‘1776’ Liberates Dull History

The Founding Fathers are a hard-drinking, sex-starved and loudmouthed lot in “1776,” a musical that looks at the fireworks that began even before the colonies declared their independence from England.

The surprisingly funny 1972 movie depicts the quarrelsome, noisy affair that their political battle must have been: These statesmen in the Second Continental Congress can’t even agree on whether to open the windows in sweltering Philadelphia. And when they aren’t taking shots of rum, they’re taking shots at each other.

When Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard), who has had a week to write the declaration, fails to come up with anything because his absent wife’s on his mind, the abrasive John Adams needles him: “Good God. . . . The entire Earth was created in a week.”


“Someday,” Jefferson responds, “you must tell me how you did it.”

The colorful patriots include the womanizing Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva), an enthusiastic but pragmatic backer of independence; Adams (William Daniels), who is so obnoxious that no one will vote for anything he proposes--even if they support it, and the Rev. John Witherspoon (James Noble), who leads the confused delegation from New Jersey.

When the declaration is finally written and read in session, the delegates are momentarily stunned by its eloquence and beauty, with its insistence on the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Less than a second passes before the stampede to offer amendments begins.

Later, Adams, angered that amendments would soften the language blaming England for the secession, finally blurts out: “This is a revolution, dammit! We’re going to have to offend some body!”

The Declaration of Independence seems an odd subject for a musical, but the lively songs, as well as moving the story along, serve to comment on such heavy subjects as the horrors of war and New England’s hypocrisy in opposing slavery.

“1776" (1972), directed by Peter H. Hunt. 141 minutes. Rated G.