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Like all right-thinking people, I was deeply saddened to learn that comic actor Gene Wilder had died. The news brought back memories of my childhood in the 70s, watching his movies with my older brothers in Milwaukee, the hometown I share with Wilder. Although Wilder’s film career ran from 1967 to 1991, he did his best work in the 1970s, managing to release two of his most famous works in 1974, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.


Wilder in his most iconic role

But of course, what Wilder will always be best known for is his delightfully charismatic performance as Willy Wonka in 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. In some ways it’s an unlikely film. Although it was inspired by the great children’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, the reason it got made into a movie is that Quaker Oats was looking for a vehicle to promote a new candy bar. Despite having no experience in film-making, Quaker bought the rights to the novel, renamed the new candy bar the Wonka Bar, and filmed the movie as publicity for its launch. That’s right. One of the greatest children’s movies ever was actually a massive exercise in product placement. The Wonka Bar was a bomb; it was released in 1971 and then quickly recalled because of problems with it, and the movie did poorly in the box office, but by the 1980s it had entered the canon of children’s films because of constant showings on television.

Wilder insisted that when Willy Wonka first appears, he seems to be near-invalid, leaning heavily on a cane, until he executes a somersault and reveals that he’s actually in good health. As Wilder realized, that moment would destabilize Wonka as a character, because the audience would never know if he was telling the truth or not. And it works brilliantly, setting up later scenes such as the frightening boat ride he subjects his guests to and even more importantly, the famous “You get nothing!” scene at the end. And the Wonka character plays perfectly to the two halves of Wilder’s screen persona, the calm, gentle, empathetic man and the man teetering on the edge of hysteria and total loss of control. It’s a performance for the ages. It is precisely what the best children’s literature offers, a combination of reassurance and uncertainty.

In contrast, the ill-conceived 2005 remake starring Johnny Depp failed to achieve that same quality because Depp’s Wonka is just weird. The film strips away all of Wonka’s mystery by giving him a complex back-story, father issues, and motives that pulled Wonka down to humanity where Wilder’s Wonka was some sort of supernatural tutelary deity given human form.

But this is a blog about movies and history, and so I want to call your attention to one of Wilder’s earliest films, a little known gem that holds a special place in my heart just beneath Willy Wonka.


Fun and Games with the French Revolution

Start the Revolution Without Me (1970, dir. Bud Yorkin) was only Wilder’s third film, and only his second in a leading role. It’s a parody of films and literature set in the Ancien Regime of 18th century France. It’s only nominally about history, but it’s a glorious romp through a lot of clichés about the French past.


It opens with Orson Welles, that 1970s symbol of high-brow respectability, gazing at a French chateau. “Hello, I’m Orson Wells. It’s lovely, isn’t it? The summer palace of Louis XVI. You know, historians have recently discovered a previously unknown fact concerning this palace, an event that almost changed the entire history of Western Europe. Did you know that the entire French revolution could have been avoided? It’s true. No one knows what took place there. It’s an event of such importance that men of integrity and may I say considerable resources made a film on the subject. It’s a color film, which I am not in.”

The premise of the film is that in the mid-18th century, a traveling Corsican nobleman and his pregnant wife are forced to stop at a small inn so his wife can give birth. At luck would have it, a peasant woman is also giving birth, and both women produce twin boys. Unable to figure out which boys are which, the harried doctor gives one of each set of twins to each father.

As a result, Wilder and co-star Donald Sutherland each play half of two sets of brothers, the cowardly but well-meaning peasants Claude and Charles Coupe, and the haughty, ruthless noblemen Philippe and Pierre de Sisi, the best swordsmen in all of Corsica. Louis XVI (Hugh Griffith) is a bumbling king dominated by his wife Marie (Billie Whitelaw) and the ruthless Duc d’Escargot (Victor Spinetti). Louis summons the de Sisi brothers to Paris because he wants them to kill Escargot, but Escargot intercepts the message and uses it to persuade the de Sisis to kill Louis instead. He plans to offer the brothers half of France while he marries Marie and rules the other half.


Sutherland and Wilder as the de Sisi brothers

The de Sisis travel to Paris disguised as peasants, not realizing that revolutionaries, including the reluctant Coupe brothers, are planning to attack the boat they’re on because it’s carrying weapons and ammunition that they need for their rebellion. In the confusion of the attack, naturally the rebels mistake the de Sisis for the Coupes and drag them off to their hidden base while Escargot’s men mistake the Coupes for the de Sisis and take them to the palace.

From there, the Coupes stumble their way through the intrigues of Louis’ court, where everyone seems determined to persuade the Coupes to kill someone else. Escargot is planning to marry Princess Christina of Belgium, because that will give him the Belgian army and allow him to kill Louis, marry Marie, and rule France, but only if Louis’ plan to have Pierre kill Escargot, marry Christina, and use the Belgian army to help him get rid of Marie doesn’t happen first. Marie wants Claude to kill Escargot, marry Christina, use the Belgian army to kill Louis, then kill Christina, marry Marie, and help her rule France. You get the idea.

The characters are drawn with broad strokes and make use of all sorts of tropes from French literature. Whitelaw’s Marie is a sex-crazed woman who is juggling multiple lovers simultaneously, including seemingly the entirety of the palace guard, and Louis is too addled to realize it; in one scene he fails to notice Marie and Escargot making out right next to him in his own bed.

Louis is kindly, but utterly incompetent. In one of my all-time favorite movie scenes, he shows up to a formal ball dressed as a chicken, because, as he spends the rest of the scene explaining to people, he thought it was a costume ball.


Whitelaw and Griffith as Marie and Louis

Escargot is a sneering villain, given to absurd extended metaphors such as “The brains of a chicken, coupled with the claws of an eagle, may well hatch the eggs of our destruction.” And that’s one of the simple ones. Here’s a scene where he verbally spars with the Coupes masquerading as the de Sisis.

The film borrows liberally from historical fiction, including Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Alexandre Dumas’ The Corsican Brothers and The Man in the Iron Mask. It doesn’t particularly care that the Man in the Iron Mask belongs to the 17th century, not the 18th century.

The twin roles of Claude and Philippe allow Wilder to channel the two halves of his comic persona as well as Willy Wonka does. Claude is simply a decent man trying to survive his unusual circumstances, while Philippe is a leather-clad sadist barely able to control himself. Rosalind Knight has a number of brilliant scenes as his desperate, put-upon wife Helene that tell us more than we want to know about Philippe’s sexual habits. “You said we weren’t going to do the Choir Boy and the Monk any more! You said you wanted to do the Woodchopper and the Shepherdess! How many costumes do you expect me to pack?” (Apparently, that costume required her to pack a small flock of sheep.)


Poor Helene!

Start the Revolution Without Me shares a number of qualities with another comic gem from the same period, 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Both are nominally historic films with the stars playing multiple roles. Both borrow liberally from literature but without much concern for accuracy. Both employ parody of historical documentaries in which the narrator is killed by a character from the documentary he’s narrating, and neither film has a conventional ending. As a result, both wind up using the instability of genre conventions as a key comic tool. It would not surprise me to learn that Revolution helped inspire Holy Grail.

But where Holy Grail is fundamentally absurdist, Revolution is essentially slapstick. There’s a great deal of pratfalling and mistaken identity. The film culminates in a comic chase in which the Coupe brother are trying to flee the palace along with Princess Christina and Claude’s fiancée Mimi (as well as a charter of reform they’ve persuaded Louis to sign), while the de Sisis are trying to sneak into the palace to kill Escargot. At the same time the revolutionaries are trying to storm the palace and Louis and Marie are just trying to survive.

The slapstick element of Revolution hasn’t aged as well as the absurdism of Holy Grail, which is perhaps the reason that the former has faded from the popular mind while Holy Grail has become a classic. But if you’re in the mood to revisit Wilder’s career, you should give it a look; it’s available on iTunes. Even though I’ve seen the film numerous times, re-watching it last night gave me a number of laugh-out-loud moments that reminded me of what a joy Gene Wilder’s best work really is.

Goodbye, Mr. Wilder. Thank you for giving me so many laughs.

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Want to Know More?

Start the Revolution Without Me is available on Amazon. While you’re at it, pick up Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory too. There’s also his lovely memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger