Revolution: The Director's Cut Review
The past few years have seen a concentrated effort on the BFI’s part to re-map and re-address our national cinema. Their weighty documentary collections and the continuing surprises of the Flipside range have allowed them to shed light on entirely forgotten corners of British filmmaking, whether that be the seemingly stuffy confines of industry-sponsored non-fiction or those titles which never had much of a chance on their original release. To these we can also add their eclectic filmmaker-dedicated volumes, which have taken in directors as divergent as Jeff Keen and Molly Dineen, and their definitive handling of films we knew were great all along: Michael Powell’s Edge of the World, say, or Ken Russell’s The Devils. This is exactly how a national cinema should be treated - with a respect for the classics but also a healthy interest in all other areas. Importantly it remains an open book, forever subject to fresh appraisals.
Such an approach has also served to open up our national filmmaking heritage, or rather our perception of it. The common take is one that tends towards comedies, action flicks and period dramas: George Formby, Ealing and the Carry On team; war movies and 007; Merchant-Ivory. Bank Holiday cinema, in other words, populist yet quintessentially British. There’s nothing wrong in celebrating these films, but it can be a reductive attitude. The BFI’s releases seek to expand upon this base, to introduce the more idiosyncratic voices and to readjust opinions. Their view of British cinema is one that can also encompass the absurdist comedy and performance art of Bruce Lacey, the winning charm of the Children’s Film Foundation’s output, and posit that Oliver Reed - thanks to The Devils and The Party’s Over - may very well be one the finest actors this country ever produced.
Revolution fits into all of this in two respects, both tied to its status as one of British cinema’s most notorious flops. This was the film that contributed to the downfall of its production company, Goldcrest, and prompted its star Al Pacino to retire from cinema for four years. When Jake Eberts and Terry Ilott wrote their book on Goldcrest’s rise and fall, My Indecision is Final, their main chapter on Revolution’s ill-fated production was titled, quite simply, ‘Disaster’. The attitude stuck and slowly the film disappeared from view. Its last screening on a terrestrial British television channel was in 1995, the same year in which it received its final home video release in the UK. It never made the upgrade to DVD over here despite a US offering appearing in 2009.
It could be argued that this new Blu-ray is the latest in a long line of BFI rescue missions, one to rank alongside their trio of Jane Arden releases (who was practically unknown until those discs arrived) or any number of Flipsides from the past three years. Indeed, one of the latest additions to the range, The Black Panther, had to contend with its own controversy on its initial release. This was an account of armed robber and multiple murderer Donald Neilson made just months after his conviction. The tabloids got up in arms, the film attained a certain notoriety and any critical judgement was clouded as a result. Of course, Revolution has had a different kind of infamy to deal with, but the end result is much the same: sometimes a film needs time for the dust to settle and the for the unwanted associations to die out before a proper a re-evaluation can begin.
The other connection relates to Revolution’s place in this broader view of British cinema which the BFI have been presenting. There’s a lot to be said for taking a film such as this one, with its notoriety and poor reputation, and acknowledging that it too deserves a place within this bigger picture. If the flops of our cinematic past can get a mention in the history books then it is only right that one of our key DVD labels dedicated to that past does likewise. Rather than shove such films in the corner in the hope that they’ll go away we should be embracing them and seeking to understand their failure. What better way to do this than to opt for the lavish treatment of a Blu-ray edition backed up with plenty of contextualising extras. Even if, upon re-evaluation, we discover that the film in question isn’t some misunderstood classic we are at least in the proper position to make that decision. Ultimately, it comes down to respect and that is exactly what Revolution has been afforded here.
“Everybody was very excited about it,” was the recollection of Goldcrest chief executive James Lee in My Indecision is Final. After all, this was to be Hugh Hudson’s third feature following Chariots of Fire and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. Chariots, of course, was massive and picked up four Oscars, including the award for Best Picture, prompting Colin Welland’s famous “The British are coming” acceptance speech. Greystoke hadn’t fared too badly either, securing three nominations and plenty of healthy box office. As well as Hudson, Revolution would also have Irwin Winkler, the producer of Rocky, attached and it would star Al Pacino, Nastassja Kinski and Donald Sutherland. The setting - the American War of Independence - was a suitably epic backdrop for its tale, plus there was a love story in there too. On paper that doesn’t read failure and indeed the foreign markets eagerly snapped it up on this basis.
Revolution, however, had started out as a very different picture. The initial idea was Winkler’s: to tell a small tale within a broad canvas, that of a father and son who find themselves inadvertently wrapped up in the war. He commissioned a screenplay, by Robert Dillon whose previous credits included Prime Cut and The French Connection II, but the results were not particularly well received by Warners' chairman Terry Semel. The script positioned the father as a mere fur trapper who knows nothing of the politics behind the conflict nor does he particularly care to find out. Consequently, the film wouldn’t either; it would remain intimate in the face of all this grand history taking place and such offer up a different perspective on the American Revolution.
Despite Warners’ rejection the screenplay nonetheless found itself in the possession of Hudson, at the time on the look out for his next project. He was very much taken by the concept and could see the opportunities it provided. Revolution would allow for historical realism at the most fundamental level - here was an opportunity to show the day-to-day life of an average working man during wartime in minute detail. He also realised that the film could be shot entirely in England - Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Devon doubling for the likes of Philadelphia and New York - which also greatly appealed. Here was another opportunity: “to make a British film in England with international appeal,” as Goldcrest’s head of production Sandy Lieberson puts it in My Indecision is Final.
Before production commenced Hudson screened a number of films for his cast and crew. These included Gone with the Wind and John Ford pictures, plus Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers and Andrzej Wajda’s Danton. The latter two would dictate the approach: the grassroots focus, the urgency and the tapestry-like blend of the Pontecorvo; the historical grit - all that dirt and dust - of the Wajda. Except Hudson’s choice of leading man couldn’t help but curtail his intentions. In casting an actor such as Pacino he effectively created a star vehicle. The common man as originally conceived could no longer exist thanks to the man who was portraying him. Nick Redman’s booklet essay provides a quote, via Andrew Yule’s biography of the actor, that is especially telling: “You don’t understand me. I’m Al Pacino. My public expects me to react. How can I just lie there and take it?” The common man had become Pacino, or rather his star persona.
In all fairness Pacino acquits himself well. If judged solely on its own merits then this is a perfectly fine performance. That toughness and sense of independence so integral to many of his earlier roles comes into effect once more and easily survives the transition from present day gritty urban dramas to the latter half of the 18th century. Critical responses to Pacino at the time tended to centre around his accent in the film, but as Hudson points out in one of the featurettes, who were they to claim they knew better than the historical experts employed on set? The actor also deserves plaudits for what he brings to the father-son relationship so key to Revolution. There’s a definite bond to be felt between him and the two young actors in the role - Sid Owen during the film’s first half, Dexter Fletcher during the second. This was Owen’s first feature, following a handful of tiny television roles, and so that father-son dynamic operated offscreen as well, with Pacino guiding the thirteen-year-old through his performance.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the relationship - or rather the love story - between Pacino’s character and that of Nastassja Kinski’s. Its problem is that it never really fits in. Revolution is structured so that it plays out as a series of vignettes against the grand years-spanning sweep of the War of Independence. The relationship between father and son can be accommodated easily within this, but a burgeoning romance less so. It never has the chance to click or to create its own momentum and so, ultimately, stands out as an all too Hollywood device in a film that wishes to eschew Hollywood-isms.
Nevertheless that epic sweep holds its own pleasures. There’s a great deal to be said for Hudson’s combination of ’scope framing and handheld realism, especially in a mid-eighties production. Revolution has no time for gloss but instead reveals the ugly, messy side of warfare. Indeed, the first battle scene ends with Pacino and his fellow conscripts retreating: “We all ran. Everybody ran.” There’s little room for heroism here, rather we are shown people doing what they have to in order to survive. That original intent to show an average man’s day-to-day existence remains partly intact, even if it is slightly offset by the presence of Pacino and the unnecessary romantic subplot.
It’s tempting to suggest that Pacino’s anti-hero status was key to Revolution’s poor critical reaction. You suspect that they - and audiences - wanted an Al Pacino War of Independence movie along similar lines to those provided by Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot fifteen years later. That film also revolved around a father-son relationship (played by Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger), but was more obviously populist in its outlook and approach: violent battle sequences; hiss-able British villainy; overt sentimentality; a healthy dose of melodrama. However, Revolution had been set up for a fall long before it hit cinema screens thanks to a wave of pre-publicity.
You didn’t need to wait until My Indecision is Final to be published in 1990 to hear of on-set problems. Revolution prompted plenty of media coverage thanks to Pacino, the previous successes of both Hudson and Goldcrest, and the very fact that a film about the American Revolutionary War was being made on British shores. Celebrated photographers such as David Bailey and famed war correspondent Don McCullin were even employed to get the behind-the-scenes snaps. As such critics were fully aware of the budgetary problems (another side effect of Pacino’s casting; his fee understandably taking money from elsewhere), its stars illnesses and issues with the weather curtailing filming, and the small incident of a camera crane falling off a Devon cliff to the cost of some £250,000. It had become clear that this wasn’t a happy production, a situation exacerbated by Goldcrest’s decision to release the film during the Christmas of 1985. Ideally, Hudson would have needed another six months filming - and that option could have been taken - but it wasn’t to be.
And so, Revolution was savaged. There were a few assenting voices, but the savagery is what everyone remembers. The film became a flop and Goldcrest was almost bankrupted (though Revolution should at least share the blame with two other big budget ventures also in production at the time, Absolute Beginners and The Mission). Pacino, as already mentioned, went on a self-enforced sabbatical from big screen acting for four years, whilst Hudson’s career never really recovered. (His most notable work post-Revolution was the Party Election Broadcast for the Labour Party that earned itself the name Kinnock: The Movie and effectively changed the way such pieces were made forever.) That Christmas Day release, incidentally, was to ensure award eligibility, specifically the Oscars, but the only nominations it received were for the Golden Raspberries. In fact this perfectly sums up the mean-spirited nature of Revolution’s reception inasmuch as one of the few areas where the film was undoubtedly great - John Corigliano’s excellent score - was one of the recipients. It seemed as though scorn was simply being thrown at the picture without much genuine thought.
Thanks to this reception Corigliano’s score didn’t even receive a standalone release until 2009 - and this a rare film score from much acclaimed classical composer who would go on to win an Oscar fourteen years later. Clearly the negative associations were too great to counter even Corigliano’s esteem. This eventual issuing onto CD also coincided with the film’s release onto DVD in the US, albeit in a newly edited version entitled Revolution Revisited. Finally, 24 years after the fact, Hudson had been able to go back to his picture with the aim of correcting some of its flaws. Central among them was the introduction of a voice-over in order to piece the vignettes together better and the removal of just over ten minutes of footage, including the ‘Hollywood’ ending Hudson had forced upon him.
The narration idea was initially suggested to Hudson by fellow director Lindsay Anderson just prior to the original release but, of course, there simply wasn’t time. The voice-over was eventually written by Hudson himself and recorded with Pacino in New York in 2008. (According to a Guardian interview given at the time both had been rankled by the critical reception and felt the film - the “black sheep” in their careers - deserved a second chance.) This BFI Blu-ray contains both versions and it’s interesting to compare and contrast. Certainly, the newly added narration clarifies Hudson’s intent, especially in terms of making the Pacino character a much more definable figure. We are able to hear his reactions to events rather than attempt to discern them, although I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing in the 1985 cut. The lack of definition, to my mind, prompts the audience to connect all the more with Pacino character - we must put ourselves in his position in order to understand his feelings. The voice-over no longer demands this of the viewer and, perhaps, that does the character a slight disservice. After all, hadn’t Hudson wanted us to get as close as possible?
With that said, the trims all make sense. The ending loses its schmaltz and Kinski’s presence is also downplayed slightly. The romantic elements remain, but the misbalance has nevertheless been partially addressed. Interestingly, the one scene to feature Robbie Coltrane has been excised entirely which cannot help but inadvertently raise a smile. In 1988 Coltrane was amongst the various British comedians appearing in The Strike, an episode of The Comic Strip Presents… which set about lampooning Revolution’s production. It was about a big screen version of the miners’ strike which had cast Al Pacino in the part of Arthur Scargill and finds itself getting more and more ‘Hollywood’ as the production wears on. As Michael Brooke points out in his booklet essay, many of the digs were “grossly unfair” and oftentimes greatly removed from the truth, but then “who says that satire has to be balanced?” I very much doubt it was a conscious thing, but there is perhaps a little bit of poetic justice in Coltrane no longer putting in an appearance.
The 2009 version makes some amends, then, but never enough to truly sort out Revolution’s assortment of flaws. In some ways I prefer the original theatrical cut, in others this newer edition is a definite improvement. Ideally, Hudson would have gotten that additional six months of production time in early 1986 to sort things out at the ground level. Of course, we’ll never know if this would have had any drastic effects on the end result (or for that matter what effects it would have had on Goldcrest, positive or negative), but what we can see - and especially so as given the BFI’s respectful treatment - is that Revolution never really deserved that kicking back in the mid-eighties. It is flawed, certainly, and in both versions too, yet there’s also much to be intrigued by and to take enjoyment from. The film’s adventurous nature needs to be taken into account as does its bloody-mindedness. Hudson wanted to make something different from the standard Hollywood epic and that he did. Revolution may not have become what he’d hoped for but it is worth a second look and a much fairer hearing than the one it received in 1985. Perhaps the BFI could afford a similar attention to Absolute Beginners next…
Revolution finally arrives onto UK disc as a dual-format edition containing both Blu-ray and DVD with slightly differing content. Both contain the 2009 cut of the film and a 12-minute piece entitled ‘Hugh Hudson on Revolution’ which combines stills gallery and, essentially, a director’s statement. The Blu-ray disc also contains the original theatrical cut in its entirety, whilst the DVD adds three more special features: the original theatrical trailer and a pair of featurettes, ‘Re-Cutting Revolution’ and ‘Revisiting Revolution’. More about those below.
In terms of presentation both cuts look wonderful. Hudson’s 2009 edit only removed footage rather than adding and in doing so allows the Blu-ray to seamlessly branch between the two depending on which version you opt for. The image is pretty much pristine throughout with very little evident damage or wear. A healthy amount of grain is present throughout, as you would expect, and the contrast levels are excellent. Colours would also appear to be in keeping with cinematographer Bernard Lutic’s original intentions. Pleasingly, all that smoke and dust up there on the screen never once causes technical issues of any kind. It should also go without saying that the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 is maintained.
The soundtrack also appears in its original form, stereo in this case, although a 5.1 option (created for the 2009 US disc) is also available for the newer cut. There are a couple of moments during the early scenes where the audio levels feel a little off, though I suspect this is a result of the original post-production and some less than perfect overdubs. (Hudson notes during one of the featurettes that the addition of the voice-over to the 2009 edit didn’t involve any further remixing or redubs - it was simply added and everything else was left alone.) Otherwise the soundtrack comes across crisply and cleanly. Dialogue is always audible and Corigliano’s score is suitably intense. English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are also available.
The principal extra, of course, is the presence of both cuts of the film. The US disc contained just the 2009 edit, but the original theatrical version is just as important a document. If, however, you wish to watch only the newer cut then there is a 21-minute featurette - ‘Re-Cutting Revolution’ - which provides all of the excised the footage with voice-over from Hudson explaining his reasoning. This is done partially in a split-screen manner so as each individual edit and where it lies is immediately apparent. This featurette was newly made for this release as is the ‘Hugh Hudson on Revolution’ piece in which he discusses the film from conception to ill-fated reaction and all points in-between. The final featurette originates from the US disc, a 23-minute chat between Hudson and Pacino in which they discuss, quite openly, the flaws and the criticism as well as the amends they hope the re-edit makes.
Equally important in providing the context and the background is an extensive 36-page booklet composed of old and new articles and essays alongside the BFI’s now standard credits, transfer notes and full-colour production stills. There are three re-prints in all: extracts of pieces by Pam Cook and Richard Combs that originally appeared in the Monthly Film Bulletin, plus John Corigliano’s liner notes from his soundtrack’s 2009 CD release. In the newer pieces Michael Brooke provides a general overview of the film, whilst Philip French takes a look at the critical reception and his own reaction down the years. The significance of Al Pacino’s presence is weighed up by Nick Redman, and there’s also a profile of Hugh Hudson by Neil Sinyard.
Some might argue that this is more than a film such as Revolution deserves. But I would claim the complete opposite. To repeat myself from earlier in this review, the notorious flops such as this one are as much part of our cinematic history as the major successes and the critical hits. As such they are just as deserving of the lavish treatment. Indeed, if we are to understand them properly and to give them a fair hearing then surely we should be able to watch them under the best possible circumstances. This new Blu-ray does exactly that for Revolution and I can only hope that the trend continues.