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Start The Revolution Without Me
Before Mel Brooks and Zucker-Abrams-Zucker set the laff-o-rama bar with movies like Blazing Saddles, Airplane! and The Naked Gun, zany comedies had to make do with a more modest joke-to-second ratio. The 1970 film Start the Revolution Without Me gives Gene Wilder an early opportunity to cut loose (only his brilliant role in The Producers had given any hint of his talent before this) but, even more importantly, it shows off the usually stoic Donald Sutherland's loopy side. The basic plot of this lush period piece (after a silly introduction by Orson Welles) finds two sets of revolution-era French twins swapped at birth. This gives Wilder and Sutherland two roles each as they make their ways through life both as part of the French aristocracy and as filthy ragamuffins.
Other than its cast, the film's weapon of choice is its near constant wordplay. The dialog sounds like an extended game of Madlibs played by poets and English grad students. A line like "To pull the tail of a lion is to open the mouth of trouble and reveal the teeth of revenge biting the tongue of deceit" is not at all uncommon. Characters twist their words around until their heads spin.
Another technique used liberally is the introduction of each new scene with on-screen text and a trailer-style voiceover from Welles essentially explaining what's happening, sometimes including things that we've just seen. The proto-Brooksian humor is kind of funny, but gets repetitive soon.
The main draws here are Wilder and Sutherland. The film pits the actors against type, with Wilder sometimes playing severe and Sutherland flighty. They storm around the sets yammering the film's intricately silly dialog with perfect timing.
The actors are outstanding, the wordplay sophisticated and the sets and cinematography impressive but there's some element missing. I guess the problem is that it isn't terribly funny and it begins to drag quickly. For all the effort put in by the filmmakers Start the Revolution just doesn't stick in the mind. It's not bad but given the level of talent (it was directed by TV comedy legend Bud Yorkin) you'd think it would be more memorable. Lampooning the French revolution is a bold move but Start The Revolution is only partly successful.
The anamorphic widescreen video is pretty good. There is surprisingly little damage to the print and the colors, while slightly muted, look like they're as the filmmakers intended. Sharpness is reasonably good. For a film over thirty years old it looks pretty nice.
The soundtrack is available in English and French. Both are in Dolby Digital Mono and sound fine. Obviously a mono soundtrack won't sound as full as a modern mix but this one is pretty rich. The music and voices are presented with as much richness and texture as possible. English, French and Spanish subtitles are also available.
The main extra is a commentary featuring Yorkin, Wilder and Sutherland. Unfortunately they were not recorded together. Hearing their reminiscences on the film and their careers at that point is fun but not nearly as interesting as a reunion would have been. Still, some of the stories told are pretty good, especially Sutherland and Wilder's recalling Orson Welles' work on the film.
A text-based history of other period comedies is pretty useless. A trailer and bios are also included.
While it's a handsome production and the cast is terrific, there's just something about Start the Revolution Without Me that's lacking. Fans of the film will enjoy this cheaply priced release but folks looking for the broad humor the packaging promises might find themselves underwhelmed.