Picking up a thread from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Smarter Brother (1975), I got Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), giving Gene Wilder another shot to impress me. He’d just made The Producers (1967) and his co-star, Donald Sutherland, had just made M*A*S*H (1970). Like Smarter Brother, I couldn’t watch much of Sutherland and Elliott Gould in SPYS (1974). Would two negatives make a positive experience?
I had seen bits of Start the Revolution but never saw the entire thing. Its reputation wasn’t bad, especially with the growing love for Gene Wilder. The film has the makings of a cult film because of the belated attention. However, it proves to be not completely unfunny but just not funny enough. The reasons for it coming up short come are many and revealing.
Making a comic film is difficult. The audience must be on the cusp of laughing for nearly an hour and a half. Most of the 5-to-10 minutes sketches on Saturday Night Live aren’t very funny. Then you have the problem of the humor not holding up over time. I checked the American Film Institute’s top 100 and found several similar to the type that Start the Revolution aspired; namely, to be farcical, lunatic, and have minimal social meaning. Among the top 20, the following fit this definition: Duck Soup (1933), Blazing Saddles (1974), Airplane! (1980), The Producers, A Night at the Opera (1935); Young Frankenstein (1974), and Bringing Up Baby (1938). You can understand why the Marx Brothers and Mel Brooks are rightly revered.
Start the Revolution Without Me deals with events of the French Revolution in 1789. Little is done to match the action to the historical reality. We know quickly the film won’t take events seriously when the portentous narrator, Orson Welles, tells us that he’s unhappy he wasn’t asked to be in the film. Then he goes on to assert that the story we’re about to see shows how the French Revolution almost didn’t happen.
It’s a story about twins mixed up at birth, one pair is aristocratic and the other, peasant. The running joke is that the pair of brothers are Wilder and Sutherland – did their parents assume they were non-identical twins? These twins end up on the opposite sides of the Revolution. The ‘aristo’ pair are a version of the Corsican brothers. They probably get the funniest exchange, seen in the poster above. The other pair belong to a militant peasant band seeking to overthrow the king. Note: this isn’t how the real French Revolution started. The band is led by Jacques (Jack MacGowran), which is thrown into action immediately, where we see the twins, Claude and Charles, immediately duck for cover.
The Corsicans, Philippe and Pierre, are stuck up twits but excellent swordsmen. Wilder pushes his tried and true hysterical persona onto Philippe, with little comical success, although Wilder thought this character more interesting than his peasant Claude, which takes us to the film’s core problem. Wilder in the dominant role can’t carry the comedy very far. Sutherland’s mutual twins generally represent foils to Wilder’s. His humor is evident but too subdued.
Very few of the other characters, like Louis XVI (Hugh Griffith) and Marie Antoinette (Billie Whitelaw), are occasionally amusing, which is meant, by the writers, as a contrast to the wild hysterical comedy of the plot. The mixed-up twins soon trade places with Claude and Charles mistaken for the Corsican brothers. This last element is meant to rev the movie action into a comedy whirlwind, such that the viewers will laugh at their own attempts to figure out what is going on.
Soon, Claude and Charles find the courage to coerce Louis XVI to sign a paper giving the peasants their freedom. The final clash of peasant forces versus the King causes the document to get into the wrong hands and is torn up. The Revolution becomes inevitable.
The film reverts to the present-day narrator, Orson Welles, who is shot and falls into the moat around Louis XVI’s summer palace. (Strangely, after Welles opened the movie, when we go to the first scene, when the twins are born at the same inn, a different narrator takes over.) Then we see that the shooters are the modern version of the twins, who are subsequently shot by the other pair. Then the remaining pair kill off each other. The scene seems a symbolic way for the film to finish itself off. Just as the French Revolution couldn’t be avoided, as the King’s proclamation was destroyed, so the film could not successfully pull off a farce to end all farces. Despite much unevenness, Mel Brooks’s History of the World, Part One (1981), is on a better (funnier) trajectory to take down historical pretentiousness.
One last casting note. The prospective bride for Philippe is played Ewa Aulin, a Swedish actress who starred a couple years earlier in the notorious production, Candy (1968). Candy was a successful satirical pornographic novel (modeled after Voltaire’s Candide) written by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg. It resembles Start the Revolution and other films — Casino Royale (1967), Catch-22 (1970), and Myra Breckinridge (1970) — in trying and failing to be a frenetic comedy. Candy’s gimmick was to line up a ridiculously large number of major actors to be the young girl’s seducers (many of the actors probably cringed later in their careers at the mere mention of this film).