1776 (1972)

1776 (1972)

“I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace; that two are called a law firm; and that three or more become a Congress!”

At the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, John Adams (William Daniels) pushes for independence from Britain, and is given leave — along with Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva), Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard), and others — to draft the Declaration of Independence.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • American Revolutionary War
  • Blythe Danner Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Musicals
  • Play Adaptation

This adaptation of Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s 1969 Tony-winning Broadway musical offers an intriguing counterpoint to Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, with both historicizing (and musicalizing) key moments from the earliest years of the United States. As with most historical dramatizations, 1776 is filled with inaccuracies (see Wikipedia’s entry for specifics), but it seems to get the overall gist of the moment “right” — meaning, we strongly sense how confoundingly hot it was in the closed-window rooms:

… how dull and trite most of the Congress’s work generally felt:

… and how contentious key issues (i.e., slavery) were to moving forward as a collective:

Because we already know the eventual outcome of this momentous event, the storyline necessarily focuses on the personalities behind the scenes, highlighting (indeed, over-emphasizing) their key qualities for dramatic impact — so, we see Adams berating himself time and again for being so “obnoxious and disliked” (not actually true in real life):

… Jefferson’s driving lust for his wife (Blythe Danner):

… and Ben Franklin’s irrepressibly scampish nature (Da Silva is a highlight of the movie):

Unfortunately, the songs aren’t all that thrilling, though a few will stick in your head (for better or for worse) long after they’re done.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Howard Da Silva as Ben Franklin
  • Fine historical sets and cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s definitely must-see for American history buffs.


One thought on “1776 (1972)

  1. A once-must, for its place in cinema history. As per my post (today) in ‘Film Junkie’ (fb):

    “This is a revolution, damnit! We’re going to have to offend *somebody*!”

    ‘1776’ (1972): This is only the second time I’ve watched this film. What struck me during this rewatch was the amount of risk involved in bringing such a musical to the Broadway stage. After all, how many people would want to see a musicalization of the signing of the Declaration of Independence?

    Quite a lot of people, as it turns out. ‘1776’ ran for over 1,200 performances when it opened in 1969. It won a TONY for Best Musical. It was revived on Bway in 1997 (333 perfs.). Prior to the pandemic, an all-female-cast revival was planned; presumably that plan still holds.

    Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of ‘Hamilton’, has gushed re: the degree of inspiration he took from ‘1776’:

    “‘1776’ created such an iconic, indelible image of [John] Adams that we just know who that is now. It’s also, I think, one of the best books—if not the best—ever written for musical theater, in that you long to see them talk to each other. Which almost never happens in a musical. Most musicals, you’re waiting for the next song to start. That book is so smart, and so engaging.”

    A very smart decision was made in the transfer from stage to screen: many of the original cast members stayed on-board, as did the original director (Peter H. Hunt) and writer (Peter Stone).

    But how does the film hold up, not only as a musical but as a piece of history? Wikipedia tells us: [According to The Columbia Companion to American History on Film, historical “inaccuracies pervade ‘1776’, though few are very troubling.”] So much for the facts.

    As a musical, ‘1776’ largely embraces what now seems an old, traditional style – and that’s a bit of a drawback. (It took ‘Hair’ to really challenge that style.) But in its second half (the better – more compelling – half of the film, I think), several songs are rather powerful:

    ‘Cool, Cool Considerate Men’: A song Nixon hated – since it put [R]s in a bad but accurate light (all the more reason to love the song).
    ‘Momma, Look Sharp’: One of the most heartbreaking songs about war (and reason alone, I think, to see the film).
    ‘Molasses to Rum’: a potent cry re: finger-pointing over the slave trade.
    ‘Is Anybody There?’: A song that admirably sums up the plot.

    I always find it sad when I think about the (probably) high percentage of people who are indifferent about politics and would rather think / talk about almost anything else. That’s why I think ‘1776’ remains a film of significant worth. You have to put yourself in a particular frame of mind while absorbing it, but I feel it’s a film that rewards in surprising ways.

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