- Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) movie review: An old-fashioned feast for the eyes, this opulent historical spectacle is crippled by an array of artificial performances, and by director Franklin J. Schaffner and screenwriter James Goldman’s graceless handling of the material.
- Nicholas and Alexandra received six Academy Award nods, including Best Picture (its director was bypassed) and Best Actress (Janet Suzman). It topped two categories: Best Art Direction and Costume Design.
Nicholas and Alexandra movie review: Sam Spiegel & Franklin J. Schaffner’s opulent historical spectacle lacks emotional core
A Sam Spiegel (The African Queen, Lawrence of Arabia) production directed by Academy Award winner Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton, 1970), the Imperial Russia-set Nicholas and Alexandra is surely one of the most sumptuous movies ever made.
Production designer John Box’s palatial sets, Yvonne Blake and Antonio Castillo’s elaborate costumes, Richard Rodney Bennett’s lush musical score, and frequent David Lean collaborator Freddie Young’s richly textured cinematography provide the perfect period atmosphere for this historical epic about the last of the Romanovs.
Missing, however, is a screenplay featuring true-to-life dialogue instead of bombast, and a directorial hand highlighting the story’s inherent drama instead of soapy histrionics.
Problem-plagued imperial family
Nicholas and Alexandra begins in the early 1900s, when Tsar Nicholas II (Michael Jayston), the current ruling member of the House of Romanov, finally becomes the father of a boy. Shortly thereafter, he and his wife, the German-born Empress Alexandra (Best Actress Academy Award nominee Janet Suzman), have their happiness crushed when they discover that their infant son is a hemophiliac.
In addition to his family issues, the tsar must deal with popular discontent over a long-running war against Japan for control of the Korean peninsula and with social disturbances caused by a wrecked economy and a lack of democratic institutions. In the meantime, the empress soothes her pain with the assistance of the mystic Grigori Rasputin (Tom Baker), who seems to have mysterious powers that keep her frail son alive.
Through the guidance of his advisors, the gentle but narrow-minded tsar grudgingly opens up the semi-feudal Russian political system. But it’s too little, too late. Worsening matters, an ill-fated decision to send troops to the western border leads to a declaration of war from Germany and the start of World War I.
As the Russian economy collapses, social and political chaos ensues. Inevitably, the Romanov family ends up swept into the flames of the revolution.
History lesson + soap opera mix
As a result of Franklin J. Schaffner’s old-fashioned direction – Nicholas and Alexandra wouldn’t have looked too out of place in the mid-1950s, alongside Henry Koster’s Désirée and King Vidor’s War and Peace – and James Goldman’s part-history lesson, part-daytime soap screenplay, most of the Nicholas and Alexandra cast perform their roles instead of living them out.
Royal National Theatre member Tom Baker’s absurdly mannered Rasputin is a case in point; and so is Royal Shakespeare Company star Janet Suzman’s grand but superficial Alexandra – who, like everyone in Imperial Russia, from commoners to foreign-born empresses, speaks flawlessly posh English.
Laurence Olivier (Best Actor Oscar winner for Hamlet, 1948), for his part, is so over the top as the former prime minister of Russia, Count Sergei Witte, that his climactic “the end is nigh” speech comes across as parody, while scenes featuring Lenin (Michael Bryant), Trotsky (Brian Cox), and most other figures of the period feel unpalatably phony.
Memorable Michael Jayston + imposing Irene Worth
On the positive side, the stage-trained Michael Jayston, at the time with only two big-screen supporting roles to his credit (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1968; Cromwell, 1970), actually fares better than most of Nicholas and Alexandra’s movie-veteran cast members.
Aside from a few theatrical moments, Jayston – a dead ringer for Nicholas II – ably conveys the tsar’s failings as well as his strengths in a believable and at times poignant manner.
But it’s Nebraska-born Broadway actress Irene Worth who, with her commanding presence as the Danish-born Queen Mother Marie Fedorovna, manages to steal every scene in which she appears.
Watching Worth’s no-nonsense elder queen, one realizes that had she been the ruler of all Russias in 1917, there would have been no revolution. No one would have dared.
Dramatically redemptive terror
A less conventional – and less artificial – approach to the complex, tragic demise of Imperial Russia’s Romanov family could have turned Nicholas and Alexandra into a masterful historical drama.
As it stands, Sam Spiegel and Franklin J. Schaffner’s costly epic feels like an overlong soap opera, made watchable by a couple of solid performances and superlative production values.
Having said that, Nicholas and Alexandra is, from a dramatic standpoint, partially redeemed at the end. For despite the absence of the surprise element, the ultimate fate of the last of the Romanovs is no less horrifying.
Nicholas and Alexandra (1971)
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner.
Screenplay: James Goldman. Additional dialogue by Edward Bond.
From Robert K. Massie’s 1967 book Nicholas and Alexandra: An Intimate Account of the Last of the Romanovs and the Fall of Imperial Russia.
Cast: Michael Jayston. Janet Suzman. Irene Worth. Laurence Olivier. Tom Baker. Harry Andrews. Michael Bryant. Maurice Denham. Jack Hawkins. Ian Holm. John McEnery. Eric Porter. Michael Redgrave. Alan Webb. Curd Jürgens. Lynne Frederick. Fiona Fullerton. Katherine Schofield. Roderic Nobel. Timothy West. John Hallam. John Wood. Guy Rolfe. Alexander Knox. Vivian Pickles. Brian Cox.
“Nicholas and Alexandra Movie (1971) Review” notes
Earlier casting & director possibilities
 For the role of Alexandra (granddaughter of the United Kingdom’s Queen Victoria, believed to be a carrier of the hemophilia B trait), Sam Spiegel had wanted either Vanessa Redgrave or Katharine Hepburn, the latter a recent Best Actress Oscar co-winner for her performance as Eleanor of Aquitaine in Anthony Harvey’s 1968 historical drama The Lion in Winter, based on James Goldman’s play.
Planet of the Apes and Patton director Franklin J. Schaffner stepped in to handle Nicholas and Alexandra after Anthony Harvey, two-time Best Director Oscar winner George Stevens (A Place in the Sun, 1951; Giant, 1956), and Charles Jarrott (Anne of the Thousand Days, Mary Queen of Scots) bowed out reportedly due to scheduling conflicts.
Others considered for the job included Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Ken Russell, Lindsay Anderson, and John Boorman.
Also of note, Tom Baker replaced Peter O’Toole as Rasputin (a role Yul Brynner is supposed to have campaigned for), while Rex Harrison had been a possibility as Count Witte.
Lastly, Robin Askwith has an uncredited bit part in Nicholas and Alexandra, while Jeremy Brett’s supposed appearance – it’s listed in a number of sources – is unconfirmed.
“Nicholas and Alexandra Movie” endnotes
Michael Jayston and Janet Suzman Nicholas and Alexandra movie images: Columbia Pictures.
“Nicholas and Alexandra Movie: Grandiose + Artificial Historical Drama” last updated in September 2021.
Decades later, this film still stands the test of time. Beautifully crafted, great sets and costumes, GOOD acting, and most certainly NOT without an “emotional core”. One gets a sense of who the couple was, of their love for one another, of their concerns for Russia. Despite their power and prestige, you get to LIKE them, if not for their good points, then for their human frailties. They and their children did not deserve to die as they did. That too elicits human empathy in viewers. A good film isn’t just about actors and sets, it’s also about audience response. A shame that the reviewer could only experience what was in HIS mind.