Catch a Falling Tsar

NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA is one possible answer to the question “What would a David Lean movie be like without David Lean?” A question nobody but Sam Spiegel would think to ask, I suspect. N&A may not be the best answer, but it’s the only one we have*. I assume Spiegel was jealous of his former star director’s box office triumph DOCTOR ZHIVAGO and thought he’d do one better.

Franklin J. Schaffner, who we like at least partly because his name is Franklin J. Schaffner — a name that positively chomps its own cigar — did some lively work on potentially lumbering epics like PLANET OF THE APES. He’d go handheld at unexpected moments. In PATTON we also see his flair for highly formal compositions to contrast with the explosive set-pieces. Well, the formal shots still turn up in N&A, but it could do with a shot of handheld chaos to get it on its feet.To speak of this film is to speak of tedium — the sheer amount of tedium makes it the film’s most interesting trait. One wouldn’t have thought it possible to cram so much boredom into a movie also containing a cast of thousands, a mad monk, one Russo-Japanese war, one world war, two revolutions, and both the cream of the British acting establishment and a lot of young and soon-to-be-nude hopefuls (Robin Askwith turns up just to rip the skin of a rabbit). And yet it’s quite remarkable how dull things are for long stretches.

Schaffner seems in awe of his material, so he’s on his best behaviour. Nobody’s at their best when they’re on their best behaviour. Designer John Box creates a very convincing Russia out of various Spanish and Yugoslav locations, but the great Freddie Young’s photography is surprisingly overlit much of the time. How did the wretched White Russians get their palaces to look like daytime soaps with only candles at their disposal. I don’t require the full BARRY LYNDON every time, but a bit of atmosphere would be welcome. (I’m only using the more gorgeous shots for this post — there are, admittedly, lots. But the movie only really impresses visually when it ventures outside, or when night falls, or when it’s dealing with the plotting Bolshies. (Michael Bryant makes a very good Lenin — his story would be worth telling.)And of course there’s Tom Baker’s Rasputin. If ever an actor and role were more suited on paper — Baker was an actual monk, ffs — I can’t think of the occasion. And while Baker is impressive and brings the stately proceedings to relative life (the only kind of life on offer), he’s actually disappointing compared to the version of “Tom Baker as Rasputin” that plays through my head when I think of that glorious phrase. I think it’s because all Old Greg’s atrocities, as portrayed here, are so mild and tasteful. His murder is pretty lurid — though utterly outdone by the Battle of the Barrymores in RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS. This one has lots of homoeroticism thrown in, though, including Tom making eyes (and WHAT eyes!) at a dragged-up flautist. It perks things up. Also some good snivelling hysteria from Michael Jayston’s ex-Tsar when he sees his missus for the first time after abdicating. Shame cuts the puppet emperor’s strings and he collapses lopsidedly. “I didn’t mean to do it!” is all kinds of pathetic. And he becomes human in our eyes for the first time.James Goldman (assisted or hampered by rewrites from Edward Bond) really can’t make us care about Tsar Nicky, an absolutely appalling leader combining weakness with arrogance, able to vacillate stubbornly and be obdurately spineless, neither of which should even be possible. The problem of “our son, the little bleeder” (if only they’d cast Burton & Taylor they might have gotten some healthy vulgarity into their show — but they’d probably still be shooting it) is supposed to make the royals sympathetic, but mainly it gives them a problem they can’t do anything about.

Goldman’s best idea is to show the Tsar becoming a better man after he abdicates, which is based on no particular historical evidence but at least gives him an arc. It doesn’t make much difference though, since the entire royal family is reduced to total helplessness at this point, passengers through their own story on their way to a historically foreordained execution.

For which Schaffner finally pulls out all the stops. His formal compositions are almost as striking here as in the celebrated opening of PATTON, and he milks the suspense — which ought to be nonexistent — a bunch of people with little personality who have done nothing effective or good for the previous three hours of screen time are about to die, and we know it’s going to happen — to breaking point. If it makes sense to milk something to breaking point. Can you break a cow? See NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA, the film that breaks a cow. NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA stars Lewis Carroll; Cleopatra; Emanuelle ‘Bunny’ O’Neill; Pola Ivanova; Ralph Gurney – 13th Earl of Gurney; Goneril; Koura; General Allenby; Mr. Tow-Wouse; ‘Maxim’ De Winter; Harry Dominion; Doctor B. N. Wallis, C.B.E., F.R.S.; Professor Harrington; Wick Blagdon; Peter Brock; Mrs. Chasen; Robert McKee; Lord Ludd; Bilbo Baggins; Leopold Mozart; Encolpio; Bumbo; Woodrow Wilson; Wernher Von Braun; Master Robert Shallow; Colonel Breen; Timothy Lea; Sherlock Holmes; and the voice of Colossus.

Or, to put it another way, since none of the up-and-coming young thesps strutting and fretting here went on to more big movies (not right away, anyway), we have the future stars of THE MUTATIONS: THE FLESH AND BLOOD SHOW; VAMPIRE CIRCUS; Hammer House of Horror; SCHIZO; CRAZE… eventually, of course, many of them hit their stride again, but it really doesn’t look like this movie helped anyone.

*I tell a lie: Akira Kurosawa thought he was going to be co-directing TORA, TORA, TORA with David Lean, but got Richard Fleischer instead. Then he quit, and they hired Kinji Fukasaku, making T,T,T both a Lean film without Lean and a Kurosawa film without Kurosawa. Enjoy!

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8 Responses to “Catch a Falling Tsar”

  1. It’s been a while since I saw it, but Klimov’s AGONY would be a useful comparison, since it feels like wandering in and out of various rooms of the palace and there’s little exposition to catch you up, but ends up being fascinating because it captures something of how the personalities involved saw themselves.

    Also, not sure how Edward Bond, of all people, got tasked with doing rewrites on this and it ending up so inert. He’s not to everyone’s tastes, but you can’t call his agit-prop boring. Does it just cancel out the earnest romanticism?

  2. Schaffner first won fame as a director for television. His credits there include the original rendition “The Legend of Lylah Clare” starring Tuesday Weld.

    The best thing in “Nicholas and Alexandra” is the scene h the yummy Richard Warwick as an anti-Rasputin conspirator.

  3. I like this film but I have to admit that it lacks character focus and development. It’s like all the time and effort went on cinematography, music, locations, epic scenes and the costumes. I love Michael Jayston and Tom Baker’s performances though.

  4. If, by some impossible fluke, this had been a hit, IMAGINE the Michael Jayston & Tom Baker star vehicles we could have had! Even as it is, I’m amazed Ken Russell didn’t snap Tom up for his repertory company. Instead he was mixing cement when Dr Who came calling.

    Not sure what Bond got to do, but maybe he was on the Lenin-Trotsky stuff. And it certainly feels like someone or something was sitting on Goldman, because we don’t get the funny and colourful dialogue that marks Robin and Marian and The Lion in Winter.

  5. It’s always amazed me that Michael Jayston never became a major leading actor. One of the best we’ve ever had, and this is one of his best performances.

  6. But not a star-making turn, alas: Nicholas has too many qualities the crowd is likely to find contemptible.

  7. Oo! Have you watched “The Romanoffs” on Prime? As an enormous fan of Mad Men I have no idea what to make of Matt Weiner’s new experiment in protracted trash, but the third episode “House Of Special Purpose” presents a Gothic hagsploitationesqe account of the shooting of a far more Ken Russely take on this story. I’m pretty sure I hate it (the show, not the film within) but I’d love to know what you think. It has a hell of a cast.

  8. Hmmm… sounds intriguing. We never got into Mad Men, though I have the whole thing sitting on a shelf in case we do.

    You do suggest a solution to the N&A problem, though: hire Ken!

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