Last of Their Kind
There is always fascination in historical studies – and moviemaking – that depict “the last of their kind.” The lavish and inescapably fascinating Nicholas and Alexandra (1971), which premiered in the U.S. 44 years ago this weekend, firmly belongs in that tradition. After a handful of box-office triumphs and more than a handful of critical and commercial failures, it came in at the end of the Roadshow Exhibition era of “reserved-seat event” moviegoing, which would fizzle out by the following year. It would be a nearly last hurrah for producer Sam Spiegel, owner of Best Picture producing Oscars® for On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, as the legendary showman’s final mega-budget effort on a huge historical screen canvas. Derived from Robert K. Massie’s exhaustively researched biography, the subject matter was the crucial factor: the tragic story of the last Tsar and Tsarina in Russia’s ruling Romanov family, brought down in 1917 by revolution and brutally murdered the following year. Compelling elements are assembled on the Panavision screen: the cream of British acting talent, eye-popping scenic splendor, ornate royal trappings juxtaposed with downtrodden peasant masses in revolt (It worked for Doctor Zhivago, didn’t it?), and a literate adaptation screenplay by The Lion in Winter Academy Award® winner James Goldman. All were deployed by the Oscar®-winning director of Patton, Franklin J. Schaffner, who there managed the difficult feat of simultaneously balancing historical scope with an intimate focus on its subject, a renegade military leader and warmonger who yet commanded a certain admiration as a courageously committed professional (also the last of his kind). Therein lies the crux of what prevented Nicholas and Alexandra from becoming an epic for the ages: the intimately profiled characters at its core were Tsar Nicholas (Michael Jayston), blindly convinced of his autocratic rights as a ruler but woefully untrained as a monarch of his destitute people and as a military strategist in a world war erupting around him, and Tsarina Alexandra (Best Actress Academy Award® nominee Janet Suzman), obsessed by the disabling hemophilia of her son and heir and mesmerized by the dubious “healing powers” of the power-mad mystic Rasputin (future Doctor Who Tom Baker). “The fact is that Nicholas and Alexandra were rather ordinary people, and that, despite the millions of deaths they caused and the revolution they played unwitting midwives to, they were banal,” Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times. “Still, the movie is ambitious and intelligent, and deserved better subjects.” Indeed, hi-def Blu-ray is made for movie grandeur, and as Academy Awards® for Art Direction and Costume Design and an regal supporting ensemble martialing Harry Andrews, Jack Hawkins, Ian Holm, Michael Redgrave, Irene Worth and Laurence Olivier can attest, there’s also much to enthrall in Nicholas and Alexandra’s Twilight Time captivating presentation.