Monday, July 4, 2016


Premiered November 17, 1972

"A rebellion is always legal in the first person, such as "our rebellion."  It is only in the third person - "their rebellion" - that it becomes illegal." - Benjamin Franklin

We're going to depart from our normal format here on the presumption that most people have some understanding of the basic events of the American Revolution.

John Adams exhorts members of the Second Congress to "Vote For Independency!"
1776 is a musical film (based upon the 1969 stage musical of the same title) which dramatizes the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

The story is framed around the Second Continental Congress with a focus on John Adams (as portrayed by William Daniels), Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard), and Benjamin Franklin (Howard DaSilva).

Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams contemplating the prospect of a new nation
RigbyMel says:

At first glance, it might seem incongruous to have chosen to treat the subject of the Declaration of Independence in a musical format,  but it works surprisingly well.

The stage version is definitely evident in the way 1776 was filmed.
Portions of the dialogue and some of the song lyrics are taken directly from things said or written by various participants in the Second Continental Congress.  The songs and the way the plot is structured serve to highlight the drama and debate involved in the decision to declare independence from the British crown.

That being said, 1776 should not be read as any sort of documentary film.  There is a lot of artistic license taken.   For instance, since the action takes place entirely in Philadelphia and mostly indoors, we need an antagonist, and John Dickinson of Pennsylvania (portrayed in the film by Donald Madden) becomes the primary villain for dramatic purposes.

John Dickinson vs. John Adams in the film
Dickinson did take a much more cautious approach to independence and abstained from voting to ratify the Declaration, but his objections were much more nuanced than his film portrayal would suggest.

The film incarnation of Dickinson leads the conservatives in singing "Cool, Considerate Men."
What 1776 does exceptionally well is to humanize the Founding Fathers and to unpack some of the major issues of the time.

For example,  we get this exchange between John Adams and Ben Franklin:

Adams:  "Mark me, Franklin ... if we give in on this issue [the question of slavery], posterity will never forgive us."
Franklin: "That's probably true, but we won't hear a thing, we'll be long gone.  Besides, what would posterity think we were?  Demi-gods?  We're men, no more, no less, trying to get a nation started .., First things first, John.  Independence,  America.  If we don't secure that, what difference will the rest make?"

"Virginia abstains." - Jefferson is less than pleased that he hasn't seen his wife in over 6 months. 
We also are shown that the Founders ... gasp! ... missed their wives and families and were separated from them for extended periods of time in service of the new nation.

There are only 2 roles for women in the film --  Adam's wife Abigail (Virginia Vestoff) appears via dramatized versions of the letters the two exchanged,  and Jefferson's wife Martha (Blythe Danner) serves as muse to her husband making a(n entirely fictional) journey to Philadelphia to (*ahem*) encourage him to write.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie involves the Declaration Committee's song "But, Mr. Adams" which involves Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Roger Sherman (Rex Robbins) and Robert Livingston (John Myhers) bickering over who will actually do the writing of the declaration whilst dancing up and down on the staircase of what is now known as "Independence Hall" -- a hilariously preposterous take on a serious subject.

"Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania, refuse to use the pen!" 
Don't they look happy to not be the primary authors?
Another scene that is anything but funny but no less powerful is the "Molasses to Rum" song performed by Edward Rutledge of South Carolina (as played by John Cullum), which indicts the hypocrisy inherent in the northerners' opposition to the slave trade at the time since they, too, profited from the Triangle Trade.

If you only know John Cullum's work from Northern Exposure, ER or Mad Men,  it's well worth seeing his performance to hear what an amazing baritone voice he has and why he has been nominated for and won several Tony Awards over the years!

Richard Henry Lee (Ron Holgate) and friend.
From a pop culture history perspective, it is also interesting to note that the fountain that makes an appearance in "The Lees of Old Virginia" (a comedic showcase featuring Richard Henry Lee as played by Ron Holgate) can still be found on the Warner Studios back lot.   You may also recognize this fountain from the opening credits of 1990s TV sitcom favorite Friends!

Does this fountain look familiar? 
The same fountain as it appeared in the opening credits of Friends!
I was introduced to 1776 thanks to showings on cable TV in the mid to late 1980s.  I've geekily re-enacted bits of it on the staircase of Independence Hall and even did a song from it (Martha Jefferson's "He Plays The Violin") for my senior vocal recital in the mid-1990s.

RigbyMel (right) and her little brother doing our own version of a number from 1776 on a visit to the real Independence Hall!
The musical holds a special place in my heart and it continues to be required 4th of July viewing in our house.

Lobby card for the film
RigbyMel's rating:

4 American Flags!