Movie Reviews

Movie Review: 1776 – The Founding Fathers Sing and Dance Their Way to Independence

Written by Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards
Directed by Peter H. Hunt

1776 is the Columbia Pictures production of a Broadway show by the same name, which has a decent run during the late 1960s. Jack Warner brought this musical version of liberty and freedom to the silver screen in 1972. Running long at just fifteen minutes shy of three hours, 1776 is a somewhat whimsical look at the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Familiar faces such as William Daniels, Ken Howard, and Howard Da Silva headline a cast of actors unfamiliar to most, but who were for the most part cast directly from the Broadway production. The film opens with the recognizable voice of William Daniels as John Adams being aghast at the thought that a critical vote he is needed for is whether or not the Rhode Island militia should be required to wear matching uniforms.

However, the resentment of England and the King has been building among those representing the thirteen colonies. Adams and Benjamin Franklin formed an alliance to steer the thoughts of the other representatives toward the ultimate goal of breaking away from England. Their political dealings to broker the agreement for independence are reminiscent of the political dealings seen cut in the modern-day as the give-and-take is present in all the discussions, including over the issue of slavery. Ultimately, Adams had to swallow his convictions and have the Declaration omit any mention of “the peculiar institution” in order to get the consensus needed from the southern colonies.

Treason is a charge invented by the winners as an excuse for hanging the losers… – Benjamin Franklin

The story for the most part follows John Adams through Philadelphia in the days before the Declaration of Independence was adopted. Daniels gives a good performance as the curmudgeonly Adams, facing problems at home that he knows about through his wife’s letters. At the same time, he’s acting as a visionary for the future of the colonies. His interaction with his beloved wife (portrayed by Virginia Vestoff) is when she appears at various times to be a sounding board for him in his head or when he’s reading the letters.

Howard Da Silva is marvelous as Benjamin Franklin. He’s captured the essence of the man’s eccentricities that he’s become known for throughout history, while at the same time bringing dignity to Franklin. It’s a dignity he may or may not deserve, but Da Silva gets the right balance and doesn’t go overboard with certain parts of Franklin’s personality, such as when he and Adams are teasing Jefferson during a visit from his wife.

Jefferson is portrayed here by Ken Howard, someone I would grow to know in the years after this film, mostly for his role in the television series The White Shadow. He’s good as the young Jefferson, although nothing I would call distinctive. There’s also no mention of Sally Hemmings anywhere and he seems to be completely enamored of his wife, to the exclusion of all his duties in Philadelphia.

1776 is a musical, something of an enigma now. For those unfamiliar with the Broadway productions in the heyday of the musical, it can be a bit hard to swallow someone breaking into song for no apparent reason. In 1776 the songs are generally good, although there’s something a bit disconcerting about Abagail Adams singing about getting smallpox and making saltpeter. The actors all handle the songs well and they do fit into the story, rather than it seeming that the story is written to encompass the songs.

The historical setting was nice. Most of the movie was filmed on soundstages in California, but there’s enough outdoor footage in historic Philadelphia and Williamsburg, Virginia to give the film an authentic-feeling setting. The costumes are also well done, helping to really give 1776 the feel of the period setting.

The biggest issue to me is the romanticized way the characters in this film are presented. It’s not a grounded, realistic view of the Founding Fathers, but rather a look that seems more fairy tale than factual. That’s not to say it doesn’t have a place in a look at our history, but I think too many people already forget that the Founding Fathers were human and not all saints who have been elevated to an almost God-like status by some in this country.

1776 wasn’t a bad film by far. I was quite entertained although it dragged in spots. Overall I found it to be very well-made and a lot of fun as well as interesting. It was something my kids wouldn’t sit with me and watch, although it has the potential to educate people about that period of our nation’s history.


” Commentary with Director Peter Hunt and Writer Peter Stone
” Screen Tests
” Trailers

2 replies »

  1. I never knew about this and pleasantly enlightened to find the perfect present for my father, who I think has seen nearly every musical in his 90 decades in this world. If I get a copy of the DVD from Amazon, you will have made at least one person happy with your post! Thanks again 🙂