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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » 1776 (Blu-ray)
1776 (Blu-ray)
Sony Pictures // G // June 2, 2015 // Region Free
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted June 18, 2015 | E-mail the Author
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The movie of the Broadway "musical play" of 1776, released in 1972, got mixed reviews when it was new and some strongly dislike it even now, but the film, the unlikeliest of great movie musicals, has an undeniably passionate following, this writer included. We know it inside out: every line, all the songs, even the nuances of the actors' performances and, for us, watching 1776 is an annual ritual.

The movie was shot more or less as a filmed version of the long-running, Tony Award-winning (for Best Musical) Broadway show. Sure, it was opened up a bit, the choreography is different, scattered lines were altered slightly, and some, but not many, of the supporting actors are different. But, in essence, the movie serves as an approximate record of what Broadway audiences saw when it opened in 1969.

Until, that is, producer Jack L. Warner decided to cut the movie from its original running time of about 165-68 minutes (longer, with its originally planned overture, entr'acte, and exit music) to 141 minutes. With few exceptions, roadshow-type musicals were dying at the box office in the early ‘70s, and as he had done with the Judy Garland A Star Is Born (1954), Warner probably figured a shorter film meant theaters could cram an extra show or two in per day, thus helping the picture earn back its cost more speedily.

But there were, apparently, more nefarious reasons for the cuts. Arguably the best number in the entire show is a scathing, witty song called "Cool, Cool, Considerate Men," in which the wealthiest, most elite members of the Second Continental Congress revel in their wealth and pretty much tell the other 99% that they're on their own. No less a conservative icon than then-President Richard M. Nixon personally requested that the number be removed.

Two decades later, enterprising folks at Pioneer reconstructed director Peter H. Hunt's* original premiere cut of 1776, using found footage, some of it in black-and-white, followed some years later by a new "director's cut" on DVD that removed some of the reconstructed footage, but with the heretofore lost scenes now seamlessly integrated and in full color. Sony's new Blu-ray offers what seems to be that version along with an "extended cut," which includes nearly all the bits Hunt opted to leave out of his version, though most will want to watch that longest cut anyway, since it includes practically everything.**

The new transfer, mastered in 4K, is by far the best looking 1776 to date. On big screens especially (I use a projection system and 90-inch screen) the actors' performance are more intimate and immediate than ever, and the detail so good one can almost feel the texture of their 18th century costumes. Many wonderful supplements enhance the disc further.

(The unimaginative advertising couldn't have helped the movies chances at the box office.)

The story of 1776 concerns the passionate efforts of "obnoxious and disliked" John Adams (William Daniels), Congressional Delegate from Massachusetts, to persuade the 13 colonies to unite and declare their independence from Great Britain. Meanwhile (and entirely off-screen) Gen. George Washington's pitiful troops are in a state of near-mutiny, and completely outnumbered by British forces descending upon New York. (This last aspect of the story was even more dramatic for Broadway theatergoers. That New York was the military objective, with specific New York locations mentioned, along with in-jokes about New York politicians always shouting at one another and never getting anything done, resonated with Broadway audiences in ways these things can't in the movie.)

With the help of Pennsylvania's Benjamin Franklin (Howard da Silva) and Virginia's Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard), among others, Adams's dream of American Independence inches forward, despite seemingly irresolvable oppositions from conservatives, led by another Pennsylvania delegate, John Dickinson (Donald Madden, excellent in his only feature film), who want to "stay where we are," despite myriad British oppressions; and by the southern colonies, led by South Carolina's Edward Rutledge (John Cullum in an early role), who object to Jefferson's anti-slavery clause in his Declaration of Independence.

As writer Mark Evanier wryly observes, the best adaptations of 1776 are those where the audience isn't sure how it's going to end. That's certainly true of the movie. One easily almost forgets that, yes, America did indeed declare its independence and became a country.

The genius of the play and the film - and the term "genius" really applies here - is its daring structure and the extraordinarily clever way it manipulates our preconceived notions of this chapter of American history. Initially it makes delicious fun of these famous and less-famous figures with great historical accuracy - men and a few women heretofore known only for their accomplishments as recorded in stuffy history books. Even minor characters are colorful and occasionally outrageous.

Gradually, though, the gravitas, with all that's at stake, makes the accomplishments of the Second Continental Congress during those steamy summer months in 1776 all the more remarkable. (And even more remarkable today. If today's Congress had been serving in 1776, we'd all be eating fish & chips and watching Coronation Street.) A greater sense of urgency is achieved in the second act, when the stakes are made plain: the fate of so many young men fighting off-screen on America's behalf (especially in the number "Mama, Look Sharp," a clear reference to the then-current Vietnam War). These initially comical congressmen, with the audience scarcely realizing it, over the course of the complex and intelligent narrative, are transformed: fleshed out into thoroughly believable, living and breathing characters.

Partly the movie achieves this by breaking from the usual structure of most musicals. There are several very long stretches bereft of songs or dancing at all. And the numbers themselves, perhaps more than any musical play before it, serve to enhance the audience's understanding of the characters and details of their relationships to one another, usually infusing these numbers with yet more real history. For instance, the duets John and Abigail Adams (Virginia Vestoff) sing to one another lift whole passages from their real-life correspondence, when they were separated for years at a time.

If the movie audience is initially taken aback and bemused by the Continental Congress singing/yelling at Adams to "Sit Down, John," certainly by two-thirds of the way through the film they're likely utterly seduced and transfixed by this powerful story, 95% of which is absolutely accurate.

Director Peter Hunt was in his early 30s and had never directed a film before, and relatively few shows for that matter, but his choices are usually spot-on. Somewhat remarkable for a first-time director, he wisely stylizes a few scenes with patently theatrical flourishes: the abstract use of lighting effects in "Mama, Look Sharp," and in that and "Molasses to Rum" his use of dissolves and transitional effects generally. They're not "movie real" in the usual sense but greatly enhance the drama of the moment. Similarly, he and cinematographer Harry Stradling, Jr. move the camera in intelligent, sometimes even daring ways, but also stay in synch with smart blocking of the actors that not only helps maximize interest in what's happening onscreen, but which also helps the audience understand their political-personal positions and relationships to one another.

Williams Daniels is so good as John Adams that the show and the movie pretty much forever typed him as hotheads. He turned this to his advantage on the superb later television series St. Elsewhere, where his character, Dr. Mark Craig, was nearly a John Adams, expanded further from the character introduced in 1776. Howard da Silva and Ken Howard are also terrific as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, though after seeing the movie probably close to 50 times I've come to feel that da Silva is maybe just a little too precious at times. Similarly, a few of the roles, such as Ron Holgate's Richard Henry Lee, probably played spectacularly well on the stage but don't quite come off on film, where they're just a little too bigger than life.

But virtually everyone leaves a lasting impression, especially Ralston Hall's Franklin Pangborn-like Mr. Thompson, the congressional secretary who becomes George Washington's surrogate; his comic timing is impeccable throughout yet he's also quite moving toward the end. James Noble is hilarious as the befuddled Rev. John Witherspoon. His comic timing is on the level of a W.C. Fields picture.

Donald Madden and John Cullum are just great as Dickinson and Rutledge. Madden must not have been a singer; he sort of manages to get through "Cool, Cool, Considerate Men," but just barely, yet his performance is magnetic, a worthy adversary for Adams. And Cullum, years before he became a much in demand character actor in TV dramas, is a quietly confident, deceptively charming southerner.

Video & Audio

Filmed in 2.35:1 Panavision, the theatrical, 16mm, and early home video versions of 1776 had pretty tepid color, but the laserdisc and DVD release hinted at much more vibrancy as the story progresses. The new Blu-ray brings this out quite nicely, and the added clarity 1080p high-def provides brings to the table more intimacy with the actors, while textures and set details are more visible (especially on the Columbia lot set where Independence Hall was reconstructed). As noted above the disc includes two cuts: the director-approved 165-minute version and an extended 168-minute cut. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio (English only) is excellent, especially during the musical numbers, and there's some mild directionality with the dialogue and sound effects. English and French subtitles are included, and the disc is region-free.

Extra Features

Included is a new audio commentary featuring Peter Hunt, William Daniels, and Ken Howard. Hunt has done at least three different commentaries for 1776, telling many of the same (but wonderful and always fascinating) stories multiple times, but there are plenty of new anecdotes on this track. Daniels and Howard combined talk much less than Hunt does here, but each offers valuable insight, including Howard's touching tribute to Daniels. A second commentary with Hunt and Stone was recorded, I think, for the DVD. (Stone died in 2003.) Deleted and alternate scenes are in high-def, with director's commentary, while a series of "screen tests" (some might actually be costume and/or makeup tests with actors already cast) is fascinating to watch for the differences in their costuming and makeup and, sometimes, varying approach to familiar scenes. A teaser and regular theatrical trailer, again in high-def, rounds out the extras.

Parting Thoughts

Trust me on this one: 1776 is a uniquely wonderful film, funny, sweet and touching and ultimately quite powerful, while Sony's version is absolutely the best way to see it. A DVD Talk Collector Series title.

* Not to be confused with Peter (R.) Hunt, the British editor and later director, most famous for his association with the early James Bond movies.

** Missing, even from the extended cut, is a brief scene of Jefferson gazing out the window at some children playing together: America's future generation.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.

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