1776 is a 1972 American musical drama film directed by Peter H. Hunt. The screenplay by Peter Stone was based on his book for the 1969 Broadway musical of the same name. The song score was composed by Sherman Edwards. The film stars William Daniels, Howard Da Silva, Donald Madden, John Cullum, Ken Howard and Blythe Danner.
While General George Washington is conducting the struggle against the British Empire on the battlefield, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia piddles away its time over trivial matters and continually refuses to begin debating the question of American independence. The leader of the independence faction is the abrasive John Adams of Massachusetts, whose continuous pushing of the issue has brought their cause to a complete standstill. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania leads the opposition that hopes for reconciliation with England. During his quieter moments, Adams calls up the image of his wife Abigail Adams, who resides in Massachusetts and gives him insight and encouragement (these conversations are based on letters between the couple). Dr. Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania suggests another colony that supports independence should submit a proposal. Richard Henry Lee of Virginia voluntarily rides off to Williamsburg, Virginia to get authorization from the Virginia Colony to propose independence.
About a month later, Dr. Lyman Hall arrives to represent Georgia, and is immediately interrogated by his fellow delegates regarding his views on independence (with Dickinson framing it as “treason”). Minutes later, Lee returns with the resolution, and debate on the question begins. Eventually, six colonies say “yea”, five more say “nay”, and New York abstains “courteously” as it does in every vote. The debate, largely between Adams and Dickinson, becomes increasingly contentious and personal, culminating in a cane fight between Adams and Dickinson. Caesar Rodney breaks up the fight and reminds the delegates that the enemy is not each other, but England. He falters because of his cancer and is taken back to Delaware by fellow delegate Thomas McKean, leaving the anti-independence George Read to represent Delaware.
Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, part of the anti-independence faction, calls the question without a majority of positive votes present. The New Jersey delegation, led by Reverend John Witherspoon, arrives just in time to provide a vote supporting independence. In a move intended to defeat the resolution, Dickinson moves that the vote on independence be unanimous. After a tie amongst the delegates, with New York still abstaining, John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, votes in support of Dickinson’s motion, arguing that without unanimity, those opposing independence would fight for England against their fellow colonists. Stalling for time to rally support for the resolution, Adams and Franklin call again for a postponement, stating the need for a declaration describing their grievances. Once again, the vote is tied (New York abstains “courteously” yet again, since its delegates have never been given specific orders by the disorganized New York legislature) and ultimately decided by Hancock in favour of Adams’ motion.
Hancock appoints a committee that includes Adams, Franklin, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert Livingston of New York, and Thomas Jefferson (after Lee declines due to an appointment to serve as governor of Virginia). Jefferson resists because he desires to return home to Virginia to see his wife, Martha, but the others present more compelling reasons to avoid the responsibility; they opine that Jefferson’s diplomatic nature and superior writing skill are required to draft the declaration. Jefferson develops writer’s block due to missing his wife, so Adams sends for her: “It simply occurred to me that the sooner his problem was solved the sooner ours would be.” Upon meeting her, Adams and Franklin are quite taken with her. While manoeuvring to get the required unanimity for the vote on independence, Adams, Franklin, and Samuel Chase of Maryland agree to visit the Colonial Army encamped in New Brunswick, New Jersey, at the request of General Washington, to help convince Maryland to support independence.
When they return to Philadelphia, the declaration is read and then subsequently debated and amended for days. Jefferson agrees to most alterations to the document, much to Adams’ growing consternation. The debate reaches a head when the Southern delegates, led by Edward Rutledge, walk out of Congress when a clause opposing slavery is not removed. Adams remains adamant that the clause remain, but Franklin appeals to him to allow the passage to be removed so that they can first achieve the vote on independence and the formation of a nation, deferring the slavery fight to a later time. Adams leaves the final decision to Jefferson, who reluctantly concedes. After removing that clause, 11 of 13 colonies are now in favour. New York abstains “courteously” once again.
The question is therefore up to the Colony of Pennsylvania, whose delegation is polled at Franklin’s request. Franklin votes for the declaration, but Dickinson votes against. The outcome is now in the hands of their fellow Pennsylvania Judge James Wilson. Wilson has always followed Dickinson’s lead, but, in this case, Wilson votes in favour of the declaration, securing its passage, so that he would not be remembered by history as the man who voted to prevent American independence. When Hancock proposes that no man be allowed to sit in Congress unless he signs the Declaration, Dickinson withdraws, leaving to serve in the army despite believing the cause to be hopeless. After receiving word of the destruction of his property from General Washington, Lewis Morris finally withdraws New York’s abstention and agrees to sign the document. Finally, with the Declaration of Independence ready to be signed, Hancock places his signature first, whereupon the others (including New York) affix theirs to the Declaration, establishing the United States on 04 July 1776.
- Delegates (An asterisk (*) indicates an actor or actress who was also in the original Broadway cast):
- William Daniels as John Adams (MA)*.
- David Ford as John Hancock (MA)*.
- Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson (VA)*.
- Ron Holgate as Richard Henry Lee (VA)*.
- Howard Da Silva as Benjamin Franklin (PA)*.
- Donald Madden as John Dickinson (PA).
- Emory Bass as James Wilson (PA)*.
- John Cullum as Edward Rutledge (SC).
- Jonathan Moore as Lyman Hall (GA)*.
- Roy Poole as Stephen Hopkins (RI)*.
- Howard Caine as Lewis Morris (NY).
- John Myhers as Robert Livingston (NY).
- Rex Robbins as Roger Sherman (CT).
- William Hansen as Caesar Rodney (DE).
- Ray Middleton as Thomas McKean (DE).
- Leo Leyden as George Read (DE).
- James Noble as Reverend John Witherspoon (NJ).
- Charles Rule as Joseph Hewes (NC)*.
- Patrick Hines as Samuel Chase (MD).
- Daniel Keyes as Josiah Bartlett (NH).
- Blythe Danner as Martha Jefferson.
- Virginia Vestoff as Abigail Adams*.
- Ralston Hill as Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Continental Congress*.
- William Duell as Andrew McNair, Congressional custodian*.
- Stephen Nathan as Courier.
Jack L. Warner bought the film rights to the musical for $1.25 million.
Many members of the original Broadway cast, including William Daniels, Ken Howard, John Cullum, and Howard Da Silva, reprised their roles for the film. Ralston Hill, Ron Holgate, David Ford, Charles Rule and others repeated their roles from the Broadway production, marking their only appearances in feature film. This was a decision Warner made himself after feeling he made a mistake by turning down Julie Andrews for the 1964 film adaptation of My Fair Lady in favour of Audrey Hepburn.
1776 was also the only film of Donald Madden, who was not in the original Broadway cast.
Exteriors were filmed at the Warner Ranch in Burbank, California, the former Columbia Pictures backlot, where they built an entire street of Colonial Philadelphia. Most of the Colonial sets were destroyed by a fire in the mid-1970s.
The water fountain seen during the musical number “The Lees of Old Virginia”, with Ben Franklin, John Adams, and Richard Henry Lee, became known to television viewers as the fountain seen during the beginning credits of the TV series Friends. This fountain still exists directly across the street from the Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie houses.
Interiors were shot at the old Columbia studio on Gower Street in Hollywood. 1776 was among the final films shot at Gower Studios before the Warner/Columbia merger in 1971.
“Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” was cut from the film prior to its release and not included on the soundtrack recording nor on the first VHS tapes and laserdiscs. The footage, some of physically poor quality, was restored for the DVD and Blu-Ray releases.
An original motion picture soundtrack album was released in 1972 by Columbia Records on vinyl LP records. It contains all the musical numbers, with the exception of “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” and “Compliments”. The soundtrack also contains the edited versions of some of the musical numbers which were presented in full on the laserdisc and DVD releases. Although the Original Broadway Cast recording was released on CD in 1992, the film soundtrack was not.
The film was the Christmas attraction at Radio City Music Hall in New York City and performed very well, grossing $1,743,978 in its first 6 weeks. It did not perform as well in its other opening engagements in Philadelphia, Boston and Washington. The film returned to the Music Hall for two weeks starting 03 June 1976 in honour of the United States Bicentennial.
Awards and Honours
The film was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy but lost to Cabaret. Harry Stradling Jr. was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography but lost to Geoffrey Unsworth for Cabaret.
The film is recognised by American Film Institute in the following lists: 2006: AFI’s Greatest Movie Musicals – Nominated.
The film was released on videocassette and laserdisc in the 1980s, and on DVD in 2002. The Laserdisc version, out of print, contains an additional four minutes of footage and background music not contained on the DVD release. The 168-minute version is considered director Peter Hunt’s preferred version, hence its “director’s cut” moniker. The DVD version was released as the “Restored Director’s Cut” and contains clips that were unreleased and unavailable in videocassette versions, including the “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” musical number and accompanying dialogue. In its theatrical and original home video releases, the film was rated G; following the restoration of various parts cut by producer Jack L. Warner, the DVD was rated PG.
The film was released on Blu-ray from a 4K-master on 02 June 2015. It contains two commentaries: an all-new commentary, with director Peter H. Hunt, William Daniels, and Ken Howard, and also the DVD version’s commentary with Hunt and Peter Stone only. It also contains two versions of the film: the DVD’s “Director’s Cut”, and an “extended cut” adding an additional 2 minutes and 44 seconds to the DVD edition’s time. It also includes two deleted and alternative scenes with filmmaker commentary, screen tests, and original theatrical release trailers.
- Portions of the dialogue and some of the song lyrics were taken directly from the letters and memoirs of the actual participants of the Second Continental Congress.
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): Peter H. Hunt.
- Producer(s): Jack L. Warner.
- Writer(s): Peter Stone.
- Music: Sherman Edwards (music and lyrics) and Ray Heindorf (music score).
- Cinematography: Harry Stradling Jr.
- Editor(s): Florence Williamson and William H. Ziegler.
- Release Date: 17 November 1972.
- Running Time: 141 minutes (theatrical) and 168 minutes (DVD).
- Rating: A.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.