History according to Hollywood is anything but accurate; perhaps not such an unusual predilection, considering that most about Hollywood itself is steeped in a mythology deliberately designed to obfuscate the more unflattering reality. Now to be fair, Hollywood did not invent the concept of telling a tall tale. It did, however, make the truth just a little bit harder to discern and/or separate from the fantasy. As more are inclined to go to the movies than investigate the facts about ancient civilizations for themselves, historical epics manage to create their own faux history; fanciful melo-theatrics that, in effect, become our shimmering portholes to the past.
The curiosity, of course, is that the epic has always been grounded in truth – just enough to mask its disingenuousness. The best of them anesthetize us with their spectacular resurrection of another time more gallant than our own. For a few hours we can live in that fabricated world, with provisions outlined by Hollywood, while having the benign satisfaction of knowing how it will all turn out in the end.
Resurrecting history through the cinematic lens is one thing. Reviving an historical tragedy is quite another. Few can rival the apocalyptic finality that befell Tsar Nicholas Romanov II and his family on July 17th, 1918. The fate of the Romanovs is a watershed chapter in antiquity, not simply because it forever altered the course of a nation, but also due to the fact that so much of what had occurred back then was never divulged by the newly formed totalitarian U.S.S.R. The seismic shift that was the Russian Revolution therefore remained hidden from those living beyond its borders, generating a very palpable nervousness in the west that would eventually escalate into the ‘Cold War’.
As a result, most stories told about that ancient flower that was Imperial Russia and its monarchical demise tend to focus on the lavish aristocracy doomed to self-destruct, and on the rumored ‘disappearance’ of the tsar’s youngest daughter, Anastasia, who may or may not have survived the fate of her family to live out the rest of her days in exile. The fact that Anastasia’s remains were never discovered, even after the exhumation of the rest of the family’s bones from their unmarked graves in 1989, gave rise to a particular fascination with her story; rife for just the sort of enchanted fairytale Hollywood loves to tell and re-tell. Perhaps intuitively, American film makers have felt a kinship to the revolution even at its start; America having suffered its own upheaval during the Civil War. The south, a crippled remnant of its former cavalier glories, in many ways mirrors the total collapse of the Russian monarchy; the assassination of Abraham Lincoln a fascinating parallel to Nicholas’ similar fate.
Based on Robert K. Masse’s incomplete research – for no other kind was possible so long as the iron curtain remained in place - Franklin J. Schaffner’s Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) is an ambitious attempt to resurrect the Romanov dynasty in all its final flourish and culture-shattering implosion. The screenplay by James Goldman is a melodrama first and foremost, something of an ill-fated Anna Karenina-styled romance second, while remaining steadfast and true to the blinding opulence of an old fashioned Hollywood epic.
Yet Nicholas and Alexandra never triumphs in its primary objective; to unequivocally entertain. Instead, and almost immediately, the narrative devolves into a picturesque travelogue; glossy, but decidedly disengaged as anything more than a very sumptuous, though statuesque waxworks. Part of the problem is the film’s central casting of Michael Jayston and Janet Suzman to play the doomed monarchs. Jayston and Suzman are accomplished stage actors to be sure. Yet neither seems to rise above a stolid imperiousness. Austerity is arguably a hallmark of any 19th century monarchy. But intimacy between Nicholas and his queen is absent; moreover, wholly vacant from Nicholas’ interaction with his children; Alexei (Roderic Nobel), Tatiana (Lynne Frederick), Olga (Ania Marson), Maria (Candace Glendenning) and Anastasia (Fiona Fullerton).
By all historical accounts, Nicholas II was not an enigmatic ruler. That much of the characterization Jayston has made right. But Nicholas was arguably a devoted father and husband who loved his family very much. That is what is missing from Jayston’s portrait. To observe Jayston throughout the film is to marvel at just how petrified a stick of kindling can become. The actor is wooden to a fault, very much looking, though hardly living his part. Worse, he gestures like a stage marionette, arms spread wide or clenched at the fist; lips frozen so that we can never quite tell whether he is perturbed or pleased.
Suzman’s portrait of Alexandra is even more perplexingly dull; veering from an emotionless regal consort into some grand desperation as her vigils with Father Grigori Rasputin (Tom Baker) gradually become an exercise in self-denial. Nicholas and Alexandra would have greatly benefited from more recognizable American stars to fill these leads. In 1932, MGM cast the three Barrymores to fit the bill in Rasputin and the Empress. In 1956 Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner made a handsome pair of pretenders to the throne, opposite Helen Hayes in Anastasia. But Nicholas and Alexandra lacks any star half as enigmatic and the film suffers greatly as a result.
Immediately following Richard Rodney Bennett’s austere main title, our story begins with Alexei’s birth. The only male heir born to the house of Romanov, Alexei will one day inherit his father’s kingdom. Alas, the devil’s hand is in the deed. For Alexei has been born with a rare and extreme form of hemophilia. Nicholas’ mother, Marie Federovna (Irene Worth) quietly holds Alexandra responsible, as does Nicholas for a time – a burden upon her conscience that leaves the new mother feeling physically wan, emotionally fragile and utterly insecure.
At the same time Nicholas’ devotion to family is strained by his involvement in the Russo-Japanese War. He is encouraged to withdraw from the conflict by his advisors Count Witte (Laurence Olivier) and the Grand Duke Nicholas (Harry Andrews). The war has been a mistake – one embarked upon to assert Russia’s dominance. But it has also cost too many soldiers and civilian their lives and strained the coffers of the Imperial treasury. Meanwhile, talk of ending the monarchy is afoot thanks to the formation of a political underground led by Vladimir Lenin (Michael Bryant), Joseph Stalin (James Hazeldine) and Leon Trotsky (Brian Cox). These intellectuals and their radical followers have begun to chip away at Nicholas’ autocracy. But they are also trying his patience. At the very least, they are demanding a Duma (parliamentary governing body) to represent the Russian people.
At court, life goes on as usual. Grand parties are given and the royals entertain their closest friends. But many frowns upon Alexandra – a Germanic princess - particularly after war is declared between Germany and Russia, but even more so when she is befriended by Rasputin; a self-described religious pilgrim. Just who and what Rasputin is, and how important he becomes to the house of Romanov is at the crux of Nicholas’ toppling from power. Apart from his inexplicable faculty to momentarily subdue Alexei’s hemophilia, Rasputin is a lascivious debaucher, prone to every sinful weakness of human desire that his mind can concoct. His closeness to Alexandra breeds filthy rumors among the aristocracy. These eventually trickle down to the people, who begin to suspect wild carousing and incest occurring inside the palace; wanton revelry that is an affront to Russian culture, but also seems to fly condescendingly in the face of their own abject starvation and suffrage under the most squalid living conditions.
We jump ahead to Bloody Sunday – the accidental slaughter of peaceful demonstrators fronted by a priest, Father George Gapon (Julian Glover) while marching on the Winter Palace to protest their deplorable conditions at a textile mill. Nicholas is not at the palace when they arrive. In his absence the Royal Guard is assembled to protect the gates. When the commanding officer is thrown from his horse panic ensues and the soldiers fire randomly into the fleeing crowd. Although horrified by the number of casualties, Nicholas later admits that he would not have upheld the people’s petition for reform.
Understandably, Nicholas and Alexandra has a lot of ground to cover. However, the transitions, made for obvious time constraints, are not entirely successful. Immediately following Bloody Sunday we advance eight years into the future; the 300th anniversary of the house of Romanov and the family’s summer holiday at the Livadia Palace. This segue is problematic, since it not only foreshortens the time between Nicholas’ reluctant acceptance of the Duma and his eventually dismantling of it (that took years), but it also suggests a rather callous disregard for the Bloody Sunday massacre by juxtaposition; a wicked carnage opposite an escapist summer holiday for the royals in the Crimea.
Alexei has developed a close personal bond with Naval Sailor Nagorny (John Hallam) appointed as his bodyguard/protector by Nicholas. In the meantime Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin (Eric Porter) arrives with good news. He tells the family that Nicholas’ commissioning of the Duma to grant some of the people’s requests has created newfound respect for the monarchy. However, once along Stolypin also shares various police reports with Nicholas that attest to Rasputin’s perversities. These have done much to damage Nicholas’ reputation. On a spur of the moment, Nicholas has had enough. He banishes Rasputin from his court; a move that infuriates Alexandra, who demands his immediate return. Nicholas, however, refuses.
As the tercentenary celebrations kick into high gear, the family prepares for another season of grand parties. However, when Stolypin is shot during a royal performance inside Kiev’s opera house Nicholas makes a fatal error in judgment. Determining that by allowing his people their freedoms they have come to regard him as an impotent ruler, Nicholas retaliates with a show of autocratic force: uprooting and executing the conspirators responsible for Stolypin’s assassination, dissolving the Duma and ordering his secret police to seek out treason against the state by terrorizing the peasants and burning their homes.
Alexei suffers an accident at the family’s hunting lodge in Spala and begins to bleed internally. The court physicians are powerless to slow the progression of his hemophilia and even predict that he will die. Desperate to save her only son, Alexandra writes Rasputin who responds with an air of confidence that indeed allows for the boy’s recovery. Meanwhile, as World War I begins Germany declares war on Russia. Realizing the perilous state his military is in, but unable to retreat from this declaration of war, Nicholas amasses his troops to march toward the front line. In his most egregious lapse in judgment yet, Nicholas decides to command the troops himself, believing that with his guidance they will undoubted rise to the occasion and smite the enemy onward toward victory.
In Nicholas’ absence however, unsubstantiated rumors once again begin to fly that Alexandra and Rasputin are lovers and that he has become involved in fornication with the Tsar’s daughters. Since the people have never been told of Alexei’s perilous condition the rumors take a more concrete hold this time and the general mood toward the monarchy quickly sours. Nicholas’ mother makes her way to the front lines. He is glad to see her until she begins chiding him for the irresponsible way he has managed his affairs – both foreign and domestic, fueling Nicholas’ hatred of Rasputin once again.
On nothing more than a drunken whim Grand Duke Dmitri (Richard Warwick) and Prince Felix Yusupov (Martin Potter) plot their own conspiracy against Rasputin. They invite him to an opium party in their cellar and then employ various means – including poison, guns and knives to murder him. Rasputin, however, is not so easily killed, fueling the fearful rumor that he was a true emissary of God after all. Learning of Rasputin’s fate, Alexandra becomes inconsolable. The slow erosion of the people’s faith in their monarchy manifests itself in worker strikes everywhere. The Royal Guard dissolve, leaving Alexandra and the children unprotected in St. Petersburg.
Nicholas awakens to discover that his forces, after months of remaining ever devoted to his cause, but with no tangible end to the conflict or their starvation and suffrage, have abandoned him. He begins the long journey home, but is caught by revolutionaries who force an abdication at Mogilev. When Alexei learns of this he becomes withdrawn, believing that the family will soon meet with an untimely end. To hasten his own, Alexei attempts suicide by throwing himself on a sled down a flight of stairs. This misguided act reactivates his hemophilia but it does not kill him.
The family and their court physician Dr. Botkin (Timothy West) and Nagorny are taken to Siberia under military guard. However, in late 1917 Russia falls to the Bolshevik Party. The family is placed under house arrest and transferred to the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg where they endure under Yakov Yurovsky (Alan Webb); a vial task master. A few of the guards try to rough up Alexei. When Nagorny intervenes he is physically assaulted, then taken away to be executed.
The family gathers together to reminisce over letters and photographs previously denied them by their captors. It is a fleeting moment of solidarity, however. That evening everyone is awakened in the dead of night and told to dress and assemble in the basement for passport photographs. Nicholas and the rest of the family oblige. Only after the family has been properly posed Yurovsky enters the room with riflemen, opening fire and murdering the Romanovs in cold blood.
In these final moments Nicholas and Alexandra visually disappoints. The assassination of the royal family is handled through a series of quick cuts; terrified faces grimacing in preparation of the inevitable, before an excruciatingly long shot of the execution squad firing off their rounds, and then a slight camera pan and tilt to the wall behind the bodies made bloody and bullet holed by their handy work. Yet this penultimate moment lacks the visceral essentialness to elevate it from mere slaughter to grandiose human tragedy. There is no overwhelming weight to the scene; no hint that a way of life has not merely ended, but died along with the Romanovs. Instead, the film quietly concludes on this decidedly dower note without any emotional presence to emphasize either the brutality or permanency of the event.
Nicholas and Alexandra is a visually arresting film. In retrospect, its best aspects are Freddie Young’s cinematography and John Box’s impeccable production design; neither ever faltering nor second rate. But big sets and sumptuous photography do not a great motion picture make, and I am very much afraid that apart from these irreproachable pluses the film very much lacks anything further to make it a mesmerizing – or even modestly compelling – movie going experience. Having long been fascinated with Russian history in general and this tragic chapter of it in particular, it is difficult for me to dismiss Nicholas and Alexandra outright as a glossily photographed, though undeniably flatly performed failure.
And there are other aspects of this production that I greatly admire too; the conciseness of James Goldman’s screenplay for one – that occasionally suffers from sloppy transitions, but overall manages the near impossible coup of covering 25 of the most turbulent years in Russia’s history in just under four hours. The actors, as I have already pointed out, are competent – if not convincing – in their performances. Make no mistake: Nicholas and Alexandra is a solidly crafted epic. But in retrospect its artistic milieu seems more workmanlike, lacking the creative synergy to truly inspire, compel and thoroughly satisfy the viewer. One can be momentarily spellbound by the grandeur of the exercise, though rarely – if ever – moved by it.
I tend to disagree with Roger Ebert’s assessment; that “the problem with Nicholas and Alexandra is that it considers the Russian Revolution from, in some ways, the least interesting perspective.” In fact, the film is unique in the perspective taken – attempting a sort of artistic salvation or cinematic apology for the royals – represented herein as utterly flawed, but misguidedly benevolent to a fault and their own detriment. David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago already gave us the revolution from the people’s perspective. It would have been ill-advised to foster a similar approach. Perhaps the greatest criticism bestowed upon the film is that it treads on all too familiar territory in an all too familiar way. Ironically then, it is a literal faithfulness to history that becomes Nicholas and Alexandra’s downfall as filmed entertainment.
Nicholas and Alexandra has been given a limited release from Sony on Blu-ray through Twilight Time. No one will be able to fault the transfer. Prepare to be astonished by an impeccable – and virtually flaw free – visual presentation. Colors are sumptuously rendered. Reds and blues pop with a vivid brilliance that will make one pine for the days when visually resplendent movies like this were a dime a dozen. Contrast is bang on. Flesh tones are beautiful. One minor quibbling: the darkest scenes occasionally suffer from a minor crushing of blacks. Otherwise this disc will satisfy even the most discerning videophile. You are in for a treat.
I can’t exactly say the same for the audio. While Sony has done a spectacular job remastering the original mono mix in DTS, it would have been an impressive venture to have them go back to the original stems and do a fresh 5.1 surround. Indeed, as I watched Nicholas and Alexandra there were several moments where the visuals positively screamed for a more spatial kick to the surrounds and subwoofer. A missed opportunity – and one unlikely to be rectified any time soon - if ever. Sony has included several vintage featurettes that were also released on their old DVD from 2002 and one welcomed bonus – Richard Rodney Bennett’s score on an isolated track where it can be appreciated for its meticulous craftsmanship. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)