Revolution cannot be spoken of, in truth, as a success as an entertainment, and it is only a limited artistic success. It is, however, an ambitious film with some good features and a few points of interest to students of film. Beyond its uncommon subject material, the American Revolution, good cinematography, some good performances, and a few exciting scenes, Revolution offers the chance to study a film with a clear, formal structure which has obviously been thought out and which has relevance to the material being treated. Structure in film is often visible only on real study, not casual viewing, but Revolution's structure is so clear that it practically jumps out from the screen.
Revolution is billed as An American Epic, and, to an extent, lives up to that billing. There are crowd scenes, battle scenes, extensive period details, beautiful scenic wonders, and so on. The story follows Tom Cobb, a typical American farmer, as he becomes more and more involved with the revolution. Originally, he has little interest, and even hostility, as the revolutionary government seizes his boat and entices his son into the army. But, as the revolution progresses and Tom gets a clearer picture of what the revolt means, he becomes an ardent patriot, not because of any love for the revolutionary government, but from a pure love of liberty. One of the positive aspects of Revolution is that it does present a real quest for liberty, rather than just paying lip service to the value of freedom.
Director Hugh Hudson, who previously gave us Chariots of Fire and Greystoke, had a definite plan for how he would present this story. He gives us a movement from chaos to order, from darkness to light, from ignorance to involvement, from backwardness to civilization. The early scenes are, intentionally, a muddle, with chaotic crowds confusing everything, many shadows obscuring details, mist and fog everywhere. The script matches this by presenting characters in situations which are beyond their control and which they do not understand. Tom and his son find themselves dragooned for a battle with no training, no explanation, and not even much idea of what they are fighting for. Gradually, the scenes become lighter and cleaner, the actions clearer and crisper, the characters more in control of their destinies.
This structure is suitable from an artistic and intellectual point of view, as it mirrors the actual confusion of the characters and the nation. Unfortunately, it is not a suitable structure from the point of view of entertainment. It may be over an hour before a viewer has any confidence that he knows what's happening, or any connection with the characters, or even feels that he really hears what the characters are saying. (I haven't heard such a difficult soundtrack since The Godfather. Everyone mumbles, background noise is constant, and the dialog is often sparse.) When it takes this long to get a viewer into a film, usually most viewers will give up. They may still be in the theater watching the film, but they have already formed an opinion and are difficult to recapture.
Revolution further suffers from what appear to be heavy cuts. Running slightly over two hours, it looks like it was meant to run three. People who seem to be major characters are slighted or even totally ignored. Hudson seems to have cut much of the explanatory footage, leaving in the actual events. I would be hard pressed to say how he could do otherwise, given that something had to go, but the lack of reevaluation in the face of complex scenes and themes does further muddle matters.
The major flaw evident in the script is that Revolution seeks to include everything (or almost everything) that was of importance in the war. The script does avoid the usual Hollywood approach of having its characters present at every famous event, running into every famous person. ("Here, Tom, take this message to General Washington." "Yes, sir, Mr. Jefferson. Is it all right if I stop at Mrs. Ross' house to pick up the new flag?" "Alright, Tom, but don't waste your time hobnobbing with Ben Franklin, this time.") But the script does try to pack in every theme it can. We see the Indians' role in the war, and that of blacks, and that of Jews, and that of foreigners, and that of Tories, and that of the common British soldier, and far too much more. Not surprisingly, a lot of this stuff is crammed into corners and clutters up the central story and theme.
Al Pacino has to be an unlikely choice for an early American patriot, but, aside from an uncertain accent, apparently meant to be lightly Scottish, he does well in the role. Pacino nicely portrays the character's internal growth, as Tom moves from indifference to passion. Nastassja Kinski is equally oddly cast as Pacino's love interest, and her accent is even more uncertain. Best of the principals is Donald Sutherland, as a British sergeant. Sutherland depicts a nicely rounded character, a man who is as good as he can be while still being a good soldier, a term which had even more limitations built into it in the 18th century than it does now. *And* Sutherland's accent doesn't falter. The supporting cast is made up of unfamiliar faces (except Joan Plowright, good as Kinski's Tory mother), most of whom are fine, but not outstanding.
The cinematography on Revolution is very good, if a bit too devoted to light diffusion. It does present a different world, and showing that America during the Revolution really wasn't like America nowadays is certainly worthwhile. The film's production design doesn't need any caveats, though, as it is uniformly excellent.
Revolution is intermittently entertaining. Its main attraction is for those especially interested in the period and those with concerned with structure in film. More casual moviegoers are unlikely to be totally outraged by Revolution, but are equally unlikely to be fascinated.
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