Revolution at 35: The flop that almost burned Al Pacino’s career to the ground

Released on Christmas Day in 1985, Hugh Hudson’s revolutionary war epic might be Pacino’s biggest failure. From woeful miscasting to on-set illness, Ed Power details how it was fated for disaster

Sunday 20 December 2020 07:59 GMT
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More than three decades on from its release, Revolution stands as one of Pacino’s biggest misfires
More than three decades on from its release, Revolution stands as one of Pacino’s biggest misfires (Rex Features)

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Louise Thomas

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Al Pacino sat slumped in the gently rocking boat, coughing his lungs up. The wooden vessel was a replica of the sort of skiff that would have plied New York’s Hudson River in the 1770s. The cough was the first stage of the pneumonia that Pacino was developing. And the movie he was making was so terrible that it would drive him away from acting for the screen for almost the rest of the decade. 

Revolution, which marks its 35th anniversary on Christmas Day, was perhaps the biggest disaster of Pacino’s career. He’d had clunkers before, and has had them since – 1990’s The Godfather Part III, for instance.  

But these missteps have generally had a redeeming feature or two. Or, failing that, at least a memorable performance by Pacino. Revolution, in which he played an addled-looking trapper during America’s War of Independence from Britain, was soggy and incomprehensible. It was hell to make, too – the drudgery exacerbated by the serious lung condition that Pacino was beginning to suffer from in dank King’s Lynn in Norfolk. 

“Pacino was sick for the first half of the shoot and I felt bad about that,” director Hugh Hudson, Oscar-nominated for Chariots of Fire, would tell The Guardian in 2009. “I wanted the film to be wet and muddy, to show how tough it was for the soldiers, how squalid a beginning America had.”

The mud, alas, was all too authentic. Pacino, then aged 45, soon developed full-blown pneumonia. He would struggle with it through March and April 1985, the first two months of the shoot.  

Revolution trailer

He, at least, stuck around. Others were less committed. One afternoon early in the production, conditions were so terrible that the extras walked off in protest. Volunteers were hastily rounded up in King’s Lynn as replacements. Nastassja Kinksi, visiting her boyfriend in Paris, later went AWOL for several days.  

“In King’s Lynn, there were no good restaurants, bars, or first-class hotels to escape to at the end of a long day,” Revolution producer Irwin Winkler would write in his memoir, A Life In Movies: Stories From 50 Years in Hollywood. “Usually on a location like this there is quite a lot of flirting and some passionate love affairs and some drunken fights. We had the heavy drinking and a couple of fights but not much love.”

Pacino plays Tom Dobb, a monosyllabic fur trapper traversing the waterways of upstate New York with son Ned (future EastEnders star Sid Owen). On a trip to New York, the boy is press-ganged into the revolutionary army to fight the British. Rather than let his son march to certain death, Tom signs up to protect him.

He is soon facing off against King George’s dastardly Red Coats. One particularly unpleasant specimen is portrayed with a broad wink by future Crystal Maze presenter Richard O’Brien. At that point O’Brien was largely famous for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. His performance in Revolution suggests he thought he was still in that earlier film. Donald Sutherland joins him as another evil Brit – though with so much smoke swirling through the battle scenes, he is initially hard to recognise.  

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Not all bad: Pacino enjoys a moment of levity with director Hugh Hudson
Not all bad: Pacino enjoys a moment of levity with director Hugh Hudson (Rex Features)

Nastassja Kinski, for her part, portrays a rebellious member of New York high society who runs off to fight with the revolutionaries. Annie Lennox turns up later in a shoulder-length red wig as a member of the revolutionary mob and is billed as “Liberty Woman”. She is reported to have hated making Revolution so much that it put her off acting permanently. 

The idea for Revolution had come to Winkler one morning out of the blue. He sat up in bed and wondered aloud – to an empty room – why nobody had made a decent film about the events leading up to American independence. As he brainstormed, he recalled a story about a farmer in Vietnam whose son was forced to join the Viet Cong. The man joined, too, in order to protect the child. Putting the two concepts together, Winkler figured he was on to something. 

Winkler had started his career producing Elvis Presley in Double Trouble before going on to receive Oscar nominations for Raging Bull and The Right Stuff (and later Goodfellas). Revolution, he believed, had the potential to be an modern epic. And so he called up his screenwriter pal Robert Dillon (French Connection II) and had him knock out a script.  

The producer’s preference was to film in America. However, UK studio Goldcrest, which was offering to finance the production, pushed for the Appalachian-like reaches of… west Norfolk. “They convinced me that England had lot of hamlets, wide-open areas and houses that hadn’t been changed in 200 years,” Winkler remembers in his autobiography.

“Oh, and by the way, a group of dentists in Norway were putting up some of the financing, so we’d have to shoot one or two scenes there. So now we were going to see the Americans defeat the British with British money, a British director, British crew, British locations, and throw in Norway too! I should have run.”

He was right: Norfolk looked nothing like America. Just as out of place was Pacino. Not counting the 1940s-set Godfather, he rarely does period films. There was, it turned out, a good reason for this. In Revolution he’s supposed to be a backwoods fur trapper, but he looks like he’s been beamed in straight from 1980s Times Square.

Pacino had actually entered the conversation relatively late in the process. “CAA pitched both Michael Douglas and Robert Duvall for the Tom Dobb role, but Al Pacino’s name came up, and Hugh Hudson and Goldcrest and I were very enthusiastic,” Winkler recalls in his book. “I liked Al, had worked with him on Author! Author! and believed he could bring realism to Tom Dobb.”

That wasn’t Goldcrest’s only error. The studio had stormed Hollywood with Chariots of Fire in 1981, for which Hudson was nominated for Best Director. At the Oscars, the screenwriter of Chariots, Colin Welland, had finished his acceptance speech by declaring, “The British are coming.”  

By early 1985, however, the feeling around Hollywood was that Goldcrest was taking on too much. As the cameras rolled on Revolution, two other Goldcrest features were in production: Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons were in South America making The Mission, and David Bowie and Patsy Kensit were in Pinewood Studios shooting Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners.  

The combined budget for the three films was $53m – the equivalent of $130m today (of which Revolution accounted for half). Under financial pressure, Goldcrest promised its US distributor Warner Brothers a Christmas Day release for Revolution, which had only finished shooting in July. This came as a shock to Hudson, Pacino and Winkler. 

Don’t start the revolution without me: Tom Dobb (Al Pacino) and his son Ned (Dexter Fletcher) fight together in the war
Don’t start the revolution without me: Tom Dobb (Al Pacino) and his son Ned (Dexter Fletcher) fight together in the war (Rex Features)

“Goldcrest… had three films on the go – The Mission, Revolution and Absolute Beginners – so they needed cash, and made me rush Revolution out before it was finished,” Hudson told The Guardian. “I’d taken it to my friend Lindsay Anderson, who said it needed a voice-over narration, but we didn't have time. The Mission, of course, went on to triumph at Cannes.”

Pacino, who had just about pulled himself together to finish the shoot, was stunned. If ever a film required tender, loving care in the editing suite it was Revolution. Even as he huffed about in the muck of Norfolk, he understood that the project would live or die by how it was handled in post-production.  

The problem was that Revolution wanted to be two things at once: a historical epic with sweeping battle and swirling gun smoke, but also an art-house meditation on the futility of war, portraying both the Americans and the British unflatteringly. That seemed a tall order, and yet Stanley Kubrick had pulled of that very same balancing act, against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, with Barry Lyndon in 1975.  

Barry Lyndon, of course, had benefited from masterful direction. And even then, Kubrick felt it necessary to hold the story together with a voice-over. As he watched the footage Hudson realised that Revolution needed a narrator’s voice too. Otherwise it was just Pacino, looking very much like the guy from The Godfather, wandering around mud-spattered landscapes, glum and confused.  

However, Christmas Day was fast approaching. There simply was no time to bring Pacino back. Hudson would finally realise this ambition in 2009, when Pacino returned to narrate a director’s cut of Revolution. In 1985, Hudson had to work with what he had, which wasn’t a great deal – and the clock was ticking.

Alas, it ticked too quickly. Revolution was released on 25 December 1985, half-baked and fully incomprehensible. Reviewers duly feasted on its carcass.  

“Director? I didn't catch the credit. Was there one?” asked Time Out. “A mess, but one that's so giddily misguided that it's sometimes a good deal of fun for all of the wrong reasons,” said Vincent Canby in The New York Times. “Characters who have met briefly early in the film later stage hugely emotional, tearful reconciliations.” Revolution suffered a predictably disastrous opening, ultimately earning just $350,000. Hudson’s career as a big-time director was effectively over.

The worst review of all came from Pacino, though. Having grown up in the South Bronx, he had intended for Revolution to serve as a sort of love letter to the neighbourhood and its role in America’s coming of age as a nation. It was nothing of the sort and he was so appalled that he spent the next four years on Broadway, before being tempted back to the screen by Harold Becker’s Sea of Love.  

Revolution was one of those things that happen in a career, where you learn so much from it because it was such a disorienting experience,” he said in a public interview years later. “I expected they would have worked on that film, but they just let it go. They put half a film out. I was appalled and shocked by that. I didn’t know what to do. It was that single film that took the rug out from under me. I lost interest for a while.”

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