Despite George Washington’s fervent wish that he not be deified, we have put our Founding Fathers on such pedestals that their humanity comes into question. Even calling them Fathers or Framers seems to impart a distant and mythic quality to them, when surely they were just ball-scratching, beer-swilling men like the rest of us; no doubt they were infused with a fiery gumption deserving our respect, and a witty intelligence that makes them endlessly quotable. To our great misfortune, this essence has rarely been distilled into an easily consumable art form.
Oh, people have tried. Most recently HBO made a mini-series about John Adams, which was actually pretty good- a bit on the long side, and it sidesteps most of the American Revolution because Adams was often in France trying to curry diplomatic favor. Hopefully we’ll get a mini-series covering most of the war someday. 1776 covers the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and manages to run nearly 3 hours to show us how the bickering delegates of 13 very different colonies managed to agree upon the need to rebel from the empire from which they sprang.
Originally a Broadway musical, it was a huge hit and was turned into a 1972 film by Warner Brothers, who hired practically the entire Broadway cast, including the director, to reprise their act on the silver screen. Part of me wishes they simply sat a camera in front of the stage, because many musicals suffer when converted into films; the energy is gone. And I’m afraid that’s what happened here.
It’s rather like 12 Angry Men: The Musical, with a cast cooped up in the stifling meeting room of the Continental Congress; it begins with a bland political joke about the ineffectiveness of Congress that was tepid when Will Rogers said it, and is just as milquetoast here. And but for a few humanizing moments here and there, that’s as good as it gets. The problem is the music; it’s resolutely dull. I’m not a huge fan of musicals, but by this point stuff like The Sound of Music, The King and I, and My Fair Lady had come along and shown how to masterfully blend witty dialogue with equally witty and enjoyable songs. Unfortunately this has none, and feels like a Marx Brothers movie that gets rudely interrupted so the two lovebirds can sing their hearts out.
“The Egg” was the most memorable of the songs I can recall, and is about Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams arguing about which bird should symbolize this new country: the dove, the eagle, or the turkey. Franklin famously did favor the turkey, for it was a native bird, notoriously wary and difficult to hunt. Most of the humor is of the old hindsight is 20/20 variety– ha, ha, they don’t want the eagle to be our bird? Pshaw. Or worse yet, the custodian who spouts “Sweet Jesus!” any time he’s asked to open a window, to shock us into imagining our illustrious forebears saying such uncouth things. The film was even banned from being shown in a Virginia because Jefferson says that he “burns” for his wife. I guess in Virginia, Paul Giamatti porking away at Mrs. Abigail in the HBO miniseries of John Adams precludes it from being a valid historical document.
William Daniels plays Adams here; he’s since become more famous for playing a Doc on “St. Elsewhere,” and the voice of K.I.T.T. from “Knight Rider,” so hearing him as John Adams was hard to swallow. He’s also kind of a meek voice for a character who’s chided for being so boisterous. Every half hour or so, he sings to his wife Abigail, who appears in a ghostly window to sing back to him. Harder to take was Howard Da Silva’s Ben Franklin, who seemed played for laughs throughout. I certainly don’t mind a story humanizing the man who wrote “Fart Proudly,” and coined the motto “beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,” but he’s almost buffoonish here.
On the other hand it’s rather beautifully filmed and has a few chuckles, and if I didn’t know that “Cool, Considerate Men” was cut as a favor to Nixon, I’d think it was cut to reduce the 3 hour running time to a tolerable level. The song’s not even that good, and seeing men in wigs practically goose-step while singing “always to the right!” isn’t too subtle. If you like flowery reconstructions of our past where the arguments over the Declaration involved passionate pleas to end slavery, when in actuality the biggest obstacle was getting Quakers to agree to war, you might like it. I expected a lot more from this. The director does a good job transitioning to screen, but the attempts at injecting romance are clumsy, and any real drama is lost; these men were agonizing over whether to commit their constituents to a long and bloody war with the greatest military power of the time, and the frequent and frivolous songs seem like window dressing, artifice meant to rouse us when the spirit of Adams, Franklin and Jefferson should be doing it on their own.
There’s a lot of love for this film, but I did not feel compelled by it. I think it will be forever colored by the time it was released- it was very difficult to feel roused to patriotism during the “peace with honor” campaign of the Vietnam War, when crime and urban decay rose to such a degree that Nixon won in a landslide on the “law and order” ticket. It just didn’t feel very passionate, and it seems like they left out the Quaker’s pacifist dilemma because we were currently fighting a rightfully unpopular war. It’s not terrible, just largely unmemorable; if you watch it enough it might become so, but I don’t think I’ll be putting forth the effort. I might give it a shot if a local theater company performs it.