Some of my favorite musicals are related to history, and, though the Second Continental Congress may not have been an obvious choice, 1776 brought this important time in history to life with the entertaining power of show tunes. I’m a big fan of putting the spotlight on minor players in history, people whose names are glossed over in history books. Giving them a name and voice and image only seems right, since unknowns can shape history just as much as presidents and kings. Though this film leaves out several members of the Congress in order to achieve a more manageable cast, it characterizes an amazing number of signers, including John Dickinson (Pennsylvania’s opponent to independence), James Wilson (a weak judge given a final choice), Samuel Chase (a rotund Marylander), Lewis Morris (an ever-abstaining New Yorker) Stephen Hopkins (a Rhode Island drunk), Richard Henry Lee (the Virginian resolution maker and relative of Robert E. Lee), Caesar Rodney (a Delaware patriot stricken by cancer), Dr. Lyman Hall (a Georgian physician), Colonel Thomas McKean (a Delaware Scotsman), and John Hancock (President of the Congress and first signer).
Of course, there are also the more obvious players as well. Though “obnoxious and disliked,” William Daniels as John Adams finds the same balance of likable and insufferable that he delivered as Dr. Mark Craig on St. Elsewhere. Howard da Silva is the spitting image of Benjamin Franklin and obviously enjoys spouting the wit for which Franklin was famous. Likewise, Ken Howard and Blythe Danner (aka Gwyneth Paltrow’s mother) are ideal as Thomas and Martha Jefferson, the former of whom struggles between patriotism and romance and chooses both, of course.
The film takes considerable liberties with its historical basis, including motivations (Dickinson himself posed some of the grievances put forward by Adams; his insulting Adams as a “lawyer” is ironic considering Dickinson was really a lawyer too) and dramatic details (Martha Jefferson never came to visit her husband in Philadelphia and had actually suffered a miscarriage around the time of the signing). While these aberrations can irritate history buffs, none are so glaring as to undermine the film as a whole. Indeed, 1776 depicts the tensions of the period with insight and humor. Small details, such as Franklin’s strained relationship with his son, are included as fascinating bits of trivia, while debates with the South foreshadow the objections that led to the Civil War. The dialogue, much of it derived from letters of the real people involved, carries a unique wit and intelligence of conversation that has been lost over time.
The film is also full of underrated musical gems, usually humorous, such as the opening “Sit Down, John,” the lighthearted “The Lees of Old Virginia,” and my personal favorite, the pen-passing “But, Mr. Adams.” The one song sung by defender of slavery Edward Rutledge, “Molasses to Rum,” goes a bit too far with its portrait of the slave trade, but most of the tunes are buoyant numbers, like Mrs. Jefferson’s “He Plays the Violin.” One brief scene also taps into contemporary Vietnam War sentiments about Congress blithely sending young men to war, ending with the poignant elegy “Mama, Look Sharp.”
1776 does occasionally drag with long stretches of dialogue that could bore those not actively interested in the debate, yet its music and recreation of history have always appealed to me. Though historians believe that the Declaration itself was not signed on July 4, 1776, the final scene that depicts this becomes more and more powerful as it continues, as if a window in time were opened allowing us to witness one of history’s pivotal moments.Best line: (Congressional secretary Charles Thomson, calling for a vote) “Where’s Rhode Island?” (McNair, the custodian) “Rhode Island’s out visiting the necessary.” (Hancock) “Well, after what Rhode Island has consumed, I can’t say I’m surprised. We’ll come back to him, Mr. Thomson.” (Thomson) “Rhode Island passes.” [everyone laughs]
Rank: 55 out of 60
© 2014 S. G. Liput
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