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The Revolutionary

     We're talking about the byzantine time that Hollywood majors, reeling from the indie success of Easy Rider (1970), were throwing money at any movie which claimed to have a finger on anti-establishment protest. That includes baloney like The Strawberry Statement (1970), and flawed but imposing works like Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point (1970). And that's the only reason why Paul Williams's dimwitted take on campus activism, The Revolutionary (1970)could have been greenlighted by United Artists.

     The project started with screenwriter Hans Koningsberger's same-titled 1967 novel, situated not in get-out-of-Vietnam America but in an unnamed, abstract, turn-of-the-century European country. There, the estranged student protagonist called A ("It was perhaps because his name started with an A, but certainly not from any attempt at secrecy") joins the Revolutionary Party and wrestles with whether to bloody himself for political change.

     How the American scene has altered since the book's pre-Me Generation era of publication! The 1970 Popular Library paperback includes, as ad copy on the back cover, assurance that this is "A Novel That Speaks for All Young Revolutionaries Today." Right on! However, those radical activists who saw the movie version in 1970 (not many, The Revolutionary was a box-office disaster) surely were enraged at being so miserably represented. Jon Voight's "A" is an oaf, a mumbling, directionless boob. "A" for ass. The novel's Raskolnikov has a broken leg because he was pushed off a wall by a fascist browncoat. In contrast, Voight's clownish "A" has slipped and fallen at a demonstration. A banana-peel insurgent.

     Hot off Midnight Cowboy (1969), Voight cools off as this apple-cheeked lost soul meandering about in a Salvation Army-style raincoat. Unable to communicate with an ungiving dad (Warren Stanhope), a tweedy Wasp enwrapped in his newspaper, "A" finds alternative father figures in the hazy left-wing underworld: a Marxist labor unionist(Robert Duvall), a shaggy-mustached, violence-prone anarchist (Seymour Cassel). In the meantime, he walks out on his student political group, abandons his hippy chick (Collin Wilcox Paxton), and takes up with a naïve rich girl (Jennifer Salt). He's a flake, who, though his ideology is a muddle, finds time to paint importantly on a wall: "Capitalism is a carnivorous flower."

     At the end, this messed-up young man stands outside a building with dynamite in his briefcase, pondering whether to blow up/not blow up a supposed class enemy who will soon exit. What does he do? The Revolutionary's conclusion is as frustrating as everything else in this movie. Too bad The Revolutionary is not a better artifact of the late 1960s, especially since Harvard is unveiling its own virginal print, a 35mm beauty, seemingly donated years ago to the Archive by the filmmaker himself.

     Who is Paul Williams? I don't know much. He might have gone to Harvard. He made a previous Jon Voight-starring movie, Out of It (1969), and, afterward, he directed low-budget works, including Nunzio (1978). The Williams movie I'd most like brought back is Dealing: or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues (1972), a marijuana-running cross-country road trip from a novel by "Michael Douglas," actually Michael Crichton.

(August, 2002)

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