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  1776 Oh Say Can You See?
Year: 1972
Director: Peter H. Hunt
Stars: William Daniels, Howard Da Silva, Ken Howard, Donald Madden, John Cullum, Roy Poole, David Ford, Ron Holgate, David Middleton, William Hansen, Blythe Danner, Virginia Vestoff, Emory Bass, Ralston Hill, Howard Caine, Patrick Hines, William Duell
Genre: Musical, HistoricalBuy from Amazon
Rating:  4 (from 1 vote)
Review: It is June 1776, and in Philadelphia Congress is meeting to discuss the now-fragile state of affairs between the American colonies and Great Britain, since there are strong moves by many Americans to declare independence from King George. But the matter is in the hands of John Adams (William Daniels), who is avowedly pro-independence, and he feels it is up to him to convince his fellow politicians to draw up a declaration to that purpose, so has been haranguing all and sundry to bring them around to his way of thinking. He may be missing his wife (Virginia Vestoff), and the temperature may be rising sky high, and he may be unpopular, but that will not stop him...

Given how many musicals there are about a wide variety of different subjects, it was surely only a matter of time before someone got around to making one about the United States' Declaration of Independence, and in 1969 this became a hot ticket on Broadway, occasionally revived ever since, but only in America, the rest of the world not being too bothered about their history, or not about hearing it sung about. Little wonder it didn't make much impression abroad: the songs did not feature one tune that truly stood out, the lyrics made the actual figures of fact sound facile or even absurd, and if you saw the film at its full length, it was a very long near-three hour experience.

Indeed, if you had no investment in America at all, emotionally speaking, never mind with patriotic pride, this marathon was a real chore to endure, seeming too silly for a portrayal of the events - you can imagine a historical musical with comedy for kids would be a great idea, but there was swearing and mention of sexually transmitted diseases to make for awkward questions for parents and guardians. Besides, the ins and outs of eighteenth century politics utterly failed to spring to life when director Peter H. Hunt opted to more or less film the Sherman Edwards play as it was, largely on one set (the Congress), with daft interludes involving the love life of Adams and Thomas Jefferson, including sex talk.

Maybe it was a hangover from the day when musicals were more about the subjects than the melodies when it came to attracting an audience, where one killer song would do to get the audience humming it on the way out of the auditorium, but something of that nature was missing here. And the politics were not well-conveyed, either, as the pro-British Southerners came across as more reasonable than the petulant, capricious Northerners who wanted the independence, Donald Madden as John Dickinson offering the best performance to the extent of making you side with what turns out to be pro-slavery exponents. Let's put that another way, you will be sympathising with Dickinson (in real life an anti-war campaigning Quaker) right up to the point he voices his support of slavery.

But that was the elephant in the room (as opposed to the donkey, one supposes): the men deciding the future of their nation had built it on some very unpleasant grounds, so for all their belief they had God on their side, they were a collection of tax-hating, rich white men who had made a fortune through slavery of Africans and near-genocide of the indigenous people. Obviously only a maniac was going to point this out in a patriotic musical, but even the song that addressed the slavery issue is one accusing the North of hypocrisy for having profited from slaves themselves, which is not as progressive as it thinks it is when it is performed by an anti-emancipation character. What are we supposed to do, say good point and think it was OK? But in the main this was a dull trot through a loose approximation of the facts, with nobody for the audience to latch onto as a hero for the Congressmen are to a man, smug, self-satisfied and self-interested. On the other hand, if you want easy nationalism, then this will fit the bill, depending on your staying power.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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