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Nicholas and Alexandra (1971)

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  • Nicholas and Alexandra (1971)

    This is a favorite example of a favorite genre: the sweeping three-hour historical epics that used to appear on a regular basis when I was a boy in the late sixties and early seventies, and then vanished. The majority of them were British or at least a British co-production. My interest in British films started through them.

    The basis is the book by Robert K. Massie, which is well worth reading. I saw the film on a hot July day in a small suburban theatre in New Rochelle, just north of NYC. I can remember the day as if it were yesterday, although it was 1972. I was overwhelmed by this story of the last rulers of Russia, told on a vast scale and accumulating power as it moved to its terrible end. A film like that has to be seen on the large screen to be fully appreciated.

    I saw it again recently on DVD, and I did see many faults that had gone past me when I was thirteen. The script really isn't very imaginative or well written, and is certainly inferior to the book. The direction by Franklin J. Schaffner is a bit stodgy, and he was an excellent director on other films. The four Romanov daughters blend into each other and Tom Baker is not a convincingly demonic Rasputin.

    But this is definitely worth seeing for anyone who enjoys epics. After seeing the film, I found the book and from there became interested in Russian history. That has continued since.

    I later found out that Vanessa Redgrave and Rex Harrison were supposed to have the title roles, but there were scheduling conflicts. That was truly an opportunity missed. Janet Suzman and Michael Jayston do a fine job, but Vanessa Redgrave would have been ideal as Alexandra, a perfect piece of casting.

    The huge cast includes the usual list of first-rate actors in small roles - one of the true pleasures of these epics: Laurence Olivier, Irene Worth, Jack Hawkins, Michael Redgrave, John Wood, Ian Holm, Alan Webb, Curt Jurgens, Diana Quick, Julian Glover, Roy Doctrice, Harry Andrews.

    I suppose Guinness and Richardson were on sabbatical that month.

    I will also mention the excellent score by Richard Rodney Bennett.

  • #2
    Great post Tim. I would have thought though that Rex Harrison would be a bit long in the tooth to play Tsar Nicholas!


    • #3
      Originally posted by wadsy View Post
      Great post Tim. I would have thought though that Rex Harrison would be a bit long in the tooth to play Tsar Nicholas!
      Thanks Wadsy - yes, Harrison would have been in his sixties. Nicholas was fifty when he was killed and Alexandra was forty six, but both looked older. However I agree that he could not have played Nicholas in the first half of the film.

      I recently read that the first choice was Peter O'Toole. That would have been ideal casting, along with Vanessa Redgrave.

      That is not to take away from Janet Suzman, who was very effective and moving. But Alexandra was a complex person and had a powerful, overwhelming personality. Redgrave has that powerful presence.


      • #4
        This is one of those films I tune into if it's on, and end up watching all of it. Of course, it was a wall-to-wall job creation scheme for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Jayston was superb; it very nearly (but not quite) makes Nicholas and Alexandra sympathetic, no mean feat. I agree about the characterisation of the Princesses, but Tom Baker is extremely good for me; captures the element that he may have been a charlatan - or not. It also captures the "wild west" element of post-revolutionary chaos - such as the scene where the escort led by Ian Holm meets the bandits from the other Soviet and there is much insincere exchange of the word "comrade". Yes, these sprawling, multi-hour epics are now long gone and I do miss them - sometimes.