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1776 on DVD

by Jim Bray

1776 is a fascinating look at the birth of the USA and, though I have no idea how historically accurate it is, it has the feel of authenticity and (minus the songs and dances) really seems as if this is how the nation was begun.

It's a much better historical drama than it is a musical. There aren't that many songs in this 166 minute film and what ones there are aren't particularly memorable. There are no "Impossible Dream"s or "Wouldn't It Be Loverly"s here and, while this is a shame, the film still works very well and is, in fact, quite mesmerizing.

Producer Jack Warner reassembled most of the original cast and crew for this 1972 film, including William Daniels as John Adams, Howard Da Silva as Dr. Benjamin Franklin (in a wonderful performance that made me wish I had met the remarkable Dr. Franklin), and Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson, along with the original writer, choreographer and director. This is a nice change from many Hollywood versions of Broadway musicals, including Warner's, where they eschew the people who made the roles famous in favor of "movie stars" with more supposed box office appeal. The casting of Audrey Hepburn (who, to be fair, was terrific) instead of Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle in Warner's My Fair Lady, is a prime example.

Anyway, the film is a tad stiff, but the performances and the situations are fascinating and puts wonderful human faces and personas onto the gestation of the United States. We see who the movers and the shakers were behind Independence (or, as the song says, Independency), as well as the ones of narrow vision - or vested interest in the status quo - who tried to stand in the way of the new nation. It's marvelous.

And despite the nearly three hour running time (the DVD is a restored "Director's Cut" of the truncated theatrical original) 1776 never drags - in fact, it's wonderfully engaging and really should be shown in school history classes.

Even though it's a little weird seeing these Founding Fathers break into song and dance periodically…

The DVD, as mentioned, is restored to Director Hunt's original vision, and the restoration appears seamless - though I must admit to never having seen the shortened version. And the anamorphic widescreen picture is sharp and bright and colorful, with the newly remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 surround (though I defy you to hear any surround sound) audio is of fine quality considering the film's age.

There's also a decent selection of extras, chief of which is the running commentary by director Peter H. Hunt and screenwriter Peter Stone. You also get a production note essay inside the box, a series of screen tests for William Daniels (John Adams), Ray Middleton (Colonel Thomas McKean), James Noble (Rev. Jonathan Witherspoon), Leo Leyden (George Read), and Rex Robbins (Roger Sherman). And to top it off, there's a selection of theatrical trailer for this film, "Oliver!", "Pal Joey," and "The Taming of the Shrew."

1776 won't go down in history as the best of the Broadway musicals, but it should be remembered through history for its humanizing of a great event in the course of human events: the founding of the United States of America.

1776, from Columbia Tristar Home Video
166 min. anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 TV compatible, Dolby Digital 5.1
Starring William Daniels, Howard da Silva, Ken Howard, Donald Madden, Blythe Danner
Produced by Jack L. Warner,
Written by Peter Stone, Directed by Peter H. Hunt


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Updated May 13, 2006