1776

If "1776" is to be believed, the United States was founded by a bunch of nebbishes, and the Declaration of Independence was written only after Thomas Jefferson rid himself of writer's block by making love to his wife.

When I was a kid I read a series of books called the "Childhood of Famous Americans." They all had one slight structural problem: Everything that made their subjects interesting happened after their childhoods were over. So the series gave us lot of motivation.

The same series seems to have inspired "1776." Its singular historical insight is that all of those famous Americans never grew up. They just put on wigs and grew sideburns and continued to act in the same childish ways.

This is an insult to the real men who were Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and the rest -- but then we've emasculated our founding fathers in story and song for so long that they're practically a set of caricatures. By the time "1776" came along, the stage was set for a dumb, simplistic romp through Independence Hall. I guess we don't want to fully recognize the stature of those early leaders; might make the present variety look a little transparent.

The movie, as everybody must know by now, involves the days immediately before the signing of the Declaration on July 4. The performances trapped inside these roles, as you might expect, are fairly dreadful. There are good actors in the movie (especially William Daniels as Adams and Donald Madden as James Dickinson), but they're forced to strut and posture so much that you wonder if they ever scratched or spit or anything.

Apart from that, there are structural problems. The stage version made much of a correspondence between John and Abigail Adams, in which she urged him onward and upward. In the movie, this is handled by a series of materializations in which Abigail, looking for all the world like the vampire countess of "Taste the Blood of Dracula," appears surrounded by soft focus and gives John the morning line.

I can hardly bear to remember the songs, much less discuss them. Perhaps I shouldn't. It is just too damn bad this movie didn't take advantage of its right to the pursuit of happiness.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

Now playing

Children of the Sea
Small Axe: Lovers Rock
Cut Throat City
The Sleepover
Mr. Soul!

Film Credits

1776 movie poster

1776 (1972)

Rated PG

142 minutes

Cast

William Daniels as John Adams

Donald Madden as James Dickinson

Howard da Silva as Ben Franklin

Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson

David Ford as John Hancock

Virginia Vestoff as Abigail Adams

Screenplay by

Directed by

Produced by

Latest blog posts

Comments

comments powered by Disqus