Start the Revolution Without Me (1970, dir. Bud Yorkin)
There was a certain genre of film in the late 1960s and early 1970s that eschewed plot for zany, madcap romps. This can be seen in films like the original Casino Royale, The Magic Christian, and to some extent, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World. These are those decent budget films that just blow the roof off and have little to no narrative coherence. I can’t say with certainty, but I believe the writings of authors like Terry Southern and Tom Wolfe, the exploits of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, and the over “swinging” nature of the 1960s fed into this anarchic strain of filmmaking. Another film that I believe had a strong influence on this particular picture was the 1963 picaresque Tom Jones, an adaptation of the novel and similar, albeit less farcical skewering of 19th European society and culture.
Start the Revolution begins with Orson Welles standing at a picturesque estate and detailing the events that led to the splitting two sets of identical twins between a common peasant and the Duke de Sisi of Corsica. The two sets of twins (one of each played by Donald Sutherland and Gene Wilder) end up leading very different lives. Claude and Charles become reluctant members of the French Revolution while Philippe and Pierre are spoiled degenerate aristocrats. Through a series of ridiculous circumstances the twins switch roles with the peasants mistaken for their royal counterparts and bedding down in Versailles while the Corsican brothers are pushed into the midst of the revolution.
The premise isn’t an entirely original one with twins switching places and being mismatched, and there is a lot of fun story potential when you add in the setting. However, the humor never stretches beyond a certain hackneyed level of writing. The jokes are very obvious and not too clever with some bright spots. A royal dance at the palace highlights the treacherous nature of the royal court as everyone is exchanging notes about whom each other should discreetly assassinate or poison. The other rare moments of brilliance come from Gene Wilder’s portrayal of the utterly demented Corsican brother Philippe. It’s one of those performances where he amps up the manic rage, and it works well in the first act of the film until the focus shifts more heavily to the peasant brothers.
In the context of Wilder’s career, Start the Revolution comes very early on. At this point, he’d made his big screen debut in Bonnie and Clyde and The Producers. His performance in the latter film is what likely got him this part as his performance highlights the emotional outbursts Leo Bloom showcased. The same year he co-starred with Margot Kidder in the light comedy Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin the Bronx (a film that appears to be nigh impossible to find). In both Start the Revolution and Quackser, Wilder attempts English and Irish accents which do not work. With this being the early part of his career he was still searching for the types of roles he would feel comfortable with. He was intelligent enough to know accents were not his strong suit.
Wilder would go on to star as Willy Wonka in 1971, followed by a breakout role in Woody Allen’s Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). A re-teaming with his Producers’ co-star Zero Mostel in Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros came next. The high point of his career (Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein) took him from obscurity to stardom, with The Little Prince tossed in for good measure. This brings us to the film we’ll look at tomorrow: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother.