The Fourth of July is a hotly anticipated day for us Americans. It means the peak of summer! Grills, baseball, vacation, beach time, fireworks, and time to celebrate with friends and family. It is a wonderful day. Though I have to remind myself that the holiday is called Independence Day and we’re celebrating more than just summer being awesome. It is also the birthday of the United States.
It’s been 241 years to the day since the founders of the United States got together in Philadelphia and signed the Declaration of Independence, committing treason against the greatest empire in the world at the time, and boldly claiming freedom to make their own brand new nation. The American Revolution is a remarkable story and almost certainly the most astounding revolution in human history. It makes for excellent books, plays, movies, TV shows, and myths. Plenty of all have been made throughout the years. I recently watched one of the best: a musical film released in 1972 that focuses on the month long stretch from June to July of 1776 when the Continental Congress aggressively debated whether they would separate from the British Empire. The film is, appropriately, called 1776. It is an adaptation of a 1969 musical that won the Tony Award for Best Musical. If you are a fan of musicals, and appreciate the gravity and humor of the American Revolution, you owe it to yourself to watch this film.
It centers on John Adams (played by William Daniels) trying to propose and pass American Independence through a useless, do nothing Congress that is spinning its wheels and voting on silly matters that aren’t worth the attention. He seeks and receives help from Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva) who quips and sleeps his way through the whole film while being a lovable womanizer, Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard), who mostly sits quietly but delivers powerful prose and wisdom when called upon, and Abigail Adams (Virginia Vestoff), who appears to John through letters as a calming prescence, a respit from the idiocy of Congress, and a chance to sort out thoughts on the given situation. Throughout the film, those seeking independence have to wrestle with those seeking to maintain the status quo of British citizenship and slavery, like John Dickinson (Donald Madden) and Edward Rutledge (John Cullum).
The film stays in Philadelphia and is only concerned with the proposal, discussion, debate, and signing of the Declaration of Independance. George Washington and Alexander Hamilton do not appear at all in person. Washington is only referred to through his depressing dispatches, and there are no battle scenes shown. The action is the political discussions surrounding the Congress.
The most praised aspect of the film is the consistent mockery and humor at the expense of government, different states, and the characters themselves. Rightly so. This is a funny movie. Everyone is a charicature. John Adams is an Oompa Loompa from puritan Boston that yells and is obnoxious. Ben Franklin is an old womanizer who sleeps all film but is actually the wisest man there. The North Carolina delegation constantly yields to South Carolina and the South Carolinians are elegant jerks.
On top of the characterization, the lyrics and lines are also filled with excellent humor.
When saying why he should not write the Declaration, Roger Sherman explains “I don’t know a participle from a predicate. I am just a simple cobbler from Connecticut.”
When Jefferson’s wife (yes there are historical innacuracies; we’ll talk about those later) shows up and relieves his stress, as it were, Adams comments on their choice of timing and asks Franklin: “Are they going to…? In the middle of the afternoon!?”
Franklin responds: “Not everyone’s from Boston, John.”
And when asked about the New York delegation’s lack of direction in voting, one representative responds: “Have you ever been to a meeting of the New York legislature? Everyone talks very loud and fast, no one listens to each other, and thus, nothing ever gets done.”
The writing is top notch and it makes for an entertaining time.
The music is only ok though. The lyrics are the best part of it. The choreography is rather simple and the notes themselves are not too complex. They weren’t trying to make a hard musical in those ways, but I can’t help but point out these issues. And as much as I like Daniels as Adams, I can’t help but find his singing voice disappointing. It’s not a deal breaker, but for the lead of the film, they could’ve gotten someone who’s a better singer. Other than that, the technicals of the film are exactly what can be expected from an early 70’s musical. The sets are on point, the costumes are excellent and the sound design works wonderfully. Everything technically is upto standards and works well.
The biggest issue to be taken with it is the historical innacuracies. Jefferson’s wife did not actually go to Philadelphia during the time of the real thing, and the voting on the idea actually took place on July 2nd, before signing the declaration on the 4th. There are more, but I won’t harp on them. This isn’t trying to be a true to life adaptation of the real events, it is trying to show the atmosphere of the times and the gravity of declaring independence. And it does that well.
While I praised the humorous tone of the film early, 1776 also has moments that are played stone cold seriously. This is honestly where the film is at its best for me. The debate scene between the proposal of Independence and the formation of the committee for writing a Declaration of Independence is played straight and the tension of the moment is perfect. “Molassas to Rum” is a scathing commentary on the nature of the slave trade and slavery in the south and is the best number in the movie. Cullum plays it up as Rutledge and shines. The thing he’s promoting are horrible, but it is supposed to grab your attention and it does.
On the subject of slavery, this film shows excellent awareness of how murky an issue it was in those days. Adams and Jefferson wanted to remove slavery from the new nation, but the economy of the southern states depended upon it. If removed, the Deep South would’ve folded completely and the economic problems after the war would have likely been even worse. Adams acknowledged that “Future generations will never forgive us.” Franklin answered “That may be so, but without a country that won’t matter much.” It was an absolutely impossible moral dilemma and the way it is shown in this film is enlightening and sobering.
The ending of the film is also sobering and jarring. The signing of the Declaration is played completely straight and with an air of “oh crap what are we doing” hanging over the scene. You’d think it’d end on a high note, but it doesn’t. It ends in a somber mood, as if to say “the fight has yet to be won”. That’s absolutely the correct way to end the film. The founders were committing treason against the greatest empire in the world and the greatest power since Rome. They knew they would likely fail. And by all rights, they should have failed. But they didn’t.
When I think about why I celebrate Independence Day, I always think about how unlikely it is that the country should exist. The debate, the wars, the odds, the fight against human nature, nothing on paper says that America should exist today, let alone should have escaped the first months of its existence. This country has been through an unbelievable journey and it began in Philadelphia back 241 years ago.
Hamilton is a more entertaining look at America’s founding and nature. But 1776 is a more accurate portrayal of the atmosphere of the country’s founding. It benefits from a tight focus on one location and particular month, excellent writing and a healthy dose of comedy balanced by sobering reality. If you have not seen this film, take some of your Independence Day to watch it.