Writers: Peter Stone & Sherman Edwards
Cast: William Daniels, Howard Da Silva, Ken Howard, Donald Madden, John Cullum, Ron Holgate, Blythe Danner, Viginia Vestoff, James Noble
Why You Should Watch It: I started to write this as one of my “Gut Reactions” pieces, but that really wouldn’t be right. “Gut Reactions” are typically reserved for my immediate thoughts about films I’ve just watched for the first time, and that in no way applies to 1776, a movie I’ve seen so many times I have large sections memorized. This is my favorite musical of all time. Getting the chance to perform in it remains one of my two great unfulfilled ambitions as an amateur actor (the other being to play Max Bialystock in The Producers, if you’re curious), and I’m fairly certain I was the only nerd in New Orleans to go up to Brent Spiner at last winter’s Wizard World convention and talk to him about his work in the Broadway revival of this show instead of Star Trek. With the Fourth of July coming up next week, it’s just about time for my annual re-watch of the movie, and this year, I thought I’d mention to you guys why you should watch it too.
1776 is, in its simplest terms, a musical about the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Much of the plot focuses on the efforts of John Adams (William Daniels) and Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva) to spur Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard) to craft the document, then the struggles of bringing it before the First Continental Congress and actually getting the thing signed. Now I know what you’re thinking here — it’s a movie about writing and signing a document? That quite literally may be the dullest synopsis in the history of cinema. But I promise you, my friends, that description in no way does this film justice. This is a movie loaded with energy, tension, just the right amount of comedy, and sincere and powerful character-driven drama.
Jefferson, for instance, needs to be convinced, almost drafted into writing the Declaration, wanting nothing more than to get home to his wife Martha (Blythe Danner at her most radiant). The comedy comes in when Adams and Franklin have to harangue him into picking up the quill, then resort to some rather extreme measures to conquer his writer’s block. Adams, meanwhile, spends much of the film in a musical correspondence with his own wife, Abigail (Virginia Vestoff) that humanizes the man. Throughout the scenes in Congress we see a powerful, driven figure trying to do the best thing for his country — frustrated, yes, but driven. It’s only when he writes to Abigail that he lets his guard down. Franklin, meanwhile, spends much of the film as a bit of light relief, tossing out pithy quotes (including many attributed to the historical Ben Franklin) and witty observations that cut through everybody else’s crap.
Things take a sharply dramatic turn in the second act over two seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Jefferson clashes with South Carolina delegate Edward Rutledge (a powerful performance by John Cullum), who refuses to sign the Declaration unless Jefferson remove a portion of the text that condemns the slave trade. (Yes, Jefferson the slave owner. And yes, he did try to include such a clause in the original Declaration.) Considering that we’re only lightly playing with history here, that this isn’t a Tarantino-style rewriting that will allow for the end of the piece to be changed from what we know to be true, it could be hard to draw real suspense. We know the Declaration is signed, we know the United States wins its independence, so how could we feel any tension over a delegate threatening to refuse his signature? Daniels really sells it, turning this from a rote exercise in acting out history to a powerful examination of how much of a man’s soul he’s willing to sacrifice for the greater good.
The second obstacle comes from Pennsylvania delegate John Dickinson (Donald Madden), a British loyalist who threatens to derail the whole enterprise by refusing to approve the Declaration — a vote which must be unanimous. Again, there isn’t tension over the outcome. The tension comes in with how that obstacle is overcome. Madden’s performance is vital to this picture as well — it would be easy to paint those who didn’t want to cede from Britain as fools or zealots, but he’s neither. His Dickinson comes across as a bit arrogant, but at his core he’s a good man trying to do what he believes is right, the same as Adams, Jefferson and Franklin.
And of course, driving all of this is the music. If you can walk away from this picture without “The Lees of Old Virginia” or “But, Mr. Adams” ringing through your head, you’ve got a thicker skull than I do. Dickinson and Rutledge each also get a powerful number dramatizing their largely antagonistic roles, and there’s a heartbreaking piece (“Mama Look Sharp”) that briefly lets us feel the plight of the Revolutionary soldier, who is of course largely absent from the plot of the film itself.
I’m not a historian. I know some of the things in this movie are based on real life (Jefferson having to withdraw his objection to slavery to placate the southern states) and some are severely dramatized (such as Dickinson’s role), but most of it is in that nebulous realm of stuff that “could have happened.” Ultimately, as long as you understand you’re watching a play and not reading a historical document, this film really gives you exactly what you need. It’s a fantastic presentation of one of the most dramatic moments in history, it gives life to men who risked everything, and it reminds us of a few lessons that some people sorely need even today.