Thursday, May 14, 2009

1776 – The Movie – Review

Adapting a hit stage musical into a movie is not unusual, and often a great success. Think of The Sound of Music, West Side Story, and so many others.

I just finished re-watching 1776 originally issued in 1972, and also a commentary version by the screenwriter and director.

Much of the incredibly good production values and cast from the musical went straight into the movie. The result is bright, fresh, joyous, an excellent balance of words and music. The score by Sherman Edwards is masterful.

1776 portrays a group of quarrelsome men who arrive in Philadelphia for the 2nd Continental Congress. They are assembled during the hot summer days to discuss the evils of Great Britain, independence from George III. The result is the Declaration of Independence.

The material is part fact, a lot of fiction. Does it matter? Of course not. The movie’s theme is the main attraction, not its accuracy.

Call it “the history of the world according to Hollywood”.

William Daniels, as Adams, is outstanding as the frustrated leader of the group. The others don’t like him – tell him to “sit down” (translation – shut up!) With beautiful music, Adams looks to Abigail for support, which she gives in her clever, down-to-earth manner.

Franklin is the man of the world, catered to, witty, enough of a rake to make him interesting, right on target. John Hancock, as the Congress President, just wants to stick to business. He views the others as quarrelsome children, having their little fun, “festivities”, when they arrive in the mornings. Hancock is hot, tired, good at his job and an ardent patriot.

The delegate from South Carolina, Rutledge, plays an important role. He brings up the issue of slavery, that “peculiar institution”; his solo is the most powerful number in the score. Rutledge holds all the trumps. Everyone knows, but doesn’t believe, that he can scuttle independence on the slavery issue. Jefferson, Adams forcefully protest, but Franklin reminds Adams, that when independence comes, all types of Americans will be together. Maybe the plantation owners aren’t his cup of tea, but they are part of the whole pot. The anti-slavery clause in the Declaration has to be deleted.

The rather long, pretty episode of Jefferson and his visiting new wife seemed more tiresome than entertaining. This is the stock musical number, boy and girl. Of course, audiences love them. Why not; there are costumes, song, dance, and romance.

For the movie, if there is a villain, it would have to be the Pennsylvania delegate, Dickinson. He is bitterly against independence, for reasons not entirely clear. His speeches in the script are too long, too many.

A nice design feature is the use of the calendar instead of a clock. When the calendar says July 4, it’s the end of the show and the story.

There is some well-placed humor in 1776. When the delegates pick at the rough-draft Declaration, asking all kinds of unflattering references to be deleted, Adams reminds them that “Dammit, this is a revolution! We have to offend somebody!”

I hope many Friends of 1776 will be interested to see this movie. It succeeds admirably in what it sets out to do. Full of talent, originality, and the spirit of July 4, it’s exactly what Hollywood does best: entertainment. – Renata Breisacher Mulry

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