Category Archives: Epic

Nicholas and Alexandra (1971)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 9 out of 10

4-Word Review: The last Russian Tsar.

This film chronicles the life of Tsar Nicholas II (Michael Jayston) of Russia and his marriage to Alexandria (Janet Suzman). Based on the novel by Robert K. Massie it examines the height of his power and his apathy to the poverty of his people and his reluctance to listen to their needs, or consider a more democratic form of government. It also looks at his personal life including the birth of his son Alexei (Roderic Noble) who is diagnosed with hemophilia and his wife’s over-reliance on Grigori Rasputin (Tom Baker) a man pretending to have divine connections who ultimately uses his influence on Alexandra to take control over her political affairs when her husband is away. The film also portrays Russia’s involvement during WWI as well as the Tsar’s downfall and eventual exile in Siberia with his family.

The film is basically split up into three parts with the first hour looking at Nicholas’ family life while intercutting with scenes showing the discontent of the Russia people and the efforts of Vladimir Lenin (Michael Bryant) to create a revolutionary form of government. The second hour examines Russia’s war involvement and the many warnings that Nicholas is given not to get involved in it, but foolishly decides to anyways, which ultimately creates massive upheaval. The third hour looks at his abdication of power and the family’s exile and virtual imprisonment at the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg where they nervously await their fate.

Initially I thought the third hour would be the weakest as we all know they get shot and killed execution style, but to my surprise it is actually the strongest part of the film. To an extent tearing the characters away from their plush surroundings and forcing them to exist in bleak, squalor-like conditions actually humanizes them and allows the viewer to empathize with them particularly the four daughters who had nothing to do with their father’s harsh policies and just wanted a chance to grow up and live a normal life. The scene where the family is herded into the basement of the home in the early morning hours and forced to sit silently while awaiting their executioners is quite possibly one of the most intense moments ever captured on film.

The performances are uniformly strong particularly Suzman’s as well as Baker as the evil Rasputin who’s drawn out death scene may be one of the longest in movie history. Laurence Olivier in a small, but pivotal bit as the Prime Minister gets two commanding moments including his speech after the Bloody Sunday massacre and later his strong misgivings about the country’s war involvement.

The film is full of brilliant cinematography, direction, costumes and set pieces and is certainly something that must be watched on the big screen to be fully appreciated. I enjoyed the lavish interiors of the Winter Palace especially their walks down the elegant hallways that are lined with Royal guards, but found it equally interesting when Nicholas returns there after the war and forced to walk down these same hallways, which are now darkened and rundown. The many long distance shots of the flat and majestic landscape is also impressive particularly a view of a rolling sunflower field.

Although this film has never attained the well-known classic status of Doctor Zhivago, and in fact this was producer Sam Spiegal’s answer to that film when he was blocked from working on it, I still found it to be every bit as compelling and well directed.

My Rating: 9 out of 10

Released: December 13, 1971

Runtime: 3Hours 8Minutes

Rated GP

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video

 

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 9 out of 10

4-Word Review: Lawrence unites the Arabs.

Due to the death of actor Peter O’Toole on December 14 we will be reviewing each Sunday of this month 4 films that he did during the 60’s with this one be his most famous role and one that jettisoned his career into stardom.

The film chronicles the life of T.E. Lawrence who helped unite the Arab tribes during World War I and allowed them to fight back and eventually overpower the Turks. The film starts out with his motorcycle death in 1935 at the young age of 46 and then flashes back to his days in the army as a young intelligence officer. It examines his unique personality, determined headstrong ways as well as his ability to unite varying warring Arab tribes and get them to work together to defeat a common enemy.

Director David Lean and cinematographer Freddie Young are the real stars here. Filmed mostly in the countries of Morocco and Jordan Lean manages to capture the barren, hot landscape of the desert better than anyone else as he gives it an almost surreal and exotic quality that takes over the rest of the story and leaves the strongest impression. I loved the sun slowly coming up over the horizon and onto the flat terrain. I also liked the longshots showing characters enveloped by the majestic landscape and looking almost nonexistent when seen against some of the towering rocky formations. Omar Sharif’s characters entrance while on horseback and seen from a distance as he rides up through layers of heat that rises from the ground is also excellent.

The action is well captured although there isn’t as much of it as you might think. Their raid on Aquba is for my money the best. I loved the bird’s-eye shot of seeing all these soldiers looking almost like ants scurrying from the desert and into the fortress through the buildings and property and then eventually into the sea that sits on the other side. The bloody battle that they rage against an already weakened Turk army near the end is also a strong visual as is the Lawrence’s visit to an unsanitary hospital housing the wounded Turks.

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O’Toole’s portrayal of Lawrence was controversial at the time and to some still is. His bright, clear blue eyes makes him look like he is in a trance and the way he says his lines sounds like he was under some sort of spell and gives the character a certain mystique that isn’t quite human. Still I thought the part fit O’Toole’s personality well. My favorite moment of his is when he first tries on the Arab robes that he is given and he goes running around in them in an almost child-like manner. It is also nice seeing a story about a true-life character that isn’t preachy and more open about their flaws particularly his propensity for violence which becomes increasingly more evident as it goes along.

Sharif is excellent is support and in some ways gives the film’s all around strongest performance. I liked the adversarial relationship that his character has with Lawrence. They start out at odds with each other, but slowly become friends and yet continue to have their differences. Arthur Kennedy is good as a glib and detached photojournalist and Alec Guinness was to me initially unrecognizable as Prince Feisal.

The movie does not stay completely accurate to the real life events. Some of these are minor and while others are more major, but are too many to elaborate here. The truth is there is probably no movie pertaining to a true life event that is completely accurate to what really happened and no one should be naïve enough to expect it to be either. On an entertainment and cinematic level this one scores high. My only real complaint is the scene where a character gets swallowed up in quicksand, which in reality is very unlikely to happen, but a prevalent feature in a lot of 60’s movies and the one point where it got a bit too ‘Hollywood’.

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My Rating: 9 out of 10

Released: December 10, 1962

Runtime: 3Hours 47Minutes

Not Rated

Director: David Lean

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video