John Huston’s “Birthday Present” to America

“All films are created equal. I don’t think there is such a thing as a small film. We’re not pulling any punches here. Scene for scene, everything is being done to the best of our abilities. Each scene as we make it is the best scene I’ve ever made—in my imagination.” –John Huston, on Independence

In June of 1975 director John Huston and a team of Hollywood professionals rolled into Philadelphia to make a film at Independence Hall. Four decades later, the film still screens at Independence National Historical Park, with twelve shows a day.

John Huston directed Independence as a bicentennial “birthday present” to America.

How, you might ask, did a little government film draw stars like John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), and cinematographer Owen Roizman, (The Exorcist)? The answer is that it was never a “little” film in the sense that so many government productions were quickly out of date and replaced. The National Park Service commissioned the film as a centerpiece to its Bicentennial celebrations and intended that it would be in use at Independence National Historical Park for twenty years. NPS budgeted nearly $400,000 for the production, a fortune for a non-theatrical film, even if it would have been low-budget by 1975 Hollywood standards.

Independence (Local Identifier: 79-HFC-199) tells the story of our nation’s beginnings by bringing back the founding fathers from “a cask of Madeira wine” where, as a result of a wish by Benjamin Franklin, they had apparently been preserved for two hundred years so they could see how we turned out.

In a letter to Orson Welles, Huston called the project his “200th birthday present to the United States,” and he threw around a lot of weight in order to create the best possible product, including asking Welles to star as Benjamin Franklin, and bringing on board an Academy Award nominated cinematographer. Welles turned the role down, but Eli Wallach did not, telling a Philadelphia newspaper that working with John Huston again was “part of the lure, but that he also wanted to make the film because the Park Service planned to show it “for years and years”. Wallach said that he and his wife (who plays Abigail Adams) “turned down a lot to do it.”

With all the pieces in place, Huston fought to maintain a high level of quality for the production. In an article in the Philadelphia Bulletin, producer Lloyd Ritter noted that a John Huston film cannot be made “with a Bell and Howell and a candle.” He recounted one time when Huston arrived to find that there were not nearly enough extras in a scene of a room full of delegates. Ritter told Huston that the production could not afford more extras, “but Mr. Huston is perfectly capable of sitting in his camp chair until the 20 extras show up. And he did so.” Ritter added that Huston also found creative ways to keep costs down. Still, Independence ran $125,000 over budget, resulting in a dispute between producers Twentieth Century Fox and the government over who should pay the difference (all of the information for this post comes from a one and a half inch thick file labeled “Cost Overrun”).

The production clearly meant a lot to Huston and the other participants. The actors and crew famously received union scale rather than their usual asking price, and when Fox fired the producer and shut the production down on the seventh day of shooting, Huston offered $5000 of his own money and held a midnight meeting in Congress Hall to get everyone to come back the following day for no pay.

The result of John Huston’s “birthday present” is a film that holds up remarkably well and continues to serve its original purpose twenty years beyond its expected lifespan—the only other government film that comes close is John Ford’s Sex Hygiene, which I have been told was still in use in the 1960s, but would have been dreadfully dated even by then (you can’t really compare the two, of course).

If you have time this holiday, have a look at Independence. Even if you don’t learn something, I promise you’ll be entertained!

Why Do I Know That Face?

Most of the actors starring in Independence may not have well-known names, but you’ve probably seen their faces. Their IMDb pages feature hundreds of credits over decades of working as character actors. Most of them played more than one part in Murder She Wrote, apparently the Law and Order of its day. Click through the slideshow to find out why you might recognize them.

Note on sources: Most of the information for this post came from the “Cost Overrun” file, including photocopies of newspaper articles from June of 1975. In some cases, the full date or title was not copied and I’m guessing, but the articles I referenced are below.

-“Bicen Movie Rolls at Historic Site.” Naedele, Walter F. Philadelphia Bulletin. June 24, 1975

-“Huston Told to Halt Bicen Film 5 Days Early.” Naedele, Walter F. Philadelphia Bulletin. June 29, 1975.

-“Independence No Easier To Win Today Than in 1776.” Seltzer, Ruth. Philadelphia Inquirer.  June 30, 1975.

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