Directed By: Hugh Hudson
Starring: Al Pacino, Nastassja Kinski, Donald Sutherland, Joan Plowright, Sid Owen, Dexter Fletcher, Richard O'Brien, Annie Lennox
Revolution intersects the fictional story of New York fur trapper Tom Dobb (Pacino) with the events of the American Revolution of the late 18th century. Tom is a widower who lost his wife and all but one child to disease. As Tom and his young son Ned (Owen as a child, Fletcher as a young man) are bringing some furs in to trade, their boat is confiscated by the Continental Army and they are reluctantly impressed into service. Narrowly surviving the initial battles against the far more experienced British Army, Tom and Ned desert and try to live normal lives outside of the war. Tom proves willing to endure any humiliation so long as he can keep Ned safe, but when Ned is abducted and impressed into service as a drummer boy by British Sgt. Major Peasy (Sutherland), Tom sets his neutrality aside for good. Over the years, Tom and Ned's paths frequently cross with those of both Peasy and Daisy McConnahay, a rich idealistic young woman who turns away from her aristocratically ambitious family to support the Revolution.
By the mid 1980s when Revolution was made, actor Al Pacino and director Hugh Hudson were commercially at the top of their games, with Pacino coming off of Scarface and Hudson following up Chariots of Fire and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan. Nastassja Kinski was also considered something of a hot property even though she had yet to live up to the buzz created by her debut six years earlier in Tess. UK studio Goldcrest was on such a hot streak with small to mid-size successes like Chariots of Fire, Local Hero, and The Killing Fields that they were held up by many as the savior of the British film industry. Believing their press, they decided to take a shot at playing with the big boys and planned a series of big budget productions, with Revolution being the first. As is often the case with can't miss propositions bankrolled for tens of millions of dollars, nearly everybody lost. Pacino and Hudson would not be heard from again for four years, Kinski began working almost exclusively in small European productions for the next several years, and Goldcrest was set spinning off its axis with the consecutive financial disasters of Revolution, The Mission, and Absolute Beginners.
Was Revolution really bad enough to stall multiple promising careers and almost completely sink the British film industry? No film could do that much damage without a considerable amount of bad luck working in conjunction with it. On the other hand, it certainly was not good. The screenplay uses the familiar device of telling a personal tale that spans a significant historical event. This has worked before and since, but in this instance, facts of historical interest relating to the American Revolution are pushed so far to the background that they become almost invisible. One gets no sense of the ebb and flow of the war other than that the Continental Army was getting its head handed to it by the British forces early and that somehow, seven years later, they were allied with the French and victorious. Hudson appears to have been striving to achieve a Terrence Malick-style visual tone poem centered around the story of a man's efforts to protect his son during a war. When the film is at its best, it suggests such a work, but it hits too many false notes along the way to work as a whole.
An almost literal example of false notes comes in the form of the bizarre accents adopted by most of the cast. Pacino reportedly worked with a linguist to come up with an accent believed to be true to the historical time. Authentic or not, it is downright grating on the ears and undermines his performance at nearly every turn. Donald Sutherland as the cruelly disciplined british Sergeant-Major effects a garbled diction that makes him nearly unintelligible. Everyone else's voice falls somewhere in between. Last but not least, for reasons inexplicable, Hudson either allowed or explicitly directed the men playing key British officers to go flamboyantly over the top in their foppishness. It comes across as something out of a Monty Python sketch. One wonders if Hugh Laurie perhaps took inspiration from these broad portrayals when he created his hilariously idiotic Prince Regent character for Blackadder the Third a couple of years later.
On the positive side, Hudson did make some interesting choices that one does not normally see in dramas set during the American Revolution. He portrays war as a messy and unappealing business with nasty goings-on on both sides of the conflict. While filmgoers are used to seeing French and Russian revolutionaries portrayed as scorched-Earth zealots impressing all those around them forcibly to their cause, Hollywood's pervasive dominance of cinematic media has always resulted in the American Revolution being handled with relative kid gloves. Just because the American side of the conflict is shown to be morally grey does not mean that the British get a pass. They are portrayed as an arrogant and sadistic bunch who ultimately get exactly what they deserve when defeated (Apologies for the spoiler).
In keeping with the messy business of war, the battle scenes are shot in a much more dynamic and chaotic style than is usually applied to films of the period. In previous films, the British forces always seemed kind of silly as they advanced in straight lines standing tall and wearing bright red so as to make themselves convenient targets. In the extended battle scene early in the film, one gets much more of a sense of how they could seem like an intimidating and overwhelming force with and unbreaking line of death constantly advancing as soldiers move up to take the place of their fallen comrades in arms. The battle is shot in an almost documentary style with several stylistic flourishes that were novel at the time, but have become almost standard in modern cinematic portrayals of military combat.
Technically, the film is beautiful to look at and was shot by Hudson and cinematographer Bernard Lutic with an earthy palette and a strong compositional sense for the English countryside standing in as various Colonial American locations. The orchestral score by John Corigliano is also a highlight that actually saves certain scenes in which the actors would otherwise seem too melodramatic.
Returning to the scene of the artistic disappointment and commercial disaster 25 years later, director Hugh Hudson has attempted to address some of the film's shortcomings that were ascribed to distributor interference and a tight timetable to deliver a final cut. Most significantly, a considerable amount of voiceover narration has been added by Pacino. This makes the Terrence Malick comparisons even more obvious. Early in the film, it works effectively to impart information about Pacino's character that quickly lets the viewer know his mindset and his history. Unfortunately, as the film progresses and the character has been established, the narration keeps coming, stating the obvious, and subjecting the viewer to even more of that distracting Pacino accent. The next most significant change is the elimination of an improbable reunion between Pacino and Kinski's characters at the film's conclusion that was no doubt the source of many an eye-roll for audiences during the film's initial release. Finally, the film has been editorially tightened and shorn of approximately eleven minutes inclusive of the deleted reunion scenes.
The 16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 transfer represents the film well in most respects. There is a hint of softness as well as noise in some of the darker areas of the screen typical of 80s film stocks, but things normally look pleasingly cinematic. Compression is usually good, but artifacts appear from time to time, especially on highly detailed exteriors (e.g. forests, fields of grass)with moving cameras. The one annoying exception to my generally positive assessment is the presence of ringing along high contrast edges. It is not pervasive, but it appears often enough to be distracting and intensely enough to be annoying for viewers with large displays.
For this "Revisited" cut, a new 5.1 sound mix has been prepared. The surround field and LFE are exploited effectively both for ambient effect during the film's many exteriors (wind, rain, etc.) and for immersion in the battle sequences at the beginning and end of the film. Consistent with the film's original release, the extended battle sequence early in the film uses many of the techniques used in more modern films such as Saving Private Ryan including lowering the battle sounds substantially when the central characters is woozy and/or reeling and bringing it back up when he regains focus. Other than that, music and sound effects are spread in wide stereo across the front three channels with dialog firmly rooted in the center. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track on this disc presents this new mix with outstanding fidelity.
First up is a newly produced featurette called Revisiting Revolution: A Conversation with Al Pacino and Director Hugh Hudson. It runs 22 minutes and 53 seconds and is presented in 16:9 enhanced video with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound. As its title suggests it consists of a conversation between the film's star and director. They cover a variety of topics, starting with the circumstances leading to the original cut with which they were not satisfied, reasons for the major differences including the added narration (to better establish the mindset of Pacino's character) and the revised ending (the original was forced on them by distributor Warner Brothers). They then move on to cover general topics about how the film came together, Pacino's accent, the critical and commercial response to the film, and sundry other issues. It is an interesting and informative featurette. Pacino has a way of dominating a conversation, but the much lower-key Hudson makes the most of the words he gets in edgewise.
The only other extra is the film's theatrical trailer which runs one minute and 28 seconds and is presented in 16:9 video (cropped to the full 16:9 ratio) with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound. It is a pretty standard mid-80s promo with plenty of emphasis on Pacino and the film's action sequences.
The single sided dual-layered DVD-9 disc is packaged in a standard Amaray case with no inserts. The top-half of the cover image provides some pretty severe airbrushing to the original promotional images of Kinski, Pacino, and Sutherland.
This "Revisited" cut of Hugh Hudson's Revolution fixes a couple of problems with the original film while introducing at least one new one (overuse of narration). The film's mis-casting, collection of odd accents, and lack of pay-off for half of the ideas it introduces still prevent it from becoming a success, but the beautiful cinematography, effective use of several English locations to represent Colonial America, and innovative staging of its battle sequences make it worth at least a rental for fans of Hudson and/or the American Revolutionary period.