Archive for Rasputin and the Empress

Catch a Falling Tsar

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 3, 2019 by dcairns

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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The Sunday Intertitle: Raven Mad

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on September 13, 2015 by dcairns

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Don’t chop the N off! The N is really important!

I’m a bit of a Charles Brabin fan, but until now I had really only seen his pre-code films. His career ended in 1934, as if he personally was unimaginable under the Hayes Code. Before then, he made THE MASK OF FU MANCHU with Boris Karloff and a nakedly sadistic Myrna Loy in yellowface; the best, grisly bits of RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS, which are still astonishingly extreme; and the vicious, fascistic BEAST OF THE CITY. Oh, I’ve seen a bit of TWINKLETOES from the silent era, and he did bits of the original BEN-HUR. But THE RAVEN is from 1915, way earlier. It’s interesting to see a filmmaker whose style I kind of know (Scouse maniac), working with material conducive to his dark talents, but in a much earlier period, when DW Griffith held illimitable dominion over all.

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It’s a Poe biopic, following hard on the heels of Griffith’s EDGAR ALLAN POE (1909) and THE AVENGING CONSCIENCE (1914), which adapted The Telltale Heart (with a bit of The Black Cat). Here, Brabin attempts to create a hybrid life story and adaptation of The Raven, throwing in a bit of William Wilson and a lot of delirium tremens for good measure. It’s basically a classy temperance film, which sits awkwardly with its other ambitious since the poem The Raven is not, so far as I can see, about alcoholism per se. Still, fun to see Poe’s rather unsuitably short stories being fleshed out using the same tricks Roger Corman and his scenarists would deploy in the sixties — conflate, insert, absorb, extrapolate, invent! We’ll get a feature out of this thing somehow!

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The movie begins with a weird history of Poe’s ancestors in little vignettes — a founding father comes up a beach while oars wave strangely in the background — are they drying them off? A revolutionary primes a pistol. Then the rot sets in: Poe’s immediate forebears are actors. A sad case of generational degeneration. What chance did the lad have?

Then we get a snippet of the Poe childhood, some shapeless excerpts from the admittedly somewhat shapeless life, and then the showstopper, the immortal poem hacked up into disconnected intertitles while star Henry B. Walthall (of BIRTH OF A NATION fame) staggers about bemoaning that fatal glass of beer. Good actor, Walthall — the only one in the cast to have absorbed Griffith’s ideas on underplaying, he seems shockingly modern compared to everyone he’s compelled to share scenes with. But left on his own, or with a confused corvid, he reverts to arm-waving a bit — who wouldn’t?

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Still, Brabin serves up some striking images, and I liked the looseness with which he goes from location to theatrical set and back, uncaring as to consistency. There are a lot of tricks with multiple exposures so Walthall can be haunted by the ghosts of lost loves, or face off against his Doppelganger. A bit more plot and Brabin would have really had something here — unfortunately Poe’s life doesn’t really provide much plot — he saved that for his fiction, which has consistently provided better source material than his earthly existence.

The Sunday Intertitle: Apocrypha and Marginalia

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2015 by dcairns

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Fiona and I thoroughly enjoyed our Easter viewing of the silent BEN-HUR (subtitled A TALE OF THE CHRIST) directed by Fred Niblo, though I suspect some good bits are by Charles Brabin, before he was removed. Brabin also did the best bits of RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS and again didn’t get a credit. Not a good politician, it seems, but a very good filmmaker.

All through this I was comparing it to the Wyler version and generally thinking “This isn’t obviously inferior in any way.” Radically different from Charlton Heston in every way, Ramon Novarro is still a good lead. There are a lot of spectacular sets and miniatures and matte paintings. There’s even a tracking shot with a foreground miniature in the build-up to the chariot race. The race itself is very exciting, but I get the impression they massacred horses to make it, whereas Wyler and Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt looked after their horses well — the one injured steed was nursed back to health over a period of months and was able to rejoin the race before the finish, so long was the shoot on that one sequence.

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The bit of the silent film that’s clearly superior is the battle at sea, with full-scale galley ships in a real sea with lots of real extras who pretended they could swim to get the job, and then found themselves bailing out of a burning vessel with every prospect of a watery death. Supposedly nobody perished, but the production was hauled back from Italy to Hollywood and Brabin was removed. Still, the scale and conviction of the scene is hugely impressive, and it benefits from not relying on miniatures and a studio tank. The good stuff in the Wyler is all basically real, as I think it should be in an epic.

But Wyler’s ending (not sure which of the various credited and uncredited screenwriters came up with it — it’s not in the novel) beats the Niblo, hands down. It’s all about how the films weave their narratives in and out of the New Testament. In the silent film, Jesus cures Ben-Hur’s mother and sister of leprosy while on his way to Golgotha, AND resurrects a baby to boot. “How can they crucify him after that?” asked Fiona. In the remake, the film’s recurring motif of water comes into play again, as rain falling on the bloody body of the crucified Christ flows to the lepers and heals them, which is an almost science-fictional speculation on how miraculous Christ actually was, but in keeping with the Catholic church’s bizarre, idolatrous fetish for holy relics (pieces of the cross, saints’ bones, etc). It’s cheeky, but it works — it allows for a stronger all-is-lost moment when the crucifixion occurs before “Cheston,” as Fiona calls him, can obtain a miracle cure for his family.

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The silent movie accompanies the crucifixion with some impressive but slightly irrelevant disaster-movie special effects, which we enjoyed. The effects team use the expanding cloud of dust to softly wipe between the slow-motion miniature and the full-scale crowd. It works even better than the flooding in the silent NOAH’S ARK.

Right after watching it, we re-watched the 1959 version of the chariot race, then I told Fiona that Stephen Boyd has the most agonizing death scene in film history, so of course she wanted to see that. It really is fantastic — very smartly written and played to the hilt by Boyd, always a very enthusiastic actor. It’s a shame THE OSCAR is so damned enjoyable because one should really remember Boyd (he of the Klingon forehead) for his many extremely good movie moments, not for his unconscious foray into campy trash.