Retro Review: Start the Revolution Without Me
A young Gene Wilder and Donald Sutherland play twins in revolutionary France, trying to survive the mob and aristocracy while performing adequate slapstick comedy.
The remainder of this month we’re going to devote to some of the late Gene Wilder‘s lesser known movies. We’ve already covered what we felt were his best films (so many to choose from!) and I’ve covered some of his lesser known stuff such as Haunted Honeymoon and The Adventures of Sherlock Homles’ Smarter Brother, but know we’re really going to dig deep. Our first film is one of Gene’s earliest, just after his stellar rise to notoriety after The Producers. It has it’s moments, especially from Donald Sutherland playing a wonderful second fiddle to Wilder, but it’s certainly not making my list for the best Gene Wilder comedy in the world.
Start the Revolution Without Me (1970)
Before the outset of the French Revolution, two sets of twins were born. One set were the offspring of a Corsican aristocracy, destined for wealth and power. The other set were the get of poor French peasants, doomed to drudgery and, most likely, syphilis. Forced to seek out the same doctor’s office due to poor weather, the twins were mixed up in the crib. The poor physician decided to make the most out of a bad situation and re-swap one sibling, so at least he had a 50% chance of being right. Fast forward twenty years…
The two poor siblings have become swept up in the unrest of the French mob. They are pacifists, but are pressed into raiding a royal barge from Corsica containing guns. Dressed in disguise are the legendary Corsican brothers, two ruthless swordsmen hired by the King’s deputy to aid in a plot to overthrow the King and take the throne. They are of course the other set of twins. In the chaos, the rich twins are arrested and the poor twins are sent to see the King…
A Tale of Two Movies
Start the Revolution Without Me is hampered by being too slow to begin and too quick to end. The film starts with a frame narrative (featuring Orson Welles, so holy smokes!) that is explaining the events as if from the modern day in the form of a documentary. It jumps around several dates, showing the slow lead up to the full on Revolution. This is mostly a bore and not nearly snarky enough to function as a zany send-up in the style of Mel Brooks or a proper spoof-movie.
The second half is much stronger, as it most of the action and all of the jokes. When both sets of brother’s finally arrive at the palace and discover a dozen different intrigues that they (or their counterparts) have apparently signed up for, it leads to real hilarity. The films seems shy to get right to the part where you have the poor brothers switching for the rich, and back again, which is a shame since it is so damn good when it finally happens. The only problem is the film shucks the whole thing and goes back to the frame narrative at the wrong moment, spoiling the flow and going for a largely flat meta ending.
Brother, O Brother
This film suffers from an interminably long set-up period that devolves into a mad-cap second half full of action and comedy. The first half is dull as dishwater, but is salvaged by how likable both characters played by Donald Sutherland are. He’s a sly charmer as the aristocratic brother, weathering the storms of his impetuous but more powerful brother while always getting his own way. As the sweet but simple poor brother, he keeps his sibling in hot water by always being just a bit slow on the uptake. He’s wonderfully likable, and it helps the film survive the exposition.
In the second half, it’s all Gene Wilder. His rich brother is ruthless and domineering, plagued by a bevy of sexual fetishes and lightning fast with a sword or an insult. His poor brother is canny and prone to mania, the quintessential Wilder character. In the second half, where all the action takes place, he set’s the pace and leads most of the action. We see him “switch” from dashing to cowardly as he plays both twins, much like Danny Kaye’s hero in The Court Jester.
One of the aspects that hampers this film is that the supporting cast is mostly forgettable. Hugh Griffith (Ben-Hur, Mutiny on the Bounty) is engaging as the poor benighted King Louis, but he is mostly relegated to punch-line fodder. Everyone else is not really good for a laugh.
The evil minister D’Escargot tries to use recurring bad metaphors as a punchline, but they’re not that good, and he’s not very effective as a baddie. He just has no teeth. Queen Marie is portrayed as a sex pot who is sleeping around in order to become the sole ruler, but it’s not really that interesting and certainly never taps into any subversive take on her historical counterpart. The leader of the Revolution should have been epic, but is instead completely banal. There are none of the huge personalities like Zero Mostel, Madeline Kahn or Marty Feldman to help turn this into an ensemble instead of just two actors bearing the whole load.
There are some laughs to be had with this movie. Gene Wilder plays his usual manic persona, though the film really leans heavily on that without giving him adequate supporting players. Donald Sutherland is wonderful, and the only other time I’ve seen him do comedy was in Kentucky Fried Movie! Once the ball starts rolling and the twins start swapping, the film is quite fun. Unfortunately, it takes too long to build up speed, and once it is at fever pitch, it just ends with a weird final segment that basically pisses on the whole outing. See this if you want to see Gene Wilder or Donald Sutherland really let it all hang out, but don’t expect a solid comedy from this movie.
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