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Celebrate the birth of America with the 50th anniversary of the musical “1776”

Updated: Jul 5, 2022


Original Broadway cast members Ken Howard, Howard Da Silva, and William Daniels, revive their roles as Thomas Jefferson, Dr. Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams for the 1972 film adaptation of “1776.”

(Click an image to scroll the larger versions)


4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and Digital copy, 1972, PG/Not Rated; Streaming via Amazon Prime Video (4K), Apple TV (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)

Best extra: The nearly lost and forgotten 180-minute Preview Cut

EVEN THOUGH it didn’t premiere until November 1972, this is the perfect time to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the film adaptation of the Broadway musical “1776.” Based on the book by Peter Stone, who also co-wrote the screenplay, the story unfolds with 22 wigged men arguing politics before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Music and lyrics are by Sherman Edwards.

Former Warner Brothers studio tycoon Jack L. Warner acquired the film rights as an independent producer for a reported $1.25 million. He requested Peter H. Hunt, who directed the Tony-winning stage production that beat out “Hair” and “Promises, Promises” to direct the film as well. Columbia Pictures co-financed with a production budget of $4 million. Warner told the New York Times, “I hope “1776” will be the first of many pictures I make with Columbia.”

After a successful premiere and Thanksgiving run at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall, “1776” received mixed reviews, and then bombed across America, while moviegoers lined up for “The Godfather,” “The Poseidon Adventure” and Bob Fosse’s musical “Cabaret.” But over the years, “1776” found a sweet spot with audiences – especially with history fanatics – becoming a late-blooming classic.

Sony’s new three-disc 4K Ultra HD release of “1776” is a gem including four versions of the film. Two haven’t been seen in years – Warner’s much shorter Theatrical Cut (1080p) and the resurrected Preview Cut (480p). The previous Director’s Cut (2160p), added lost scenes and other elements such as the opening credits. The three-minute longer Extended Cut (2160p), seamlessly returns even more to the screen, while carrying over the Director’s “encore” moment of “The Lees of Old Virginia,” performed by Ron Holgate, who won a Tony for the part on Broadway.

(1) Director Peter H. Hunt’s original title sequence with Mentor Huebnerst’s wonderful sketch as a backdrop was reinserted into his Director’s Cut and Extended version. (2&3) On May 8, 1776, John Adams urges the Continental Congress to open the debate to secede from England. He says, “Good God, What in the hell are you waiting for?” The men respond by singing, “Sit Down, John.” (4) Admas is frustrated with the fickleness of his colleagues. (5) He and his wife Abigail Adams (Virginia Vestoff), who’s back in Boston sing “Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve; Till Then” during a dream sequence. (6) The delightful “The Lees of Old Virginia,” performed by Ron Holgate. (7) A replica of a Philadelphia street scene created on the Columbia Studios back lot.

Holgate’s “Light-Horse” Richard Henry Lee is a winner in both the show and the film. When the musical appeared at a Norfolk, Va. Theater in the 1970s, his number earned a standing ovation from its audience. I remember it well since my brother and I were there, hootin’ and hollering with the crowd. We were treated to an amazing encore that left us breathless.

The story is about the creation and signing of the Declaration of Independence, and America’s split with Great Britain. Representatives from the Northern colonies, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams – played by Howard Da Silva and William Daniels, two more Broadway originals in the roles of their careers – are struggling to get a resolution on Independency passed in the Continental Congress. They can’t even get it open for debate. (Congress hasn’t changed much, has it?)

According to the opening number, Adams of Massachusetts is “obnoxious and disliked”; Franklin’s Pennsylvanian team is a house divided. Adams bitterly complains that while Congress can raise an army to fight the British with one hand, it waves an olive branch at King George III with the other, lobbying for peace. It’s Franklin who suggests they get another representative to propose Independence – and it works. Virginia gets its moment, one of many.

(1) John Dickinson (Donald Madden) and Judge James Wilson (Emory Bass) are both delegates from Pennsylvania. (2) A committee of Adams, Franklin, New Yorker Robert Livingston, and Connecticut’s Roger Sherman are in agreement that Thomas Jefferson of Virginia will write the document of Independence. Adams hands Jefferson the feather writing pen. (3&4) For the next week Jefferson is unsuccessful in writing. (5) The arrival of Jefferson’s wife Martha (Blythe Danner) as a muse for his writing block was a fictional plotline to the American story. (6&7) The next morning Franklin and Adams introduce themselves to Martha, hoping Thomas is up writing. But she says, “My husband is not yet up.”

That a musical about the American Colonies’ bid for freedom would be a hit on stage during the troubled ‘60s and ‘70s was a miracle. On Broadway, it won a Tony for Best Musical and Best Director for Hunt; on film, it was Oscar-nominated for Harry Stradling Jr.’s cinematography. What a surprise to learn “1776” was all shot on sets created for the film; it so looks as if it were filmed on location. But Philadelphia’s Carpenters’ Hall was created from plans from a Knott’s Berry Farm attraction in Southern California and has been used in other films.


Clearly, the best is the 30-year-old archive laserdisc version (widescreen with pillar-box bars on the sides), originally released by Pioneer. It features Hunt’s original three-hour Preview Cut and the director provides a commentary with Joe Caporiccio from Pioneer Special Editions, in which they detail the stage version, the movie production, and how they made the 12-inch laserdisc.

Hunt recalls how “1776” was previewed in Phoenix, receiving high marks from the audience. He and Warner made small cuts together after the screening. Afterward, he was led to believe that the picture was “locked up.” So, he and his family headed for a European vacation, but when they returned, he discovered Warner had taken the liberty to cut an additional 40 minutes. “Things had clearly annoyed him from the beginning, either because of politics of the situation or things that simply annoyed him,” said Hunt. Gone was the opening overture music, the title sequence featuring a wonderful sketch by Mentor Huebnerst (reinserted into the Director’s Cut and Extended), a scheduled intermission with entr’acte music, and two musical numbers in the middle of the film.

Sony also includes a second commentary with Hunt and actors Daniels and Ken Howard, who plays Thomas Jefferson, deleted and extended scenes with commentary, and screen tests. A musical number, “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” which Warner cut for its theatrical version and sliced at the request of President Richard Nixon, is back. Warner had ordered it shredded, but a copy was preserved – unlabeled – in the salt mine vaults of Kansas. In a third commentary with Hunt and Stone, we learn the “The Lees of Old Virginia” was designed as a show stopper. It heralded a 30-plus minute break between musical numbers and is still a record in musical theater.

The second and third commentaries are only included on the two 4K versions (Director’s Cut and Extended), plus the carryover Blu-ray on the same two versions.

(1) Dr. Franklin watches John Adams dance with Martha Jefferson during the song “He Plays the Violin.” (2) Another somber dispatch arrives from General Washington. (3) The men sing and dance to “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men.” (4) Franklin, Jefferson, and Admas sing “Egg,” as they debate which bird will be the symbol of our new America? The Eagle. The Dove. The Turkey. (5-7) The heated debate over slavery between Jefferson and Edward Rutledge (John Cullman) of South Carolina, as the Southern delegates want the clause against slavery deleted from the document.


A 4K scan of the original 35mm camera negative (2.35:1 aspect ratio) and best surviving elements was handled in 2014, and made available for the previous 2015 Blu-ray. The new 4K provides added clarity, especially in the 18th-century costumes and distant faces in numerous wide shots in Independence Hall. A nice wash of natural film grain covers each frame. It enlarges during the brief composites shots with fades and special dreamlike scenes between John Adams and his wife Abigail (Virginia Vestoff).

The HDR10 and Dolby Vision are graded slightly darker, reducing the orange tone on faces, while the highlights are more defined. Shadows are darker and more detailed.

A new eight-channel Dolby Atmos soundtrack has been created, upping the sound environment over the previous six-channel DTS HD, with stunning orchestrated music, dialogue, and vocals. The original stereo mix has also been restored and cleaned up.

Still, you might wonder – is “1776” historically accurate? Not completely, in spite of dialogue and lyrics taken from letters and other documents. The Continental Congress has less than half of its original members (it would have been a very crowded stage/set if they’d all been there); Martha Jefferson played by Blythe Danner and the mother of actress Gwyneth Paltrow, never went to Philadelphia to help Tom break through his writer’s block; Adams’ character is a composite of John and his Patriot cousin, Sam Adams, who never appears although he was a member of the Congress and signed the Declaration; “elderly” hero Caesar Rodney was only middle-aged and not dying of cancer at that time, although he did make the historic 80-mile ride from Delaware back to Philadelphia to break his state’s tie and vote for Independence.

It should also be noted that the Southern delegates’ walkout after a heated debate on slavery – and the heart-rending “Molasses to Rum” number by Edward Rutledge (John Cullum) – is total fiction. It is an anachronistic afterthought by the writers; both Northern and Southern delegates wanted the clause against slavery deleted. Still, there’s no denying its accuracy in describing the Triangle Trade or its emotional impact.

The film pops up every year, usually on Turner Classic Movies (TCM), to celebrate the 4th of July. But its magic rates more than an annual visit and, with the extended cut and extras in this fine restoration, “1776” demands repeat views. Do not miss it!

— Kay Reynolds and Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer

July 4th

(1-3) John Hancock is the first signature and he orders Andrew McNair the Congressional Custodian to ring the bell, as each delegate signs the Declaration of Independence.




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