This Fourth of July, Celebrate "1776" -- The Movie
By Michael Winship
As we commemorate the Fourth of July, one of the joys -- and there are many -- of life in these United States is that you never know what the hell we, the people, will say next.
There's the delightful teenage girl in Montclair, New Jersey, who when informed this week that the nice married couple nearby had been arrested as Russian intelligence agents, joked to The New York Times, "They couldn't have been spies. Look what she did with the hydrangeas."
On the other end of the comedy spectrum there's House minority leader John Boehner, who scoffingly told the conservative Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that financial reform was akin to "killing an ant with a nuclear weapon." Yep, the bank-fueled economic meltdown that created those 8 million U.S. job losses and $17 trillion in lost retirement savings and net worth was one heck of an anthill. Good one, John.
But one remark that really floored me occurred last week when I was interviewing FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski before an audience at the Silverdocs documentary film festival just outside Washington, DC. At the end of the conversation, which covered everything from net neutrality and broadband access to the fate of investigative journalism in cyberspace, we took questions from the audience. One gentleman had several brief policy questions and then, of all things, asked Genachowski to name his favorite movie.
"'1776,'" the chairman instantly replied, with "Fiddler on the Roof" a close second.
Yes, "1776," the film version of the Broadway musical comedy by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone that turned the signing of the Declaration of Independence into a song-filled romp through eighteenth century Philadelphia. Ben Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson even dance down a staircase in Independence Hall.
You could have knocked me over with a quill when Genachowski said it. But truth be told, "1776" is a favorite of mine as well. I wouldn't rank it anywhere near such greats as "Casablanca" or "Chinatown" or "The Godfather" or "Some Like It Hot" and "The Thin Man" (to name but a few), but I saw the movie when it first came out in 1972, still tune it in when it pops up on cable and have even seen a couple of staged revivals of the original play, one at a dinner theater in Maryland where between scenes the actors playing delegates of the Continental Congress served up prime rib and strawberry shortcake.
Yes, it's corny; many of the jokes are groaners and some of the lyrics edge toward crossing that "Spinal Tap" fine line between stupid and clever. But there's something deeply stirring about seeing the Founding Fathers as human beings, their foibles broadly drawn, their desire for freedom duking it out against prejudice, self-interest and resistance to change.
"What's so terrible about being called an Englishman?" Continental Congress delegate John Dickinson asks Benjamin Franklin. "The English don't seem to mind."
"Nor would I," Franklin replies, "were I given the full rights of an Englishman. But to call me one without those rights is like calling an ox a bull. He's thankful for the honor, but he'd much rather have restored what's rightfully his."
In some ways, this sparkly paean to patriotism is a subversive little hand grenade, its liberal politics woven into the plot at a time when Richard Nixon was still in the White House. In an exchange that stings now even more than it did then, John Hancock tells John Dickinson, "Fortunately there are not enough men of property in America to dictate policy," and Dickinson replies, "Perhaps not. But don't forget that most men without property would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich, than face the reality of being poor."
When the movie version was released its producer, Jack Warner -- allegedly at the behest of Nixon -- removed a song, "Cool, Cool Considerate Men," sung by loyalist, conservative delegates who smugly shout, "We have land, cash in hand, self-command, future planned!" According to "1776" writer Peter Stone, "The opponents of independence were very much involved in commerce and profits, so they were very much allied to modern conservatives. Nixon didn't want Americans to be reminded of this as he faced re-election in 1972, and the country was preparing to celebrate it's bicentennial. I think that's why he hated the song, and why Jack Warner took it out."
Luckily, the missing footage was found and has been restored to the version we see today on TV and DVD.
"1776" is a reminder that the embrace of the status quo in the face of revolutionary ideas is nothing new. Nor is bloody legislative compromise or our ongoing frustration over a Congress mired in petty squabbling, unable to take action.
At the beginning of the story, John Adams sings, "A second flood, a simple famine, plagues of locusts everywhere, or a cataclysmic earthquake, I'd accept with some despair. But no, You sent us Congress! Good God, Sir, was that fair?" Later he laments, "I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace; that two are called a law firm, and that three or more become a Congress!"
But the Tea Partiers and Glenn Becks of America who scorn government and who have tried turning the Founding Fathers into libertarian deities will find little comfort in "1776." As Franklin says in the film, "We're men, no more no less, trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous God would have allowed." Rather than fall hopelessly into endless name-calling and mudslinging like today, ultimately these men engaged in forthright debate and overcame ideological differences that threatened to stop their revolution before it began. They managed to produce a nation, an experiment outlined in a Declaration of Independence that is, as the movie version's John Adams says, “a masterful expression of the American mind."
And they did so realizing, as a character in the film says -- quoting the words of conservative icon Edmund Burke, member of the British Parliament -- that a representative owes the people not only his industry, but his judgment, and he betrays them if he sacrifices it to their opinion.
So watch the movie and see what you think (Turner Classic Movies is playing it on the Fourth of July). I'd match "1776" against "The Last Airbender" or that "Karate Kid" remake any day.
Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.