‘1776’ Is Both a Window Into the Past and a Mirror to the Present

The American Revolution gets told in musical form in 1776, which reminds us that the past is not quite so different from the present as we like to pretend.

“Everything old is new again” is the reminder in All That Jazz‘s song lyrics, and so it is with another movie musical, 1776, which was began as an award-winning Broadway musical. The 1972 cinematic release took place toward the end of the era of great American musicals, and coincided with the planning of United States Bicentennial celebrations. In 2002, a director’s cut was released on DVD. Now new audiences, as well as perennial fans who faithfully watch 1776 at least every 4th of July, can see the beautifully restored film in both director’s cut and extended versions. For the first time, 1776 is truly complete, featuring frames of film that were once believed lost or destroyed. This latest Blu-ray and digital HD release also includes four previously unreleased screen tests, deleted or alternate scenes, and a new commentary.

The plot is simple. In 1776 Philadelphia, the Continental Congress meets to discuss the issue of independence from Britain. A series of political and personal conflicts is eventually resolved, resulting in the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The historic personages who debate and sign this momentous document also, in this retelling at least, sing and dance their way through history.

Director Peter H. Hunt finally has the version that satisfies his creative vision for this story, even if he confides during one of the director commentaries that, if given the chance to reshoot a few scenes, he would do so simply because he has learned more about which camera angles can best reveal character or plot points in certain scenes in the intervening years. “I was so young then,” he adds.

Indeed, one of the thrills of seeing this film again, especially now that it has been lovingly restored, is watching well-known actors like now-88-year-old William Daniels (The Graduate [1967], St. Elsewhere [1982-88], Boy Meets World [1993-2000]) perform an iconic role filmed decades ago, in his case John Adams. Daniels notes in the commentary that he “owned” the role for two years, both on stage and on film. Blythe Danner, today perhaps more popularly known as Gwyneth Paltrow’s mother, is stunning in the film’s best dance number, “He Plays the Violin”. As Martha Jefferson, lithe Blythe helps Howard Da Silva (playing Benjamin Franklin) and Daniels show off their dancing skills and soften the portrayals of these historic men. Viewers who know Ken Howard from more recent roles on 30 Rock (2012-13) or in Grey Gardens (2009) — or as Screen Actors Guild president since 2009 — might be surprised at his thoughtful portrayal of songful Thomas Jefferson.

The actors’ career histories are worth noting. Some viewers may simply enjoy Howard Da Silva’s excellent performance as pragmatic, witty, randy elder statesman Benjamin Franklin, who sings, dances, and provides the best lines, often based on Franklin’s famous sayings. Film buffs, however, might be interested in knowing that this “Benjamin Franklin” was blacklisted from television and film in the ’50s. What has become arguably Da Silva’s most memorable role for modern audiences is perhaps ironically in a highly patriotic film, when, decades earlier, he was caught up in the House Un-American Activities Committee’s (HUAC) blacklisting of those deemed “un-American”. Da Silva, like hundreds of actors, was called to testify before HUAC, where he invoked his Fifth Amendment rights. Although he found work in the theater, his film and television career abruptly ended, resuming only after the blacklist was lifted in 1960.

Another way of looking at the good fit between actor and role is to compare Da Silva’s difficulties dealing with the Committee’s politics with Franklin’s problems with King George III. Both men believed in standing up for what they believed in, facing whatever consequences might befall them as a result. “If we do not hang together, surely we shall most assuredly hang separately,” Da Silva quotes Franklin before he signs the subversive declaration, reminding viewers that the forefathers of the new government established in what would become the United States were the dissidents of their age.

1776 has aged gracefully during its 43-year cinematic life, in part because its subject matter remains relevant. By now, the history of the film, not only the history of the nation, adds to its “must-watch” status. Although then-President Richard Nixon seemed to enjoy the cast’s White House performance of the theatrical version, he later requested that producer Jack Warner remove a pivotal musical number called “Cool, Conservative Men” from the film, because Nixon thought it would offend his party’s conservatives. Indeed, the lyrics “to the right, always to the right, never to the left” could indicate the determined direction of not only the dedicated conservatives in this scene, or to the ’70s party members Nixon did not want to alienate, but to other generations before and since who share a conservative political philosophy. On screen, the lyrics accompany a cavalcade of singer-dancers marching in lock step behind their leader, a depiction that remains controversial. In some ways, politics has changed little. Battles between liberals and conservatives threaten the disruption of the assemblage — whether it is called the Continental Congress or simply Congress.

The film also deals with human rights. The song “Molasses to Rum” reminds viewers of the economics behind the slave trade. Even Jefferson, who wants to abolish slavery with a clause in the Declaration of Independence, admits he owns slaves, although he vows to free them upon his death. Adams is right to wonder how these Founding Fathers will be judged by future generations, as the anti-slavery clause is removed as part of a compromise to achieve agreement on the Declaration of Independence.

Although the film’s portrayed politics may echo events and debates that have occurred in the succeeding 239 years, 1776 is far more than political drama. The musical humanizes historic figures through romantic interludes and sometimes bawdy language, which has been returned from the stage version to the new director’s cut. Hunt comments that the humor “still works… Every joke landed. Nothing seems dated at all.”

One of the most romantic characters surprisingly turns out to be usually fiery, opinionated John Adams, who tends to alienate most of his colleagues because he is convinced of the rightness of his arguments. As the perfect partner to John, Abigail Adams (played by Virginia Vestoff) is independent in her own right but also supports her mate. She knowingly teases John about his faults, but always with love. She leads the ladies near her Braintree, Massachusetts farm in providing materials for the revolutionary war effort, but she also secures from John the supplies that the women need back home. The film offers tender duets between the long-married lovers separated for months because of the colonists’ struggle toward independence. John wonders if his “favorite lover’s pillow is still firm and fair” (Abigail assures him it is) and promises that he is “now, as I ever was and ever shall be, yours.” Like much of the dialogue or lyrics, the Adams’ words come directly from correspondence or other historic records.

1776 illustrates that the United States’ Founding Fathers, and the army of itinerant soldiers they commanded, were flesh-and-blood people who worried about their families and farms; they loved passionately and sometimes lost grievously. The film also reminds audiences that these would-be 18th century national leaders did not know if their plans would succeed, and they faced heavy losses along the way to eventual victory. During the course of the story, some members of the Philadelphia assemblage lose their homes while they are busy declaring independence. A desperate George Washington sends multiple messages to the Continental Congress, each more depressing than the last, to detail the battles with British troops or beg for aid. “Mama, Look Sharp” captures the horror of loss through the song-story of a boy soldier reliving battle and its aftermath. Although the film is part of the musical genre, it incorporates dramatic moments both for individuals and the nation they hope to form, almost as regularly as the exuberant dances or humorous lines.

Like much of American history, 1776 is a tale of joyful or irreverent celebration tempered by political divisions, bloodshed, and uncertainty about the future. It succeeds on many levels: as a musical full of catchy lines and lyrics, excellent vocal performances (exemplified by renowned actor-singer John Cullum), and crisp choreography; as a humanization of history, making it lively and entertaining but based on historic documents; and increasingly as a reflection of more recent political and cinematic history.

This Blu-ray edition includes a director’s cut (two hours, 45 minutes) as well as an extended cut (two hours, 48 minutes). The director’s cut is accompanied by two commentaries, one with director Peter Hunt and screenwriter Peter Stone, and the other with Hunt and actors Daniels and Howard. In particular, Hunt’s comments are worth hearing, especially when he explains tricky camera work, such as one continuous shot requiring a lift, track, and dolly to capture Adams’ descent from the bell tower into the Continental Congress and a 360-degree revolution to establish the setting. The director adds that this type of movie magic took place in the days before Steadicams. Such comments about the how and why of filming scenes provide a mini-course on filmmaking and the technological advances since the early ’70s. In addition to the commentaries, the extras include 13 screen tests, three deleted or alternate scenes, and trailers.

The final scene freezes the Continental Congressmen at a key moment in their and U.S. history — the signing of the Declaration of Independence — as if the film and its historic characters are paused and awaiting a replay. The enhanced, restored 1776 lets new audiences or long-time fans enjoy that replay at home this summer and insists that, for better or worse, the past is not quite so different from the present as we like to pretend.

RATING 8 / 10


The Optimist Died Inside of Me: Death Cab for Cutie’s ‘Narrow Stairs’

Silent Film’s Raymond Griffith Pulled Tricksters Out of Top Hats

The 10 Most Memorable Non-Smash Hit Singles of 1984

30 Years of Slowdive’s ‘Souvlaki’