There is something strangely compelling about big budget cinematic disasters, particularly if they are epic, bloated and feature at least one highly regarded Hollywood star. In this respect, 1985’s Revolution, a monumental British flop about the American Revolution, fits the bill.
Just like Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate before it, the fallout from the failure of Revolution was immense. The film’s English director, Hugh Hudson, who had been feted as the great new hope of British cinema following the critical and commercial successes of his multi-Oscar winning Chariots of Fire and the period adventure Greystoke, was forced to endure seeing Revolution mauled from all quarters upon its release, and the film became to him what Peeping Tom became to Michael Powell: a potential career killer.
Indeed, Hudson’s output after Revolution has been more than a little patchy. In the wake of the film’s lack of success, it was four more years before the director released another feature (1989’s low-key independent effort Lost Angels), and since then Hudson has worked only very sporadically, often returning to the safe and familiar world of television commercials and advertising, the industry that gave him his initial break into filmmaking.
Massive in scale, Revolution cost £18 million — a large amount for a British film at the time — and concerns the fortunes of single father Tom Dobb (Al Pacino), a fur trapper who lands his small boat in New York during the early days of the American Revolution. While ashore, Dobb loses his boat to an angry mob, and then finds that his young son Ned, who is accompanying him, has been coerced into joining the army, a small payment and the promise of land after the war having served as bribes.
Dobb, desperate to stay with his son and protect him, joins up too, and both are soon swept reluctantly into the conflict. However, Dobb’s initial reticence towards the war makes way for grim determination as he comes to align himself with the revolutionary cause, battling to free the colonies from British rule.
So now, finally, after many years of waiting, comes this new director’s cut, courtesy of the BFI (Hudson has rather sweetly said it’s been his long-held dream to release an alternate version of the film). As Revolution is already held in such low critical esteem, any new version has quite a task on its hands if it is to redress the balance and restore some artistic integrity to the production. So the key question, therefore, is whether Hudson’s recent work on the film has improved it. Well yes, a little. Has the whole exercise been fruitful? No, not really.
Despite the excision of the original’s final climactic scene, featuring a hugely coincidental reunion between Dobb and his love interest Daisy (Nastassja Kinski) that stretched believability to breaking point, the small amount of re-editing Hudson has overseen — about ten minutes in total — certainly hasn’t helped the film’s overall cohesion, despite this version being shorter than the shapeless theatrical offering (an unusual phenomenon in today’s age of indulgent director’s cut DVD releases).
That being said, Hudson’s revisions seem to have been appreciated and welcomed by some, with the respected British film critic Philip French proclaiming the new, improved film a ‘poetic masterpiece’. I certainly wouldn’t go anywhere near that far, however, as the film’s major problems still remain.
Firstly, on a positive note, the primary improvement is a new voice-over by Pacino, which Hudson had intended to include all along until time restraints stymied that ambition back in the ‘80s. Whilst a voice-over is often used as a salvaging device to give coherence and linearity to a confusing and messy narrative, Pacino’s beautifully written and gently spoken dialogue isn’t used quite as cheaply as that — which is a surprise, considering how it could have been utilised to paper over gaps in the plot — and as a result his words do give the film a certain poetry, primarily because they don’t seek to provide exposition to supplement the action we’re seeing onscreen; rather, they serve to enrich the character of Dobb through the fleshing out of his backstory, whilst also enabling him to elaborate on his devotion to his son, which in turn explains much of Dobb’s motivation throughout the film.
It also helps that Pacino recorded his voice-over recently. Now considerably older than the man onscreen, the age and experience that characterises Pacino’s mature, gruff voice is very appropriate, as it encapsulates the plight and struggle of the downtrodden Dobb well; it helps too that Pacino has an unrivalled ability to convey wisdom and weariness in a voice-over (his narration in Carlito’s Way is a perfect example of this), and in this respect he is certainly on top form here.
There are other commendable elements to Revolution, many unchanged from the original cut. To watch the film again is to be reminded of how beautiful and creative the late Bernard Lutic’s cinematography is. The film features plenty of agitated hand-held camera, well over two decades before Paul Greengrass made the style a standard cinematic technique for action filmmaking; additionally, many scenes featuring the revolutionaries are shot with a brown, damp, organic hue, which cleverly provides a stark and effective visual contrast to the clean, immaculate and colourfully vibrant uniforms of the British military.
Also, John Corigliano’s excellent score — one of only a small handful he has contributed during his long and celebrated career as a classical music composer — is moving, subtle and unobtrusive, which is unusual for a film of this scale. However, for all the best elements embodied in both the original film and Hudson’s recent improvements, certain aspects of Revolution still niggle as much as they did all those years ago.
Many of Hudson’s casting choices are barmy. Did anyone really believe in Kinski as Joan Plowright’s aristocratic daughter? As for the lead, Pacino looks preened, groomed and never quite right for the part, always recalling Tony Montana with a bouffant rather than a grubby soldier, and what was Hudson thinking when he offered 1985’s woman-of-the-moment Annie Lennox even a very minor role? Lennox is undoubtedly a fine singer, but her performance is weak and her appearance in the film smacks of gimmicky casting, with Hudson perhaps eager for the opportunity to work with such a major pop name of the time, regardless of whether it was the best choice for the film or not. In fact, in the DVD’s extras, Hudson even claims it’s a shame that Lennox didn’t provide a song for Revolution. Really? A pop song? If he’s serious, it’s a ghastly idea, and would have only provided additional fodder for critics and their sharpened knives.
To be fair, Pacino’s performance overall isn’t truly disastrous (and he probably didn’t deserve the Razzie nomination bestowed upon him), yet his infamous accent does fluctuate badly, and it’s never convincing, despite Hudson’s protestation that it was authentic and probably how people in that region actually sounded at the time (at least Pacino’s accent in the voice-over is consistent, and certainly an improvement). Indeed, accents are a major problem for many performers throughout the film; some of the upper class British characters sound cartoonish and ridiculous, particularly Richard O’Brien’s Lord Hampton, and Donald Sutherland’s efforts to nail the accent of Sergeant Major Peasy fly around here, there and everywhere, without ever laying down geographically specific roots.
Sadly, the most profound impact Revolution created was the negative influence it had over the careers of those involved: Hudson has never artistically recovered, and Goldcrest, the British studio that backed the film, was plunged into dire financial circumstances following its failure, only to be saved from bankruptcy when the company was taken over in the late ‘80s. Finally, Pacino was so disillusioned by the film’s critical reception that he went on a four-year hiatus in order to flush the experience from his system, before returning back to form, playing to type and rebuilding his reputation in Harold Becker’s excellent Sea of Love.
Regardless of the beautiful cinematography, detailed production design and a lush orchestral score, Revolution doesn’t convince as a dramatic period piece, and remains a noble failure. For all Hudson’s editorial tinkering, the film still lacks cohesion, and problems concerning narrative flabbiness, poor performances and a lack of tension cannot be addressed after the fact, and certainly not a quarter of a century later. It seems, therefore, that Revolution will forever meander like a rudderless ship in spectacular waters, offering gorgeous views for the eye to behold, despite the vehicle itself being largely directionless.
The excellent extras on this dual format DVD and Blu-ray disc include an enlightening discussion between Hudson and the charming Pacino about why Revolution failed at the box office, which sees their navel-gazing chat turn into a fascinating combination of ego stroking and wound licking. Also included are a discussion with Hudson regarding the editorial changes between the cinema and DVD versions, an additional general overview of the film by the director, and a trailer. The printed supplementary material includes a comprehensive and glossy 40-page colour booklet containing essays about the film by the academic Pam Cook, the critics Philip French, Michael Brooke and Richard Coombes, and the documentary filmmaker Nick Redman. Finally, a full cast and crew listing, a Hugh Hudson biography and full DVD specifications are included too.