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|Kevin Krock, editor|
What is it about this movie that thirty years after its release still has it making new fans? Could it be all those 16mm showings we were subjected to at school in history class? Could it have been the wry charm of the script - where instead of our founding fathers being portrayed as stodgy old blokes, we see them as living breathing human beings, complete with tempers and sex drives? Or could it have been our never ending amazement in hearing how cleverly all those historical facts were worked into actual songs?
For those of you who dozed through it in class (shame on you!), 1776 is a musical about the founding of our country 226 years ago. As the insightful commentary track indicates - it was an idea for a show that had people getting their guards up until of course they finally saw it. Original writer Sherman Edwards gave new energy and vibrancy to our country's history, and did it with plenty of wit and charm. You'll come to find with this movie that not all history has to be dumbed down or drastically rewritten - sometimes all it takes is faith in both the audience and the story you are telling to make something so well known magic all over again.
And wouldn't you know it, the story behind this movie is almost as grand and labyrinthine as the historical events it musicalizes. Originally previewed by the director at about 166 minutes, the film suffered substantial editing after producer Jack L. Warner ran it at the Nixon White House. (Apparently one number, "Cool, Cool Considerate Men" hit way too close to home politically - and then President Nixon personally asked that it be removed.) With one major song cut, a few more snips and edits were then made to try and get in an extra screening a day, which brought the running time down to 141 minutes - about a 25 minute loss. It was that version that opened at Radio City Music Hall, and was shown to audiences until its first restoration.
For a special 1995 laser disc edition, producer Joe Caporiccio went back to the vaults and did an extensive search for the excised materials, and found considerable portions of what was missing. At that time they located work prints and some extra negative material - and the film was then presented at a length of 176 minutes. It was an admirable job - but at that point large segments of the newly restored materials were only available in black and white or 16mm workprint form. Other found bits and pieces were alternate takes, and more than a few segments were added back in even though they had been cut before the first preview. While it was great for aficionados of the movie to finally see more or less what was missing, it was a less than optimal presentation.
Well, apparently the film still had a lot of fans at Sony / Columbia and was already in the pipeline for DVD release when 9/11 hit. Rather than rush the movie out at that time, the company decided to see what else could be found to try and improve the past laser disc version. Another search finally located all the missing materials in original negative form, and this time director Stone was involved with the project (as he never really was in the laser disc production loop).
Stone finally was able to get the film back to his preferred running time of 166 minutes (which is why it is now advertised as a Director's Cut) - and with the optimal picture and sound quality the newly discovered materials would for the first time allow. Columbia / Sony were then able to make the release happen just in time for the July 4th holiday.
Most of the effort that went into this disc was for the restoration - so unlike some recent DVD special editions, this one seems a bit bare bones at first look. But what it does have is of great quality, and the newly recorded commentary track is the jewel of the included efforts.
Since the movie was made not only with the original Broadway cast, but with its original director and writers, what you get on the commentary track is not only the by now expected tidbits on the making of the film, but a lot of the history behind the original stage production. It's a treat to hear in detail how much of research was done in writing the book of the show - and in particular what was created for the musical to fill in the voids history has inevitably provided. Both Peter Stone (the screenwriter) and Peter Hunt (the director) point out proudly that many historians still find the script to be well rooted, and the few liberties it takes to be deeply and thoughtfully researched which helps them be plausibly presented.
One particular highlight in the commentary revolves around one line that was left out of the show - on the subject of slavery in the Declaration of Independence. John Adams is on historical record as saying the removal of Thomas Jefferson's section against it (insisted on by the South) would cause trouble a hundred years into the future, and he was proved right only six years past his original prediction. The screenwriter wanted to put that into the script, but found it would have been too obvious for the audience - as no one would have really believed Adams had that kind of foresight. Thanks to this commentary you still find yourself learning all sorts of new things even after you watch the movie.
Also included are the original screen tests for many of the actors. It's interesting to see how theatrical they still were, in particular William Daniels, and how these clips compare to the final substantially toned down performances they needed for the big screen. You begin to understand the big difference between playing to the back row in a theater, and remembering your every move is amplified on a huge movie screen.
Besides the trailer for the film itself, you'll also find a few trailers included for other Columbia movies of the same period. Subtitles are offered in French and English, the only film audio track is a brand new Dolby Digital 5.1 remix of the original mono soundtrack.
The Video, Audio and Interface
This movie has been through several editions on home video - but finally we get a version that works well on all fronts on this disc. Video quality is a big step above the previous murky VHS and laser disc transfers - reds are red now (not pink) and while the picture still has an overall brownish tone to it, face it folks, there was a lot of dirt back then in America and not much else.
The soundtrack has been improved (it was originally in mono, due to budget concerns) - but you will find that it seems to be a evolving process as the film un-spools. The early songs sound a bit constricted, and it isn't until about halfway through the movie that the dynamics open up to the kind of fidelity we expect from current releases. Considering the recordings are over three decades old, they did an outstanding job nevertheless.
The disc's interface is elegantly simple - with anamorphic menu screens being a nice touch for widescreen owners. I couldn't locate any hidden bonus materials / Easter eggs.
The Final Evaluation
If you won't take my word that this movie belongs in your family film library, then please at least go ahead and rent the DVD to see what the fuss is all about. Rest assured that if you give this film a chance it will exceed and surpass what you thought it would do for you.
And if you don't feel a tug at your heart as the Declaration of Independence is finally signed on screen (especially after what our country has gone through recently), well... what can I say?
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