War Is Hell: John Corigliano and the Battle Over REVOLUTION

“You could hear the city a mile off…New York goin’ crazy.” But New York wasn’t the only city going crazy when Revolution opened in limited release on Christmas Day, 1985. Starring the unlikely pairing of Al Pacino as an illiterate, Brooklyn fur trapper, and Nastassja Kinski as a high-born rebel who are swept up in the chaotic events of 1776, the film became an immediate joke and one of the biggest financial flops in Hollywood history. But the fault does not lie only with the unorthodox casting choices of the two leads. The odds were stacked against the film from the beginning.

The Back-Story

Hollywood had never been enamored with the Revolutionary War. For such an important American story, only a handful of titles surrounding the conflict had been filmed in the previous 60 years—D. W. Griffith’s silent America (1924), John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), The Howards of Virginia (1940), Disney’s Johnny Tremain (1957), John Paul Jones (1959), the musical 1776 (1972)—and all of them had lost money. Producer Irwin Winkler (Rocky) found his inspiration for Revolution while playing with Martin Scorcese’s toy soldier collection at the studio workshop where he was editing Raging Bull. When the major studios were understandably reluctant to back such a venture, Winkler turned to independent studio Goldcrest Films for financing. With Goldcrest on board, Winkler hired British director Hugh Hudson, best known for the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, which Goldcrest had also financed. Because the cities of New York and Philadelphia were obviously no longer conducive to period location shooting, filming was moved to England to utilize countryside and architecture that was more in step with Colonial America. French cinematographer Bernard Lutic, Eric Rohmer’s frequent collaborator, shot the film with handheld cameras for a documentary feel, and then decolored the negatives to capture the look of period paintings. With such pedigree behind the camera and a major star in front, press agents had no problems securing lengthy articles in The New York Times and other major dailies. The first signs of trouble surfaced in the summer.

In August, Marilyn Beck’s New York Daily News column featured Winkler disputing what he called “out-and-out lies” regarding sweeping rumors of chaos on the set and the ever-inflating budget. Even before post-production had begun, Winkler boasted, “We’ve ended up with a terrific film which is certain to get Oscar recognition.” Elsewhere, a confused Hudson compared the film to Pilgrim’s Progress on one hand, while calling it “a street film” about guerilla warfare on the other. Years later, Harvard historian Richard Francis, who wrote the paperback tie-in, gave this remembrance on his blog: “The film was hugely over-budget….I had to take notes while sitting in Hugh Hudson’s office watching an advance screening. There was an air of doom hanging over him while I did so.”

To qualify for Academy Award consideration, Revolution opened on Christmas Day, 1985, in four theaters to the sounds of hooting and hollering from audience members. Critics unsheathed their bayonets in an attempt to best each other in the war of words. Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote: “There’s an underlying wrong-headedness about it that, like senility, is universal in its effects.” David Denby of New York magazine said, “All in the world are making jokes about Revolution…but I found myself almost too depressed to laugh.” Newsweek’s David Ansen said, “There may be a smashing movie on the cutting room floor but what’s on the screen is a shambles.” Rex Reed wrote in the New York Post: “Kids staging a Fourth of July pageant couldn’t come up with anything this hilariously bad.” And David Edelstein of the Village Voice called it “Monty Python without the jokes….It’s a hoot, but it’s hell on the constitution.” Canby, like most other critics, had sharp words for the film’s lead: “[Pacino] looks as if he were an 18th-century Rambo and sounds as if he were speaking 20th-century David Mamet.”

The fallout was swift and brutal. On January 24, 1986, Roger Ebert reported that the film had been pulled out of the Chicago and other Midwestern markets prior to opening, with no revised opening date. Six days later, Revolution closed across the country. The film had played in only 30 theaters for a total of 37 days, with final box-office receipts tallying a paltry $358,274. The budget had ballooned to $27.9 million, nearly double the original $14 million, which had been set prior to Pacino’s casting. The financial fiasco caused Goldcrest Films to close its offices and lay off its staff. In the book, Al Pacino in Conversations With Lawrence Grobel, Pacino said, “I didn’t know what to do. It was that single film that took the rug out from under me; I lost interest for a while…I went back to the drawing board.” Pacino didn’t make another film for four years until 1989’s Sea of Love.

For film music fans, composer John Corigliano was the most devastating casualty. Music critic Page Cook announced in his year-end wrap up for Films in Review: “RCA Records…have once again insisted upon an act of such cultural disgrace as to be criminal. I am referring to the cancellation of the soundtrack recording from John Corigliano’s magnificent score for Hugh Hudson’s stunning and unfairly damned Revolution. It is apparent that the squelching of a record album from this important score was neither motivated by corporate vision or artistic thinking, but clearly a move on the part of a record company to save some money…. Corigliano’s score, an awesome achievement, was considered by the execs in charge as ‘unworthy’ of release, Corigliano’s reputation be damned.” In a phone interview for this article, Corigliano concurred: “It was strictly a case of money. The soundtrack was in test pressing and the cover was ready, but when the film opened and bombed, RCA yanked it.” The frustration was compounded because Corigliano “spent a great deal of time planning out the album.” The soundtrack was recorded on the first digital board in England with “really great sound….I really mixed it carefully.” The news was the last in a string of disappointments the composer had endured related to the score. In our interview, Corigliano provided valuable insight into this fascinating and little-known work, and explained the circumstances that drove him to his decision to abandon film scoring until his Oscar-winning score for The Red Violin in 1999, 14 years later.

The Score

In 1984, Hudson had originally asked Corigliano to compose the score for Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. Because of a deadline on another commission, Corigliano declined but promised the director he would make himself available for the next film. The avant-garde nature of his first film score, 1980’s Altered States, may seem an odd prelude to scoring a film set 200 years earlier. But Corigliano creates a daringly original work that defies expectations of the genre. And from the opening bars, it is evident that Revolution is not your typical “fife and drums” score.

Over the main titles, as the citizens of New York topple the statue of King George from its perch, Corigliano responded to the “wildness” of the scene with a “cluster-like” vocabulary (a technique that he utilized in the hallucination scenes in Altered States) that musically conveys the chaotic scurrying and fighting in the streets. With the opening two-note French horn motif, Corigliano purposefully wanted to introduce musical material that would later develop into the love theme, the first of three major themes upon which the score is built.

When asked how he created a love theme of such passion for Tom and Daisy when it was clearly missing from Pacino and Kinski’s performances onscreen, Corigliano explained that the passion came from the last scene. In the film’s finale, ever-accelerating brass clusters grow more insistent as Tom follows Daisy’s maid through the bustling Philadelphia streets. Because there was constant movement, sound effects, street musicians and people shouting, the intervals of the love theme create “building, pulsing figures” in the woodwinds and the brass. “I deliberately wanted something sonoric,” Corigliano said, “like glue, that could be non-thematic,” leading up to the surge of musical ardor as Daisy rushes into Tom’s embrace. Corigliano wrote the finale version of the theme first and worked backward, scoring it more tenderly earlier.

Corigliano labeled the second main theme the “children’s theme.” First heard as we meet Pacino’s son, Ned, in the opening scene, and set against a gently rocking bed of oscillating string intervals, the tender melody conveys “innocence and purity” with the calming effect of a lullaby. The melody (performed by legendary flautist James Galway) is played on a tin whistle because, as Corigliano remarked, “it is an instrument of kids.” As Ned grows into a young man, the theme switches to flute, evolving into almost a secondary love theme, while the tin whistle version now represents the young boys who have been senselessly slaughtered on the battlefield.

The third main theme accompanies the first battle sequence. While many composers might have been tempted to write a rousing action cue, Corigliano scored the sequence like a “huge scope of lament, an elegy in a sense.” Beginning as the camera focuses on the eyes of a young American boy as he watches a massive line of British soldiers coming toward him, Corigliano wrote “a long string line that grows over eight minutes.” The music has “a surrealistic quality,” said the composer, “seeing from the mind of the little boy what would be a horrific, sad ending to all of these lives that he was watching probably for the first time in his life.” The cue reaches its zenith as British Sgt. Major Peasy (Donald Sutherland) bayonets an American soldier with a brutal brass statement of the lament accompanied by dying heartbeats in the timpani. The string lament resumes as the American soldiers flee in retreat. (Corigliano later reused this cue almost verbatim as the second theme of his Symphony No. 1, once again conveying loss, this time the death of his friends from AIDS.)

The lament makes another appearance later in the film, but many listeners may be hard-pressed to recognize it. Back in New York, Tom and another American soldier serve as prey in a twisted game for the occupying British soldiers before they go off to continue the war. The two men are forced to drag a heavy, “ropey-looking effigy of dear old Georgie Washington,” while soldiers on horseback and hunting dogs chase them across the fields. Corigliano turned the lament into a “jaunty fox hunt,” a lively “Mendelssohnian scherzo” with a “buoyant, lively sound.” As Pacino is attacked by the dogs, the original war threnody is played over the scherzo, creating a haunting musical irony that points up the savage taunting by the British.

One particularly descriptive cue accompanies the Indians’ pursuit of Tom and Ned through the forest. “I wanted it to be surrealistic,” said Corigliano, “like a fantasy.” Piccolo, clarinet, and percussion imitate bird calls and other sounds of the forest. “Otherworldly” clusters rise and fall “like a dream, a hallucination.” More shades of Altered States are heard in the French horns, trumpets and other brass howling in pain as Pacino stabs the attacking Indians.

Later, as the camera pans over the dead at Yorktown, a lone woman sings a poignant a capella version of “The Drummer Boy,” with the tin whistle children’s theme now interjecting its sad lament for all the boys slain in battle. In between the two, Corigliano composed a haunting, disturbing keening that comes as close to wailing as music will allow. However, a vocalise of the “Drummer Boy” melody takes its place in the final cut of the film. While the substitution is serviceable, it doesn’t come anywhere close to capturing the pain and anguish of Corigliano’s original melody. The composer found the swap “discouraging….I worked really hard and something else was substituted in.”

What should have been an enjoyable experience was anything but for Corigliano. “Hudson didn’t get involved in the music too much,” he said. “He didn’t constrain me, but he wasn’t thinking about it a lot either. He didn’t realize that I was trying to help him…. He viewed the music as just another ingredient to mix with all the other ingredients.” As a result, the score was treated shabbily in the final cut, with some cues mixed improperly and others abruptly cut off, resulting in some suspiciously short musical segments. Particularly in the battle scenes, Corigliano felt the score turned into a “glutinous mass.” Though he wasn’t responsible for composing the marches, battlefield music and street music, these source cues also cut into the score with random abruptness, “ruining the ideas, the clarity of things…[wasting] a lot of imagination and time.”

Given the poor reception of the film, it should come as no surprise that critics were not particularly impressed with Corigliano’s contribution either. “John Corigliano’s moody sonorous score…sits atop this absurdly misconceived film like a gravestone upon a corpse,” wrote The Westsider. The Christian Science Monitor labeled the score “garden-variety.” And Variety said it was “flavorful, but not enough to validate what is going on in front of it.” Surprisingly, the only critic to come to Corigliano’s defense was Page Cook. “John Corigliano has written for Revolution one of the great film scores,” wrote the notoriously acerbic critic. “[He] has met Hudson’s cinematic evocation with unerring ardor and finesse: Revolution is as ravishing to the ear as it is to the eye.” Cook further labeled it “magnificent…. a startingly original and galvanizing musical masterwork.”

Given his poor experience on Revolution, Corigliano said he was “not inclined” to pursue film composing steadily. Corigliano told RCA executive Peter Gelb, “Maybe I’ll just go back to my world which is what I know and I’m comfortable with.” And yet in a recent interview with NY1 television station, Corigliano stated that while “the finances were never acceptable to justify [composing for films full-time] in my mind,” he would love to compose a score for an animated film. “I have great affection for animation,” said Corigliano. “Those early Disney films have some of the most fantastic scores.”

Talk of Revolution resurfaced in a May 1994 Variety piece. The article stated that Pacino and Hudson were in discussions to recut and rerelease the film, believing “a good movie was lost because of rush post-production and both think it contains one of Pacino’s best performances.” Pacino had come under particularly harsh attack from critics during the film’s initial release, but he claimed, “That film wasn’t finished, it had another six months of work. It was like selling somebody a car without a motor. The audience saw something incomplete.” The proposed re-release never surfaced and the film has never been released on DVD in the U.S., though it did make an appearance on VHS and laserdisc.

Unlike with his scores for Altered States and The Red Violin, so far Corigliano has not arranged a concert work from the Revolution score, except for the usage in the First Symphony mentioned earlier. Yet victory is at hand regarding the original soundtrack album. The masters, which were long thought to have been lost, were discovered in 2007, mislabeled in a vault. An independent label is now in talks with Corigliano to release the score, once it is determined who owns the rights and who will receive the residuals.

Victorious news, indeed.

Published in Film Score Monthly Online, February 2008