"Revolutions come into this world like bastard children. Half improvised and half compromised."
You need not be a student of history nor a fan of Broadway musicals to appreciate 1776. I first came across this film almost 20 years ago and was immediately taken in by its infectious musical score and powerful message. Since then, I have found myself revisiting it every few years on film, on stage, and on CD. However, never before have I seen or heard it presented so impressively. At this time in history, I cannot think of a more appropriate film for each and every American to see and appreciate the struggle and sacrifices made for the freedoms we enjoy today.
Facts of the Case
May 1776—British armed forces, along with hired mercenaries, are preparing a major attack against the colony of New York. The rag-tag Continental Army under the command of General George Washington has been battling numerous British insurgencies over the past year and are dangerously close to collapse. The idea of independence is gaining momentum but remains a divided issue amongst the residents of the 13 American colonies. The Continental Congress echoes these sentiments, having postponed or defeated 23 separate resolutions for independence as introduced or authored by Boston lawyer and Massachusetts representative John Adams (William Daniels). Together with elder Pennsylvanian statesman Dr. Benjamin Franklin (Howard da Silva), the two have been the torchbearers for freedom from the increasing oppression of mother England. Stymied by the Congress' dislike for Adam's tenacity, Franklin hatches a plan to enlist the help of the highly respected Virginia delegation in drafting and introducing a more commanding call for independence. While we all know what ultimately transpired on a sweltering July 4, 1776, few of us are aware—or fully appreciate—how difficult a challenge this undertaking truly was for our founding fathers.
Following the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, America had traded the wide-eyed optimism of Camelot for the cynical anti-establishment outlook of Vietnam and Woodstock. During this time, history teacher turned songwriter Sherman Edwards had been developing and shopping the concept of a founding fathers musical. He spent a great deal of time in Philadelphia researching the subject, studying everything from resolutions and voting records to biographies, journals, letters of correspondence, and anything else that might shed light on the arguments and debates that took place during this historic time. Award winning writer Peter Stone (Father Goose, Sweet Charity) was brought in to develop and refine the script, adding momentum, tension, and humor. While grounded in history, it is Edwards' music that provides depth and dimension to these otherwise two dimensional historical figures. 23 original songs were written, ten of which were cut before the show made it to Broadway. Rookie director Peter Hunt took the helm of the ship as it entered uncharted waters.
One of the greatest challenges was casting the male dominated show. Given the demands of these roles, each leading man had to be both an exceptional actor and singer. William Daniels, fondly remembered for his television roles of the 1980s and '90s—St. Elsewhere, the voice of David Hasselhoff's car K.I.T.T. on Knight Rider, and Boy Meets World—was the unanimous choice to take on the complex role of John Adams. Daniels does an outstanding job exhibiting Adam's political convictions while humanizing him through the touching correspondence that he shared with wife Abigail. Howard da Silva (Sea Wolf, Sgt. York)—blacklisted in Hollywood during the late 1960s due to his vocal political convictions—was cast as Dr. Benjamin Franklin. Somehow, you get the feeling da Silva's portrayal is exactly how the celebrated inventor and philosopher would have been in real life. Finally, Ken Howard, best known for his television roles on The White Shadow and Crossing Jordan, was cast in his first leading role as Thomas Jefferson, the young, eloquent, and newly married writer who would go on to become one of America's greatest statesmen. Howard's subtle and understated nature is played exceptionally well off the manic tenacity of Adams and fun loving wit of Franklin.
While most doubted the show would ever work, audiences and critics were amazed and enthralled by what they witnessed on opening night—March 16, 1969. When the dust had settled, 1776 had walked away with a Tony award for Best Musical (1969) and a successful three year run. Interestingly enough, this success would prove to be only the tip of the iceberg.
Producer Jack Warner loved the show and wanted it brought to the big screen for millions of people to enjoy—but not in typical Hollywood fashion. Warner insisted on using everything that made the Broadway show a hit—including the entire cast and crew. With only a few cast changes—most notably Blythe Danner (in her film debut) replacing Betty Buckley as Martha Jefferson and John Cullum (Northern Exposure, E.R.) taking over for Clifford David as Edward Rutledge—the show went before the cameras with a 40 day shooting schedule, a $4 million budget, and a $500,000 replica of Independence Hall. The film premiered November 9, 1972 at Radio City Musical Hall to critical acclaim and box office records—despite not being the film it was originally intended to be.
Warner, the most powerful man in Hollywood for nearly 40 years, had recently been put out to pasture by his brother Harry and Warner Brothers' top brass. On his own as a producer, at 80 years of age, Warner wanted a film in which he could be fully involved in every stage of the production. 1776 became his pet project. Weeks before the premier, without notification or approval of the production team, Warner recut the film, removing more than 25 minutes of footage including plot points, critical dialogue, and one of the show's most poignant musical numbers Cool Considerate Men—at the request of President Nixon, who felt the song was too critical of conservatives. Warner even went as far as ordering the negatives destroyed so that history would not judge him. He passed away soon after the film's release.
Until now, the public has never seen the picture as it was originally filmed—the primary reason for this special release. Under the supervision of director Peter Hunt, boxes upon boxes of negative and audiotape were meticulously examined. For more than nine months, the Columbia and Cinetech team found and restored this missing footage, while Hunt and Chase Productions remixed the original never used multi-track audio into a beautiful 5.1 digital mix. Devoid of any significant indications of deterioration or decay, the transfer is amazing—its rich colors punctuating the glorious cinematography of Harry Stradling Jr. (The Way We Were, S.O.B.). The diverse and compelling music of Sherman Edwards bounces throughout the film as if we are hearing it for the first time in Carnegie Hall.
Adding to the overall enjoyment of this newly restored film, Columbia treats us to three special features—all of which come highly recommended. First, an engaging feature commentary by screenwriter Peter Stone and director Peter Hunt, who pull no punches in sharing their thoughts and experiences of the film and its genesis. Next, a collection of trailers beginning with 1776 and bookended by other films of the same time period—Oliver, Taming of the Shrew, and Pal Joey. (Editorial Aside: Why can't Columbia do something similar on all their releases?) Finally, the most unique treat, original screen tests by several principal actors. While it won't blow you away, it is an interesting glimpse behind the Hollywood curtain.
1776 is a film that breaks all the rules of movie musicals. At 166 minutes in length, it creates a rare, delicate balance between historical drama, thought-provoking dialogue, brilliant performances, and show-stopping musical numbers. While normally the plot of a musical is driven by its lyrics, here we find the music used sparingly and intentionally as an accelerant to the smoldering embers of argument and debate that were destined to become the raging fire known as the United States of America. 1776 ensnares its viewers as we watch these flawed men grow into the historic figures we have long held in such high regard. I cannot provide a higher recommendation for a film than I do here for 1776. I encourage you to purchase this disc and revisit it each summer as we celebrate our country's independence.
This court finds 1776 guilty of being one of the country's most under-appreciated films. It is hereby deemed required viewing by all U.S. citizens, as a means of granting us new appreciation for our American heritage. The court extends its deepest appreciation to Columbia TriStar and director Peter Hunt for providing us with this fully restored national treasure.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Feature Commentary by Screenwriter Peter Stone and Director Peter Hunt
Review content copyright © 2002 Michael Stailey; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.