On the 4th of July, 1776, thirty-thousand British redcoats arrive to subdue rebellion and fur trader Tom Dobb (Al Pacino) and his young boy Ned (Eastenders’ Sid Owen!!) are press-ganged into fighting as part of the American Revolution. Wealthy, young socialite Daisy McConnahay (Nastassja Kinski) is caught up in revolutionary fervour, which alienates her from the social-climbing aspirations of her mother (Joan Plowright) and her scheming, business-minded father (Dave King), who exploits the deaths of countless militiamen for his own financial gain. Swept along by the tide of history, Tom and Daisy fall in love but are cruelly parted when the former begins a blood feud with brutal British Sgt. Major Peasy (Donald Sutherland).
Back in 1984, on a lunch break with co-star Donald Sutherland, Al Pacino remarked that while nothing else in his career had been predictable, he was certain Revolution would go down as a history-making piece of cinema. How wrong he was. Shot for $28 million, Revolution became one of the biggest box-office disasters of the Eighties, brought down the hitherto renowned Goldcrest Films, and along with the even more calamitous Absolute Beginners (1986) dealt a crippling body-blow to the British film industry. Which proved particularly embarrassing given that director Hugh Hudson had been hailed as its saviour only a few years back with his Academy Award-winning Chariots of Fire (1981). Al Pacino was so dissolute he retired from filmmaking for four years. Nastassja Kinski, one of the brightest, most talented international stars of the era, never recovered her career momentum.
Now an altered cut has been released on DVD as Revolution Revisited has the time come to re-evaluate Hudson’s ambitious epic? Well, the film does conjure the chaos and confusion of the American War for Independence in grubby, bloody, muck and filth encrusted detail. Hudson and screenwriter Robert Dillon, author of sober dramas The River (1984) and French Connection II (1975) (but in an earlier life penned Muscle Beach Party (1964) for A.I.P. and 13 Frightened Girls (1963) and The Old Dark House (1963) for shockmeister William Castle), strip away the patriotic lustre enshrined in a million high school classrooms and rub our noses in the death, disease and double-dealing that underline the fight for freedom. Officers literally whip colonial militiamen into battle. Preteen boys are skewered on bayonets. Tom Dobb is motivated not by love of country, but of his sole surviving son, fighting to keep Ned alive while all around them is filth, starvation and excreta.
In truth, the film loses something by ignoring the romantic ideals that inflamed the struggle for freedom. Everything is so remorselessly downbeat the audience has nothing to hold onto save the moving bond between father and son and a romance that Hudson pays lip service to at best. Once Ned morphs into Dexter Fletcher and the plot dumps Kinski by the wayside, the film grows progressively duller, as though the makers ran out of whatever meagre story they had. Hudson rushes through historical events before their significance has a chance to sink in and fumbles potentially interesting threads, including Tom’s alliance with the Huron Indians. Suddenly, Ned’s in love with a Swedish girl and you wonder where that came from. Say what you like about sentimentalised claptrap like The Patriot (2000) but at least that kept better track of its story beats. Hudson’s use of hand-held cameras serve the battle scenes well enough, but his attempts to plunge the viewer headfirst into 18th century street life work better in theory than in principle, and come across merely cluttered and confusing.
For all its attempt at authenticity, the story is florid and full of characters and episodes that border on farcical caricature. Strong sequences include the scene where Tom becomes the target of a human fox hunt and where he and his son outrun some pursuing Iroquois Indians. Although Hudson conveys the sweat and terror of the woodlands, he often drops the ball as far as suspense goes. By the time we reach the bleak coda wherein Tom receives just forty dollars for four years of anguish and hardship, viewers may well feel similarly fed up. The altered Revolution Revisited DVD actually removes his romantic reunion with Daisy, because Hudson claims his film is primarily the story of a father and son. But then why include Daisy at all?
Nastassja Kinski - who actually fled the set for a brief period! - would claim Hugh Hudson set out to make her look bad. While the filmmaker does appear to take a perverse delight in coating the era’s most alluring sex symbol in filth, calluses and with sores on her face, despite Kinski’s valiant acting efforts she is miscast. Indeed, this features a pretty eccentric cast overall with Annie Lennox as a revolutionary harridan, John Wells as a snooty statesman, Richard O’Brien camping it up as a British officer (before Kinski stabs a hatpin into his testicles!), Native American actors Joseph Running Fox and Graham Greene (later in Dances with Wolves (1990)) doing stoic work but grievously wasted, and future soap regular Jesse Birdsall.
Al Pacino took a lot of flak for his half-Irish, half-Brooklyn brogue which in retrospect encapsulates the cultural mishmash of colonial New York. He also shines during the film’s most moving scene wherein Tom cradles his wounded son. By contrast, the normally wonderful Donald Sutherland sports a very strange accent indeed and drifts in and out of the narrative to no great effect. His ill-characterised grudge against Pacino and son climaxes in a lacklustre, “was that it?” confrontation on the beach that at least weaves a twist that parallels one father and son team with another.
Interestingly, back in the late Sixties the great John Ford planned a revolutionary war epic with Lee Marvin as his grand farewell to filmmaking, which featured an almost identical plot. With no takers in Hollywood, Italian film producers were eager to put up the money until Ford refused to cast Sophia Loren as the love interest. Which along with Revolution stands as potentially epic idea rendered into a footnote in cinema history. Sorry, Al.