Goldcrest Films International, 1985, 115 minutes
Cast: Al Pacino, Donald Sutherland, Nastassja Kinski, Joan Plowright, Richard O’Brien, Annie Lennox and Dexter Fletcher
Screenplay: Robert Dillon
Producer: Irwin Winkler
Executive Producer: Chris Burt
Director: Hugh Hudson
The British victory during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) ended the fierce struggle between France and Britain for the domination of North America. British control over the French colonies ensured that the northern American colonies no longer had to fear French-backed Indian raids. However, tensions soon grew between Britain and the thirteen colonies. British attempts to increase taxation in the American colonies to help pay the huge debts run up during the war led to increased discontent as the increasingly self-reliant colonies resented the British government’s high-handed approach.
Believing that a firm display of force would show the colonists their place, the British were shocked when open warfare erupted in 1775, which started the American Revolution (1775-1783). The small army stationed in the colonies was obviously incapable of putting down the rebellion, so additional reinforcements were sent from England, including more than twenty thousand Hessian soldiers rented out by German dukes. In the summer of 1776, the powerful British force easily pushed the American army led by General George Washington out of New York City but a solid core of rebels remained even after a bloody retreat across New Jersey, so the war would continue.
The movie begins shortly after the Continental Congress had declared independence on July 4, 1776. Tom Dobb (Pacino) is a trapper whose boat and cargo are seized by a Patriot mob to help Washington defend Brooklyn Heights. Although promised eventual repayment, Dobb is penniless, so his son joins the Continentals (regular, not militia, troops) to obtain the signing bonus, and Dobb enlists as well to watch over him. When Washington’s army is driven out of Brooklyn, Dobb and his son leave the army and return to New York, which has been occupied by the British. He tries to focus on making a living but finds himself dragged back into the war. After repeatedly encountering Daisy, a member of New York’s elite, who sympathizes with the rebels, they gradually fall in love. Although he initially has no interest in either side, British brutality eventually makes Dobb side with the rebels.
An early scene of a mob of Patriots pulling a statue of King George III off a pedestal shows the uncontrollable nature of mobs, and that people were happy to do a little personal looting along the way.
While some Continental recruiters were undoubtedly unpleasant and ruthless, Dobb’s son is far too young to have enlisted. Many of the recruits are teenagers, adolescents even, which is supposed to show the desperation of the rebels at the time. Actually, Washington had a large army, and was confident that he could block the British at Brooklyn Heights. In fact, the rebel army had not lacked for volunteers. The problem was preventing men from returning home to help with the spring planting and the fall harvest, and convincing the volunteers to accept military discipline.
The rebels were beaten badly at Brooklyn Heights, but the movie only shows the aftermath of the battle, as Washington’s officers shove the exhausted survivors back into order. Although the part of the rebel army holding the outer defenses was taken by surprise and captured when the British found an unguarded road, most of the troops escaped to the main American lines at Brooklyn Heights. Aware that Brooklyn Heights could not be held forever, Washington evacuated the defenders across the East River under the cover of night to join the rest of the army on Manhattan without alerting the British, but the evacuation does not appear in the film. To be fair to Dobb, hundreds of soldiers had simply walked off after they had been evacuated from Brooklyn to Manhattan Island because they felt that they had been badly led.
There is only one real battle scene but it is impressive. Lines of redcoats march across the battlefield, displaying insane discipline as they keep coming even though enemy fire drops many men in the front ranks. Any holes in the ranks are filled by men moving forward from the rank behind, often while stepping over the wounded. After a couple of exchanges of volleys, the redcoats charge with bayonets and the Continentals retreat. This is a very accurate portrayal of the early battles, since the rebel soldiers could not initially hold their own against the redcoats who had been trained to fight with bayonets.
Despite Daisy’s (Kinski) sympathy for the Patriot cause, the rest of her wealthy family are Tories (American colonists loyal to Britain). When two unmarried British officers are assigned to live with Daisy’s family, her two sisters wear elaborate wigs and makeup as they unabashedly try to lure the officers into relationships. The officers are members of the nobility, and Daisy’s mother is keen to climb the social ladder, so she watches with approval as the flirtation between her daughters and the officers becomes increasingly blatant. The rich British officers did dominate society, including courting the daughters of the city’s elite.
Although Daisy is forced to leave her family’s house because of her political views, the script never explains why she is a Patriot, and she seems to be rebelling more against her parents than the British at first. In fact, the script makes little attempt to explain the popular support for the Revolution other than showing drunken mobs.
However, the movie is much more effective at presenting the ever-present fear of the British troops occupying the city and British arrogance, especially during an excellent scene that highlights the civilized savagery of the fox hunt. The British officers are portrayed as nasty, perfumed snobs, which many were. The commander of the British army had to repeatedly order his officers to not treat Tory officers with contempt and condescension. Despite their frequent lack of civility, the British officers were professionals who knew how to fight battles, which was not really shown.
Like many people in the colonies, Dobb was not born there and does not view the cause of revolution as his. It seems an odd decision to make a movie about the Revolution where the central character is neither a rebel nor a Tory. The narration reveals that he had been an indentured servant, and had been taken from his poor family as a child. This back story could have explained his lack of interest in the Revolution, although as a former indentured servant he should have been more supportive of a struggle for liberty.
Although it is odd to see Valley Forge without snow, a far more serious criticism is the idea that supplies had to be smuggled into the rebel camp past the British lines. The British cavalry never actually went near Valley Forge because they were too busy drinking, gambling and whoring in comfortable Philadelphia, the leading city in the colonies at the time. The real challenge was not evading British patrols but persuading merchants and farmers to sell supplies to the Patriot army, which paid slowly and in paper money backed by the Continental Congress, instead of the British, who paid immediately and in gold. With his army on the brink of starvation and malnourished men dying of sickness, Washington was eventually forced to send out foraging parties that seized provisions. While they always gave a receipt, this must have been little comfort to families who had barely enough as it was.
A frustrating number of opportunities are missed to make the Revolution come to life in order to focus on the relationships between Dobb and his son, and Dobb and Daisy. The nighttime evacuation across the river from Brooklyn to Manhattan that saved the rebel army was a tense operation. Valley Forge has become an icon of American history because of the suffering of the rebel army, but it was a key period in the Revolution because Baron von Steuben spent the winter teaching the Continentals drill and bayonet fighting. Thanks to his instruction the Continentals would face redcoats on equal terms for the rest of the war. Since most of his English consisted of profanities and he would get his aides to swear at the troops when he was tired, it would have presented a little-known part of American history in an enjoyable manner.
Even worse than the missed opportunities is director Hugh Hudson’s emphasis of visuals over historical fact. Despite a remarkable tracking shot of the organized chaos behind the French and rebel lines, the rest of the scenes dealing with the siege of Yorktown appear to have been formed in the screenwriter’s imagination. The port of Yorktown was surrounded by swamps on either side and the river was in the rear, so the Allies dug trenches in the flat ground in front of the port. However, the movie’s version of Yorktown inexplicably has huge cliffs and an artillery spotter below the cliffs, even though the battle is on the other side of the cliffs. Although the French fleet had blocked the British fleet from escaping, the French ships were not close enough to hit the town and the British fortifications could be seen from the Allied lines, so there was no need for a spotter.
While the script was weak, there is no denying the gorgeous cinematography and great set design.
Despite the considerable amount of time devoted to the development of their relationship and their frequent chance encounters, the connection between Daisy and Dobb is unconvincing. The actors have no chemistry, and the Revolution seems to exist simply to give the couple opportunities to meet. This lack of connection may be due to the fact that Kinski came to the movie sick from previous work and had no time for rehearsals.
Pacino’s acting during a five-minute-long scene with his feverish son is riveting if you like unnecessary, melodramatic overacting.
It was Pacino’s first period role, and he has not done another period role since, although he is about to play Herod in Mary, Mother of Christ. As a city boy, the wilderness was alien to Pacino, but he understood poverty, since he had grown up poor. Pacino has been criticized for his accent despite his careful research before the filming started. The criticism is unfair, since New York was a mixture of different ethnic groups, including the French Huguenots, Dutch, English, Irish and Scottish, at that time. In any case, his accent is the least of the movie’s problems. Pacino was so frustrated by the film’s negative reception that he returned to the theatre and did not make a movie for four years. Director Hugh Hudson’s also career began a lengthy decline and never really recovered.
The film’s key weakness is that despite the huge scope of the story, it explains almost nothing about the Revolution. The war lased eight years, which was far too much for one movie. Presumably, the idea was to show the huge sweep of events through the eyes of a man who is dragged into the war. Dobb’s confusion fits in the opening scenes, but both he and the audience remain confused throughout the movie. The story feels like a badly edited smaller version of a three-hour-long epic with numerous important scenes left out. At one point, Dobb mentions that the French have allied with the rebels, and then the story jumps three years to the siege of Yorktown, without actually explaining why the war had dragged on for so long.
The movie comes to life during the large set pieces and sags whenever there is lengthy dialogue between the actors, as if Hudson was simply uncomfortable filming human interaction. In fact, he admits that he saw the movie more as a silent film.
Hudson is still surprised at being criticized for filming a movie about the American Revolution in England, which explains why the movie failed. Aside from the visually stunning silent scenes, the only parts of the story that rang true involved the British, so the movie might have worked if he had made it from a British perspective, rather than an American one. To be fair to Hudson, Goldcrest had decided to release the film too soon, even though it needed another three or four months. The narration had not been recorded, so the audience did not really know who Dobb was. While the addition of Pacino’s narration does make his character more coherent, the movie’s fundamental problems remain.
To give Hudson credit, he was a bit ahead of his time. The battle scene was filmed with hand-held cameras to make viewers feel that they were in the battle. Audiences rejected the approach at the time, but hand-held cameras are common now.
Aside from the addition of Pacino’s narration, the only difference between the original film and the new version is that Hudson cut the final scene from the theatrical version, since it had been forced on them by the studio.
Even though the story is mainly about personal relationships, not the war, it is a harsh, painful film that provides only glimpses of the American Revolution.
This review refers to the 2009 DVD version.