In the wake of the popular “John Adams” miniseries on HBO and the upcoming Fourth of July holiday, this may be an excellent time to check out my favorite film of all time, “1776.”
Now many people are surprised when they find out I’m a film critic and that my favorite movie is “1776,” (which was made in 1972, is based on the 1969 Broadway musical, and is currently available on DVD) rather than “Casablanca” or “The Godfather,” or something like that, which other critics might favor. And while those are indeed excellent films, nothing touches me deeper than this dramatic and mostly-historically-accurate account of the founding of the United States.
Unlike almost every other movie ever made, the viewer knows how it will end before they even see it: thirteen British colonies come together and jointly declare their political independence from Great Britain and sign Jefferson’s powerful and well-worded Declaration of Independence. For me to publish that, really, is not a spoiler. What the audience doesn’t know—and what the real tension in the movie is about—is how on earth the extremely divided representatives of the colonies can get to that point in only two months.
It’s very much a political film as John Adams (William Daniels), despite being “obnoxious and disliked,” works with Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva) and Richard Henry Lee (Ron Holgate) to bring a resolution for independence before the Second Continental Congress and then, one-by-one, convince all of the colonies to support it.
As you might imagine, there is much opposition. Men of wealth and power, who stand the most to benefit by their allegiance to King George III, are quite resistant. The conservative coalition is led by John Dickinson (Donald Madden) and Edward Rutledge (John Collum, who later went on to greater fame playing Holling in TVs “Northern Exposure”). They declare that any vote in favor of independence must be unanimous. And so to buy time for their cause, the advocates of independence, almost as a minor political maneuver, suggest they write a declaration, completely unaware of just how significant a document it will soon become.
No one wants to write the Declaration of Independence, most of all the shy and unassuming Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard) who would much rather spend time with his wife, Martha (Blythe Danner). But as we all know from history, Adams managed to persuade Jefferson to write it. But then the document, which Adams called “a masterful expression of the American mind,” suffers much revision by Congress.
During the last few weeks leading up to the major vote on independence, on July 2, 1776, each colony has its own dramas and issues to work through. Mary-land opposes independence because it believes the Americans can’t win the war, and so they must be persuaded that they can. The delegate from Georgia, Dr. Lyman Hall (Jonathan Moore), actually favors independence but knows that the people he represents don’t. The delegations from Pennsylvania and Delaware can’t agree amongst themselves. The New York delegation keeps abstaining because their legislature won’t give them instructions.
Perhaps most significant of all, the North and South Carolina delegations refuse to support independence because Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration contains a clause which could outlaw slavery in the new country they are trying to create. The northern advocates of independence, who are also abolitionists, must make painful compromises if they want a free and united nation.
All this is set to some wonderful music. The numbers early in the film are light and catchy, such as “Sit Down John” in which the Congress rebukes Adams for his political stubbornness, or “The Lees of Old Virginia” in which Richard Henry Lee boasts of his ability and breeding, or “But Mr. Adams” in which the Declaration Committee plays hot-potato with a quill pen to decide which of them will write the document.
But as the film goes on and the stakes become higher, the music takes a more serious and dramatic turn. There is the scary song, “Cool Considerate Men,” in which Dickinson basks in his wealth and influence. And an extremely moving song is “Mama Look Sharp,” sung by a low-level Army courier (Stephen Nathan) who describes the horrors he witnessed at the Battle of Lexington and Concord. (Remember, this was made in 1972, while the Vietnam War raged; the writers and producers, like most artists in the US at the time, were anti-war.)
Another powerful song is “Does Anybody See What I See?” in which Adams, on the eve of American Independence, envisions a grand and glorious and free country; he worries that it may not come to be, but is determined to keep on fighting. The lyrics of this song are actually a poetic paraphrase of a real letter that the historical Adams wrote to his wife that evening.
And then there is my favorite song of all, “Molasses to Rum to Salves,” in which Rutledge chastises the northern delegates for being hypocrites in their opposition to slavery, reminding them of the economic ties that bind them to the slave trade. As dramatic sundown light pours in through the window blinds, Rutledge exclaims, “Hail Boston! Hail Charleston! Who stinketh the most?” Few scenes in the history of film move me so deeply.
So, for the sake of those who have never seen this movie, that is a bit of an introduction. Since it is my favorite film, and I have seen it a good 30 to 40 times throughout my life, I could go on and on, but this I hope is enough to whet your appetite and convince you to check it out.
I always enjoy recommending my favorite film; and with the Fourth of July coming up, what time could be more perfect than the very holiday this film commemorates? I’ve read a few articles recently that have criticized Americans for celebrating meaninglessly, not knowing or caring what political freedom and liberty are all about; but if you watch this movie, that can really help pull the holiday back into focus and remind you of the battles and the risks our Founding Fathers took.
Picnics, fireworks, and “1776”—what better way to celebrate Independence Day?
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