FROM THE ARCHIVES: The Revolutionary
Reviewed by Leonard Quart
Produced by Edward Pressman, Hans Konigsberger, and John Pellat; directed by Paul Williams; screenplay by Hans Konigsberger, based on his novel; original music by Michael Small; cinematography by Brian Probyn; edited by Henry Richardson; production design by Disley Jones; sound by David Bowen, Michael Hart, and Gerry Humphreys; starring Jon Voight, Seymour Cassel, Robert Duvall, Colin Wilcox Paxton, and Jennifer Salt. DVD, Color, 100 min., 1970. An MGM Limited Edition Collection release.
In recent years Jon Voight has been best known for playing corporate villains, being the estranged father of Angelina Jolie, and for emerging as a prominent right-wing speaker, frequently making appearances at Tea Party events and on conservative news shows. In 2008, he campaigned actively for John McCain and Sarah Palin, and in 2009, while hosting a GOP fundraiser, he declaimed that America was becoming "a weak nation" and that Obama was a "false prophet."
The Jon Voight, who now calls the Vietnam-era antiwar movement "Marxist propaganda," was once a liberal actor who won an Academy Award for playing a paraplegic Vietnam veteran in Hal Ashby’s antiwar Coming Home (1978). He also starred in liberal films like Martin Ritt’s Conrack (1974) about an idealistic white teacher of impoverished black students on an island in the South Carolina river delta. Before that, right after his breakout role in Midnight Cowboy (1969), he starred in The Revolutionary (1970), directed by a twenty-six-year old Paul Williams, who in those years, was seen as a director of great promise by Time Magazine critic Jay Cocks: "It is with filmmakers like Paul Williams that the future of the industry lies.” Williams never realized that promise, but The Revolutionary is an unusual film and also an evocative social document. It is a film that deserves being reissued, and given a second look.
Hans Koningsberger adapted the screenplay of The Revolutionary from his novel of the same name, centering the film on a young radical philosophy student named A (Jon Voight, who gives a subtle, self-contained performance), committed to political change, but uncertain about how to achieve it. Williams directed the film in an understated style—avoiding the melodramatic, and leaving out a great many explanatory details. In fact, the film can feel too abstract, even airless, devoid of texture and particularity. It’s set in an anonymous, seedy, empty city that looks like London, and a country that the film ironically designates as “somewhere in the free world.” The government sketched in the film seems repressive, but its nature is never spelled out.
The film follows A’s gradual political shifts as he moves from being part of a radical, nonviolent group of students and professors to an Old Left, labor-based group run by a Central Committee, to becoming a possible terrorist. Through all these changes, A remains a bumbling, questing, intellectually confused figure, uneasy and awkward in most of his interactions. He has no trouble getting women to pursue him. A displays little interest in red-haired, chain-smoking, radical camp follower Ann (Collin Wilcox-Paxton) beyond sex and he eventually drops her unceremoniously. He does seem to have real feelings, however, for an overly-naïve, rich girl named Helen (Jennifer Salt). Both female characters are left undeveloped. They are ciphers that leave little imprint on the film.
A is alienated from his upper-middle-class, remote father, and seemingly seeks a replacement father figure to give him political direction. The radical group, which Williams portrays as ineffectual, fails to satisfy him. He sees them as offering more talk then action. So, after being thrown out of the university, A joins a group of labor-based radicals led by the patient and thoughtful Despard (Robert Duvall), who the film treats with respect. A spends his time with them, leafleting workers and writing pamphlets, but he’s suddenly drafted, and just as abruptly goes AWOL from the army.
He returns to the labor group, and discovers that the army has taken over a plant, and a number of workers are on trial. Despard goes along with the Central Committee and accepts that it’s the wrong time to take action. But the easily led A finds a new mentor in Leonard 11 (Seymour Cassel), who is a mixture of Abbie Hoffman, Emmett Grogan (the Diggers), and the Weathermen, and believes in drama and risk-taking, in “action not thinking.” The first action they take together is the circuslike liberation of a pawnshop, but then they plan an act of terror—the assassination of a judge. The film concludes open endedly, with A pondering whether to execute the judge or not.
It’s Voight’s performance that sustains this generally intelligent film—he is the only character who is given any dimension. A is a recognizable figure from the Sixties. An insecure, not unkind, often intellectually foolish character, who is constantly reading and in search of answers—quoting Robespierre and writing graffiti on a wall that “capitalism means all against all.” He is perfect candidate to become a follower of someone charismatic. In addition, the film does not turn the various left groups into caricatures—they may not be trenchantly depicted, but they are portrayed with some semblance of verisimilitude.
There were a great many films in those years that dealt with or exploited the counterculture, but few that rendered the left. I can think of independent films like Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969), Robert Kramer’s Ice (1970), Jack Nicholson’s Drive, He Said (1971), and Antonioni’s MGM produced, stunningly shot Zabriskie Point (1970)—a critical and commercial failure. Long forgotten, The Revolutionary, despite its flaws, clearly merits inclusion in that list.
Leonard Quart is the author or coauthor of several books, including the just-published, fourth edition of American Film and Society Since 1945 (Praeger).
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Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine.