Saturday, June 27, 2009

You Say You Want a Revolution?

While it doesn’t have the name recognition of a Heaven’s Gate or Ishtar, 1985’s Revolution was one of the most notable flops of the decade. The careers of nearly all major players were derailed to varying degrees; major studios quickly stopped knocking on Nastassja Kinski door and director Hugh Hudson, a hot property after Chariots of Fire and Greystoke, was unable to get work for years afterwards, and only then in low profile, barely-released projects. Even Pacino found himself out of work until Harold Becker’s ugly Sea of Love in 1989. It was actually Pacino who bore the brunt of the film’s negative notices, with his mumbled dialog filtered through an odd, supposedly historically accurate accent. After 23 years, Warner Bros has decided to give Hudson the chance to recut the film to his initial specifications before being rushed to meet a studio mandated release date. Having recently viewed the new DVD, here are our off-the-cuff impressions, presented in the Scribe’s famously disjointed style.

Perhaps the real secret to Revolution’s 1985 failure is the seeming lack of sympathy for any of the film’s characters. Hudson and writer Robert Dillon see Colonists as a filthy, uneducated rabble and the British as little more than lisping, pedophilic sadists. It’s certainly true that many more “volunteers” in the war were acquired like Tom (Pacino) and his son Ned (played as a child by Sid Owen and as a teenager by Dexter Fletcher) forced at bayonet point to fight for one side or the other when the outcome would have little effect on their lives, but in the patriotic wave that was just starting to crest in 1985 it’s easy to imagine that the film-going public weren’t interested in a revision of that particular history. Tom feels nothing for either side of the struggle for Independence, but understandably has little but distain for the Colonialists, who conscript his only son and confiscate his possessions. As a result, he is always attempting to run away from battle (again, understandably so) but it doesn’t exactly inspire to see them moping through history; we want desperately to see this amazingly recreated period of history through their eyes, only to have them retreat from the action onscreen time and time again. And what a recreation; the film’s 1776 Manhattan is a stunning creation, realistically brought to life in a ‘warts and all’ fashion that runs starkly against popular shows like the popular musical 177 (though we wished the film had spent more time in the wealthy homes of New York’s Royalist families, as the photography of their candlelit rooms are gorgeous to behold.)

Another major issue – and one that the film will carry into any time period – is the jarring British location photography. We could care less if a film about the American Revolution was shot on the dark side of the moon as long as an area that resembled New York State circa 1776 was found there. But once the film leaves the immensely impressive Manhattan sets, the terrain becomes so distinctly British that it’s almost laughable. Tom and his son seem more likely to run into Withnail and Marwood on their way to Monty’s cabin, or Jack and David backpacking through the moors than the Hudson River or Brooklyn Heights. The costumes, like the sets, look authentic and expensive, though Pacino’s hair seems about 210 years too late, making him look more like a keyboardist for The Tubes than an 18th century fur trader.

Donald Sutherland’s performance makes one yearn for the subtitles of one of Tim Curry’s villainous turns (his character could easily be an ancestor to his Attila from 1900.) It’s remarkable to think that Pacino’s accent caused even a ripple in the same movie as Sutherland’s linguistic chaos. Though it’s also possible that his weak character is a victim of the editing; his Sergeant Major is set up early on as the main antagonist, only to be completely forgotten about for the majority of the film until an anticlimactic finale on a beach. Kinski is fine, but she trapped in a role driven by narrative contrivance. Her revolutionary fervor seems born of little more than a few leaflets being tossed in her carriage during the opening scenes. Perhaps sensing the lack of chemistry between the two stars, no attempt is made by Hudson to foster any romantic entanglements – making her underwritten role that much more of a mystery

Warner’s new DVD finally allows us to see the film in its original 2.40x1 ratio for the first time since the film’s theatrical release. The film’s naturalistic, hand-held photography are wonderfully preserved, making us wish the film had been released on Blu-Ray as well. We can’t be sure about Hudson’s changes to this version, but one major change discussed in the 23min featurette is the removal of a moment at the end of the film in which Pacino finds Kinski once again amidst a crowded New York street (a moment that can be glimpsed in the theatrical trailer on the disc.) Minor reservations aside, we strongly recommend that people give the new DVD a spin.