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One of history's most compelling stories is the reign of the last Czar of Russia, Nicholas II, and his family during the Bolshevik revolution. The demands of WWI left a country vulnerable to the growing rebellion against the governing rulers, culminating in the extermination of the entire royal family in the middle of the night in 1918. Filmmakers have brought the story of the Romanovs to the screen many times, with some versions focusing on the Czarina's mystic advisor, Rasputin; others concentrate on the fascinating but unfounded account of daughter Anastasia surviving the family massacre. In 1971, uberproducer Sam Spiegel brought one of the most lavish biographies of the doomed family to the screen in Nicholas and Alexandra. Clocking in at just over three hours, the film is a feast for the eyes with elaborate sets, intricate period costumes and a literal cast of thousands. Like Spiegel's previous epics Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), there was also plenty of drama and intrigue going on behind the scenes as well as in front of the cameras.
Spiegel ran into trouble right from the start by insisting that he didn't need to pay for rights to the book upon which the script was based, claiming that the story was public domain. The author, Robert K. Massie, disagreed; lawsuits were threatened, but ultimately a deal was reached in 1968 satisfying both parties. Fresh off his Oscar® win for The Lion in Winter (1968), James Goldman was hired to adapt the screenplay but Spiegel ran into serious problems trying to find a director who could do justice to Goldman's literate script. A first choice was George Stevens, a power-director known for such cinematic classics as Gunga Din (1939), I Remember Mama (1948), A Place in the Sun (1951), and Shane (1953). Industry observers were surprised to see him linked with Nicholas and Alexandra as both Stevens and Spiegel had famous reputations of being meticulously involved with every aspect of their productions. Despite a half-a-million salary, Stevens pulled out after three months, handing over the reins to Anthony Harvey, the director of The Lion in Winter, and for a brief period, the repeat pairing of Goldman and Harvey looked promising.
Spiegel was soon up to his old tricks, however, according to Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni's biography of the mogul. During preproduction planning, "Spiegel was insistent that 'the script had to be drastically rewritten.' During the process, Goldman found him to be 'very dogmatic and stubborn.' The producer was also back to pulling his most infamous trick out of the bag. 'He had a heart attack on me,' he recalled. The event took place on the terrace of Spiegel's suite. 'I suppose I gave in, I'm not a confrontational person,' admitted Goldman." Sam's decidedly unconventional methods may have worked on Goldman, but not Harvey, who left shortly thereafter. Numerous replacements were considered, including Ken Russell and John Boorman, who all declined. There was a brief flicker of hope when Joseph Mankiewicz expressed interest; he had experience working with Spiegel from Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). When that failed to pan out, Charles Jarrott, who had just finished Anne of a Thousand Days (1969), was a contender...briefly. The weary Goldman finally suggested Franklin J. Schaffner, Oscar®-winning director of Patton (1970). Everyone agreed, and Schaffner started work immediately, despite the fact that preproduction by that point was almost complete!
The casting was somewhat less dramatic, although the press was rife with speculation on who had been offered what part. Although Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Grace Kelly were reported as candidates for Alexandra, Vanessa Redgrave and Katharine Hepburn actually received copies of the script. Rex Harrison was only offered a minor part and not the role of Nicholas as reported (Harrison snarled, "Tell him [Spiegel] I don't play bit parts.").
The role Spiegel was most concerned with was Rasputin, and he had only one man in mind, Peter O'Toole, much to the dismay of Yul Brynner, who desperately wanted the part. Negotiations with O'Toole looked promising, but then the option time expired and Spiegel couldn't afford to pursue him. The guard had changed at Columbia Pictures, and old-schoolers like Spiegel could no longer spend whatever they wanted. The end result for Nicholas and Alexandra was that the leads had to be relatively unknown actors since Spiegel couldn't afford top marquee names. He quickly spun this into a strategy, stating, "When actors are still relatively unknown, they are easygoing and amiable. When they lose their sense of proportion, they become lionized and begin to believe their own publicity."
British stage actors Michael Jayston and Janet Suzman were subsequently cast as the doomed couple: it was the first major film role for both actors. Another recruit from the National Theatre, Tom Baker, won the part of "the mad monk" Rasputin - at the urging of fellow actor Laurence Olivier. British audiences know him best as the most popular of the four actors who played Doctor Who in the cult sci-fi TV series. Coincidentally, Baker had been a monk for 6 years prior to abandoning the order to pursue an acting career. Olivier accepted the "bit part" Rex Harrison had eschewed, that of Count Witte. Michael Redgrave, father of Vanessa, appeared in what would be his last major feature film.
Nicholas and Alexandra was the first theatrical film role for Brian Cox, as Trotsky. He went on to enjoy a prolific career as a character actor in such films as Manhunter (1986) Braveheart (1995), and Rushmore (1998). Also appearing in a supporting role is Ian Holm, whose extraordinary career includes performances in Alien (1979), Chariots of Fire (1981), Brazil (1985), and - more recently - Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings series. Peter Sellers fans may recognize his fourth wife, Lynne Frederick, as Tatiana, one of the teenage daughters of the royal family. Even at the young age of sixteen, she had caught the roving eye of Spiegel. Fortunately, the savvy casting director, Maude Spector, knew how to run effective interference to keep the - in her words - "erudite guttersnipe" focused on his work and away from the young talent!
When Spiegel's epic had its official opening, the critics were decidedly mixed in their reviews. Roger Ebert of the The Chicago Sun-Times wrote that Spiegel and Schaffner have "given us a big, expensive, sprawling indoor epic, in which vast landscapes are mostly avoided in favor of drawing rooms and boudoirs, but they haven't given us characters who really make things come alive...If the movie isn't exactly stirring, however, it is undeniably interesting." Pauline Kael panned it, noting that the title characters "appear to be two dunces sitting on a volcano, and the solemnly square movie is more interested in the dunces than in the volcano...It avoids drama." Among the positive reviews, however, was Variety's notice which announced, "Sam Spiegel comes up with a rarity: the intimate epic, in telling the fascinating story of the downfall of the Romanovs...Scripter James Goldman (with an assist from Edward Bond) has provided literate, sparse dialog in fashioning a crystal-clear picture of a confused and confusing period."
When the Oscar® nominations were announced for 1971, Nicholas and Alexandra received six - Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Actress (Janet Suzman), Best Music, Best Costume Design and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration with the latter two winning Academy Awards. The film also scored three nominations each with both the BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) and the Golden Globes.
Producer: Andrew Donally, Sam Spiegel
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Screenplay: Edward Bond, James Goldman, Robert K. Massie (book)
Cinematography: Freddie Young
Film Editing: Ernest Walter
Art Direction: Ernest Archer, Jack Maxsted, Gil Parrondo
Music: Richard Rodney Bennett
Cast: Michael Jayston (Tsar Nicholas II), Janet Suzman (Empress Alexandra), Roderic Noble (The Tsarevitch Alexei), Ania Marson (The Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna), Lynne Frederick (Tatiana), Candace Glendenning (The Grand Duchess Marie Nikolaevna).
by Eleanor Quinn