The Second Continental Congress – which eventually declared America’s independence from Britain in 1776 – was a group of men sitting in a stuffy room in Philadelphia, arguing over details of policy. For six years!
Not only did the makers of this film bravely attempt to turn this into popular entertainment, but they also made it three hours long. And a musical. Possibly, the whole thing was some sort of money-losing stunt, like in The Producers.
This peculiar historical musical attempts to tell the story of the founding fathers of the United States through a series of catchy show tunes about conservatism, slavery and dysentery.
“I say vote yes! Vote yes! Vote for independency!” trills John Adams (William Daniels), while the rest of the Congress choruses: “Sit down, John! Sit down, John! For God’s sake, John, sit down!”
There’s a minuet about conservatism. There’s a waltz about slavery. Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva) – portrayed as Father Christmas moonlighting as a mad professor – declines to write the declaration of independence, singing: “The things I write are only light extemporania/I won’t put politics on paper; it’s a mania/So I refuse to use the pen in Pennsylvania”.
So the writing of the actual declaration of independence is left to Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard). But there’s a problem – he’s sexually frustrated. Martha Jefferson (Blythe Danner) is duly shipped in, and Franklin and Adams wait outside for Jefferson to get his rocks off.
“Positively indecent!” spits Adams. “Standing down here waiting for them to . . . er . . . well, what will people think?” “Don’t worry, John,” says Franklin, “the history books will clean it up”.
Abigail Adams, meanwhile, beseeches her own husband to return to Boston: “Just tell the Congress to declare independency/Then sign your name, get out of there and/Hurry home to me/Our children all have dysentery.” Amazing.
Jefferson and Adams have a showdown with the southern delegates, who walk out of the Congress over the possible outlawing of slavery and – in the song Cool, Cool, Considerate Men – Pennsylvania delegate John Dickinson (Donald Madden) and his chorus of pompadoured Brit-loving conservatives sing about how the poor majority can be conned into supporting the privileges of the extremely wealthy.
“Don’t forget that most men with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor,” Dickinson snarls.
When the film was released in 1972, President Richard Nixon himself asked his friend, producer Jack L Warner, to cut this song from the cinematic release as it was too close to the bone. Warner complied. The song has been reinstated in DVD versions.
1776 is far too long and mostly terrible. But it is certainly hilarious.
Dr Benjamin Franklin
Howard Da Silva
Congressional President John Hancock
Richard Henry Lee
Col. Thomas McKean
Judge James Wilson
Congressional Secretary Charles Thomson
Dr Josiah Bartlett
Dr Lyman Hall
Rev. John Witherspoon
Peter H. Hunt