Movie Review: 1776

In keeping with the patriotic feel of the 4th of July, when the big day at last came I found myself sitting down to enjoy a film which I had not seen in some time. 1776, from Columbia Pictures, is a film based on the stage musical of the same name. Originally written by Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards in 1969, the film was adapted to screen in 1972 with Peter H. Hunt directing, who had also directed the stage version. I suspect the majority of audiences share my initial reaction upon hearing of a musical centered around the story of the Declaration of Independence. My first impulse was to doubt, to roll my eyes and to wonder how such a historical event most high-schoolers were bored to death of could last as a musical for three whole years its initial run, let alone be made into a film anyone would watch. I also consider myself a musical buff, and was not expecting anything great when I gave the filmed version my first viewing. I was proven entirely wrong. 1776 tells the story of the days leading up to and the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In it, we follow an obnoxious and disliked John Adams as his efforts to convince the Continental Congress to declare independence from England are continually thwarted. Majority is against him, and his one supporter in the Congress happens to be a lecherous, gout-ridden old man: Benjamin Franklin. When circumstances finally allow the matter of independence to be voted on, Adams and Franklin coerce a young and soft-spoken Thomas Jefferson into writing the Declaration of Independence as a delaying tactic as they continue to try and win over the Congress to their side. In the end, (how can it be spoiled, really?) the resolution for independence passes, and the declaration is signed by all thirteen colonies. What sounds like a dull historical reenactment is anything but. While the original writers of 1776 did stress historical accuracy and portions of the dialogue and songs are taken directly from letters actually written by the figures portrayed in that time, 1776 is, in fact, a comedy. John Adams is a short, shrill, annoying man who does not hesitate to stoop to conniving methods or insult other Congressmen to their faces in order to make his opinion heard. In the film he is played by William Daniels, who most students today may recognize as Mr. Feeney from the TV show Boy Meets World. Daniels does a magnificent job with the character of John Adams, portraying a complicated man who knows perfectly well he does not have to be liked to accomplish what he feels is right. At times he is a loud, pushy lawyer who starts cane fights in the middle of Congress (a practice we all wish was still in play), while in the next scene he is a quiet, reflective husband unsure of himself, and the only comfort he derives is from speaking via letters to his wife back in Massachusetts. Daniels performs the whole gamut of John Adams with great intensity. The plot of the show itself is enough to keep even the most horrible of history students interested, and perhaps teach them more than a classroom textbook ever could. Each of the members of the Continental Congress becomes a unique character: John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, John Adams’ main rival; Edward Rutledge, the dignified Southern aristocrat who foreshadows the conflict even then that will eventually result in the Civil War; Stephen Hopkins, the Rhode Island representative who spends the whole of the Congress day drinking; John Hancock, the brutally honest but fair President of the Continental Congress; Andrew McNair, the Congressional custodian who provides running commentary; and the entire delegation of New York, who abstains from every vote, to only name a few. Even George Washington maintains cameos all throughout the story, if only in letter form. It is the dynamic of and exchange between these characters that makes the story so profound, displaying plainly that, yes: it was a group of completely mortal human beings who founded the country we now call the United States of America. They are funny, flawed, and real. If you are not a person who thinks highly of musicals, I still recommend this film. The music contained within is a compliment to the story itself. You will laugh as John Adams vents his complaints in “Piddle, Twiddle, and Resolve.” You will cry as a young Revolutionary War soldier tells the story of how he died in “Momma Look Sharp.” You will be shocked into silence as Rutledge explains the slave trade in “Molasses to Rum.” You will be inspired by and also feel an overwhelming premonition of dread as the film ends with the signing of the Declaration of Independence, not to a triumphant musical fanfare, but to the dismal ringing of a large bell as it tolls for each man who inscribes his name. If absolutely nothing else, the film is worth viewing just for the sight of Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston dancing down a flight of stairs while singing: “Homicide, homicide, we may see murder yet!”