In the aftermath of two extraordinary epics relating to Russian history – Sir David Lean’s adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago” (1965) and Sergei Bondarchuk’s mammoth presentation of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” (released in the USA in 1968) – it is easy to overlook Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1971 version of Robert K. Massie’s acclaimed biography on the fall of the Romanov dynasty. Unlike the earlier works, “Nicholas and Alexandra” never truly resonated with audiences, despite snagging two Academy Awards and four other nominations including a Best Picture nod.
Yes, “Nicholas and Alexandra” lacks the romantic passion of “Doctor Zhivago” and the grand sweep of “War and Peace.” But on its own terms, it is an intelligent (if not thoroughly accurate) consideration of the Russian monarchy’s deep failings.
“Nicholas and Alexandra” begins with Tsar Nicholas II pushing his beleaguered military into a war with Japan over control of Korea, a territory that had no great significance to Russian economic security and created no national pride to the Russian people. The lethal failure of the Tsar’s army in the Russo-Japanese War was later compounded by Nicholas’ incompetent management of his nation’s military campaign in the early stages of World War I. The Russian people, who were exhausted by wars and the miserable social conditions that they were forced to endure, found a wholly unsympathetic Tsar who preferred to have his troops shoot protestors and shut down the mostly toothless Duma (the Russian parliament). Indeed, the Tsar was so clueless that he failed to recognize the overwhelming lack of public love when the Romanov dynasty mandated public celebrations in 1913 of its tercentenary.
While Nicholas’ reign slowly deteriorated, ragtag revolutionaries led by Lenin and Trotsky began to plant the seeds of discord among the disenfranchised Russian people. A convenient target for public scorn was the Tsarina Alexandra, a German-born royal whose faith in the dubious monk Rasputin – he claimed curative powers over the hemophiliac heir Alexei – started a scandal that the Tsar’s secret police was unable to stamp out. Eventually forced from power in the 1917 revolution, the Romanovs were imprisoned in Siberian poverty by Bolshevik forces before being executed out of fear that they would be liberated by White Russian forces during a civil war.
To its credit, the film offers a stunning visual recreation of the vast extremes between the opulent wealth of the Romanovs and the Tsarist era elites and the cruel poverty of their subjects. (The film’s Oscars for Art Direction and Costume Design were richly deserved.) Michael Jayston’s Nicholas embodies a measured degree of self-aggrandizing pomposity and casual indifference to the chaos he creates – his obliviousness to the damage he creates is so thick that a late scene when he collapses in hysteria following his abdication is stunning for its burst of unexpected emotion.
In comparison, Janet Suzman’s Alexandra is unusually sympathetic – and, by all accounts, not historically accurate. In this film, her concern is squared on her ill son, yet the passive nature of Suzman’s performance is clearly at odds with the screenplay’s insistence that she dominated her husband’s decision making process.
As for historical fidelity, the film’s final passages of the Romanovs in exiled imprisonment feels strangely wrong – the family’s almost instant relief of being relieved of the weight of rule and the Romanov daughters’ spontaneous ability to join their captors in a peasant dance just does not feel right.
However, the film’s flaws are easily overlooked with an entertaining spot-the-star exercise featuring British dramatic royalty in supporting roles (Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Jack Hawkins, Irene Worth, Brian Cox, Ian Holm, Harry Andrews and Roy Dotrice can be found amid various hair pieces and overstuffed accessories). And Schaffner’s key staging of major historic episodes including the Bloody Sunday massacre and the prolonged assassination of Rasputin provide a brilliantly grisly picture of a nation spiraling out of control.
If “Nicholas and Alexandra” never quite achieves a level of greatness, its ability to recall a tumultuous period in Russian history deserves attention and respect. And contemporary political junkies will certainly appreciate its timeless lesson on how vanity and self-indulgence can torpedo a brutally entrenched ruling class.