' Cinema Romantico: Sweet Liberty

Monday, July 05, 2010

Sweet Liberty

Not until its recent release on DVD had I ever heard of Alan Alda's 1986 writing and directing effort, "Sweet Liberty", and this surprises me because I fancy myself an (extremely) amateur Revolutionary War buff and I had seen nearly every movie there is to see from that time period, all of which left me underwhelmed. But "Sweet Liberty" seemed rife with serious potential. Alda is Michael Burgess, an American history professor at a South Carolina college, who has written a successful book on the Revolutionary War heroine Mary Slocumb that has been optioned by a Hollywood studio for a movie. And now the filmmakers have descended upon this sleepy southern college town to film it.

Straight away, however, Burgess meets the screenwriter (a hammy Bob Hoskins) who lets him read the script and it does not take long for Burgess to realize the movie's director, played by Saul Rubinek, has slashed and burned his book. The premise has been crafted into a colonial rom com wherein Mary Slocumb falls in love with British General Banastre Tarleton. Now....

Tarleton was just a bit of a, shall we say, murderous rogue. His nickname became "Bloody" Tarleton and perhaps his most infamous contribution to the War of Independence was the Waxhaw Massacre (as its called in American texts) in which a Virginia colonel raised the white flag but, through a fortuitous circumstance in which Tarleton's men briefly thought their General was dead, proceeded to, uh, massacre the colonists - 113 of them. And Tarleton admitted as much afterwards. To say it another way, the characater Jason Issacs played in the mostly awful Mel Gibson-starring Revolutionary War epic "The Patriot" was based, in part, on Tarleton. So imagine that character in a rom com with Michelle Pheiffer and there you go.

This is funny. Well, to me. Maybe to you. I can't say for certain. It's for you to decide. But I loved watching Alan Alda stand off to the side and become more and more incensed by the flagrant historical inaccuracies.

-"Why is in he red?"
-"He's British."
-"Tarleton wore green. They CALLED him the Green Dragoon."


The possibilites of a backstage Hollywood historical saga gone spectacularly wrong, when also taking into account the pompous, adventure seeking leading man Elliot James (Michael Caine), seemed endless and, thus, it's disconcerting to find Alda turning away from these possiblities time and again to make more than half the movie very, very lite Woody Allen, focusing on the relationship between Burgess and his fellow professor, Gretchen Carlson (Lise Hillboldt) who - we learn through an opening scene filled with such on-the-nose dialogue it would make Robert McKee slit his wrists - are engaged in an ongoing, sitcom-y tug of war as to whether or not they should move in together. Not to mention Alda also includes a subplot involving his character's ancient mother (the legendary Lillian Gish) who remains forever hung up on an old beau who, in fact, never liked her to begin with, fled from her and got married.

The conclusion centers on a re-enactment of the Battle of Cowpens (perhaps the colonies' greatest victory from a strategic standpoint in the Revolution) that the director wishes to instead transform into a Marx Brothers-esque bit of hijinks complete with explosions. Instead Alda's Burgess and the extras revolt and re-enact the battle as history dictates. This is a promising idea that, like the rest of the movie, is executed poorly. For instance, throughout the film Burgess and James have fencing tete-a-tetes, with James winning each time. This ending was screaming for a payoff of Burgess finally winning the fencing duel but it's nowhere to be found.

Unwieldy, unfocused and maybe just a bit of Alan Alda wanting to write himself a romantic role opposite Michelle Pheiffer (who can blame him?) "Sweet Liberty" is kind of a reflection of what might have happened had Charles Lee succeeded in his vile plot to succeed George Washington as Commander In Chief. (Ha ha!!!) Or, how about this? Just see David Mamet's "State and Main" instead. It's waaaaaaaay better.

No comments: