By John H. Foote
Just four years after his film Chariots of Fire (1981) stunned Hollywood by winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, besting the superior Reds (1981), Hugh Hudson delivered this mess in December 1985. Touted as a massive epic about the American Revolutionary War, the film was expected to be an awards contender, the film and director, even Al Pacino, were crucified by the critics so mercilessly Pacino left movies, retreating to the stage for four years. When he returned, he was a very different actor, which has not been a good thing.
The year before, Hugh Hudson had directed the epic Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan which was a loyal adaptation of the famous Edgar Rice Burroughs book. Critics loved elements of the film, and the production values were very impressive. Watching the film yesterday I was shocked how well it holds up, remaining a very handsome, outstanding film. There was nothing to indicate Revolution would be such an unwatchable mess. Unfocused, muddled, actors with wandering accents, noisy sequences with no purpose to the narrative, it was God awful.
Having studied the art and craft of acting, we were taught if you could not master an accent, any accent, do not do it. The failed accent does nothing but draw attention to the failure. Instead speak clear, crisp and precise English. Not British, not Irish, not anything but the English language you were raised speaking. That was never better demonstrated than in this film where the dreadfully executed accents bring ruin to the characters and subsequently the film.
The film is so muddled, so sadly unfocused that we come not to care about a single character. For major characters apparently fall in love but we never see it, instead they seem to fall in love by merely gazing upon each other. And torture runs rampant, dished out by the vile British, who, it seems, enjoy human suffering of all kinds. In fact, the British are painted as monsters, with not a single saving grace. Yet incredibly, with the British clearly portrayed as vile human beings, neither do we care or feel any sympathy for the Americans! Not even our heroes!
The narrative (is there a narrative?), or what there exists of one, sees Tom Dobb (Al Pacino) and his son, two trappers who make their living trading furs being more or less bullied into the American militia at war with Britain. They quickly find the redcoats to be cruel men who believe they are above the rest of us. At one as point prisoners of the British, Tim is forced to play a fox as the redcoats hunt him down like an animal. When his son is captured and given over to Major Peary (Donald Sutherland), known for sodomizing young drummer boys, Tom saves his son but must take the boy to the native Huron tribe to doctor his mutilated feet, courtesy of Peasy. Along the way both father and son fall in love with very different women, and at the end of this torture fest go their own way. How Tom could find the time to fall for anyone while at war, rescuing his son, tending to his feet. Yet sure enough he connects with fiery Natassia Kinski, as the hot-blooded daughter of a British aristocrat who rebels against her family and is expelled from her home. How does she live? How is she not captured and raped? How are we to believe this coddled wealthy girl could survive? Is there any point of asking why she speaks with a German accent while the rest of her family speaks with pristine, perfect British?
Donald Sutherland is cast as the sadistic Peasy, and as if his behaviour did not give away his ugly soul, the director outfitted the actor with a hairy mole upon his cheek, much like a mark of Cain. Sutherland is a master actor, capable of giving brilliant performances as a villain, but here he is a cartoon figure and, in case we did not know he was a villain, the director made him ugly as well.
A Scottish trapper with a wandering Bronx accent? I mean, really? This great Method actor could not master a Scottish brogue? Was he lazy, or not pushed hard enough? Perhaps he re-read the script and realized just how awful the story was and there was no point? Whatever the reason, Pacino was terrible and hated the experience so much he fled Hollywood, seeking out his roots on the stage. He seemed utterly lost in Revolution, which had not happened to him before. His limitations had been exposed in Bobby Deerfield (1977) but this was a full-scale disaster.
For some reason Eurythmics lead singer Annie Lennox is seen at the opening of the film, frantically screaming, wildly in motion, credited only as Liberty woman. As much as I like Lennox her appearance in the film is absolutely pointless in every way. There was no need for her in the film, the character, with such a self-important name had nothing to do with the narrative. Zero. Zilch.
Re-watching the film years later, Hudson had restored scenes, removed some, though for the life of me I cannot find anything edited out that made a difference. Not even the narration added, spoken by Pacino, did a single thing for the film, it remains as awful today as it was in 1985.
The single star is for the film’s only powerful sequence when the natives work on Tom’s son bleeding feet. As the natives use hot knives to help close the wounds, the boy screams in pain as Tom, holding his son, whispers encouragement to his beloved son.
A horrific cinematic experience.
Is it the single worst experience of the eighties? No, but only because of Howard the Duck (1986).
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”