Rehabilitating and Teaching Revolution (1985): 35 Years Later

Bryan Rindfleisch

“An almost inconceivable disaster which tries for a worm’s eye view of the American Revolution . . .” —Tony Rayns, Time Out

Revolution is a mess . . . [an] incoherent treatise on the war that won America its freedom from Britain . . . the worst movie of 1985.” —Peter Travers, People Magazine

“Either as unintentional parody or truncated epic, you can start this Revolution without me.” —Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer

Movie poster for Revolution (1985)

The 1985 film Revolution—directed by Hugh Hudson and starring Al Pacino—is legendary as a box-office disaster and reviled by critics. The film was so poorly received that it was nominated for Worst Picture, Worst Director, and Worst Actor at the Razzie Awards and awarded the Stinker’s Bad Movie Award of 1985. Burdened by a muddled plot, erratic pacing, and overblown acting, Revolution is exactly what critics have called it: a disaster. However, after re-watching the film this past Fourth of July, I was dumbstruck by some of the film’s themes that made sense. This is not to suggest the movie is any less of an unmitigated mess, but I continually thought to myself how teachable it could be. Unlike the John Adams mini-series, Revolution can be done in a couple of days, and is far more realistic than the whiggish Patriot or Sons of Liberty, as fun as they may be. And while Revolution’s faults may be many (see next paragraph), we can still take seriously (1) the film’s portrayal of the Revolution as a divisive conflict that precipitated civil war; (2) its examination of common people’s wartime experiences, people who were motivated less by ideology and more by circumstance; (3) its privileging of female narratives; and (4) its highlights of Native communities on both sides of the war; all of which can serve as a springboard to explore the multifaceted dimensions of the Revolution.

Before talking about the merits of teaching Revolution, one must first recognize the film’s glaring problem: the omission of slavery. Yes, the film has one black character, an enslaved woman named Cuffy who later escapes her circumstances by joining the revolutionaries. While not as dismissive of slavery as The Patriot, Revolution nonetheless sweeps the institution under the rug. As historians have demonstrated, though, New York City was one of the hubs of the transatlantic slave trade in North America in the eighteenth century. Yet whenever the film takes to the streets and wharfs, there is a noticeable absence of black bodies. And historically, after the British occupation of New York City, freed and enslaved individuals flocked to the city, such as the Black Loyalists who fought against the revolutionaries not to mention the thousands who were evacuated to Nova Scotia at war’s end. But in the film, the only sense the audience has of slavery or freed and enslaved peoples is Cuffy, which only hints at the institution that made New York City what it was. And given our circumstances today, this invisibility of slavery is all the more dangerous and needs to be addressed in any teaching of this film. Fortunately, there is a wealth of scholarship to draw from, including works by Daina Ramey Berry, Ibram X. Kendi, Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Ira Berlin, Gerald Hone, among others, that offers insight into the experiences of freed and enslaved peoples caught up in the revolutionary movement. Further, accessible sources like An Account of the Life of David George and Slavery Adverts 250 Project dramatize the opportunities, limitations, and choices that freed and enslaved individuals hadh during the revolutionary crisis.

What Revolution makes abundantly clear about 1776 is that the conflict was as much a civil war as a war against Britain. As illustrated in the opening scene, a mob topples a statue of King George III and terrorizes any loyalist unlucky to be caught out on the streets. Loyalists are thrown into the harbor, tarred and feathered, stripped of their personal property, and forced to flee from the mob. Watching that scene felt like reading Judith Van Buskirk’s Generous Enemies. Several scenes later, after Washington’s defeat at Long Island, it is instead the loyalists parading alongside the British Army and rounding up the revolutionaries. To cap it off, a British officer declares in public that all revolutionaries will be arrested, their properties confiscated, and denounces “Congress whom the misguided Americans suffer to direct their opposition to a reestablishment of . . . government of these provinces,” to the cheering of the loyalist crowd.

The female lead Daisy (Nastassja Kinski) and her family similarly embody the fratricidal nature of the Revolution. In the opening scene, Daisy leaves her family to join the mob and heaps scorn upon the loyalists in the streets, at one point browbeating Tom Dobb (Al Pacino) into relinquishing his boat to the mob. We later find Daisy at dinner with her family as they converse about the revolutionary events. Daisy’s mother interrupts at one point, “We all know your views on the subject, but tonight, please keep them to yourself.” After Daisy storms off to her room, her mother follows and after a few choice words, states, “You cannot belong to this family and fight on the other side,” and “You [must] make up your mind.” Daisy responds, “I have.” As viewers later learn, Daisy flees to Philadelphia to join the “partisans.”

As for the experiences of Tom Dobb and his son Ned, I was consistently reminded of Maya Jasanoff’s characterization of the Revolution as a “war of ordeals” for the majority as opposed to the “war of ideals” for the few.[1] Throughout the film, the ideals of the Founding Fathers are juxtaposed against the pragmatic choices that Dobb and those around him must make when swept up by the revolutionary events. In the beginning, Dobb and Ned are impressed into service with the Continental Army against their will. As Dobb is shackled, he roars, “What is a Congress that God should bless it?” and as he and Ned are dragged apart, screams, “Whose war? It ain’t [our] war!” and “King or Congress is all the same to me!” Later, after the Battle of Long Island, Dobb is confronted by Daisy—who embodies the idealism of the Revolution throughout the film—who accuses him of cowardice. Dobb responds bitterly, “We all ran!” and reiterates “It ain’t my fight,” reinforcing how he and his son had no choice when it came to the revolutionary cause.

The experiences of Dobb and Ned also illustrate the hierarchical characteristics of early America. For example, as the mob wreaks havoc in the opening scene, several elites—distinguished by their clothes—read aloud the Declaration of Independence and distribute prints of “Liberty or Death” and “Join or Die” to the crowd. Such mingling of the “lower sort” with their more learned peers calls to mind T. H. Breen’s The Marketplace of Revolution, while the dissemination of revolutionary ideals in print is reminiscent of Joseph Adelman’s Revolutionary Networks. In the next scene, these distinctions of hierarchy are again quite vivid, as two individuals are unable to hide their disdain for the mob and explain, “There is no cash. It’s all gone to war” and “When the war is won . . . [the] notes in your hand are worth more than gold. They are the future of your country.” Meanwhile, fast-forward to the Continental Army camp, where hierarchy is even more evident in the divisions between officers and soldiers. From the poor beleaguered circumstances of camp life to the officers on horseback who flog retreating soldiers after Long Island, it was like reading Charles Neimeyer’s America Goes to War. Even at the end of the film, when Dobb and other soldiers try to redeem their enlistment bounties, they learn everything has “been devalued. That’s all them old continentals is worth now,” to which the soldiers scream, “What happened to the 150 acres that I was promised?!” They learn “It was sold by Congress to speculators to pay for the war debt,” which incites Dobb to exclaim, “I’m the bloody war debt!” In this final scene, the plight of the soldier is exaggerated to dramatic effect and sets the stage for the continuation of hierarchy in the United States, as later manifested with events like Shays’s Rebellion.

The character of Daisy also offers a compelling example of female experiences of the Revolution, in the vein of Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor’s The Ties That Buy and Rosemarie Zaggari’s Revolutionary Backlash. The opening scene sees Daisy wading through the mob where she joins other women waving banners that read “No More King” and “Liberty and Death.” These women proceed to incite the mob against the loyalists and at one point seize Dobb’s boat. The women yell, “The Army needs your boat to drive the British out of Brooklyn citizen, it’s your duty, your responsibility to give us your boat,” and when Dobb refuses, Daisy screams, “Take the boat!” After Dobb and Ned are impressed into the army, these same women are the ones who shout encouragement to the soldiers as they ship out: “There’s freedom in your muskets, boys . . . for Liberty!” As these scenes demonstrate, it was the women who directed, policed, and mobilized the revolutionary movement. This is not to mention the female presence in the Continental Army as nurses, cooks, washers, and smugglers who brought food and munitions into the camp. In fact, it is Daisy who later delivers supplies to Valley Forge. However, the film cannot resist the allure of having a mythological Molly Pitcher make an appearance at Yorktown, as she takes command of one of the artillery cannons while several soldiers lie dying or wounded around her. Yet this is a wonderful opportunity to use Alfred F. Young’s Masquerade to talk about Deborah Sampson and her experiences of impersonating a man in the Continental Army.

One of the more surprising elements of the film was the inclusion of Native Peoples. Like Dobb and Ned, scores of Indigenous nations were forced to choose sides in the conflict, and their loyalties were often dictated by their local circumstances, particularly the threat posed by the Americans toward their homes. This explains the presence of a small party of Haudenosaunee in the British camp during the second half of the film. While the film at times plays to stereotype, including the shrouded and menacing “Indian” employed by Donald Sutherland’s character—Sgt. Major Peasy—to hunt down Dobb and Ned, this is a unique opportunity to explore how this stereotype was given life by the Declaration of Independence. As Jefferson accused King George III in 1776, “He . . . has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” On the flip side, though, a group of Huron peoples protect Dobb and Ned. As their leader Ongwata tells Dobb, “I hate the Iroquois. They kill Huron,” thereby demonstrating how Indigenous Peoples took part on both sides. With that said, if the film had gone deeper, it would have traded the Huron for the Oneida, one of the six Haudenosaunee nations, to illustrate how the Revolutionary War was as much as civil war for Native Peoples as it was for Americans. By film’s end, Dobb, Ned, and the Huron join the army at Valley Forge and take part in an epic confrontation with Sgt. Major Peasy and the Haudenosaunee against the backdrop of the Yorktown siege.

With all of this in mind, I say we give Revolution a second chance, not so much as a film per se, but as a tool for teaching the American Revolution, in all of its glory and its disaster.

Teaching Resources

Companion and/or Alternative Films:

  • John Adams (2008)
  • The Patriot (2000)
  • 1776 (1972)
  • Mary Silliman’s War (1994)
  • Sons of Liberty (2014)
  • The Crossing (2000)
  • Sweet Liberty (1986)
  • Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor (2003)
  • The Devil’s Disciple (1987)
  • The Broken Chain (1993)
  • April Morning (1988)
  • Divided Loyalties (1989)
  • All for Liberty (2009)
  • The Rebels (1979)
  • Roots: The Gift (1988)

Bibliography:

  • Joseph Adelman, Revolutionary Networks: The Business and Politics of Printing the News, 1763–1789 (Baltimore, 2019).
  • Daina Ramey Berry, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation (New York, 2017).
  • H. Breen, American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People (New York, 2011.)
  • Benjamin L. Carp, Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution (Oxford, UK, 2009).
  • Emily Clark, The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World (Chapel Hill, NC, 2013).
  • Kathleen DuVal, Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution (New York, 2015).
  • Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor, The Ties That Buy: Women and Commerce in Revolutionary America (Philadelphia, 2011).
  • Kate Haulman, “Fashion and the Culture Wars of Revolutionary Philadelphia,” William and Mary Quarterly 62 (Oct. 2005), 625–62.
  • Gerald Home, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America(New York, 2014).
  • Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (New York, 2011).
  • Donald F. Johnson, “Ambiguous Allegiances: Urban Loyalties during the American Revolution,” Journal of American History 104 (Dec. 2017), 610–31.
  • Benjamin H. Irvin, “Tar, Feathers, and the Enemies of American Liberties, 1768–1776.” New England Quarterly 76 (June 2003), 197–238.
  • Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racial Ideas in America. (New York, 2017).
  • Brendan McConville, The King’s Three Faces: The Rise and Fall of Royal America, 1688–1776 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2007).
  • Gary B. Nash, The Unknown Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America (New York, 2006).
  • Charles Neimeyer, America Goes to War: A Social History of the Continental Army (New York, 1997).
  • Bethel Saler, The Settlers’ Empire: Colonialism and State Formation in America’s Old Northwest (Philadelphia, 2014).
  • Judith L. Van Buskirk, Generous Enemies: Patriots and Loyalists in Revolutionary New York (Philadelphia, 2002).
  • Alfred F. Young, Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier (New York, 2005).
  • Serena Zabin, Dangerous Economies: Status and Commerce in Imperial New York (Philadelphia, 2011).
  • Rosemarie Zagarri, Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic (Philadelphia, 2008).

Primary Sources: 


Endnotes

[1] Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (New York, 2011), 23.

23 July 2020

About the Author

Bryan Rindfleisch is assistant professor of history at Marquette University.

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