The Revolutionary: Film Review

Tale of the Cultural Revolution is strictly for scholars and students.

An American citizen recalls being an insider during decades of Mao Zedong's rule in China.

A feature-length interview with "the most important foreigner in China since Marco Polo," Irv Drasnin's The Revolutionary tells how a leftist raised in 1920s South Carolina wound up becoming a member of China's Communist Party during some of that country's most turbulent years. As unadorned with artistry as a history textbook, the doc is most appropriate for educational settings; non-academics coming to it with a more than mild curiosity about the period, though, should appreciate its unique perspective.

Sounding like the veteran TV journalist he is, writer Drasnin (the film, as if in an odd communist organizational scheme, credits no one as director) provides narration that stitches together five years' worth of interviews with Sidney Rittenberg, who began working for labor rights in America while in college and, sent to China as a GI after World War II, wound up leaving the Army to advise the communists soon to win their civil war.

Asked to stay in China to help the country's leaders with Sino-U.S. relations, Rittenberg insisted on being made a member of the Communist Party. During more than three decades in China, he would enjoy the perks of top-level Party membership, briefly become a national celebrity, and endure two years-long stretches in prison. The turmoil of the Cultural Revolution is recounted in straightforward fashion here; if Rittenberg's anecdotes don't quite bring this time of factionalism and ideological persecution to life, they depict the scene from a perspective we've never heard before.

Looking back, Rittenberg is frank about moments when his unique position led him to make mistakes -- times when he should have spoken up to keep others from being demonized -- and he makes some sense of the contradictions that lead him to refer to Mao as "a great hero and a great criminal all rolled up into one." (He also makes time for personal recollections -- describing watching Laurel and Hardy films with Mao and recounting his sweet courtship of his second wife.) He's a smart, engaging interviewee, even if one suspects his story is made more compelling in the pages of his memoir, The Man Who Stayed Behind, than it is here.

Production Company: Sourwater Pictures
Screenwriter: Irv Drasnin
Producers:  Irv Drasnin, Lucy Ostrander and Don Sellers
Director of photography/Editor: Don Sellers
Music: Joel Goodman
No rating, 92 minutes