.
What did I get? Two friends of mine recently mentioned in passing that they just cannot watch 1776. I take this to mean that, regarded purely as a musical, it’s far from anything special. Musicals are supposed to be buoyant, to transport, to elevate; even I can glean that 1776 by this measure is pretty clunky. The limitations of the songs are plain to see (hear) and it does traffic in an inexcusable quotient of tedium, but I confess that I find it a difficult movie to dislike. It appeals to my starchy, prosaic mind, I reckon.
1776 is about the several summer weeks during which the Continental Congress in Philadelphia debated and (spoiler alert) ratified the Declaration of Independence. On the side of independence are John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson; their primary opponents are Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson, representing conservatism generally, and South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge, representing the slave states.
The action is framed as a sporting event, with the Patriots looking to score an unlikely come-from-behind victory in the vote tally — this version of events has the whiff of balderdash about it, but Wikipedia mostly confirms. Either way, the device permits the notion that independence was not a foregone conclusion and affords an opportunity to draw attention to the relatable human (and therefore political) impulses driving the action on both sides. Franklin is syrupy and jolly, Jefferson “mute” and lofty, Adams “obnoxious and disliked.” The supremely adenoidal William Daniels, later Dr. Craig in St. Elsewhere and the voice of KITT in Knight Rider, portrays the central figure of Adams in a vexatious state of continual high dudgeon.
1776 may be one of the first movies that self-consciously set out to congratulate its audience for its erudition (like Shakespeare in Love, Midnight in Paris, etc.). Yes, this can be annoying, but in 1776 anyway this tendency seems harmless, since the “history lesson” aspect of the proceedings is explicit. A college lecture on the American Revolution can’t exactly target the lowest common denominator.
You know you’re dealing with an unusual musical when the key romantic refrain is “Saltpeter!” 1776 is zippy, high-minded, and amusing — yet it’s overlong. The same is true of the songs; once you’ve heard one verse and one chorus, you’re ready for a return to spoken dialogue. The lyrics and dialogue were both written by people who know their way around a dictionary, and the popular engagement with the ideas of the time is not to be faulted.
Adding to the length is “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” a number sung from the conservative point of view that, astonishingly, President Nixon pressured producer Jack Warner to expunge from the original cut of the movie. As much as I would like to cheer the song’s 2001 restoration to the movie, it isn’t all that good. What Nixon may have missed is that the song is the one moment of the movie in which the conservative perspective is honestly and straightforwardly defended.
What here smacks of 1972? The patriotism on display here seems “pre-cynical,” possibly redolent of an earlier time than 1972. But it was still kicking.
IMDB score: 7.2
My score: 6
Director: Peter H. Hunt
Writer: Peter Stone
Starring: William Daniels, Howard Da Silva, Donald Madden, John Cullum, Ken Howard, David Ford, Roy Poole, Ron Holgate, Ray Middleton, William Hansen, Blythe Danner, Virginia Vestoff, Emory Bass, Ralston Hill, Howard Caine, Patrick Hines, William Duell
IMDB synopsis: The film version of the Broadway musical comedy of the same name. In the days leading up to July 4, 1776, Continental Congressmen John Adams and Benjamin Franklin coerce Thomas Jefferson into writing the Declaration of Independence as a delaying tactic as they try to persuade the American colonies to support a resolution on independence. As George Washington sends depressing messages describing one military disaster after another, the businessmen, landowners and slave holders in Congress all stand in the way of the Declaration, and a single “nay” vote will forever end the question of independence. Large portions of spoken and sung dialog are taken directly from the letters and memoirs of the actual participants.