Looking for something patriotic to watch for this year’s Independence Day? Looking for movies that tell us where we have been as a country & a people while also showing us where we have to go? Then you can’t get any better than these:
1776 (1972) ****stars
Sherman Edwards’ Tony-winning musical has been adapted to the screen with its Broadway cast mostly intact (a rare thing indeed) and original stage director Peter Hunt at the helm. William Daniels and Howard Da Silva are brilliant as John Adams and Benjamin Franklin trying like heck to wake up the Continental Congress and pass the Declaration of Independence. The movie entertainingly shows how the divisions we lament in this country have been there from the very beginning. It also shows how we must learn to overlook those differences if we wish to accomplish a greater good.
The songs are fun. The debate pretty much follows how it all went down. George Washington’s dispatches from the front capture how on the edge the Continental Army operated. And I fall in love with Blythe Danner every time I watch this. (For those of the younger generation, she is Gwyneth Paltrow’s mother). Virginia Vestoff is all strong and resilient as Abigail Adams (she died of cancer shortly after the film was made). A shout out as well to Donald Madden as John Dickinson, the tireless opponent of all things relating to independence.
The film makes us realize what a close shave getting independence declared actually was. It is all here: deathly ill Caesar Rodney’s midnight ride through the night to cast a Yes vote, James Wilson’s last minute change of heart. It makes you realize in this age of filibusters and 60 vote minimums, that many of the greatest laws we’ve passed in this country did so by the skin of their teeth.
Be sure to watch the restored 164-minute version readily available on DVD. It was cut by half an hour when released in 1972. President Nixon, friends with producer Jack Warner and busy orchestrating the Watergate cover up at the time, thought some of the dialogue and the song “Cool, Cool Conservative Men” liable to anger the country and send the population into the streets. So Warner cut them. Fortunately, the cut footage has mostly been restored. Frankly, I find it all prescient on where the country was going to go. Of where we find ourselves now.
TRIVIA: This was the last movie filmed at the original Columbia Pictures studio before it was torn down.
PET PEEVE: Director Peter Hunt restored all of the footage except the complete version of John Adams’ song “Piddle, Twiddle, & Resolve”. I got a chance to ask him about that once and he confessed that he didn’t restore it because he always hated how he shot the song. Daniels is standing there singing how it is “hot as hell in Philadelphia” and steam can be seen coming out of his mouth (because it was really a chilly night in L.A.). You can watch the complete song HERE.
GETTYSBURG (1993) ***1/2 stars
Ronald Maxwell’s sprawling recreation of the Battle of Gettysburg (which took place July 1-3, 1863) is definitely long at 4 hours 14 minutes (the director’s cut is even longer). There may be a bit too much speechifying (though much of it is moving). But the movie is a once in a lifetime experience: a thrilling recreation of the actual battle on the actual battlefield (the only time the National Park service allowed it). It is the closest we will ever come to actually being there at the most important battle of the American Civil War.
The movie does a beautiful job of capturing both the North and South points of view going into the battle. Points of view that are still valid today.
The large cast is excellent. Jeff Daniels makes a moving and heroic Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Tom Berenger is a conflicted James Longstreet. Richard Jordan (in his final role) is a tragic Lew Armistead. Stephen Lang is perfect as the too trusting and naïve George Pickett leading his men into a bloodbath.
If the length bothers you then watching it in 3 parts on July 1, July 2, and July 3.
See it to get a better understanding of who we are as a country. And see it for the grand splendor of Pickett’s Charge: a total folly of a maneuver but a brave and beautiful thing. It makes us appreciate how close the North came to losing the war; it makes us realize how close the South came to winning.
TRIVIA: The actor playing the British observer is George Lazenby, famous for his one off appearance as James Bond in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969).
TOMORROW: 4 MOVIES FOR THE 4TH PART II