Franklin J. Schaffner was in the midst of a hot streak when he directed Nicholas and Alexandra in 1971. The previous year he won an Oscar for Patton. Two years before that he helmed the original Planet of the Apes. In ’73 he directed Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in Papillon. Not a bad run—four acclaimed films in a five-year span. Despite six Oscar nominations (and two wins), the three-hour historical epic Nicholas and Alexandra hasn’t aged as well as the others. Twilight Time has recently issued the film on Blu-ray as a 3,000-copy limited edition, providing a good opportunity to reassess the film.
Several important and eventful years of Russian history are condensed into Nicholas and Alexandra. It’s a lot to take in, at times feeling more like an attempted academic exercise than a cohesive movie. In the years immediately preceding World War I, the last Emperor of Russia—Tsar Nicholas II (Michael Jayston)—is coming up short in the leadership department. Despite what advisors recommend, he won’t withdraw from a losing war with Japan. The Bolsheviks are in the early stages of a revolution that will bring about seismic change for Russia, with Lenin (Michael Bryant), Trotsky (Brian Cox in his film debut), and Stalin (James Hazeldine) on the rise.
As the story begins in 1904, the Tsar and his wife, Tsarina Alexandra (Janet Suzman, Oscar-nominated for her performance), have just had their fifth child, Alexei (played later in the film as a young teen by Roderic Noble). The boy, who is the heir to Nicholas’ reign, has been diagnosed with hemophilia. Much of the story finds Nicholas and Alexandra tending to his health needs. The couple includes the eccentric Grigori Rasputin (Tom Baker, of Doctor Who fame) as part of Alexei’s therapy, since the mystic seems to have some healing effect. As the 189-minute running time unfolds, we see the start of World War I and the growing incompetence of Nicholas as a leader. The whole affair culminates in an inevitably tragic ending.
The somewhat stiff visual style employed here by Schaffner results in a film that feels more like product rooted in old school tradition rather than the progressive ‘70s. Despite the staid approach, there is quite a bit to marvel at in terms of sets and costumes (those are the categories in which the film won Academy Awards). The acting is strong, especially Baker’s rather wild turn as Rasputin. It just never quite transcends the feeling that producer Sam Spiegel wanted to present a history lesson. Nicholas and Alexandra’s worry over their son’s health elicits a decent amount of sympathy, giving the film its emotional core. That’s a very good thing, because even though it’s technically impressive, the film takes such a dispassionate approach that it’s often hard to feel any particular way about it.
Framed at 2.35:1, the 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer offers rock solid visuals that retain a healthy amount of natural film grain. Colors are vivid and the detail level is high throughout. This is a very strong visual presentation, essential considering the amount of elaborate sets on display. The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono mix is nothing to get excited about. It does a suitable job of delivering clean dialogue and well-balanced music and effects. Speaking of music, the score by Richard Rodney Bennett is offered as an isolated track in DTS-HD MA 2.0. Otherwise, supplements are limited to a trio of vintage featurettes that each runs about seven minutes.
Julie Kirgo provides customarily informative liner notes in the Blu-ray booklet. Again, the release is strictly limited to 3,000 copies available exclusively through Twilight Time’s distributor, Screen Archives. For more information, visit their official website.