175. 1776, the movie

Ah, June 29th. Its just about time to watch the movie 1776 again. It is a family tradition to watch it every year just before Independence Day.

My wife and I saw it first as a play on July 4, 1976, in an outdoor presentation. We had gone to the big city – locally that means San Francisco – to rub elbows with the crowds on the day of the Bicentennial. That afternoon, we were hooked. When it came out as a movie, we went to see it, then bought the VHS. Yes, this was before DVDs, or downloading, or streaming, or TiVo; actually, I think it was before we had bought a VCR, but we wanted to always have a copy.

1776 is a great patriotic rush of a movie but I wouldn’t recommend that you learn your history by watching it. The Columbia Companion to American History on Film says that “inaccuracies pervade 1776, though few are very troubling.” Maybe, but I’m not so sure. Some of the best parts of the movie just didn’t happen.

In fact, the wiki summary of historical accuracy praises the play while documenting error after error until you get the impression that nothing in it was true to life. See the movie first, then read the quibbles, because 1776 is not a historical movie, but an allegory, or better still, a retelling. It goes to the essence of the hesitation and worry, even fear, that attended the event, all wrapped in a story of arrogance, honest outrage, pride, and sacrifice. The writing is beautiful, the quips are side-splitting. Much of the dialog is taken from the words of people who were there, gleaned from works written by them years later.

In fact, there is no lack of historical material to work from in reconstructing the event, even though it was conducted in secrecy. These were literate men, with a clear picture of their own historical importance. Most of them told their own stories in later years.

Unfortunately, they tend to disagree on what actually happened. Years after I first saw the play, I went back to college for an MA in History, and thereafter set about trying to make my own knowledge of the event more accurate. It is surprisingly hard to do. Even the date July 4 is in partial doubt. The Declaration was approved on July 4. Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin claim that it was signed that day, but only a hand written copy then existed, and not all members were present. Those present may have signed the hand written copy – or not. We just don’t know. Certainly the printed version that we now view in the National Archives was not ready for some weeks. It was signed on August 2, but not by every member, as not all were present. Some signatures were apparently added piecemeal later on.

I care about historical accuracy, but when I am watching 1776, I let that go by and immerse myself in a moving theatrical experience. Now don’t bother me any further. I’ve got the DVD cued up.

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