If the rest of American history would have had such great musical numbers, I might have gotten better grades. Okay, this adaptation of the hit Broadway play wasn’t exactly letter-perfect history but it is remarkably faithful to the facts for, you know, a musical. It’s also extremely entertaining if you allow for its stage bound origins.
This is a musical version of the events surrounding the signing of the American colonies’ Declaration of Independence from the British Crown, centering on three key figures. John Adams (William Daniels), a Boston lawyer, is the chief agitator for American independence. His constant haranguing of his colleagues in the Continental Congress earned him the label of “obnoxious and disliked.” The already legendary Pennsylvania inventor, author and statesman Ben Franklin (Howard Da Silva) is one of his few allies. The quiet, eloquent Virginia farmer Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard) supports the cause of independence but not as much as the goal of getting home to his wife.
Arrayed against the cause of independence (other than the British, of course) are John Dickinson (Donald Madden) from Pennsylvania, believing that reconciliation is still possible with Mother England. Edward Rutledge (John Cullum) of South Carolina and the rest of the South are also reluctant, fearing the loss of their independence as individual colonies.
Presiding over the constant bickering is John Hancock (David Ford), the President of the Continental Congress, who also has to deal with a New York delegation that never votes on anything, a New Jersey delegation that never showed up and a delegate from Rhode Island who has consumed approximately three states’ share of the rum.
On the plus side, the film keeps all of the original play’s witty dialog intact. The unlikely trio of Adams, Franklin and Jefferson battle as much between themselves as they do with Dickinson and Rutledge. The writing and acting brings the many disparate personalities into clear focus.
The film also deals quite directly with one of the key ironies of the American revolution, that in order to secure our independence and start this county, the founders had to leave a half-million people in a state of slavery and that, while they now object to the practice, the New Englanders once profited handsomely from the slave trade.
On the other hand, 1776 is more successful as a comedy than as a musical, especially thirty-five years later. The musical numbers frequently betray the movie’s origins as a filmed play. The original work was traditional in the extreme and some of the conventions of that bygone era of musical theater probably seem a bit creaky to contemporary audiences, but the play’s lyrics still effectively convey the point of the scenes.
The version of the film currently available on DVD is probably not the same one you saw in the theaters or on VHS, nor is it the same version a few of you might have seen on a Pioneer laserdisc from the early nineties.
1776 was originally produced by Hollywood legend Jack Warner after his ouster from the studio he had founded. Warner was good friends with President Nixon and, according to rumor, Nixon believed the musical number known as “Cool, Considerate Men” was derogatory toward conservative Republicans and asked Warner to remove the number from the film and Warner complied. Whatever the reason, the version that debuted in theaters in 1972 was missing that scene as well as parts of several others.
The 1991 Pioneer laserdisc was essentially a workprint assembled without any input from director Peter Hunt using all known existing footage. Many of the missing scenes were only available in poor quality black and white workprint footage. The team also included a new overture and intermission assembled from unused musical cues. For more than a decade, this laserdisc was the “definitive” version of the movie.
Before Peter Hunt began assembling his cut for this DVD, much of the missing footage was located, leading many to hope that the DVD would be simply be a higher quality version of what was on the laserdisc. However, while Hunt restored “Cool, Considerate Men” and a few scenes not found on the Pioneer release, other extended scenes, like the full version of “Fiddle, Twiddle and Resolve,” were not included. Neither were the overture and intermission.
To say this caused a bit of a stir among film purists would be an understatement. You would have thought Salman Rushdie was doing the editing. But this is the director’s cut and Peter Hunt was also the director of the original Broadway production. I believe this gives him a certain authority to decide what did and did not belong in the movie.