Saturday, January 23, 2010

REVOLUTION Revisited (1985-2008)

Hugh Hudson's Revolution was one of the great flops of the 1980s, nearly a career-killer for both the director of Chariots of Fire and Greystoke and star Al Pacino, who exiled himself from cinema for several years after the disaster. It clearly was a project that both men held dear, one they felt had been taken from Hudson's hands before it was ready to meet a December release date. Somehow they convinced Warner Bros. to let them tinker with it anew before its DVD release. It's obvious that they've pondered over how to improve the thing for more than twenty years, and the DVD records a rare achievement. Hudson and Pacino have made a bad film worse.

When I first saw the theatrical version of Revolution on VHS I considered it an interesting failure. It had a promising premise, debunking the patriotic mythology of the American Revolution by portraying an ordinary man who gets drawn into the war largely against his will and sees the revolutionaries as little better than the British, if not worse, in the way they treat common people. Intellectually I appreciated the casting of Al Pacino as the hero (and Hudson informs us on the DVD that Stallone wanted the part!) because his way of speaking should have signified "common" compared to the more refined accents of the era. I also acknowledged that Pacino did try to alter his voice; he says now that Tom Dobb's was the most researched accent he ever attempted. But despite what he does, his voice is still somehow jarringly alien to the era, though that may be due to the dialogue he utters (e.g., "Got eats?") rather than how he utters it.

It's love at first sight for Nastassia Kinski when her gaze falls on Al Pacino, but after nearly 25 years I still don't really know why.

While reviewers singled Pacino out for abuse and largely misrepresented the way he spoke, the real problem wasn't the actor, nor even the bad performances by Donald Sutherland and Nastassia Kinski, but a script that offered little in the way of plot or character development, reducing the Revolution to a Simpsonian "just a bunch of stuff that happened" to Dobb and his son. Kinski's character, an upper-class merchant's daughter, is a Revolutionary sympathizer against her mother's will who falls in love with Tom Dobb, all for no good reason that we can see since the script does nothing to establish her personality or motivations. Sutherland as a vaguely perverse British officer with a prominent mole gives nearly a Pythonesque performance, which was probably not what Hudson intended. Sutherland did enhance his track record for cruelty on film (see The Day of the Locust, 1900, etc) by whipping the bare soles of a boy's feet.

Hudson and Pacino (writer Robert Dillon may not have been consulted) acknowledge that they did little at first, or weren't allowed to do enough, to let audiences get to know Tom Dobb, who comes off in the original as a sullen victim of events most of the time. Given a chance to rectify the error, they couldn't exactly shoot new scenes, and there weren't scenes available on the cutting room floor for restoration. In fact, Revolution Revisited is ten minutes shorter than the theatrical release. My dim memories of the original don't allow me to tell you what's cut, except for an implausible happy ending for one character. There was really but one option for director and star, as long as star was game. Pacino was all too game, and the result is all too gamy.

The lamest narrative device you can possibly use in cinema is first-person present-tense narration. Some people are turned off by narration in general, whether by a character in the story of an omniscient observer. But when a writer composes a narrative track that supposedly relates what characters are thinking at that moment, it's really a confession that the writer or actor has failed to convey that by the usual means of dialogue, or that the director has failed to capture what the writer and actor were trying to convey. First-person present-tense is a crutch that allows creative people to abdicate the responsibility of storytelling. It's a hallmark of bad writing in comic books and genre novels, and in cinema David Lynch's Dune (which only follows Frank Herbert's unfortunate precedent) and Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line are cautionary tales of the disastrous effect this style of narration can have.

Revolution Revisited makes Dune and Thin Red Line sound as if they were scripted by James Joyce. Presumably composed by Hudson and/or Pacino, the new first-person present-tense narration for Tom Dobb is an injustice to Robert Dillon. It's one thing to have to bear the stigma of writing the original Revolution, and another altogether to be presumed to have authored lines that sound like they belong in The Conqueror. According to Hudson, they did at one point consider having Dobb's son narrate the film in past tense, but ditched that notion. With unwitting irony, Hudson and Pacino share the thought that Revolution might have made a good silent film. Hearing the new dialogue makes you wish they'd been more daring. Their concept seems to be that Tom Dobb should express in his head the instinctual, inchoate poetry of an illiterate yet soulful man. Here is a sample of the results:

Our life will turn in many a strange direction. Now, coming on a boat of my own to trade my trappings of fur and skins, to go off on a boat of war to fight for a word they name Liberty, of which I am unknowing, never having had it in my own life, wondering of its need.

More succinctly, Dobb ponders the Kinski's character persistent yet unmotivated interest in him: "She causes an uncomfort to me." This has a devastating effect on an already unsound picture, rendering it ridiculous when it had only been meaningless before. Hudson and Pacino have pushed a merely forgotten failure toward the ranks of the worst films ever made.

But before I completely condemn the film it's only fair to note that the DVD reveals what VHS conceals: Revolution is often a beautiful movie.

One aspect of Hudson's direction that the original critics condemned, his use of handheld cameras in the big battle scenes, seems perfectly reasonable and effective in establishing the visceral immediacy of antique warfare. Bernard Lutic's cinematography is very well done, and the opening scenes in New York City are an outstanding blend of Hudson's unstately direction, Lutic's imagery, and evocative production design. Revolution convincingly plants us in the middle of the War for Independence, but after all this time Hudson and Pacino still have no idea what to do once we get there.

But maybe the trailer, uploaded to YouTube by GoldcrestFilms, will convince you otherwise.


Nigel M said...

I have returned to this post a few times now to look at those battle scene screen grabs. I listened to the negative press when this came out so havent got to see this film.

Its still never gonna be the sort of film I would seek out but if this comes on tv I may just give this one a shot now!

Samuel Wilson said...

Nigel, it might be a good idea to take Hudson up on his unintentional advice and watch the movie on mute.

John said...

the horror, the horror!

Seriously, I have not seen this movie since its release and the bad script and the miscasting of Pacino are still clear in my mind (I can only shutter if Stallone had played the part). I do give credit to Pacino for trying something different but it did not work. What is most interesting is that they tried to rectify the original film's problems with “Revolution Revisited”. There is a difference when they try and restore, say Welles TOUCH OF EVIL as oppose this disaster. Sometimes you have to know when just let things go.
BTW, none of this takes away from what is an outstanding posting.

Professor Brian O'Blivion said...

Fascinating. This is a new one to me, didn't even know it existed. Very interesting review. Thanks.