It’s impossible to dislike any movie that starts with Orson Welles (at his Paul Masson wine-commercial most faux pretentious) lying his head off about a supposedly newly discovered historical event that could have prevented the French Revolution, only to sourly conclude that “men of integrity — and I may say of considerable resources — have made a film on the subject. It’s a color film, which I am not in.”
That sets the tone for Start the Revolution Without Me, a 1970 film that has drifted into the realm of a cult classic (in other words, it lost money on its original release and was later discovered by rabid fans). The film tries — perhaps too hard — to maintain this same tone throughout its length as it sends up the novels of Alexandre Dumas, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and just about every swashbuckler you care to name (the credits are presented partly over scenes of John Barrymore in Don Juan).
Presenting Gene Wilder and Donald Sutherland as two sets of twins — mismatched at birth by an addled doctor when a peasant woman and a noble woman go into labor simultaneously — Revolution gallops along at breakneck speed in a frenzied attempt to keep the viewer from noticing its shortcomings. And it generally succeeds, though one’s acceptance of it definitely relies on a fondness for Gene Wilder doing Gene Wilder schtick. For anyone else, these scenes can be a bit much.
There are, however, wonderful things in the movie — including a convoluted dialogue scene that is suspiciously similar to one that crops up a few years later in Woody Allen’s Love and Death. The film is at its best in its small moments, and in the playing of the supporting cast. The great Hugh Griffith even manages to make King Louis XVI into a strangely touching character in the midst of all the calculated buffoonery.
The fact that this film comes from writers and a director usually associated with TV is sometimes too obvious, since Revolution never knows when to let go of a gag (you’ll lose count of the number of times the film tells you the date). Yet when at its best, it’s easy to understand its cult status.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke
[The Hendersonville Film Society will sponsor a showing of Start the Revolution Without Me on Sunday, Aug.14 at 2 p.m., in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville. (From Asheville, take I-26 to U.S. 64 West, turn right at the third light onto Thompson Street. Follow to the Lake Point Landing entrance and park in the lot at left.)]