3 for the Fourth: ‘1776,’ ‘John Adams’ and ‘The Last of the Mohicans’

The received wisdom is that nobody watches TV on the Fourth of the July. But we know that there comes a moment when, stuffed with hot dogs and hamburgers, lobster-red from the sun, before or after the fireworks, when many people love to collapse in the air-conditioned coolness of the closest TV room.

We’re here for you.

The following are my personal top choices for perennial Independence Day (or Eve or Night) viewing.

“1776” (1972)

In a compact, entertaining way, complete with memorable songs, this movie version of a Broadway show manages to do several things simultaneously:

  • Lays out the basic facts and arguments for and against American independence
  • Introduces us to the major players in a way that turns them from marble statues into humans
  • Touches on the most difficult bits (like slavery) without wallowing in them
  • Gives you tunes to hum as you’re flipping goodies on the grill.

And for past and current residents of New York State, there’s a line about the state’s legislature that should hit home.

“1776” is available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

Here are a few outstanding bits:

And this last clip, featuring a young man named Stephen Nathan, who lately has been one of the executive producers of “Bones” on Fox:

Oh, and much of the dialogue between John and Abigail Adams is taken from their real letters. And even the bits that aren’t historical are memorable:

John Adams: It doesn’t matter. I won’t be in the history books anyway, only you. Franklin did this and Franklin did that and Franklin did some other d**n thing. Franklin smote the ground and out sprang George Washington, fully grown and on his horse. Franklin then electrified him with his miraculous lightning rod and the three of them – Franklin, Washington, and the horse – conducted the entire revolution by themselves.

[pause]

Dr. Benjamin Franklin: I like it.

Speaking of John Adams …

“John Adams”: (2008)

You could at least get a start on this excellent HBO miniseries, starring Paul Giamatti as the Founding Father, first vice-president of the U.S. and second president. It also stars Laura Linney as Abigail Adams, and British actor Stephen Dillane as Adams’ lifelong friend and political rival, Thomas Jefferson.

Again, it puts meat on the bones of the historical personage, reveals the overwhelming struggles and obstacles at the nation’s birth — and reveals that the press was no nicer then than it is now.

Here’s a nasty and politically incorrect taste from the election of 1800, courtesy of MentalFloss.com:

Things got ugly fast. Jefferson’s camp accused President Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” In return, Adams’ men called Vice President Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” As the slurs piled on, Adams was labeled a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant, while Jefferson was branded a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward. Even Martha Washington succumbed to the propaganda, telling a clergyman that Jefferson was “one of the most detestable of mankind.”

“John Adams” is available on the HBO Now app and on Amazon Prime.

How “John Adams” ratified the Declaration of Independence:

And a bit featuring Alexander Hamilton, who’s become even more famous, thanks to another Broadway music, named after him …

“The Last of the Mohicans” (1992)

Nothing happens in a vaccum, and before the Revolutionary War came the French and Indian War, in which American colonists got their first real inkling of just how little regard for their rights the faraway British crown had. Set in 1757, this sweeping romance is based on the famous novel by James Fenimore Cooper. Directed by Michael Mann, it follows the adventures of scout Nathaniel “Natty” Bumppo — a k a Hawkeye — played by British-Irish actor Daniel Day Lewis, as the American colonists get caught between the warring British and French, and their respective Native American allies.

As a native of the very region where the movie takes place — Lake George and the nearby towns along the Hudson River, in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains — I can say there are a few geographical oddities in the film, large portions of which were filmed in the Blue Ridge Mountains (and none of which was shot in the Adirondacks). But having been steeped in these stories since childhood, I can say that it does them justice.

And it has fantastic theme music …

“The Last of the Mohicans” is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

Image: Courtesy Columbia Pictures

Learn more about Family Theater Productions’ upcoming, new and vintage productions as well as our Hollywood Outreach Programs; and, of course, you’ll find us on Facebook. Visit our YouTube and Ustream Channels for our contemporary and classic productions.