This post is part of the Swashathon! A Blogathon of Swashbuckling Adventure, hosted by Fritzi at Movies, Silently. Read the other adventure-filled posts in this event HERE!
It’s not unusual for people to assume the 1970 swashbuckler farce, Start the Revolution Without Me, is a Mel Brooks movie.
Possibly it’s because it stars Gene Wilder and recalls Brooksian comedy in the way it savages an entire movie genre.
However, it’s not a Mel Brooks movie. The film was written by Fred Freeman and Lawrence J. Cohen, directed by Bud Yorkin, and produced by Norman Lear, mainly known for creating some of the most successful TV situation comedies during the 1970s.
It was such an unusual sort of movie for its time that the studio had no faith in it, giving it little support and hurting its chances for box office success. Once it was available on 16mm film during the 1980s, it became a cult classic on college campuses.
Set on the eve of the French Revolution, the story culls inspiration from various sources, including A Tale of Two Cities, The Man in the Iron Mask, and The Corsican Brothers. It has a flashback sequence where the Duke de Sisi is traveling with his very pregnant wife. Overcome with labor pains, she is forced to give birth in the same doctor’s office where a peasant’s wife is giving birth. Both have twin sons. The doctor and his staff don’t keep track of which set of twins belongs to which family, so they give them one of each so they will be “half right.”
Thirty years later, the peasant twins, Claude (Gene Wilder) and Charles (Donald Sutherland) Coupe are unwilling revolutionaries and cowards constantly trying to avoid danger. The aristocratic twins, Philippe (Wilder) and Pierre (Sutherland) are brilliant swordsmen known throughout Europe as the Corsican Brothers.
King Louis XVI (Hugh Griffith) desperately wants help from the Corsican Brothers. The evil Duke d’Escargot (Victor Spinetti) and Queen Marie (Billie Whitelaw) plot to intercept the king’s message and win the brothers’ help for their own purposes, promising them half of France in return. They succeed in persuading the brothers to betray the king and travel to Paris disguised as peasants.
During a fight at the boat dock, the noble set of twins is mistaken for the peasant twins and vice versa. Hilarity ensues as the two sets of twins are mistaken for the other by friends and acquaintances.
Wilder was offered this script and a role in the movie adaptation of Catch-22. He chose this one, perhaps because he fenced while in college and it was one of the only opportunities he had to use this skill on film. Wilder’s Claude is similar to other neurotic roles he’s played over his career, but he plays Philippe as an entitled, almost psychotic baby who makes his wife (Rosalind Knight) participate in elaborate sexual fantasies with him.
Helene de Sisi: I’m sorry Philippe, I try my best to please you.
Philippe de Sisi: How? You can’t hunt, you can’t ride, you can’t shoot, you can’t fence! What kind of a marriage is this?
Sutherland downplays both his roles, though he is droll as both the gentle Charles and effete Pierre.
Unlike a Brooks or Woody Allen film, the humor is uneven and isn’t quite as clever at dinging a genre, the way Brooks ripped open the underbelly of the Western genre in Blazing Saddles. Still, even if some of it falls a bit flat, some of it does work. My favorite bits include the Duke d’Escargot’s overly-elaborate way of speaking, which sounds as if an American is translating in his head what someone is saying in French:
Duke d’Escargot: I warn you gentlemen, I am not to be trifled with. To pull the tail of a lion is to open the mouth of trouble and reveal the teeth of revenge biting the tongue of deceit.
One fun running joke is periodic intertitles that always includes the year 1789:
Paris, France, 1789
The Summer Palace, 1789
Later that night, 1789
The best set-piece is the ball scene, where the queen humiliates the king by telling him it’s a costume ball–when it isn’t. He’s dressed like a big feathered bird, and keeps mumbling apologetically, “I thought it was a costume ball.”
(In his autobiography, Norman Lear mentions that after the film became a cult hit, people would invariably quote that line to him and Bud Yorkin.)
Hugh Griffith is so sweet and endearing as Louis, it almost makes you wonder why there ever was a revolution in the first place.
During a minuet, the dancers pass notes to each other. Mixed in with some mash notes they say things such as: “Kill the King.” “Kill the Queen.” “Kill Escargot.”
But I gotta say, my favorite part of the movie is seeing Gene Wilder fence as well as any swashbuckling hero. He really goes for broke with the Philippe character. It’s a daring performance, and one can easily see that bits of it ended up in his characterizations of Willy Wonka and Frederick Frankenstein.
The movie is bookended with narration by Orson Welles (yes, really). Welles filmed his role in two days. Apparently, no one could figure out how to end the movie. I won’t say HOW it ends, only that it doesn’t make a lick of sense and it’s really not that funny.
Even so, it’s a very enjoyable film that has its moments. It presages the irreverent genre-smashing films that followed it later in the decade.
And it does teach us to make sure it really IS a costume ball.