Adapted from the 1969 Broadway show of the same name, 1776 is an epic-length musical about the Second Continental Congress, the fractious delegation that represented the American colonies during the Revolutionary War and eventually ratified the Declaration of Independence, thus severing the U.S. from Great Britain. While producer Jack L. Warner (a founder of the studio that bears his family’s name) is to be commended for bringing such historically important subject matter to the screen—and for allowing his collaborators to treat the material intelligently—the movie is a lumbering beast.
Running various lengths owing to changes made during its original release and reissues (the most widely available version runs about three hours), the movie has a strange rhythm, with long stretches performed as straight drama without music. Furthermore, some determinations of when characters should burst into song make little sense. At its most unfocused, the picture stops dead for “He Plays the Violin,” a love ballad sung by Thomas Jefferson’s wife (Blythe Danner) about her husband’s sexual prowess. Still, there’s almost as much interesting stuff in the movie as there is pointless nonsense like “He Plays the Violin.”
The main storyline involves John Adams (William Daniels)—who is portrayed, unwisely, as an overbearing snob—trying to ram the idea of independence down the throats of his Continental Congress colleagues, particularly those from Southern states. The film’s best number, “But, Mr. Adams,” features Adams and others, including Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva), dumping the chore of writing the Declaration onto a nobly self-sacrificing Jefferson (Ken Howard). During this scene, the filmmakers combine clever choreography, rousing music, and witty lyrics into purposeful satire. Many noteworthy sequences, however, are bereft of songcraft. After all, revered playwright/screenwriter Peter Stone (Charade) wrote the book for the stage musical and the screenplay for the film, and his dialogue is generally quite choice. For instance, the spirited floor debates that Stone renders, which were inspired by the memoirs of Continental Congressmen, feature charged exchanges about capitalism, elitism, monarchism, and—the thorniest subject of all—slavery.
Had Warner’s team mercilessly cut the show down to, say, two hours, they could have zeroed in on the essential drama of forming “a more perfect union.” As it stands, for every potent moment—the song “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” is a savage number about right-wing politics, and the harrowing “Molasses to Rum” skewers Northerners for their hypocritical attitude toward slavery—there are a dozen scenes that serve no important purpose. Furthermore, except for the catchy “But, Mr. Adams,” Sherman Edwards’ music is generally mediocre; his melodies are labored, and his taste for operatic grandiosity is tiresome.
And in terms of generating audience engagement, the movie also badly wants for a strong sympathetic performance. Daniels is far too prickly to serve as a leading man for an epic musical, Da Silva’s penchant for cheap comedy is undignified even though he lands a few successful jokes, and Howard is simply too vanilla. In fact, the performers who come off best are bad guys John Cullum and Donald Madden, playing two obstinate Southern representatives. When the strongest players in a story about the formation of America portray characters opposed the formation of America, that’s a sign something is awry.