In honor of the fast approaching 4th of July celebration, let us mark the occasion with a review of Peter Hunt’s 1972 musical, 1776, what, on Broadway, had been an impassioned, nee operatic, and rabble-rousing overture to the heavily contested moment of incubation when Americans ceased to align their political and economic futures as a colony of Great Britain, stepping into the light of their own independence with all the ferocity of a petulant child asserting itself from authoritarian parental rule. On stage, 1776 roared through 1,217 performances; a certifiable smash hit with a palpable energy and purpose. Alas, tricked out in Panavision it inexplicably fizzled; a very wet firecracker to mark the momentous occasion. On paper the difficulties in transitioning from Broadway zeitgeist to movie musical must have appeared nominal at best; especially with such strict fidelity to its source material. Regrettably, lost in director, Peter Hunt and screenwriter, Peter Stone’s translation was the very essence of eventfulness, the sheer kinetic energy of a new nation being formed before our very eyes. Perhaps the best that can be said of the play is it remained too ambitiously high born and highbrow to be clumsily converted into a Hollywood-styled, musicalized pop-u-tainment.
Having mislaid their loyalties to the new medium, Hunt and Stone elected to do a reverent and literal adaptation of the stage show instead. As what works on the stage-bound proscenium rarely maintains its impact for the movie screen, on celluloid, 1776 almost immediately succumbs to an interminable self-congratulatory pretense; the Sherman Edwards’ score suffering its own elephantiasis, pontificating in half spoken/half sung prose, grotesquely exaggerated by Harry Stradling Jr. uncharacteristically uninspired cinematography. Using stage-bound lighting effects and heavy diffusion filters to simulate dream-like departures from reality, taking much too plainly the panged and highly romanticized exchanges between domineering, John Adams (William Daniels), estranged from his beloved wife, Abigail (Virginia Vestoff), the couple frequently caught in telepathic exchanges of flamboyant whimsy, Stradling’s inability to craft a palpable sense of excitement all but reduced the drama to an inexplicably pedestrian affair.
One can only blame the relatively miniscule $4,000,000 budget for part of the crisis severely afflicting the sort of grand entertainment 1776’s producer, Jack L. Warner would have preferred. In 1978, People Weekly writer, Leah Rozen rather crudely eulogized the old time mogul as hardly being ‘the brightest’ or ‘the smoothest’ of the lot, although he was undeniably the one who remained in the saddle the longest; a very cruel and marginally untrue epitaph to Jack’s illustrious career. There is something more to be said for Warner’s obstinacy, especially his refusal in later years to retire from the fray; relinquishing dominion of the studio co-founded by his brothers all the way back in 1917; his emeritus years seemingly squandered as an independent – a name, really – who could still command a certain modicum of respect in the industry; just not enough to get his pictures made on the epic scale so desperately required.
1776 should have been a lavishly appointed road show engagement with a fanfare and intermission, a la the kind of movie spectacle Jack had pulled together at Warner Bros. throughout the 1960’s; crafted around mind-bogglingly impressive sets and even more stunning set pieces, populated by scores of extras emoting in unison, meant to capture the clutter and bawdy excesses of this cradle of liberty, Philadelphia, P.A. Instead, George Jenkins’ production design is compelled to rely on sparsely decorated and fairly obvious plywood and paper mache recreations of Independence Hall and its tower housing the Liberty Bell. Stradling’s lighting effects make these painted backdrops even more transparent, even when glimpsed for only a few seconds from beyond the open windows. It’s the artifice of 1776 that never convinces and quite simply does not hold up upon casual, much less closer scrutiny.
The other major issue is the film’s stifling sense of claustrophobia. As example; a pas de trois between John Adams, Dr. Benjamin Franklin (Frank Da Silva) and Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha (Blythe Danner) is staged in a narrow courtyard, so heavily treed and cramped on all sides by dense shrubbery and brick walls it is all the lithe Blythe (a singular ray of sunshine, singing ‘He Plays The Violin’) can do to barely twirl her majestic crinolines and wire hoops to Ona White’s sparse choreography without bumping into foliage and garden furniture, including a rustic water wheel, as she takes turns minueting with Messrs. Adams and Franklin. A word about this choreography, or rather an inquiry…where is it? White’s art is almost entirely absent from the screen; reduced to militaristic maneuvers made clumsy by their navigation around the arranged chaos, as when Adams sashays in and out of his fellow congressmen, espousing the virtues of independence as though he were ‘gathering his nuts in May’, while being repeatedly told to ‘Sit Down, John’ or the moment when Ron Holgate’s Richard Henry Lee (spun as tight and sugary as cotton candy) tramps about the unkempt courtyard, leaping on and off his horse near Independence Hall with Franklin and Adams looking on, championing the cause of independence while espousing the virtues of ‘The Lees of Old Virginia’.
1776 is, frankly, an unevenly paced mess of great ideas turned asunder and remade as wholly unattractive. It bumps along like a great unescorted thing threatening, at every possible moment, to wreck what little staying power is left from the stage show. And yet, it is impossible to condemn the movie’s lack of excesses outright. On stage, 1776 had been a one set drama with the briefest of musical interludes away from the Continental Congress’ debates on independence. Mood lighting compensated for these ever tenuous and brief departures. Alas, the movie required something more than respites shot through heavy gauze, the camera lens smeared in Vaseline around the edges to distort the image so the audience realizes they have suddenly transgressed from serious drama into romanticized whimsies; as when Adams elects to remove himself from the naysayers to consult the ever-devoted Abigail on matters of state; the image suddenly bathed in spooky blue hues and softly focused; the couple inexplicably willed together in Massachusetts, strolling along its rolling hills while emoting ‘Yours, Yours, Yours’. Such sloppy transitioning repeatedly makes the audience aware they are not watching a movie, per say, but rather a cinematic facsimile of something that played with more arrogance, wit and graceful charm in front of a live audience.
Perhaps out of necessity, Stradling and Warner have endeavored to resurrect the stage’s rigid stylistic elements. Yet these stifle the film’s visualized creativity. There is an uncanny disconnect, for example, between the aforementioned sets and the location work; the obviousness of the back lot facades inconsolably married to glistening landscapes or establishing shots of Independence Hall, essentially failing to capture the spirit of either the time or the place effectively. Worse for the film, there remains something of a woeful and badly mangled disconnect between 1776’s ambitions to tell its more solemn story – the political machinations and intrigues gone into the signing of the Declaration – and its musicalized Broadway-esque terminology and roots. Ona White is credited as the movie’s choreographer. Yet, there is virtually none of White’s sparkle, originality or terpsichorean brilliance on tap in 1776; her clumsy maneuvering of the brightly attired congressmen, as they are heatedly led by the nose by a terse, John Dickinson (Donald Madden) in the Cool, Cool, Considerate Men number, about as exciting as the movie gets.
It isn’t entirely White’s fault either, since even on the stage there were precious few opportunities to introduce ‘dance’ into these proceedings. And the aforementioned number was, in fact, never seen by audiences when 1776 had its world premiere in 1972; Warner presumably telling Hunt he had ‘shredded all negatives’ in existence so history could not second-guess his judgment. Mercifully, Jack was mistaken, lacking the authority to destroy property belonging to a studio he did not autonomously control. Besides, his decision to excise Cool, Cool Considerate Men was predicated on nothing more than a ‘request’ from President Richard Nixon, for whom Jack prescreened the picture hoping to gain his wholehearted endorsement as a tie-in to the November elections. Instead, Nixon took umbrage to the way the conservative delegates were portrayed, particularly Dickinson in his emphatic refusal to entertain even the notion of independence from Great Britain. To suggest as much, according to Nixon was unpatriotic. At the very least, it was untruthful (more on this later). The President also objected to several lines of dialogue scattered throughout the movie. To appease, as well as to please, Warner hacked into 1776 with wild abandonment; complying with virtually all the aforementioned ‘requests’ without director, Peter Hunt’s complicity – or even, his knowledge until after the fact.
For many years the movie lay dormant in this truncated state. And yet, even when roughly reassembled to its pre-Nixonian state, 1776 remains cruelly fractured and far less the masterpiece it might have been. Peter Stone’s screenplay, cribbing from his own libretto, contains several gripping moments faithfully brought to life on the expansive Panavision screen. Yet these, arguably, could have easily done without the inclusion of the stage’s songs. In retrospect, it is the dramatic highlights from 1776, the movie, that are its standouts – not the unevenly spaced inclusion of its songs. Ironically, one of the reasons for the movie’s artistic failure is Jack Warner’s iron-fisted commitment to transplant as much of the Broadway show into this cinematic milieu. Perhaps still smiting from the critical backlash he had incurred in his casting Audrey Hepburn in place of Julie Andrews for the filmic adaptation of My Fair Lady (1964), Warner elected herein to populate 1776 with as much of the Broadway cast as possible; a lethal decision from which the movie never entirely recovers.
For, there is much to be said of star power, or lack thereof herein. Stage presence often translates poorly to screen appeal because the requirements of one medium are diametrically opposed to the expectations of the other. A stage actor must reach the back of the house with his booming, animated and larger-than-life presence; his mannerisms and facial expressions exaggerated beyond the reality of the situation. For film, the opposite is decidedly true; the camera doing at least half the acting and capturing the subtlest nuance for posterity with a decidedly ‘less is more’ approach. 1776 suffers from its corps de Broadway thespians: William Daniels (a very caustic and occasionally grating, John Adams), Howard Da Silva (an exceptionally effete Benjamin Franklin), all bubble and bounce; coming across as far more the self-aggrandizing, pontificating prig than one of the genuinely brilliant and enterprising creative and political architects of his generation. It is troublesome, and frequently cringe-worthy, to quietly observe as the camera pokes holes in the balloons of each man’s gesticulated hypocrisies; Daniels’ frantic and vibrating, using sweeping gestures as he condemns his near-sighted congressional cohorts with ‘Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve,’ or chasing his own shadow up and down Constitution Hall’s winding staircase, thrusting feather quills into the sweaty nervous palms of his fellow delegates, including an edgy Ben Franklin and stupefied Thomas Jefferson (Ben Howard), demanding the latter compose his prose under duress.
1776 begins with a rather uneventful main title sequence; dull titles for an equally as gloomy beginning to our show. We find John Adams quite unable to persuade his fellow congressional members into even considering a debate over the issue of independence. While few of his fellow politicos are particularly keen on either the idea or John himself, whom they collectively regard as arrogant, pushy and self-aggrandizing; Adam’s biggest opponent is John Dickinson – a staunch royalist who readily protests the way England is being portrayed by Adams and others who share in his opinion. Heated exchanges end as John storms out to debate himself; consulting the spirit of his wife, Abigail, who has stayed behind on their farm in Massachusetts. She advises prudence; also serving as a reminder he is one half of an extraordinarily devoted couple who, seemingly, operate best when separated by several hundred miles of open road.
Returning to his own time – and presumably, his senses – John pursues Benjamin Franklin, at present having his portrait painted in a garden. Herein it should be noted 1776’s erratic timeline bounces indiscriminately from day to night, then back again, director, Peter Hunt merely fading to black when he has had enough of not being able to figure out the timeline in his twenty-four hour day. Franklin is mildly annoyed by John’s opinion, that his work-in-progress portrait ‘stinks’. Still, he has an excellent idea for pursuing the nomination to debate the issue of independence. He’ll encourage Richard Lee to take up the cause; Lee blindly accepting the challenge with an outburst of personal pride. Back in Congress, Dickinson hotly opposes Adams. His exclusive objections incur the wrath of Delaware’s representative, Caesar Rodney (William Hansen), who succumbs to a relapse of his skin cancer and is removed from his post. Mercifully, Dickinson is eventually overruled, although he continues to throw up roadblocks during the heavily contested issue of separating from England.
Repeatedly, Congress receives disturbing dispatches from Gen. George Washington (never seen in the film) whose continental armies are ill-equipped, poorly trained and badly losing the fight against King George’s well-organized military forces, advancing on the Hudson and New York in their tall ships. Adam’s points out the criticalness of the situation. To become a nation, indivisibly proud under God requires Congress quit dragging its heels on the subject of independence. Receiving the assignment to create a rough draft of the terms of the Declaration, Adams defers responsibility; first to Franklin, then finally, Thomas Jefferson; heart sore to be reunited with his wife, Martha. Adam’s delay of Jefferson’s plans is made all the more intolerable when Jefferson – a usually eloquent wordsmith – cannot think of a single noble truth to commit to paper. Adams sends for Martha. She arrives in town to bestow badly needed love and devotion on her weary and distracted husband. After several days, in which it is suggested Jefferson has spent a good deal of it laying with his wife, the declaration is written.
Congressional President John Hancock (David Ford) appoints a committee that includes Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Roger Sherman (Rex Robbins) of Connecticut and Robert Livingston (John Myhers) of New York to preside over the creation of the Declaration’s legalese. While Dickinson repeated prevents Adams in his maneuvering to get the required unanimity for the vote on independence, Adams and Franklin convince stalwart Samuel Chase (Patrick Hines) of Maryland, to accompany them on a probative visit to the Colonial Army’s encampment in New Brunswick, New Jersey. If Adams can convince Chase the army is fit and ready for action, Chase will side with the decision to pursue independence.
Upon their return to Philadelphia, Adams quickly learns the declaration is already in the process of being read in Congress. Days of heavily contested debate follow; several delegates taking umbrage to various clauses outlined by Jefferson; in particular, South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge’s (John Cullum) refusal to sign any document in which the South’s supremacy and right to own slaves are contested. Adams is adamant the clause remain intact, citing that ‘all men’ are created equal in God’s eyes. But Rutledge holds to the idea blacks are property rather than people. At the last possible moment, Franklin intervenes, imploring Adams to reconsider his hard line. Surely, the question of independence from England must be resolved before the issue of slavery, if ever a new nation is to be formed and move forward on its own steam into a new prosperity, particularly in times of war, but also preferably, in peace.
Adams begrudgingly defers his final decision to Jefferson, who agrees to remove the clause from the Declaration. Afterward, the votes are still tied. The question is put to the Colony of Pennsylvania, whose delegation is polled at Franklin's request. Franklin votes for independence. Dickinson refuses. The outcome of a nation now rests with of fellow Pennsylvanian, Judge James Wilson (Emory Bass); thus far Dickinson’s puppet. Alas, even Wilson can see the tide has turned toward independence. Should he refuse it now he will forever be known throughout history as the man who stood in the way of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. After receiving word from Gen. Washington of the destruction of his property by the British, New York’s delegate, Lewis Morris (Howard Caine) withdraws his chronic abstention and agrees to sign the Declaration. Each member affixes his signature to its parchment, thereby establishing the United States of America on July 4, 1776.
While fundamentally based on historical ‘facts’, 1776 is nevertheless a wholly fictional account of the due process by which the Declaration of Independence was eventually ratified. Since congress was held in secrecy and no records survive, Peter Stone’s liberties in turning fact into fiction are largely forgivable; save a few rather glaring oversights. For one; in Stone’s attempt to concoct an adversarial relationship between Adams and Dickinson he has completely skewed Dickinson’s objections to the Declaration on the grounds of being a royalist when, in fact, Dickinson was every bit the patriot as Adams, having penned ‘Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania’, a paper making the exact same points regarding King George’s tyranny as Adams reiterates in the movie as his own precepts. Dickinson is, in fact, badly maligned in the play and movie; represented as an aristocratic landowner who seemingly profits by his fastidious adherence to England’s imperial ruling class. In reality, he was no wealthier than his contemporaries, and Jefferson would later declare Dickinson as one the ‘great worthies of the revolution’. Alas, in the film, Dickinson is portrayed as the proverbial fly in everyone’s ointment; a resolute hothead, unmarried and full of pretension to defeat Adams, merely to humiliate him.
As for Adams, although both the play and the movie suggest he was unanimously ranked as ‘obnoxious’ and ‘openly disliked’, historical records clearly indicate Adams was one of the most readily admired of the congressional members. A few of the characters portrayed in 1776 are actually amalgams of the fifty plus members who partook in the continental congressional debates on independence. As example, John Adams is a composite of the real Adams and his cousin, Samuel Adams; Caesar Rodney, depicted as decrepitly old and ill, was in fact barely 47 when these events occurred. Finally, Richard Lee’s departure from the congressional chaos to assume the governorship of Virginia is falsely put. His cousin, Henry became governor, not he, while Adams’ supposed dislike of Lee was wholly fabricated merely to add vinegar to his own caustic characterization.
1776 equally blurs the lines as to what prompted the vote for independence; suggesting without the Declaration, independence would not have been achieved. The reality is the vote for independence had already been passed on July 2nd with Lee’s resolution. Ratifying the Declaration was thus not ‘a deal breaker’; merely, a formality to outline the actual points of interest necessitating the split. To date, some historians have debated the Declaration was not even signed until the beginning of August, rendering the national holiday on July 4th a moot point. Last, though hardly least, the exclusion of Jefferson’s original clause regarding slavery, while serving as a musical springboard for a rather laborious ‘history lesson’ told in the song, ‘Molasses to Rum’ was, in fact, omitted by near unanimous consent from both the Southern and Northern delegates. Thomas Jefferson, heard resolving to free his slaves in the movie, in fact, maintained the status quo for some fifty years thereafter, while Franklin, who claims to be an abolitionist in the film, actually became president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society nine years after the events taking place in this movie.
Artistic licenses aside, as a movie 1776 is monumentally disappointing. Fair enough, its music is one of the most integrated scores ever conceived for the stage and indivisible from Peter Stone’s narrative plotting. These aren’t bright and breezy, happy little tunes to be neatly excised and endlessly revived as background dance music for the jukebox or gramophone; rather, extensions of the dramatic impressions shared by the main characters in both the play and movie, eloquently expressed in arias that rhyme when mere dialogue will not suffice. The subject matter is what remains compelling in 1776, in spite of Jack L. Warner’s chronic tinkering to cram history into the standards of his Broadway-to-Hollywood hybrid that stubbornly and almost completely refuses to come to life as a cinematic experience. I whole-heartedly disagree with the late Roger Ebert’s more emphatic condemnation, that 1776 is a ‘fairly dreadful’ insult to the real men who helped forge a new nation. Although I still hold to the opinion it will never be a great, nor even a competently made incarnation of the stage hit, the film version of 1776 nevertheless addresses that epoch at the start of America’s new beginning with a resolute charm all its own. It does it loudly, occasionally with a modicum of tact, usually with great potency, and amply applied dollops of blind ambition to visualize its living testament. It fails – spectacularly – though not at proving any of these points; rather, in attaining the rank of a truly engaging classic Hollywood musical. Yet, in the final analysis, its epic implosion as an ‘entertainment’ remains more than moderately counterbalanced by its moving tableau of faux history, still fascinating to behold.
1776 comes to Blu-ray via Sony Home Entertainment and under the auspices of its Executive Vice President in charge of Asset Management, Film Restoration and Digital Mastering; Grover Crisp, whose commitment to the Columbia library remains both ambitious and peerless. The new Blu-ray contains two versions, the 165 min. Director's Cut and a new Extended Cut, running approximately three minutes longer. Herein, we pause to doff our caps to Mr. Crisp– also, to Sony's Jeremy Glassman; both men having conducted an exhaustive search to unearth the excised pieces of 1776 and reinstate virtually most (though not all) of the missing footage with a concerted effort to resurrect the film maker’s original intent. Working from less than perfect archival elements, Mr. Crisp and his devoted minions have performed a minor miracle on this catalog title.
Those expecting ‘perfection’ may be a shay disillusioned. There are instances where grain is heavier than anticipated and colors marginally differ from almost vibrant to marginally wan. All I can tell you is this is 1776 as it has never looked before; lovingly preserved with the greatest attention paid to bringing all its disparate elements together while leveling off their – in some cases – quantum differences to a happy medium where discrepancies between the excisions and the restored footage are virtually indistinguishable. Colors are, at times, very rich and satisfying. On the whole, they should surely not disappoint. There is a residual softness to the image. Don’t expect everything to be razor sharp because, frankly, it never was, not even in 1972. Fine detail is impressively rendered, particularly in close-ups. Contrast is generally pleasing, though occasionally just a shay weaker than anticipated (again, at the mercy of surviving elements). Age-related artifacts are a non-issue.
1776’s soundtrack is more problematic; sounding strident in spots and even more at the mercy of surviving elements than perhaps its visuals. That said, what’s here in DTS 5.1 will be a pleasant surprise to minor revelation for those who only know the soundtrack from its original mono mix. Extras include a brand new audio commentary featuring Peter Hunt, Peter Stone and William Daniels, meant to augment an older audio commentary, separately featured, and previously included as part of the retired DVD release. These commentaries are only available on the ‘director’s cut’ of the film. But we also get deleted scenes with or without director’s commentary and some intriguing screen tests, plus the original trailer. Bottom line: and apart from my opinion of the movie itself: 1776 has its ardent admirers who, on this occasion, have nothing to fear and everything to look forward: a triumphant remastered in 4K, surely an infectious preamble to the 4th of July. Bottom line: recommended for quality.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)