1776 and All That Stuff

We have a gaggle of national holidays, but only a few aren't moved around to fall on a Monday so we can all enjoy a three-day weekend. The fixed dates of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years come to mind. No matter how much some might want to change them, New Years always falls on January 1, Thanksgiving wouldn't be Thanksgiving without Black Friday following it, and Christmas is a religious holiday (don't remind the wrong crowd of that) whose date was set in stone centuries before the U.S. of A. was the U.S. of A.

The same with the 4th of July, or Independence Day. It's a time for barbeques and fireworks. I still remember when fireworks were legal. The memory of my father lighting a roman candle that fizzled, followed almost immediately by my mother running from the house to dowse the smoking dud with a pan full of water—so quickly she must have had it in waiting for just such a potential crisis—remains with me. And why, if memory serves, was every Independence Day cloudy with a threat of rain? The powers that be could take away our right to buy fireworks, but they couldn't control the weather. At least not back then.

Had we had DVDs—much less Blu-ray discs—at the time, we could have enjoyed a few holiday-appropriate movies under those gloomy, early July Connecticut skies.

John Adams, A 2008 HBO mini-series, is available on both Blu-ray and DVD. I haven't yet sampled either, but did see the original, exceptionally well-done HD broadcast. Some have complained about Paul Giamatti's performance as Adams, though it's likely the culprit is a script that paints him as more difficult and crotchety than in real life (or at least as he's depicted in the book on which the series is based). No one, however, complained about Laura Linney's turn as Adams' wife, Abigail. At well over 8 hours, the show itself is probably too much of a slog for a 4th of July weekend, but regardless of that it brings the time period, and the founding fathers, to life in a way we rarely see on screen. It's a must see, however long you take to watch it in its entirely. My only complaint: Why does it have to cost nearly twice as much on Blu-ray as it does on DVD?

Movies about the Revolutionary War are surprisingly thin on the ground, which is why I found one of the rare examples, The Patriot, so disappointing. It's really mis-titled, as Mel Gibson's main character is motivated more by revenge than patriotism. This is atypical subject matter for director Roland Emmerich. There is no alien invasion, giant lizard, or rampant climate change anywhere in sight, and he seems a bit out of his element as a result. The movie is also exceedingly violent: If you want to see what it's like to be in the line of fire of a cannon ball, this is your film! But if you can get past that, and check your history books at the door, the superb period detail and fine performances do provide rewards. Tom Wilkinson is a standout in a small role as General Cornwallis, and Heath Ledger has one of his first major film roles here. It's also a very good—though not exceptional— Blu-ray transfer of a movie whose source photography was pleasing though sometimes just a bit soft.

I enjoyed the silly fun of Independence Day, otherwise known as ID4, but it really has nothing to do with the holiday other than the title, the fact that the action takes place around and on July 4th, and having the same director as The Patriot.

If there's a film in the classic era that dealt more than peripherally with the events in Philadelphia during the fateful months of June and July 1776, I'm not aware of it. And I know only one of more recent vintage—and it's a musical, if you can imagine such a thing. Actually, Broadway imagined it first in 1969, in the form of the Tony Award-winning 1776. Brought to the screen in 1972 with much of its original stage cast intact, it's very much a love-it or hate-it affair. The 2002 DVD release (not yet available on Blu-ray) seamlessly restored 26 minutes to the theatrical release's 142 minute running time. An earlier Laserdisc release ran a full three hours, thought the additional 12 minutes there were not restored and were marred by a severely faded and reddish color.

The movie is a bit uneven in tone— shifting from almost cartoonish in the first act to richly and movingly dramatic in the third. The performances are generally superb (you'll recognize many of the actors here, even if you can't name names), though they can also be a little too theatrical and stagy. The songs (and the singing) vary in quality, sometimes right on point and sometimes intrusive, too long, or both. The photographer or director was just a bit too fond of the zoom lens (the zoom was to films of the era what the shaky-cam is today). And more than few dramatic licenses were taken. But in its depiction of the classic icons of the nation's founding as real men and not (as Franklin points out in one of the film's most dramatic scenes) demi-gods, and a final 30 minutes that pay off in one of the most memorable final scenes you'll ever see, this is the movie to see on the Fourth. Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is running it tonight (July 4) at 10:30 PM EST. Judging from the running time, it will be one of the extended versions. If you miss it, however, the DVD version is readily available.