Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Super Delegates: The Continental Congress in "1776" (1972)

Scene from 1776
Welcome to Super Delegates, a bi-monthly column released on Tuesdays and are done in part to recognize politics on film, specifically in regards to Oscar-nominated works. With this being an election year in the United States, it feels like a good time to revisit film history's vast relationship with politicians of any era and determine what makes them interesting while potentially connecting them to the modern era. The series plans to run until the end of this 2016 election cycle, so stay tuned for every installment and feel free to share your thoughts on films worthy of discussion in the comments section.

Release Date: November 17, 1972
Directed By: Peter H. Hunt
Written By: Peter Stone (Book & Screenplay), Sherman Edwards (Concept)
Starring: William Daniels, Howard Da Silva, Ken Howard
Oscar Nominations: 1
-Best Cinematography
Delegates in Question:
The Continental Congress, Specifically:
-John Adams
-Thomas Jefferson
-Benjamin Franklin

When approaching the first installment of a new column, one may ask: What is this about? Super Delegates isn't meant to be  my soapbox for politics, but more an analysis of politics on film. This is largely inspired by the current election season in the United States. It feels like a great time to dust off the old classics that have had a chance to be nominated and see what makes it stand out. While I intend to focus more on acting nominations in the future, I do think that there's a lot of value in starting with director Peter H. Hunt's 1776: a musical based on The Continental Congress and the days leading up to the Declaration of Independence signing. To many, the film is merely a silly song and dance recreation of an important event in American history. However, there's something more curious going on.

Off the top of your head, can you name any film about the early establishing days of America? More specifically, can you name one that shows the political process that lead to the foundation? Sure, many could point to possibly the anachronistic and graphically violent The Patriot or the phenomenal miniseries John Adams, but there isn't an iconic film about the years surrounding 1776, or even George Washington for that matter. For such iconic characters, it seems strange that they're far distant even in presidential cinematic representation to that of Abraham Lincoln; of whom has done everything from freed the slaves to fight vampires before our very eyes. 

With Luis Manuel Miranda's Hamilton musical currently ruling the Broadway zeitgeist, it only raises the question further. After all, Hamilton brings to life a seemingly secondary figure to American history with such voracity that you'd think more people would've brought history to life in similar ways. This isn't to say that other figures in The Continental Congress are absent from the story, but Hamilton is through and through about Alexander Hamilton. To this I ask where the stories are for John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and even Benjamin Franklin? I know that they've been represented in film, but considering that we have films detailing events such as Watergate and The Civil War, why is there nothing for The Continental Congress?

This is why I chose to start Super Delegates with 1776, which admittedly isn't the best musical. However, it does feel strangely relevant to compare it to Hamilton, if just to show how political musicals have evolved through time. Much like Hamilton's likelihood to be turned into a film sooner than later, 1776 started its life as a stage musical where it received fairly positive reviews. The gist of the musical is relief that someone brought to life a story that seems dull as nails. Who wants to watch the 13 colonies compromise about the laws of the land? The idea seems novel even today, even in a time where clinical stories have been perfectly dramatized with top notch writers like Aaron Sorkin and Tony Kushner. But it does seem to beg the question: Why not teach through song? After all, it's a method that works in school.

After winning the Tony for Best Musical, the screen seemed to be the logical next step. With several actors making the transition - including the key three figures Adams (William Daniels), Jefferson (Ken Howard), and Franklin (Howard Da Silva) - it seemed like a perfect formula to present the story to a wider audience. The story starts with a song that immediate puts Adams at odds with the other delegates as they ask him to "Sit down, John." It proves that this will be an uphill battle from the start, even as the story introduces several other figures, including Adams' wife of whom he writes from long distances. What's most endearing is that what should be boring meetings about unified law is full of great comical moments that were divisive to critics, such as Roger Ebert who claimed that it made a mockery of The Founding Fathers.

Like every piece of cinema, even those with painstakingly designed details, one should approach the accuracy debate with a grain of salt. While the end game is inevitably correct, there's small details that were changed to compliment the musical. There wasn't that camaraderie that certain states held as they sang "Cool, Cool Considerate Men." In fact, the conversations were likely spiked with a certain hostility due to the humid temperatures, which even the musical notes with the comical aside in the opening song for someone to "Open up a window." If there's one thing that's noble, it's portraying Adams as the thankless hero who kept the room in order despite being disliked. To some extent, the film paints him as a hero who did the right things at the right time. Of course, history hasn't quite given Adams equal representation to other significant presidents of the time such as Washington and Jefferson. With exception to John Adams, there's arguably not much in pop culture to argue this.

What's most striking about the film is that its best parts aren't actually in the songs, which occasionally feature an amateurish rhythmic scale. It is the remaining moments that strike the hardest. The pondering of Adams or the comical notices of Franklin add small traces of personality. The film, even in dialogue, has a certain rhythmic cadence that makes it familiar and enjoyable. Most of all, it humanizes the central characters in ways different from contemporary portrayals. They were flawed, but more-so, they were focused on changing the country for the better. It comes across best in "The Egg" when  Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin sing about their nervousness regarding The Continental Congress reading the original draft for The Declaration of Independence. Comparatively, the editing process doesn't take up a lot of screen time. Instead, there's a certain rush to the final half that unfortunately takes a certain amount of enjoyment out of it.

Still, what does 1776 have for modern audiences? Besides the fact that it is important to remember history along these lines, it is more an interesting note regarding how divisive we were as a nation even at ground zero. There's an entire song called "Molasses to Rum" that suggests that slavery should still be legal. While the general laws in the story are far different from contemporary ones, there's a certain basis for which everything that has come since owes a debt to. Seeing as congress still throws fits over things such as Supreme Court Justice selections, there's plenty of sense in suggesting that 1776 is only physically different than 2016 in a lot of ways. Still, there's a certain optimism that the country has to better itself and make rights for everyone.

Of course, the general appeal of 1776 is likely more associated with one word: Patriotism. Considering that July 4 (Independence Day) is a major holiday, it makes sense that some people have turned to this musical to commemorate the event. It's a day that changed the United States, and one which paved the way for everything since. There's a reason that its final image is the famous Declaration of Independence painting recreated with actual actors. It is something that everyone who calls themselves a citizen should be aware of. While it is doubtful that most could recall the delegates that serves on The Continental Congress, there is still hope that people understand the point of the document that they worked so hard on. If nothing else, 1776 does an effective job in making the less familiar faces memorable with offhand remarks and charismatic performances.

Where does Super Delegates go from here? The answer isn't as clear as starting with The Founding Fathers. From here on out, there will be plenty of diversity in selections. For instance, while I intend to cover Lincoln at some point/s, I am likely also going to tackle politicians from less direct perspectives, such as Richard Nixon in All the President's Men, and it would be immature to not include Willie Stark in All the King's Men. Whether real or fictional, I intend to cover people who have held office in some capacity in Oscar-nominated works. If you have any suggestions, please feel free to drop me a line. While I have plenty to work with for the next few months, I may need some help filling up the roster as November approaches. My one advice is that it preferably be American.

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