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PROFESSIONAL film critics and motion picture moguls have long proclaimed the death of the Big Hollywood movie. Grand spectacles like Intolerance, Ben Hur, War and Peace and Cleopatra are said to be relics of another era that has ended because of changed audience tastes and a lack of money in the large studios. But each year there are new examples of the staying-power and constant appeal of such pictures. Nicholas and Alexandra proves that the public hasn't tired of gazing humbly at larger-than-life historical personalities on the big silver screen.
Luckily however, Nicholas and Alexandra has more going for it than just a generous budget. It was directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, a man who is usually in solid control of his cameras and last year guided Patton to a virtual sweep of the Academy Awards (Hollywood likes to reward success). It also concerns a subject and a period that fascinates Americans: the Russian Revolution. Almost everyone west of Berlin shares various illusions about the nature of the Russian people, if only because Russia has always deliberately shielded itself from foreign scrutiny. The average American is eager to view the origins of the United States' chief competitor in the world (witness the popularity of Dr. Zhivago). In addition, the film has been well cast and no effort has been spared in making it as visually authentic (and lavish) as possible.
The movie, based on Robert K. Massie's historical novel of the same title, focuses on the giants of the revolutionary period. Lenin, Trotsky and Kerensky are set against Tsar Nicholas II, his German wife Alexandra, their four pure daughters and a son, Alexis, who is crippled by hemophilia. There is Grigori Rasputin, the Siberian starets whose mystical healing powers and divine judgment endeared him to the Tsarina. This placed him in a position of immense power within the government, despite his fanatical ambitions and licentious behavior. And there are Nicholas' ministers and advisers, his generals and soldiers. All of these people struggle with each other against the background of the Russo-Japanese War, the mounting discontent of the Russian people, World War I and finally the Bolshevik takeover in 1917.
But this same plethora of characters and events forces Schaffner to treat some of them superficially, despite the length of the film (three and one half hours including intermission). The oppression of the peasants, the "Red Sunday" massacre of 1905 and the manuverings of the Communist leaders appear almost as footnotes to the life of Nicholas and Alexandra. And the movie succumbs to the temptation of introducing famous figures just for the shock appeal; we hardly see Joseph Stalin at all after he boyishly introduces himself to Lenin's wife at a Party meeting.
The main characters also suffer from this cardboard figure effect. Michael Jayston and Janet Suzman are extremely good in the title roles, but one doesn't believe they were quite as shallow and naive as their lines indicate. One also wishes that the screenwriter had not put so many "Nicky" and "Sunny" references in the script; even though Nicholas II was a weak monarch not everyone could have had the audacity to call the Tsar of all the Russians "Nicky." Even Haldeman, Kissinger and Mitchell have admitted that they always call Nixon "Mr. President," never "Dick."
Nicholas is of course the central figure. He was weak in character and judgment, an old-fashioned autocrat surrounded by decaying institutions, unable to cope with the new ideas and technological improvements that were completely changing his own 19th-century world. The revolution that had rocked Europe in both philosophic and industrial terms since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 did not penetrate the unfriendly borders of Russia. Nicholas felt a token Parliament, the Duma, would stem the revolutionary tide of 1905. He approved a nationalistic birthday celebration of the 300th year of Romanov reign and relaxed in his luxurious train on a trip into the country, saying in the movie, "I didn't want to come on this trip, but my God I do love it when they (the peasants) stand and wave." He launched his country into World War I with the belief that sheer weight of Russian numbers could overcome superior German railroads, supplies and weapons.
Nicholas was dominated by his wife, his mother and near the end of the movie, even his young son denounces him for abdicating the throne. In fairness to Nicholas, it is improbable that any Tsar could have done much better given the conditions of Russia at the beginning of the 20th century. But Nicholas was certainly guilty of insensitivity and deliverate isolation from the problems of his people and the effects of his decisions. There is a good scene in which the Tsar is on his way back to Moscow for trial (a journey that is of course interrupted by the execution of Nicholas and his family at Ekaterinburg), and, in a brief discussion with the chief guard, Nicholas Romanov begins to realize the hatred Russia feels for him and the reason he is called "Bloody Nicholas."
There are other very good scenes: Nicholas on his knees apologizing to Alexandra for abdicating; Lenin's triumphant entry into the St. Petersburg train station where he has come to seize the power that was "lying on the streets waiting to be picked up;" the beginning of the First World War just before Intermission, where pictures of Europe's diplomats and monarchs disolve into each other to the sound of marching soldiers and national anthems.
THE ACTING is all very competent, and sometimes superlative. Laurence Olivier is excellent as an aging Count Witte, urging Nicholas not to order mobilization and start a war that would surely change the nature of the world while killing millions for a worthless cause. Alan Webb and Jack Hawkins also turn in good performances. Tom Baker is very fine as the lewd and mysterious Rasputin whose deep blue eyes meant the ruin of many good diplomats and the violation of even more young women. All the characters possess a remarkable physical similarity to their historical conterparts; in Lenin's case the resemblance is phenomenal.
This is a family picture, rated GP and devoid of excessive violence or serious sexuality. It is a dramatization of the past, better than The Sound of Music but not equal to Gone With the Wind. Some on the left might quarrel with its simplistic treatment of the Revolution and its causes, but the movie is basically fair, and probably harmless. In an interview with The New York Post several weeks ago, Schaffner said that he lost more weight during the filming of Nicholas and Alexandra (17 pounds) than during the making of Patton (10 pounds). Perhaps he was worried that instead of giving him an Oscar this year they will take last year's away and give it to someone else more deserving: Charlie Chaplin, perhaps?
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