Category Archives: Historical Drama

Nicholas and Alexandra (1971)

nicholasandalexandra1

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

 

Becket (1964)

becket 2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Betrayed by his friend.

King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) is finding himself at continual odds with the Archbishop of Canterbury (Felix Aylmer) particularly in their disagreement of taxing the church to help fund Henry’s war with France when the elderly Archbishop suddenly dies Henry decides to appoint his longtime friend Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) into the position.  Becket had always shown extreme loyalty towards Henry and many times gotten him out of several jams so Henry expects this will continue in his new role, but finds that Thomas takes his position much more seriously than expected and shifts his loyalty from the king to the almighty, which causes serious conflict between the two.

The film which is directed by Peter Glenville is based on the 1959 stageplay written by Jean Anouilh that starred Laurence Olivier in the role as Becket and Anthony Quinn as Henry. This film version isn’t bad, but not quite the epic spectacle that we are so used to from these types of films from that period. The action is quite minimal and there is a definite staginess. I would have liked more camera movements and even a few scenes with a hand-held to help make it seem a little more authentic and less of a filmed drama. The scene where Henry and Becket are seen riding on horseback appears very corny as it was clearly done in front of a blue-screen. There is also too much music one scene has Henry and Becket running away from a farmhouse after being caught fooling around with a farm girl that has a cartoonish sounding melody that seems completely inappropriate especially for the time period.

Having Henry and Becket go from being friends to bitter enemies seemed to happen too quickly. I got the feeling we were seeing the ‘Cliff Notes’ version of events were they analyze only the important plot points and then quickly moved to the next. I realize the runtime of the film is already long, but spending more time showing the friendship gradually devolve would have been more realistic.

Normally I love Sir John Gielgud and his performance as King Louis VII is amusing, but he is clearly British and speaks with an English accent that doesn’t even come close to sounding French. The part of the Pope is given to an Italian, so the King Louis role should have been done by a Frenchman.

O’Toole is excellent. He has brown hair here instead of his patented blonde and his ability to stay in step with Burton by giving an almost comic performance of a King who is nothing more than an overgrown adolescent is brilliant. The royal food fight is good as are the many putdowns that he gives to both his wife and kids and even his own mother.

Burton is fantastic as expected playing a role different from any of the others that he has done. His piercing blue eyes have never been stronger particularly when he becomes the Archbishop.

The killing scenes done inside the church near the end has some nice camera work and Henry’s final emotional speech as well as his flogging by the monks are all strong and make this worthwhile viewing, but I couldn’t help but feel that we have ‘grown-up’ a bit in the way we do period pieces today and this is one that could use a remake.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: March 11, 1964

Runtime: 2Hours 28Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Peter Glenville

Studio: Paramount

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video, Netflix streaming

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

lawrence of arabia 1

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.

lawrence of arabia 2

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’.

lawrence of arabia 4

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

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)

the marriage of maria braun

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Maria gets her way.

Maria’s (Hanna Schygulla) husband a soldier in World War II is presumed dead. She decides to make her mark by getting a job and a new lover in the form of a black man named Bill (George Eagles), but complications ensue when her husband Hermann (Klaus Lowitsch) shows up very much alive. Maria enjoys her new found independence and isn’t interested in falling back into her old role, which causes friction with her husband as well as her interactions with others.

Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder creates a unique vision and manages to walk the balance between the gritty and surreal. The lighting is evocative and shadowy and nicely reflects his stage background. The sets are colorful and varied and one becomes almost hypnotically entranced with the visuals. The abandoned buildings and rundown locales especially at the beginning make a strong impression and become like a third character. Fassbinder echoes the desperation of the characters through visual means only without ever having to resort to melodramatics, which alone makes this a classic and far better than some other similar films about the period.

Equally great use is made of sound with two to three layers of it within each scene. Whether it is the noise of a radio, traffic, or someone whistling there is always some noise coming from the background much like in reality, which helps in a subtle way to make the scenes more vivid. I loved the dolly shots constantly moving the camera around in every scene throughout the rooms that the characters are in giving the viewer a full sense of their dimensions and helping breakdown the fourth wall.

Some memorable scenes include the moment when Maria’s husband comes back from the war and catches Maria in a compromising position with her new found lover. There are at least four minutes here where there is no talking from any of the characters and one becomes riveted with the silent reactions of the three, which proves powerful. Even the erotic overtones work. Normally I find that area to be rather clichéd and mechanical, but here the sweat glistening off the naked bodies seems genuinely evocative and enticing.

Many people feel this is a movie about budding feminism and applaud the strong female character. I really wouldn’t argue with that and in many ways it is fun seeing this woman forge her way ahead while remaining poised and stalwart throughout. Her relationship with rich businessman Karl (Ivan Desny) and the way she turns him into a subservient to her every whim while also explaining to him that ‘he isn’t having an affair with her, but instead SHE is having one with him’ is classic, but I also felt it seemed a bit artificial. Having a strong central character is one thing, but this woman seems inhuman. She never shows any vulnerability at any time and appears almost completely removed from the environment around her. Never once does she flinch, compromise, or back down from anything or anyone, which just isn’t possible and makes Maria one-dimensional in the process. A character is more interesting when their flaws are exposed and then they must work hard to overcome them, but this one doesn’t have any, which is my biggest issue with this otherwise excellent production.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: February 20, 1979

Runtime: 1Hour 58Minutes

Rated R

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Studio: United Artists

Available: VHS, DVD (The Criterion Collection)

Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)

anne of a thousand days 2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Off with her head

Based on historical fact the setting is 1527 King Henry VIII (Richard Burton) is bored with his current wife Catherine of Aragon (Irene Pappas) and becomes intoxicated by the beauty of 18-year-old Anne Boleyn (Genevieve Bujold). Initially she resists the advances of the King and finds him unappealing, but once she gets a whiff of all the power that being a Queen can give she falls in-love with him. The King wants her to bore him a son, but their first child turns out to be a girl, which causes their marriage to sour. Their acrimony is furthered when their second child turns out to be a stillborn son. Eventually the King grows tired of Anne and hires Thomas Cromwell (John Colicos) to find a way to get rid of her. Cromwell tortures some servants into saying they had sexual liaisons with Anne which gets her placed under arrest and awaiting trial and execution.

Bujold gives a powerful and mesmerizing performance and I am surprised that she didn’t win the Oscar. However, Burton, who is an actor that I admire, seems uncomfortable in his role and just walking through his part.

The story itself is compelling and because it is based on fact makes it all the more amazing. It moves along at a good pace and the viewer can’t help but get absorbed in it. This is no stuffy costume drama and it is probably tawdrier than any soap opera out there. However, Charles Jarrot’s direction is a bit stale. The sets and costumes are great, but the atmosphere and cinematic style is missing and the whole thing seems too much like a filmed stage play.

My biggest quibble with the film is that it doesn’t stay completely accurate. Historians insist that the King does not offer Anne any type of reprieve nor does he visit her after she is imprisoned like he does here. While this scene is nice because it does humanize him who in every other way is despicable it doesn’t help the viewer better understand the story or the people in it by inserting something that really didn’t happen.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 18, 1969

Runtime: 2Hours 25Minutes

Rated M

Director: Charles Jarrott

Studio: Universal

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu

Pretty Baby (1978)

pretty baby

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: He’s robbing the cradle.

Based on actual accounts of prostitutes living and working in the Storyville area of New Orleans in 1917 the film details the life of Violet (Brooke Shields) the 12 year-old daughter of Hattie (Susan Sarandon) who works as a prostitute and eventually breaks her daughter into the business. Bellocq (Keith Carradine) is a photographer who comes to the brothel to take portraits of the women. He falls in love with the young Violet and the two eventually marry.

Louis Malle’s American film debut is fabulous. He takes a daring subject matter and makes it real and vivid. Sven Nykvist’s cinematography is so detailed that you almost think that you are looking at painted portraits of the era. Malle employs a leisurely European pace to the proceedings, which nicely reflects the slower era. The emphasis is on nuance and in that regard it is brilliant making the viewer feel that they are right there with characters and observing the daily realities around them. The story is certainly shocking, but somehow a strong human element remains making it fascinating and revealing.

The strongest moment comes when a group of middle-aged men bid on Violet to see who will get the honors to take her virginity. Having the camera pan the men’s eager faces, some of whom look to be nearing 50 and even 60 is visually potent as is Violet’s ambivalent expression as she stands on a chair in front of them. The fact that it is approached in a non-sensationalistic matter and instead more like as a slice-of-life makes it all the more disturbing and compelling.

Shields is fabulous. Her facial expressions as she observes the decadence around her is what really makes the movie. She shows a great awareness and creates an intriguing character that cannot read and write and yet acts like having sex with a middle-aged man is ‘no big deal’ and working as a prostitute is completely ‘normal’ way of life. Watching her shift between being very child-like to very jaded is fascinating. I really think this is an actress that is much more talented than she is given credit for and although many other actresses auditioned for the part including Tatum O’Neal, Meg Tilly, Geena Davis, and Diane Lane I really felt the movie wouldn’t have been as effective with them in the role. Shields is really exceptional and should have netted the Oscar, or at least have been nominated.

Sarandon is terrific as her hardened mother and unfortunately is not seen enough, but manages to light up every scene that she is in nonetheless. Singer Frances Faye is also quite good as the head of the brothel. Her old, tired face brings out the difficult, cold lifestyle. Her best moment comes when she is seen staring in a catatonic state into space while everyone else has left the place and all the belongings are being carried out.

Carradine is okay in a restrained performance as a character that is more educated and refined than the rest, which makes for some interesting interactions. The fact that this man ends up getting emotionally stung by such a young girl despite being so much more sophisticated and mature ends up being one of the film’s most definitive moments.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: April 5, 1978

Runtime: 1Hour 50Minutes

Rated R

Director: Louis Malle

Studio: Paramount

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video