Few dramas on film or TV have covered the history of the Declaration of Independence. The 2008 HBO miniseries John Adams was outstanding and universally praised. It covered all of Adams’ adult life in seven episodes, but only one of them was dedicated to the crafting and passage of the Declaration by the Continental Congress. There’s also the recent stage musical Hamilton. But while the title character there played significant roles during the War of Independence and later in crafting the structure of our new nation’s government (both at the Constitutional Convention and later as our first Secretary of the Treasury), he had no involvement at all in the Declaration of Independence . He was barely 20 years old in 1776.
1776 began as a hit Broadway musical in 1969, winning several Tony awards (including best musical) and ran for three years. It hit the big screen in 1972. The film follows the play closely, with the dialogue and song lyrics borrowing heavily from historical texts (though most such texts were produced years after the actual event; no written records contemporary with the actual debates exist). Yes, more than a few dramatic liberties were taken. To name just a few: Pennsylvania’s Judge James Wilson was not the milquetoast he’s shown to be here; Jefferson’s wife didn’t visit him in Philadelphia (the weakest part of the film, though the young Blyth Danner is easy on the eyes); and the actual signing of the document apparently took place over a few days or weeks and not all at once on July 4. But none of this detracts from the power of the film.
The performances are universally superb, with many of the leads reprising their Broadway roles. John Adams is played brilliantly by William Daniels. Daniels will be known to most for his television work, including Dr. Mark Craig in the TV series St. Elsewhere, where his character was as “obnoxious and disliked” as his John Adams character is in 1776. (Interesting factoid: In one of the show’s Broadway revivals, John Adams was played by none other than Brent Spiner Star Trek TNG‘s Data!
Other cast members include Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson, Howard Da Silva as a quip-ready Benjamin Franklin, and John Cullum (TV’s Northern Exposure) as South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge.
You won’t spend any time after watching 1776 in humming the tunes. None of them made the hit parade, but they’re effective in advancing the plot. The only truly memorable song is Cullum’s stunningly dramatic Molasses to Rum. Cullum is by far the best male singer in the film (that’s his own voice you hear, not dubbed by someone else). Another song, “Cool Considerate Men,” was cut from the film’s initial release but is restored here. President Nixon reportedly requested that it be removed and Warner Brothers’ Jack Warner complied. The lyrics are definitely political and 1972, when the film was released, was an election year. In addition, the words “right” and “left” in the song’s lyrics are anachronistic in a 1776 context, predating by decades the political use of those words as we know them today.
The film begins by drawing you in with humor but this isn’t primarily a comedy. The story (along with the songs) becomes progressively deeper and richer, climaxing in a profoundly moving third act. The Director’s cut, reviewed here) runs for 165 minutes. An Extended Cut (also included) runs only slightly longer at 168 minutes. The film is unrated, though if rated today would likely earn a solid PG-13 for occasional language and off-color humor. But teens old enough to appreciate the story, and willing to set aside their cell phones for a couple of hours with real life superheroes, need to see this film.
The presentation is good on both on both the standard Blu-ray and the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray. The sound on the 4K disc is Dolby Atmos; the 2K is DTS-HD Master Audio. Most of the extensive extras, including commentary tracks, trailers, and more, are on the 2K disc.
The third disc offers two additional, complete versions of the movie, each with a selectable commentary track. One of the versions is the 1972 theatrical cut, which at 142 minutes is shorter than the versions on the two main discs. While my Denon AVR tells me that this version is DTS-HD Master Audio, my speakers only produced left and right channels, no center nor surrounds. This version appears to have been made by including a DTS-HD Master Audio bit bucket, but apparently only 2 channels were actually loaded into it. Fortunately the dialogue is audible, though overall this version has the poorest sound of the four versions in the package.
The other version on this third disc is from the 1992 Laserdisc release. It runs 178 minutes with 2-channel only audio and an overture (the only one of the versions in this package to include the latter). The main oddity here is on the video, which appears to be standard definition 480i! Its 2.35:1 image sits in mid-screen surrounded by black bars on all sides. When I used the display’s size adjustment to blow the image up to fill the screen from left to right the result was no better than mediocre standard definition.
Both of the transfers on that third disc will likely be viewed by most viewers for their historical interest. If you’re watching the movie for enjoyment, particularly for the first time, stick with either the 4K HDR or 2K disc, depending on your display. The 4K Dolby Vision HDR version had a little more pop, detail, rich color than the 2K SDR as viewed on a 65-inch 4K OLED. But not by much. And apart from a few brief sequences, the film’s lighting leaves little room for significant HDR specular highlights. The Atmos audio on the 4K disc offers the best sound overall, with the best spectral balance and the most coherent left-center-right-surround presentation. There’s a modest degree of immersion on both the 4K and 2K discs. I don’t expect to hear 2022 audio from a 50-year old sound mix, but the film is so compelling that, for me, the lack contemporary sound was never a distraction.