You could heartily recommend Hugh Hudson’s “Revolution” (UA Coronet, Westwood) to any student as a thrilling vision of our country’s birth pangs. Crammed with detail, gloriously photographed, it has landscapes and action scenes--the Redcoats’ rout of our raggle-taggle forces at the battle of Brooklyn Heights, for example--that are as fine as any ever made. You leave the battles exhausted, understanding for the first time what close-hand combat must have been like then.
But you know students. Some rotten Emperor’s New Clothier among them would be bound to point out that “Revolution” is utterly and fatally devoid of a story on which to hang its breathtaking pictures. And they’d have a point.
Robert Dillon’s screenplay, curtailed though it may be in matters of plot, has a great method of attack. “Revolution” is “The Story of G.I. Joe,” colonial-style: a closeup view of war from behind stone fences and across grassy meadows.
You won’t see Washington or Cornwallis in “Revolution” or any of the star names from the Continental Congress either. You can glimpse an occasional British major or lieutenant but they are as rare as they are mannered and effete. Our chief British soldier is a sergeant major, Bill Peasy (Donald Sutherland, sporting a remarkable wen), a martinet, but like a father to his little drummer boys.
The Yankees are represented by two notable pieces of casting: Al Pacino plays a Glasgow-born emigrant to the colonies; a fierce and devoted father to his 14-year-old son who’s been motherless for 10 years. In New York there is Nastassja Kinski as the only patriot in her pro-British family, headed by mother Joan Plowright.
Scottish and English. The mind reels. In such a personally told story, with no dramatic underpinnings to hold it together, it’s crucial that we accept these people for who they are supposed to be. Passion alone can’t cut it; our actors are undone by their consonants, Kinski less so than Pacino, bizarrely enough. In “Scarface” Pacino mastered his Cuban inflections, but Glaswegian is his downfall.
We also will never know how Kinski came to be such a burning patriot, a veritable American Mother Courage (her mother’s “Clear your rooms of that poxy rebel patriot stuff” sounds like 1776’s version of “Get those Motley Crue posters off that wall this instant!”). Kinski’s patriotism is as mysterious as her instant attachment for Pacino and his son whom she almost trips over, exhausted, out in the fields of wild mustard after the battle for Manhattan Island.
The film makers’ one canny move is to let a sense of patriotism gradually infuse an extremely reluctant Pacino, rather than have him on the side of the revolutionaries in the very first scene. As Tom Dobb, an Adirondack trapper come to the city of New York on his longboat, Pacino wants only to take care of himself and all that’s left of his six-member family: one young son Ned (Sid Owen now, Dexter Fletcher as the older Ned. Both young actors are exceptional.).
He finds the city in the grips of independence fever; his boat is commandeered, he loses his son to predatory enlistment officers and in desperation has to enlist himself to stay with the boy. With no training, almost no pay and no desire whatever to be there, the two find themselves part of the defenders of Brooklyn Heights, facing the implacable and expertly trained long red line.
Like Hudson’s often moving, great looking “Greystoke,” “Revolution” is best as a series of seductive, magnificently staged set-pieces: The bewigged Tory ladies of New York and a mythic Liberty Woman (the Eurythmic’s Annie Lennox, largely wasted), her forehead tattooed with, one presumes, patriotic markings. A hillside of British tents, each glowing from lamplight within, miracles of coziness that turn sodden and uninhabitable in the next morning’s downpour. We see, if we had forgotten them, alliances between the British and the Iroquois; between the colonists and the Iroquois’ rivals, the Hurons.
What’s lacking in this heartfelt, well-researched, sporadically interesting movie is a master plan. Not peruked generals moving pointers across maps, but some sense of where we are; of how the war is moving and why the colonial forces are winning--or losing. The producers’ stated aim to keep this from becoming a history lesson has succeeded only too well.
Well and good to keep the film’s focus intimate, but after such heroic lengths to give us a sense of the actual life of the period, high and low, we don’t need to be as mystified as the lowliest rifleman as to the war’s progress.
What personal story there is is almost entirely contained in one long monologue as Tom Dobb tries to keep his almost-dead son, cruelly tortured by the British, from slipping away from him. (It’s too long by far, but a combination of the Pacino intensity and the Pacino hybrid accent is enough to keep you upright and wide-eyed.)
“Revolution’s " technical side is immaculate. It’s ironic that this battle for freedom from England ended up being photographed in the English counties of Norfolk, Devon and Cambridgshire, but they are wild and splendid. Assheton Gorton was the production designer, Ann Mollo the set decorator. Photography is by the remarkable Bernard Lutic, whose hand-held work in the battle scenes is particularly thrilling, as are the contributions of the editor, Stuart Baird. John Mollo did the evocative costumes and John Corigliano the haunting and effective score. Would that they had all been united with a script worthy of their extraordinary efforts. ‘REVOLUTION’
Released by Warner Bros., a Warner Communications Co. A Warner Bros., Goldcrest and Viking presentation. Producer Irwin Winkler. Executive producer, Chris Burt. Director Hugh Hudson. Screenplay Robert Dillon. Music John Corigliano. Production design Assheton Gorton. Editor Stuart Baird. Camera Bernard Lutic. Costumes John Mollo. Art director John Bunker. Set decorator Ann Mollo. With: Al Pacino, Donald Sutherland, Nastassja Kinski, Joan Plowright, David King, Steven Berkoff, John Wells, Annie Lennox, Dexter Fletcher, Sid Owen.
MPAA-rated: PG (parental guidance suggested).
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.