Tag: Historical epics

El Cid (1961)

El Cid (1961)

Epic history with just the right amount of seriousness among the scale and thrills

Director: Anthony Mann

Cast: Charlton Heston (Don Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar/El Cid), Sophia Loren (Doña Ximena), Herbert Lom (Ben Yusuf), Raf Vallone (García Ordóñez), Geneviève Page (Doña Urraca), John Fraser (Alfonso VI), Douglas Wilmer (Al-Mu’tamin), Frank Thring (Al-Kadir), Michael Hordern (Don Diego), Andrew Cruickshank (Count Gormaz), Gary Raymond (Prince Sancho), Ralph Truman (King Ferdinand), Massimo Serato (Fañez), Hurd Hatfield (Arias)

Its 11th century Spain, and the country is a mass of feuding Christian and Muslim kingdoms. All that could end if the invasion plans of warlord Ben Yusof (Herbert Lom) come to fruition. To defeat him, the Christians will need Muslim allies in Spain. But of course, none of their leaders have the vision to imagine such a thing: except Don Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (Charlton Heston) who, after releasing rather than executing two Emirs, is known as “El Cid”. Problem is Don Rodrigo falls continually in and out of favour at court, not helped by his unbending principles. These principles even alienate the woman he loves, Doña Ximena (Sophia Loren), when Don Rodrigo regretfully kills her father in a duel. Will El Cid be able to unite the forces of Castille and his Muslim allies to defeat Ben Yusof?

El Cid was shot on location in Spain, and no expense was spared. Its location footage is beautiful and combined with some impressive sets. Producer Samuel Bronstein was determined to get the best money can buy. The ancient city of Valencia was rebuilt and thousands of soldiers from the Spanish army recruited into the two opposing sides. Thousands of costumes, pieces of armour and weapons were made. Bronstein’s dream cast was assembled (hilariously of course not a Spaniard or Arab among them), led by Hollywood’s biggest stars Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren.

What we get is an at times rather po-faced, sombre even slow epic that still succeeds because it is delivered with such absolute commitment and luscious beauty. Anthony Mann is not the most inventive of directors – and so much of this sort of film is really about producing rather than visionary direction – but he pulls together a collection of visual styles into something that feels wonderfully coherent and suitably dramatic. The castle interiors could have stepped out of Adventures of Robin Hood (Heston and Cruickshank even fight their duel on a winding staircase), the Spanish exteriors rival Ben-Hur and the medieval pageantry brings back memories of Ivanhoe.

It’s pulled together in a script that manages to juggle just about enough action – duels, fights to the death, ambushes, battles, sieges, murders – to sit alongside its earnest attempts to plead for a little love and understanding. Heston’s El Cid is radically ahead of his time, preaching messages of equality and arguing that anyone can kill but only a leader can grant mercy. It’s a film that refreshingly urges that there is more that unites us, than divides us. Yes, it casts Arab characters in most of the villainous roles – while the Christian opponents of El Cid all eventually see the error of their ways – but it still makes several Arab characters (especially Douglas Wilmer’s wonderful Al-Mu’tamin) pinnacles of honour and decency, far more so than most of the bitter and feuding Christians.

At the heart of the film is Charlton Heston, in possibly his most interesting and intelligent ‘epic’ performance. His El Cid is principled to the point of self-harming, but there is a little boy innocence to him that can’t seem to understand why he keeps landing himself in the shit. Duelling with his fiancée’s father, he genuinely can’t understand why he won’t stand down and let the matter rest. Later he marries Ximena with the sad-sack hope that she might remember why she loved him in the first place. He vainly tries to support both sides in the feud to succeed King Ferdinand, because he swore to support all the King’s children. It never occurs to him that Castille might turn down the assistance of the Muslim Emirs he’s recruited. He can understand military nuances, but can’t seem to find the way to translate this effectiveness into courtly politics. And he seems to know it.

But we know he’s a good guy – so it’s also why we know Sophia Loren’s hatred for him won’t really last. To be honest the chemistry isn’t quite there between them – the two of them famously didn’t get on (Heston famously refused to look at her in many of the romance scenes, hence the odd side-to-side faces in several shots) – and the part of Ximena is incredibly thinly written (she changes her mind about Rodrigo seemingly on a sixpence). But you can’t argue with Loren’s charisma (and she looks ravishingly stunning here) or the force which she can act the hell out of these straightforward scenes (all shot in a few weeks, due to Loren’s availability and Borstein’s determination to get her for the role).

Besides she needed to be the goodie so we could have a dynamic Geraldine Page as the scheming villainous, the Princess of Castille scheming to support her brother Alfonso (a wonderfully fecklessly weak John Fraser), to whom she’s offering more than sisterly love. What chance does headstrong but not-so-bright Gary Raymond’s Sancho have against them? Elsewhere in the cast, Herbert Lom’s voice is used to superb effect as Ben Yusof (like all the actors playing Arabs he’s browned up) and Douglas Wilmer strikes up a wonderful bromance with Heston as an Arabic version of El Cid.

The film is long an often gets slightly bogged down in questions of politics and questions of succession that, at the end of the day, are less interesting than whether Loren will forgive Chuck or our long wait for that Muslim invasion. It is a very long wait: the film opens with Rodrigo a young man – by the time Ben Yusof arrives he’s an old one with two children. Enough events occur sprinkled through the story that it never feels too slow – and you have to admire its attempt at even-handed justice to all.

It culminates as well in a superb sequence covering the siege of Valencia, where all narrative threads are skilfully bought together towards a satisfying conclusion. Mann stages a handsome beach battle here and culminates the film in a long night of the soul that ends with El Cid riding into history in an ironically unique way. The film’s final act is an outstanding mix of epic themes and personal tragedy and loss, that brings the film to a superb finish.

El Cid takes itself seriously – I’m pretty sure there isn’t a joke in it – but it’s well made and acted with a great deal of flair, looks fabulous and never squeezes the life out of itself. As an example of Hollywood’s late epics, there are few that can match it.

The Last Duel (2021)

The Last Duel header1
Adam Driver and Matt Damon fight The Last Duel in medieval France

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Matt Damon (Sir Jean de Carrouges), Adam Driver (Jacques Le Gris), Jodie Comer (Marguerite de Carrouges), Ben Affleck (Count Pierre d’Alencon), Harriet Walter (Nicole de Buchard), Alex Lawther (King Charles VI), Marton Csorkas (Crespin), Željko Ivanek (Le Coq), Tallulah Haddon (Marie), Bryony Hannah (Alice), Nathaniel Parker (Sir Robert de Thibouville), Adam Nagaitis (Adam Louvel)

The medieval era had its own solution for “He said, She said”. Let God decide via a fight to the death. After all, He would never let the injured party lose, would he? Scott’s The Last Duel is a dramatisation of one of the last French judicial duels, in December 1386, between Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and his former friend Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver), after Le Gris is accused of raping Carrouge’s wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer). Scott’s Rashomon-inspired film shows the events leading up to the duel from all three characters’ perspectives.

The three different stories we see are not radically different. Unlike Rashomon – which presented totally different versions of the same events, according to the prejudices or agendas of the storytellers – The Last Duel’s versions stress subtly different reactions or presents different fragments of an overall story. So, for instance, Le Gris and Carrouges remember different elements of a battle. Carrouges recalls the noble charge to save the innocent, saving Le Gris’ life in the final stages of combat. To Le Gris it’s a suicidal charge, in which he saves an unhorsed Carrouge’s life. After the rape, Carrouge remembers offering his wife sympathy; she remembers his anger and demand they have sex at once to “cleanse her” of the stain.

These mixed recollections work best when we see each of them remember a fateful reconciliation meeting between Le Gris and Carrouges (where Le Gris and Marguerite first meet). A wedge has been driven between them ever since Carrouges believed Le Gris cheated him out of both land and his father’s former position. When the two agree to try and put the past behind them, Carrouge asks Marguerite to give Le Gris a kiss of peace. He remembers her surprise and timidity. Le Gris remembers her as being quietly excited with a kiss that lingers. Marguerite remembers a kiss from Le Gris that lingers too long. Small moments like this are where the film is at its strongest, making its concept feel very relevant today in our world of accusation and counter accusation.

But these moments are few and far between. Most of the time there isn’t this subtle variation. Where the film is weakest is when we (frequently) see the same events, presented the same way, three times. While our perception of Carrouges changes – from the ill-treated noble he sees himself to the sullen, self-entitled whiner everyone else sees – our idea of Le Gris is fundamentally the same (blissfully self-entitled). Fundamentally, when we see events the first time, later versions only really tweak our perception of them rather than challenge it.

You can see this in the rape itself, which we first see from Le Gris’ perspective. The film shows Le Gris’ understanding of consent has been twisted by most of his sexual experience being court orgies with playfully protesting prostitutes. His pursuit of a genuinely unwilling Margeurite around her room echoes exactly the pretend-chases and “chat up lines” he’s used in those earlier scenes, so we understand it’s possible he doesn’t actually understand he’s raped her. But no viewer can see Le Gris’ version as anything other than rape. In fact, the only tangible difference when we see the event from her perspective is that her screams of “No” and “Stop” are louder and the camera focuses more on her anguished face. If the film is presenting any tension about whether this is a consensual encounter or rape, it ends the second we see Le Gris’ story.

This negatively effects the drama – and actually makes Marguerite’s version seem strangely superfluous. You start to feel we might as well see all three perspectives at the same time, as the narrative trick ends up adding little to the film – especially since the film categorically states Marguerite’s version is the truth. Why not just tell the whole film from her perspective in that case? It also doesn’t help that Marguerite goes last – which means until an hour into the film, the character we should be most engaged with and sympathetic towards has stood on the side-lines.

This is particularly unfortunate as the film is striving for a feminist message. The men are callous and self-obsessed, treating women as sex toys or assets – and are praised for it. Marguerite though is intelligent and principled, marginalised by her husband and condemned as a whore when she protests her rape. She pushes her case with determination, despite discovering she will be condemned to burn if Carrouge loses (he of course is only in his own honour). Her word is only good if backed a man, and she is powerless to defend her innocence.

It’s the lot of medieval women. Harriet Walter (rocking a bizarre appearance, straight out of David Lynch’s Dune) as Carrouge’s mother tells Marguerite the same thing happened to her, but she considered it pointless (and dangerous) to press charges. What we see of the judicial system is ruthlessly unjust and misanthropic, with women harangued to confess their guild for tempting men.

But it doesn’t quite click together. It’s a shame, as many scenes are highly effective. The rape – both times we see it – is alarming. The final duel is brilliantly shot and hugely tense, not least because Marguerite stands literally on the top of an unlit bonfire watching every blow. Scott’s shoots the film with the same blue-filtered beauty he gave to the early scenes of Kingdom of Heaven.

There is of course an oddness in seeing such American actors as Damon, Affleck and Driver in period setting. The accents are an odd mix: Comer basically uses her regular (non-Scouse) performance voice, Damon does a gravelly version of his own, Walter an American twang to match Damon, Affleck is halfway to plummy Brit, Driver flattens his Californian tones. Damon is pretty good as the sulky, surly Carrouge who gets less sympathetic the more we see him, Driver is suitably charming on the surface but selfish. Comer plays wounded injustice extremely well and brings a lot of emotion to a difficult role. Affleck has the most fun, flouncing around in a blonde wig as a lordly, hedonistic pervert who likes nothing more than belittling Carrouge.

The Last Duel is part way to a decent film, but it just lacks that little bit extra to make it really come to life. Its alternative versions of the truth don’t illuminate as much as they need to – even if they are at points pleasingly subtle in their differences. It has an admirable feminist message, but defers most of it to the second half of the film (were they worried about sidelining the famous male actors?) and it’s concern that we should not doubt Marguerite at any point does undermine its drama. Handsomely filmed, it doesn’t make the impact it should. Perhaps that’s why it was one of the leading box office disasters of the Covid Pandemic?

Reds (1981)

Reds Header
Warren Beatty brings his passion to life in Ken Loachesque Reds

Director: Warren Beatty

Cast: Warren Beatty (John Reed), Diane Keaton (Louise Bryant), Edward Herrmann (Max Eastman), Jerzy Kosinski (Grigory Zinoviev), Jack Nicholson (Eugene O’Neill), Paul Sorvino (Louis C Farina), Maureen Stapleton (Emma Goldman), Nicolas Coster (Paul Trullinger), William Daniels (Julius Gerber), Jan Triska (Karl Rodek), Gene Hackman (Pete van Wherry)

Reds is the film only Warren Beatty could have made. Imagine the pitch meeting: I want to make a three hour long biopic about American communists, with the hero being the only American buried in the Kremlin, and I need $30million dollars to do it. Only Beatty had the force of personality to get major companies to invest greenbacks into a film celebrating a man who would have happily cheered their demise. Reds is a tribute above all to the dedication of its multi-titled director and his refusal to compromise. It’s a big piece of serious minded, educational but also dramatic and romantic storytelling. Not many people could have pulled it off.

In 1915 Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), a young would-be journalist and suffragette, meets and falls in love with left-wing journalist John Reed (Warren Beatty). The two of them tun off together to Reed’s bohemian circle in Greenwich Village, New York then to Massachusetts, becoming the centre of a community of anarchists, socialists and artists. Their mutual love is damaged by affairs – in particular Bryant’s heartfelt affair with the sensitive Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson) and Reed’s own (off-screen) infidelities – but is rekindled as they are swept up in the Russian Revolution, an event that motivates Reed to try and build a similar communist party in America (with very little success). But, when Reed is trapped in Soviet Russia, how far will Bryant go to reunite with him?

Beatty’s dream of making a film on Reed’s life had been knocking around in his head since the 1960s, but it took the success of Heaven Can Wait in 1978 for him to finally have the muscle to get the film made (when Studio execs, having signed the deal, begged him to consider another subject Beatty stuck to his guns). He originally planned only to produce: that quickly expanded into also writing the script (with Marxist British playwright Trevor Griffiths, a hilarious personality mismatch with the Virginian millionaire Beatty), then directing it and finally, to be completely sure the project went where he wanted it to go, playing Reed as well. It would result in Beatty joining the short list of people nominated in four different categories for one film at the Oscars (but he won only Best Director, Reds losing out the big one to Chariots of Fire).

The real strength of Reds is probably Beatty’s producing. This is a huge epic, filmed across multiple countries in Europe (standing in for each other and for America), marshalling a vast number of sets and locations. Much like Attenborough’s Gandhi, it’s a film directed with a smooth, professional competence, but stage-managed to the screen with the flair of a master producer. Each department was staffed by an expert: Vittorio Storaro shot the film with a Golden Age beauty; Stephen Sondheim contributed to the score; Dede Allen assembled thousands of hours of footage, and dozens and dozens of takes of every scene, into a coherent, pacey movie that effectively balances politics and romance.

In many ways, Reds is like the mirror image of Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (it even has a late train ambush set-piece, chugging through the Spanish wheat fields, that could have come out of Lean’s epic). That film was a romance-for-the-ages that used politics and revolution as a backdrop. Reds uses romance and personal stories as a context-setting background, to push to the forefront politics and revolution. This is perhaps the most earnest and impassioned exploration of the history of American left-wing politics in film history. Giving a lot of time  – particularly in its second half – to scenes made-up entirely of impassioned socialists sitting in a room arguing at each other over the minutia of party rules and ideology, this is the sort of epic Ken Loach would have been proud of making.

The politics are also genuinely interesting, quite a feat in itself. Beatty is unafraid to look at the fundamental weaknesses of Western left-wing politics: its own worst enemy is always itself. People who agree on 90% of the issues, swear themselves to become life-long enemies because of differences over the remaining 10%. In one dynamically filmed sequence, Bryant is a frustrated and resigned observer as Reed oversees the split of the American Socialist Party into no less than three factions, two of which set up rival claims to be the “official” Communist party of America.

Not that Reds has any sentiment for Russia: Beatty is savvy enough to know (I wonder if Griffiths was?) that the USSR is about a million miles away from ideal. Factionalism is just as prevalent there, with the difference being the main faction happily uses, suppresses and crushes the others. Reed’s time in Russia sees him becoming increasingly disillusioned and homesick, as he realises a dictatorship isn’t made palatable just because it’s a Communist Dictatorship. As the representative of that system, author Jerzy Kosinski makes for a grippingly stone-faced and ruthless Zinoviev, brow-beating any deviation from the party line.

Beatty makes all this political theorising and left-wing political infighting palatable, by framing it carefully around a genuine romance between Bryant and Reed. For all the unconventionality of their open-ish relationship (their feelings on this change from infidelity to infidelity), these are two people who share a deep and lasting bond on both an emotional and a political level. Both skilled writers, we are shown time and again that they bring out their best work from the other and that when they are focused on each other, they have a mutual understanding few can hope to match.

As Bryant, Beatty (who was in a relationship with her at the time – which didn‘t survive the epic shooting schedule) cast Diane Keaton. It’s a stroke of genius – and this is certainly Keaton’s finest performance. In a way no other role has allowed her, this looks past Keaton’s comedic skills and allows her to match her intelligence and spark with a woman who challenged norms, as a skilled writer and journalist. Keaton can play heart-rending emotion just as well – her breakdown fury at discovering Reed’s infidelity is fully-committed without being OTT – and she’s perfect as the increasingly disillusioned observer of left-wing failures. She believably flourishes from a woman uncertain of who she is to become a determined intellectual willing to cross continents to find what she wants. It’s a brilliant performance, smart, sharp and moving.

Beatty fronts-and-centres her so much, he slightly short-changes himself – playing Reed he doubles down on the boyish charm and enthusiasm (and he feels really young here), making Reed an enthusiastic, vulnerable, naïve figure. We just don’t quite get a real sense of who he is beyond that. You can’t say the same for Nicholson’s Eugene O’Neill, delivering a remarkably low-key, restrained and sensitive performance. He’s loving, emotionally vulnerable and eventually devastated, in one of his finest acting performances. Maureen Stapleton won the Best Supporting Actress for her Earth-mother anarchist Emma Goldman, the cuddly aunt of firey, confrontational anarchic politics.

Reds is marshalled by Beatty into an epic that powers along effectively. The first half of the film gets its narrative balance right: contrasting personal and political growth with a backdrop of War and Revolution. The second half leaves a little too much to chew, a vast amount of political debate rushed through with a series of increasingly short and sometimes disconnected scenes. Beatty balances the narrative with extensive “witness” interviews, from real-life contemporaries of the characters. (These are never identified, which is a bit of shame as it never allows to really know what their perspective was). It adds a feeling of earnestness to a project that gets an effective balance between politics and the personal, between showmanship and details and between scale and intimacy. While it is more of a producer’s film – and rushed in its second half – than a triumph of directorial imagination, it’s still an impressive – and informative – achievement.

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

Marlene Dietrich with a beloved friend (and the film has fun with that rumour) in The Scarlet Empress

Director: Josef von Sternberg

Cast: Marlene Dietrich (Empress Catherine), John Lodge (Count Alexey Razumovsky), Sam Jaffe (Emperor Peter III), Louise Dresser (Empress Elizaveta Petrovna), C. Aubrey Smith (Prince Christian August), Gavin Gordon (Captain Orlov), Olive Tell (Joanna Elizabeth), Ruthelma Stevens (Countess Elizaveta), Davison Calrk (Arch Episcopope), Erville Anderson (Chancellor Bestuzhev-Ryumin)

Did von Sternberg have a bet on when he made this film? “Hey Josef, what’s the maddest film you think you could make and get away with?” Either that, or perhaps he didn’t care anymore and decided his own obsessions with visuals, sexuality and Dietrich were more important than anything else. Regardless, he made The Scarlet Empress, perhaps one of the most bizarre major releases from a 1930s Studio, a sort of camp masterpiece that contains things you just won’t see any in other film, but at the same time is a disjointed, barely plotted ramble through a fable-tinged version of Russian history. Either way, it’s a truly unique film – and how many films can you say that about?

The plot loosely follows the rise of Catherine the Great (Marlene Dietrich) to power, but any resemblance to real people (living or dead) seems to be purely coincidental. Catherine arrives in Russia to power the heir to the throne, Grand Duke Peter (Sam Jaffe), a gurning simpleton more interested in his soldiers (both toys and real ones) and his mistress Elizaveta (Ruthelma Stevens) than Catherine. Russia is ruled by his mother Empress Elizaveta (Louise Dresser), a domineering matriarch. The (initially) innocent Catherine is admired by the rakeish Count Alexey (John Lodge), but must learn to master the skills of the court – and the sensuality of her own body – to take power.

The Scarlet Empress is pretty crazy. If you are coming here for a history lesson on Catherine the Great, keep on walking. Josef von Sternberg called it “a relentless excursion into style” and that’s a pretty good description. It’s a parade of his fascinations (and obsessions), set in a Russia that never really existed but I suspect Sternberg would argue ‘shouldhave done’. This is Russia as a medieval backwater, built entirely from Cossacks, icons and gargoyles, with the Russian court a ramshackle wooden palace with a throne that wouldn’t look out of place in Game of Thrones. Much of the sense of time and place is buried under this and huge chunks of the film may as well be silent cinema, so little does dialogue matter and so skilfully are emotions and events communicated visually.

However, grab this in the right mood and this is a film it’s impossible not to admire and even fall in love with a little bit. There really is nothing like this, and like much of Sternberg’s work there is a visual sweep and drama here that few other filmmakers can match. There are some truly striking images, from Cossacks riding through the palace, to Sam Jaffe’s gargoyle like face as Grand Duke Peter, to a giant drill bit punching through the eye of a wooden icon. The jaw dropping production design – sets that dwarf the actors – is mixed with misty lighting for romantic assignations and deep shadows for (literally) backstairs court intrigue.

In all this, the story counts for very little, with the primary focus being Sternberg’s obsessions. Many of those seem to be sexual. The Scarlet Empress was released right on the cusp of the Production Code being enforced in Hollywood – and it’s hard to imagine it could ever have been passed once the code was fully enforced. The film lays it’s hand out early with an S&M tinged Russian torture montage (with naked women in iron maidens, whippings, beheadings and a giant bell with the clapper replaced by a human being) and hardly stops from there. Later montages feature explosions of Peter’s soldiers, looting, shooting and orgying across Russia.

The primary lesson Catherine needs to learn in Russia is to use the power of her own sexuality. The idea of politics is even openly rejected by Catherine in favour of mastering her seductive powers. Initially a blushing, mousy innocent, she becomes increasingly coquettish and seductive as the film unfolds. In an early scene she nervously fingers a riding crop – by later in the film she’s bending it in her hands with all the confidence of a Dominatrix. Lovers come and go, as she wins supporters over to her side (she “added the army to her list of conquests” a caption deadpans at one point). Trysts grow in confidence, as Dietrich’s performance progresses from innocence to dominant knowingness.

Dietrich is as close as she’s been to a prop here, striking a series of poses in a performance that’s largely campily two dimensional. For the first 70 minutes she’s given almost nothing to do other than strike a bemused face: for the remaining 40 minutes she’s like Sternberg’s wet dream of a sexually aggressive domineering woman. Basic notes are what most of the cast are kept to, fitting the impression that they are just props in a silent film. John Lodge scowls and poses as Count Alexey and is as wooden as most of the set. Sam Jaffe is one of the gargoyles made flesh. Louise Dresser is an older version of the sexual kingpin Catherine becomes.

But that’s because it’s all about the mood and the style. The Scarlet Empress has that in absolute spades. It’s as close as you can get in the 1930s to a director of a major Hollywood studio film, pouring money into something that maybe only he will like. It’s silent film roots can be seen not only in its vast impressionistic sets, but also in the steady parade of title cards that dance across the screen to communicate what passes for the story. Acting and story are very much secondary to the mood of sexual exuberance and craziness that dominates nearly every frame of the action. The film was a massive bomb on release – perhaps because no one else could quite work out what it was – and it’s taken decades for its overblown mad genius to be recognised. But it’s a film unlike any other and for that alone you should see it.

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Julie Christie and Omar Sharif are star cross’d lovers in Lean’s epic but flawed Doctor Zhivago

Director: David Lean

Cast: Omar Sharif (Dr Yuri Zhivago), Julie Christie (Lara Antipova), Geraldine Chaplin (Tonya Gromeko), Rod Steiger (Victor Komarovsky), Alec Guinness (Lt General Yevgraf Zhivago), Tom Courtenay (Pasha Antipov/Strelnikov), Siobhan McKenna (Anna Gromeko), Ralph Richardson (Alexander Gromeko), Rita Tushingham (The Girl), Bernard Kay (Bolshevik), Klaus Kinski (Amoursky), Noel Willman (Razin), Geoffrey Keen (Professor Kurt), Jack MacGowan (Petya)

Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago is one of the seminal 20th century novels. Smuggled out of the USSR after being refused publication, it became an international sensation and led directly to Pasternak winning the Nobel Prize (although the USSR insisted he turn it down). A film was only a matter of time – and who else would you call but David Lean, master of the pictorial epic, to bring the novel about the Russian Revolution to the screen. Lean – with his masterful Dickensian adaptations – was perfect in many ways but Doctor Zhivago, for me, is the least satisfying of his ‘Great Films’. It’s strangely empty and sentimental, lacking some of the novel’s strengths zeroing in on its weaknesses.

Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) is training to be a Doctor in the years before the outbreak of the First World War. Married to Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), the daughter of his father’s old friend Gromeko (Ralph Richardson), Yuri is part scientist, part poetic free-thinker. Events throw him together with Lara (Julie Christie), a young woman whose fiancé Pasha (Tom Courtenay) has ties to the revolutionaries, while she is trapped in an abusive relationship with the amoral Komarovsky (Rod Steiger). But are all these troubles worth a hill of beans in a country about to tear itself apart?

There are many things you can’t argue with in Lean’s film. It is of course unfailingly beautiful. Ironically filmed in Fascist Spain, it’s gorgeously lensed with a luscious romanticism by Frederick Young (who won his second Oscar for a Lean film). It’s not just pictorial beauty either: Young frequently makes wonderful uses of splashes of Monet red to dapple the frame. From poppies in a field to the ubiquitous communist imagery on uniforms and walls. There are some wonderfully cool blues employed for the snow, while slashes of light pass across eyes with a gorgeous lyricism.

Romance is the name of the game, with everything working overtime to stress the star cross’d lovers plot. Maurice Jarre’s score – in particular its balalaika inspired Lara’s Theme – mixes Russian folk inspirations with an immortal sense of longing. It plays over a film that, while very long, often feels well-paced, even if (just as the novel) its episodic and at times rambling. Lean’s direction of epic events revolving around personal loves and tragedies is still exquisite in its balance between the grand and intimate. The film is wonderfully edited and a fabulous example of long-form storytelling.

So, what’s wrong with Doctor Zhivago? In a film with so much to admire, is it possible Lean and co spent years working on something only to bring the word but not the spirit to the screen? The key problems come round to Zhivago himself. This is man defined by his poetic soul. His poetry becomes a sensation after his death. His balalaika is a constant companion, and his playing of it an inherited gift (which even has major plot implications). Inexplicably, the film has not a single word of poetry in it (when it had Pasternak’s entire back catalogue to work with) and Zhivago never so much as strums the strings of his balalaika. It’s like filming Hamlet and then making him a mute.

The problem is, removing the character’s hinterland makes him a rather empty character. Zhivago is a liberal reformer, in sympathy with the revolution but not it’s methods. This should be at the heart of understanding his character, but like his poetry the film has no time for it. Instead, Zhivago is boiled down into a romantic figure, nothing more. He has no inner life at all, a blank canvas rather than an enigma.

Suddenly those long lingering shots of Sharif’s puppy-dog eyes end up carrying no real meaning. They aren’t the windows to his soul, only a big watery hole with not much at the bottom. Sharif is awkwardly miscast – and lacks the dramatic chops O’Toole bought to Lawrence – but it’s not completely his fault. His character has had his depth removed. When we see him struggling at the front, trapped on a long train ride to Siberia or forced to work with partisans, he’s not a man who seems to be considering anything, but just buffeted by fortune, neither deep or thoughtful enough to reflect on the world around him. That’s not really Pasternak’s intention.

Instead, the film boils the novel down to his plot-basics and, in doing so, removes the heart of what got the book banned in the first place. Lean misunderstood the future of Soviet Russia so much, he even chose to end the film with a romantic rainbow at the foot of a waterfall. The horrors of the civil war and the revolution are largely there briefly: a gang of deserting soldiers unceremoniously frag their officers and Zhivago frequently stares sadly at villages burned out by Whites or Reds (or both). But the film is more of a romance where events (rather than politically and social inevitability) gets in the way of the lovers – like Gone with the Revolution.

By removing the more complex elements – and the poetic language of Pasternak – you instead have the rather soapy plotline (with its contrivances and coincidences) left over. Again, it’s Hamlet taking only the events and none of the intellect or language. (And Pasternak’s novel didn’t compare with Hamlet in the first place.) Both Zhivago and Lara are shot as soft-focus lovers, with Julie Christie styled like a perfectly made-up slice of 60s glamour. It’s a grand scale, but strangely empty romance, because both characters remain unexplored and unknowable – in the end it’s hard to care for them as much as we are meant to do. For all the epic scale, small moments – such as an aging couple sharing a cuddle late at night on a train floor – carry more impact. How did the director of Brief Encounter – a romance that speaks to the ages for its empathy – produce such an epic, but empty, posture filled romance as this?

Julie Christie does fare better than Sharif – she’s a better actor, and her character has a bit more fire and depth to her. But she’s not in the picture enough, and Lean quietly undersells the terrible trauma of her eventual fate. Ironically, the smaller roles are on surer ground. Geraldine Chaplin is rather affecting as Zhivago’s wife, a dutiful and caring woman who her husband loves but is not besotted with. Ralph Richardson is witty and moving in a tailor-made role as her eccentric father. Tom Courtenay landed the films only acting Oscar nomination as the reserved and conflicted Pasha. Rod Steiger is very good as the mass of greed, selfishness and barely acknowledged shame as Komarovsky. Alec Guinness is bizarrely miscast as Sharif’s younger brother (!) but handles some of the film’s duller scenes well (Lean’s decision to have him never speak on screen except in the film’s framing device works very well).

There is a lot of good stuff in Zhivago, but this is a neutered and even slightly shallow film, that’s far more about selling a romance than it is telling a true adaptation of the themes of the novel. In Lawrence, Lean showed us multiple aspects of a conflicted personality to leave us in doubt about who he really was. In Zhivago, he just presents a rather empty person and seems unsure if he wants to use to ask who he is. The film concentrates on making the romance sweeping and easily digestible. What it doesn’t make us do is really care for them as people.

Ben-Hur (1959)

Charlton Heston fights for freedom in the large scale but strangely empty Ben-Hur

Director: William Wyler

Cast: Charlton Heston (Judah Ben-Hur), Jack Hawkins (Quintus Arrius), Haya Harareet (Esther), Stephen Boyd (Messala), Hugh Griffith (Sheik Ilderim), Martha Scott (Miriam), Cathy O’Donnell (Tirzah), Sam Jaffe (Simonides), Finlay Currie (Balthasar), Frank Thring (Pontius Pilate), Terence Longdon (Drusus), George Relph (Tiberius Caesar), Andre Morell (Sextus)

Ben-Hur is big. Hammering home its monumentalism, the poster features the colossal stone-carved title dwarfing the people below. It’s the sort of Hollywood epic where the numbers – 10,000 extras! 2,500 horses! Over a million props! 1.1 million feet of film! 11 Oscars! – are as much a part of what you are sitting down to watch as the characters and story. Ben-Hur sits at the apex of the Hollywood Biblical epic: three and a half hours long, the most expensive film ever made (at the time). Age hasn’t always treated it kindly, and its eleven Oscars give it a sort of classic status it’s very hard for the first-time viewer to reconcile with what you actually see on the screen. Fundamentally, Ben-Hur is part spectacle, part pageant: some striking sequences linked together by the twee and the forgettable. Entertainingly middle-brow and over honoured, it’s a classic mostly because of what it represents rather than what it is.

Adapted from General Lew Wallace’s best-selling doorstop (he basically invented the airport novel, decades before the first airport ever opened), the story follows the fortunes of Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) in the early years of the first millennium. Ben-Hur grew up regarding Roman officer Messala (Stephen Boyd) as a brother. But when Ben-Hur refuses to help Messala identify Jewish insurgents, their friendship comes to an end. Before we know it, Messala suses trumped up charges to send Ben-Hur in chains to a life rowing as a galley slave while his mother Miriam (Martha Scott) and sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell) are imprisoned. Ben-Hur survives the galleys – even becoming the adopted son of Roman Consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins). When he returns to Jerusalem, will he take his revenge on Messala? Or will the teachings of the mysterious preacher spreading the word of God change his life?

For bursts of its (huge) run-time Ben-Hur is gripping, exciting stuff. The action when it comes is superbly done and some of the moments of high-emotion really hit the spot. But it’s impossible to avoid that, for large chunks of time in-between, Ben-Hur is ponderous, overlong, more than a bit self-important and a little twee. Frequently the film grinds to a halt to parade its numbers: after all we need a long intro to the chariot race so we can see all those extras and horses. Things like this frequently don’t drive forward the story, or help the pace: but Ben-Hur was at least as much about wowing the audience as it was about telling a story.

William Wyler was offered more money than any director in history to bring it to the screen. He produces a film as faultless in its professionalism, as it is impersonal. Wyler – a director who worked best with actor-led stories – struggled with the vastness of Hur: his visual compositions often an awkward attempt to mix the width of the frame with the intimacy of two characters talking. His style doesn’t help here: the heaviness of the cameras made them difficult to move, making many of the conversation scenes of the film rather flat and dull to look at. Wyler doesn’t put a foot wrong, but it feels more like a competent professional ticking boxes.

It’s the big set piece moments – of which there three – which really have stuck in people’s minds. Those would be: the early scenes with Messala/Ben-Hur, the naval battle sequence and the chariot race. Outside of those moments – which are all, in their own ways, very memorable – it’s amazing to me every time I watch it how much of the film I fail to remember. I certainly had forgotten how damn much of the movie is left post Chariot race (over 45 minutes!), the film dragging on through the Miriam/Tirzah leprosy sub-plot intercut with moments from the life of Jesus (often with dialogue of the “He’s giving a Sermon on that Mount” variety). There are several moments in the film where events play out at great length inversely proportional to their interest.

But those set-pieces are great. The chariot race alone probably made the film the success it is. It’s ten minutes of compelling drama, gripping stunts: a feast of tight editing, dynamic camera work and thundering sound effects. Shot by a second unit – although, to be fair, supervised in its planning and editing by Wyler – it’s the heart of the movie. Viscerally enjoyable, it perhaps stands out because it’s the most earthy, exciting, real thing in a movie that can be rather stagy and turgid.

Running it close is the naval battle sequence – show-casing a gravely Jack Hawkins – very well-done (and disguising its water tank shooting origins), particularly because Wyler keeps most of the focus on the slave rowers in the bowels of the ship. While fire and arrows fly up top, and boarding parties clash, it’s from the slaves perspective that we see a vessel approach to ram the ship – and their terror at drowning that we feel. It’s another fine use of the epic big-screen. With virtually no dialogue, it’s also a triumph of visual story-telling, communicating a host of emotions and actions with brilliant efficiency.

The Messala/Ben-Hur sequences have stuck in the mind for other reasons. Long-running debates exist about who actually wrote the script. The credit goes to Ken Turnberg, but Gore Vidal long claimed his fingerprints were on most of the dialogue. (Wyler and Heston disagreed, giving the credit to playwright Christopher Fry – Heston even thanked Fry in his Oscar acceptance speech.) Vidal liked to claim he directed Boyd to play these scenes as if Messala was a spurned lover of Ben-Hur – taking an equal delight in claiming Heston had no idea of this subtext. Wyler argued he had no memory of this, and denied any such direction to Boyd took place. The truth will never really be known, but to me the idea of the writer on a film like this taking creative control seems a stretch.

Anyway, it adds a frisson to the scenes – and its undeniable there is more than a touch of camp to them. To be honest I think a lot of this is due to Stephen Boyd’s OTT performance as Messala. He plays every single scene at a ludicrous pitch – throughout the chariot race he makes Dick Dastardly look the model of underplaying – and I can well imagine Vidal enjoyed taking advantage of his over-emphasis in these sequences to spin an amusing story of sneaking in a homo-erotic subtext.

The acting in general is fairly mundane – for all the film won two Oscars for its performers. Heston (in his only nomination) was named Best Actor. He’s a monumental actor, best used in roles that could have been chiselled from marble, but this is not his best (look to Khartoum, Agony and the Ecstasy or Planet of the Apes for starters). Much like Boyd he’s prone to over-emotionalism (most of the last 40 minutes feature him throwing his face into his hands), intermixed with moments of stony po-facedness. Hugh Griffith won the other Oscar (insanely generous considering he beat out Scott and O’Connell in Anatomy of a Murder) and his hammy, black-face is increasingly uncomfortable. Few of the other performers make much of an impact (although I enjoyed seeing an unbilled John Le Mesurier as a Roman doctor).

The one thing about Ben-Hur that lives up to its grandness is Miklos Rosza’s brilliant -and hugely influential – score. A brilliant mix of the inspiring epic, the grandiose and the deeply spiritual, you can hear its DNA throughout the works of John Williams and several others. It’s one of the longest scores of all time (three hours of music!) but it captures the tone of every scene perfectly, helping to build the overall effect.

It even manages to make some of the Jesus sequences work. The film is never more twee than when it touches on the Bible. Jesus is only ever shown from behind, but always as the classic long-haired, beatific figure, practically floating through the ether. Sequences that show the nativity, the sermon on the mount and the crucifixion have a Sunday School earnestness about them, largely free of drama and seem designed to be as inoffensive (and uninteresting) as possible. It’s when the film is as its most self-consciously earnest.

And Ben-Hur is a very earnest film. A professional job – with a director wrestling all those numbers – it’s got some striking sequences but even more flat, twee and forgettable moments. With acting that ranges from overly-earnest to just over the top, its classic status is more about what it is. The largest, most expensive, most honoured film of the Biblical epic genre. Its’ most famous for all those Oscars and the chariot race: in other words ten minutes of its screen time and garlands from a ceremony we often say honours the wrong films. Judged on film merits, Ben-Hur is not the best but not the worst. But it’s more about all its numbers, the vast array of things in it. It represents Big Studio investment: it’s about money. No wonder Hollywood garlanded it with so many Oscars.

Braveheart (1995)

“Freedom!” Mel Gibson’s Braveheart escapes the shackles of history

Director: Mel Gibson

Cast: Mel Gibson (William Wallace), Sophie Marceau (Princess Isabelle), Patrick McGoohan (Edward I), Angus MacFadyen (Robert the Bruce), Brendan Gleeson (Hamish), David O’Hara (Stephen), James Cosmo (Campbell), Peter Hanly (Prince Edward), Catherine McCormack (Murron MacClannough), Ian Bannen (Bruce’s Father), Sean McGinley (MacClannough), Brian Cox (Argyle Wallace)

Think back to 1994 and a time when no one really knew who William Wallace was and Mel Gibson was the world’s favourite sexy bad-boy. Because by 1995, William Wallace had become the international symbol of Scottish “Freedom!” and Mel Gibson was an Oscar-winning auteur. Can you believe a film like Braveheart won no fewer than five Oscars, including the Big One? History has not always been kind to it – but then the film was hardly kind to history, so swings and roundabouts.

It’s the late 13th century and Scotland has been conquered by the cruel Edward I (Patrick McGoohan) – a pagan apparently, which just makes you think that Gibson and screenwriter Randall Wallace simply don’t know what that word means. William Wallace (Mel Gibson) saw his whole family killed, but now he’s grown and married to his sweetheart Murron (Catherine McCormack). In secret, as the wicked king has introduced Prima Nocte to Scotland, giving English landlords the right to do as they please with brides on the wedding night. When Murron is killed after a fight to avoid her rape, Wallace’s desire for revenge transforms into a crusade to win Scotland its freedom. A brilliant tactician and leader of men, battles can be won – but can Wallace win the support of the ever-shifting lords, such as the conflicted Robert the Bruce (Angus MacFadyen)? Will this end in freedom or death?

Even in 1995, Braveheart was a very old-fashioned piece of film-making. You can easily imagine exactly the same film being made (with less sex and violence) in the 1950s, with Chuck Heston in a kilt and a “Hoots Mon!” accent. In fact, watching it again, I was struck that narratively the film follows almost exactly the same tone and narrative arc as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves – with the only difference being if that film had concluded after the Sheriff’s attack on Sherwood Forest with Robin Hood gutted alive in the streets of Nottingham.

This is a big, silly cartoon of a movie, that serves up plenty of moments of crowd-pleasing violence, low comedy, heroes we can cheer and villains we can hiss. Mel Gibson, truth be told, sticks out like a sore thumb with his chiselled Hollywood looks and defiantly modern mannerisms. The film takes a ridiculously simplistic view of the world that categorises everything and everyone into goodies (Wallace and his supporters) and the baddies (almost everyone else).

It’s also far longer than you remember it being. It takes the best part of 50 minutes to build up to Wallace going full berserker after the death of his wife. A later section of the film spends 30 minutes spinning plates between Wallace being betrayed at the Battle of Falkirk and then being betrayed again into captivity (you could have combined both events into one and lost nothing from the film). There is some lovely footage of the Scottish (largely actually Irish) countryside, lusciously shot by John Toll and an effectively Celtic-influenced romantic score by James Horner. In fact, Toll and Horner contribute almost as much to the success of the film as Gibson.

Gibson is by no means a bad director. In fact, very few directors can shoot action and energy as effectively as the controversial Australian. The best bits of Braveheart reflect this. When he’s shooting battles, or fights, or brutal executions he knows what he’s doing. Even if I’d argue that Kenneth Branagh managed to make much less than this look more impressive in Henry V. The battles have an “ain’t it cool” cheek to them, that invites the audience to delight in watching limbs hacked off, horses cut down and screaming Woad-covered warriors ripping through stuffy English soldiers. It’s probably not an accident that the film channels more than a little bit of sport-fan culture into its Scottish warriors.

Where Gibson’s film is more mundane is in almost everything else. The rest of the film is shot with a functional mundanity, mixed with the odd sweeping helicopter shot over the highlands. Its similarities to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves are actually really strong, from the matey bonhomie of the gang at its heart, its pantomime villain, the moral certainty of its crusades and the fact that Mel Gibson is no more convincing as a 13th-century Scot than Kevin Costner was as Robin Hood. But at least Prince of Thieves knew it was a silly bit of fun. Braveheart thinks it’s got an important message about the immortality of Freedom.

Alongside that, it’s a film that focuses on giving you what you it thinks you want. Gladiator – in many ways a similar film – is a richer and more emotional film, not least because it has the courage to stick to being a film where the hero is faithful to his dead wife and whose triumph is joining her in death. In this film, there are callbacks throughout to the dead Murron – but it doesn’t stop Wallace banging Princess Isabelle, or the film using the same sweeping romantic score to backdrop this as it did for the marriage of Murron and Wallace. What on earth is it trying to say here?

It goes without saying that the real Wallace did not have sex with Princess Isabelle and father Edward III – not least because the real Isabelle was about ten when Wallace died and I’m not sure putting thatin the film would have had us rooting for Wallace. Almost nothing in the film is historically accurate. Wallace is presented as a peasant champion, when he in fact was a minor lord (the film even bizarrely keeps in Wallace travelling Europe and learning French and Latin – a big reach for a penniless medieval Scots peasant). Even the name Braveheart is taken from Robert the Bruce and given to Wallace. The Bruce himself – a decent performance by Angus MacFadyen – is turned into a weak vacillator, under the thumb of his leprous Dad (a lip-smacking Ian Bannen).

The historical messing about doesn’t stop there. Even Wallace’s finest hour, the Battle of Stirling Bridge, is transformed. The film-makers apparently felt the vital eponymous bridge “got in the way” – a sentiment shared by the English, who in reality were drawn into its bottleneck and promptly massacred. Instead we get a tactics free scrap in a field – fun as it is to watch the Scots lift their kilts, it hardly makes sense. The Scots culture in this film is a curious remix of about five hundred years of influences all thrown into one. Prima Nocte never happened. The real Edward II was a martial superstar – but here is a fey, limp-wristed sissy (the film’s attitude towards him stinks of homophobia). Almost nothing in the film actually happened.

But the romance of the film made it popular. It’s a big, crowd-pleasing, cheesy slice of Hollywood silliness. The sort of film where Wallace sneaks into someone’s room at the top of a castle riding a freaking horse and no-one notices. It tells a simple story in simple terms, using narrative tricks and rules familiar from countless adventure films since The Adventures of Robin Hood. It looks and sounds great, enough to disguise the fact that it isn’t really any good. Because it has a sad ending, scored with sad music, it tricked enough people to think it had depth and style. In fact is a very mediocre film, hellishly overlong, that turns history into a cheap comic book. It remains in the top 100 most popular films of all time on IMDB. It’s about as likely an Oscar winner as 300.

Nicholas and Alexandria (1971)

Michael Jayston and Janet Suzman bring the Romanovs to life in Nicholas and Alexandra

Director: Franklin J Schaffner

Cast: Michael Jayston (Nicholas II), Janet Suzman (Empress Alexandra), Harry Andrews (Grand Duke Nicholas), Tom Baker (Rasputin), Jack Hawkins (Count Vladimir), Ian Holm (Yakovlev), Curt Jurgens (Germany consul), John McEnery (Kerensky), Laurence Olivier (Count Witte), Eric Porter (Stolypin), Michael Redgrave (Sazonov), Irene Worth (Queen Marie Fedorovna), Roderic Noble (Prince Alexei), Ania Mason (Olga), Lynne Frederick (Tatiana), Candace Glendenning (Marie), Fiona Fullerton (Anastasia), Michael Bryant (Lenin), Brian Cox (Trotsky), Maurice Denham (Kokovtsov), Roy Dotrice (General Alexeiev), Julian Glover (Georgy Gapon), John Hallam (Nagorny), James Hazeldine (Stalin), Alexander Knox (US Ambassador), Vivian Pickles (Krupskaya), Diana Quick (Sonya), John Shrapnel (Petya), Timothy West (Dr Botkin), Alan Webb (Yurovsky), John Wood (Colonel Kobylinsky)

When I was growing up, Nicholas and Alexandra was a popular movies in our house. And, as a history buff, I can’t help but be sucked into it’s grand-scale epic scope (a cast of stars play out the beginnings of the Russian Revolution!). You can certainly look at Nicholas and Alexandra and see a film that at times is bloated and lacking flair. But as a representative of a particular type of genre, with grand scale production values covering decades of earth-shattering events in a three hours, it’s a thoughtful and at times even rather moving picture.

Nicholas II (Michael Jayston) is Tsar of all the Russias. With the film starting with his (typically) disastrous decision to fight the Japanese in 1905 (a war that literally sunk Russian naval dominance) we see a parade of misguided, poor and short-sighted-but-well-meaning decisions by Nicholas – encouraged by his strong-minded but politically naïve Tsarina Alexandra (Janet Suzman) – eventually lead to the First World War and a revolution that will overthrow him. On a personal level, the couple also deal with the heartbreaking haemophilia of their son Alexei (Roderic Noble) and Alexandra’s dependence on the destructive Rasputin (Tom Baker). As their lives go from supreme power to imprisonment and eventual murder, the film also covers a host of Russian politicians from statesmen to socialists, all of them wanting to build Russia in their own image.

Franklin J Schaffner’s epic sometimes gets a bit overwhelmed by its impressive reconstruction of Imperialist Russia – the set design and photography is wonderful and the film marshals the inevitable cast of thousands with skilful effect. What the film does very well is marry up the epic with the personal. Because this is both a chronicle of the reasons for the outbreak of the Russian revolution, but also a domestic tragedy of a royal family horrendously ill-suited to the high position birth has called them to.

The film’s vast scope does mean it has to make a frequent resort – particularly in its first half – of feted stage actors explaining events at each other. Particularly rushed are scenes featuring the socialist revolutionaries, where actors like Michael Bryant, Vivian Pickles and Brian Cox have to contend with bullet point dialogue and lines of the “Trotsky, let me introduce you to Stalin, he’s just back from Siberia” variety. Nicholas attends frequent meetings where the likes of Laurence Olivier, Eric Porter, Harry Andrews and Michael Redgrave carefully fill him in on what’s happened and the likely (invariably historically correct) outcomes. At times it does make the film a rushed pageant.

The film however makes it work by continually bringing itself back to the personal story of Nicholas and Alexandra themselves. The film is expertly carried by relative newcomers (at the time) Michael Jayston and Janet Suzman. Jayston – an astonishingly close physical match for Nicholas II – gives a perfectly judged characterisation of the Tsar. He’s a decent, well-meaning, dedicated and hard-working man who would make an excellent bank manager. As a supreme leader he’s a disaster – stubborn and so convinced that it is his holy duty to be father of the nation, while with a weary smile he short-sightedly vetoes any social or political progress what-so-ever. As one character tells him late in the film, he lacks any imagination: he can’t reinvent an absolute monarchy in the modern age, because it’s fundamentally beyond him to picture how anything can be done differently from hundreds of years of precedent.

Rational and calm he’s strangely almost more content out of power, focusing on his family and tending his garden. Not that his flaws depart – he remains an appalling short-sighted judge of character and situations to the very end (nearly every statement he makes is wrong). Jayston tackles a difficult role with ease and assurance – he carries most of the film and I think it’s only that Nicholas remains such a reactive character that Jayston doesn’t get more credit for his work here.

Much of the “nominations” attention went to Suzman, who has the more electric (but in some ways simpler role) as Alexandra. She brings to the marriage all the qualities Nicholas lacks – defiance, determination, ambition – and those are just as destructive. Just like her husband she’s stubborn and a terrible judge of people and situations, who clings loyally to terrible influences (like Rasputin) and puts her family and personal concerns above the preoccupations of the throne and the people. She’s prickly and harder to like than Nicholas (who she clearly dominates with her stronger personality) – but Suzman grounds her confrontationalism in a genuine love for her family.

The film’s second half, which largely focuses on the end of the regime and the last few months of the families lives being shuttled from one inhospitable safe house to another, makes a successful contrast with the grander scope of the first half. With the focus now more intently on the family themselves, particularly quietly contrasting their former supreme power with their new helplessness, it helps to bring out the heart. Schaffner’s film is very good at quietly building the dread as we head towards the inevitable end (the final few moments of the film are almost unbearably tense). In the whole family, only Prince Alexei seems able to comprehend that they are doomed. But removed from supreme power, Nicholas and Alexandra relax into what they would have been happier being: decent, kind, middle-class homebuilders.

Schaffner’s direction may not bring the burst of poetry that he managed with Patton – but he’s very good at building our empathy for these misguided and foolish autocrats. So much so, you’ll be screaming at Nicholas “Of course you should give the people a parliament!” while never actually hating him – because, stubborn and misguided as he is, he means well. However the film doesn’t let us forget what Nicholas is a figurehead of. Sequences demonstrating the sour, resentful poverty of most Russians are common – not just the 1905 march on the palace (that ends in a panicked officer ordering a massacre), but the grim faces of average Russians greeting the celebrations of the centenary of the Romanovs, while pissed aristocrats and Cossacks barrel about throwing empty of bottles of booze around. The tensions of Russia, and the inevitability of disaster, is never forgotten.

The all-star cast throws up several fine performances, backing the quietly assured leads. Olivier brings moral force as Count Witte – with an impassioned speech on the eve of the breakout of the first world war, all but breaking the fourth wall as the rest of the court continue their work around him. Hawkins demonstrates he has one of the most emotive faces in cinema as retainer Vladimir, while Andrews is bluff and loyal as Grand Duke “Nikolasha”. Irene Worth brings a sanctimonious pride to the Queen Mother’s talking truth to power.

There’s also some great work from less recognisable names. John McEnery (who should have become a bigger star) is fabulous as an impassioned Kerensky who finds himself stuck in the same mistakes as the Tsar. John Wood is very good as a Colonel feeling increasingly morally conflicted. Alan Webb is chillingly affable as their final warden. Later to take on the mantle of Doctor Who, Tom Baker gives Rasputin a mixture of restraint tinged with madness (as well as having the most prolonged death scene on film).

Nicholas and Alexandra is, in some ways, grandly old-fashioned. But it’s got a surprisingly strong heart and sense of empathy in it. It acknowledges the dreadful mistakes and stubborn lack of imagination of the Romanovs – and the many that their misguided principles led to poverty and death – but it also acknowledges both their well-meaning intentions as well as presenting their tragic ends. At times it’s a run-down of events of the final years of Tsarist Russia, but it also manages to tell an affecting family story of flawed people. It’s what makes it work.

The Bounty (1984)

Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins go head-to-head in The Bounty

Director: Roger Donaldson

Cast: Mel Gibson (Fletcher Christian), Anthony Hopkins (Lt William Bligh), Laurence Olivier (Admiral Hood), Edward Fox (Captain Greetham), Daniel Day-Lewis (John Fryer), Bernard Hill (William Cole), Phil Davis (Edward Young), Liam Neeson (Charles Churchill), Wi Kuku Kaa (King Tynah), Tevaite Vernette (Mauatua), Philip Martin Brown (John Adams), Simon Chandler (David Nelson

The story of the mutiny on The Bounty has intrigued for centuries. It’s been made into plays, novels and no fewer than three films. Most versions have been inspired by a 1932 novel that painted Bligh as an ogre and Christian as a matinee idol. That image was cemented by the classic Best Picture winning Laughton/Gable version. The real story is far more intriguing – and operates much more in shades of grey – and this 1984 film tries to find a middle ground, with mixed success.

In real life, Bligh was a prickly, difficult but fundamentally decent man, who had worked his way up the naval ranks through merit. He was a superb sailor – as seen by his feat of navigating a small open boat of loyalists over hundreds of miles back to a British port. Cleared of any guilt for the mutiny, he had a successful career and retired as Vice Admiral. Fletcher Christian, on the other hand, was an entitled young man who owed everything to his rich family, rather than merit. The truth has been lost in fictionalised versions who were devil and saint. The truth was far more complex.

This film was a long-standing dream of David Lean, who planned the film for many years, before pulling out at the last moment. The script was written by long-time collaborator Robert Bolt (although ill health meant it was finished by an uncredited Melvyn Bragg). Producer Dino de Laurentis – not wanting to write off the money invested – bought in Australian Roger Donaldson to direct. The final product is a competent, if uninspired, middle-brow history film with a slight air of stodge, and a haunting – if incredibly 80s – electronic score from Vangelis. Where the film really lucked out is the superb cast of actors assembled, with Gibson on the cusp of mega stardom and the cast stuffed with future Oscar winners and nominees.

Anthony Hopkins had been attached to the film for almost seven years, and his carefully researched performance as Bligh is what really gives makes the film work. He gets closer to the personality of the real Bligh than anyone else ever has. Awkward, shy, uneasy with men under his command, insecure at his poor background and the West Country burr to his accent, Hopkins’ Bligh is a world away from a bad man. But he is a demanding and rigid leader, who inspires fear but not respect. He’s far from cruel, but he’s short-tempered, inflexible and has trouble empathising. All too often, he relies on his position alone to ensure obedience, rather than building respect. You sympathise with him, at the same time becoming deeply frustrated at his intransigence. You can understand why many would find him an extremely difficult man to work with (let alone work for).

Fletcher Christian is young, naïve and impetuous, a man whose experiences in Tahiti lead him to become surly and impatient with the confines of a naval life. Gibson later said he felt the film didn’t go far enough to depict Christian as selfish and motivated by a desire for the ‘good life’, and the film does try to show him standing up for the crew against Bligh’s demands for perfection. But Gibson is willing to embrace Christian’s darkness. He hurls himself into the (historically attested) near mental collapse, consumed with violent and unpredictable emotion, that Christian demonstrated during the mutiny, losing all control of himself in an explosion of self-pity and frustration.

The film’s highpoints revolve invariably around these actors. Hopkins’ demanding Bligh sets the tone on the ship. The roots of the mutiny can be seen in Bligh’s public bawling out (and demotion) of his first officer Mr Fryer (a disdainful Daniel Day-Lewis) in front of the entire ship, setting a precedent for disrespect. Every action he intends to build spirit and health in the crew has the exact opposite effect (from pushing them to excel, to enforced dancing sessions for exercise). Hopkins is perfect as man believing he is acting for the best but constantly getting the tone wrong, either too distant and reserved to inspire affection, or too enraged to inspire loyalty. Similarly Gibson, in the less intriguing part, really sells the growing self-absorption of Christian, especially his feckless weakness, easily manipulated into actions that go a step beyond his desires (Phil Davis is very good as a darkly Iago-ish Ned Young, using Christian’s popularity to his own ends).

However, the film itself is a little too traditional. Using Bligh’s trial (all captains who lost their ship were placed on trial to judge their responsibility) as a framing device brings us slightly too many interjections of the “and then you did this” variety – even if it allows actors as impressive as Olivier and Edward Fox to narrate us through the film. This stodgy structure carries us into a narrative that is professionally handled but lacks inspiration, ticking off events but not giving them a force outside of the performances of the actors. The film is competently but not inspiringly made, and never quite captures the sense of the epic that the location and scale should bring.

Perhaps this is because a true-to-life version of the mutiny is a little less traditionally dramatic. Despite some truly impressive performances from the leads (and the rest of the superbly chosen cast), it never quite shakes off the feeling of being a history lesson.

Waterloo (1970)

Rod Steiger chews the scenery as Napoleon in this epic restaging of Waterloo

Director: Sergei Bondarchuk

Cast: Rod Steiger (Napoleon Bonaparte), Christopher Plummer (Duke of Wellington), Orson Welles (Louis XVIII), Jack Hawkins (Lt-General Thomas Picton), Virginia McKenna (Duchess of Richmond), Dan O’Herlihy (Marshal Michel Ney), Rupert Davies (Colonel Gordon), Philippe Forquet (Brigadier-General Bédoyère), Ian Ogilvy (Colonel De Lancey)

In 1970 there was no CGI. Want to stage a battle scene? Well you’re going to have to use real people, rather than populating your screen with pixel soldiers. I’ve always had a fondness for epic films of this era, where you look at the screen and know everything is real. And one of the best examples of this battle-heavy genre is this 1970’s chronicle of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Because in 1970 the only way to recapture the battle on camera was effectively to re-fight it with a cast of tens of thousands of extras and horses, across a film set the size of the original battlefield. Can you imagine anyone attempting that today?

An international co-production, the film throws together an eccentric hodgepodge of actors. No more than you would expect of a film co-financed by Italy and the Soviet Union, shot in English, directed by a Ukrainian (with a team of four translators) with a lead actor from New York and the cast stuffed with dubbed actors from across Europe. In fact the slight air of Euro-tackiness about the film is one of the things I sort of love about it.

Rod Steiger as Napoleon delivers the sort of OTT performance he loved to give, capturing the self-aggrandising, larger-than-life nature of the Emperor while frequently chewing the scenery and oscillating between whispers and shouting. It’s perhaps no more than you would expect when playing a man whose entire life was a stage-managed performance of dangerous charisma. It does though make a nice contrast with Christopher Plummer who, perhaps aware of who he was working with, goes for an archly low-key, even wry touch, as the more austere Wellington.

The film covers the time period of Napoleon’s Hundred Days, from his arrival from Elba to the final defeat at Waterloo (with a neat prologue showing an exhausted Napoleon accepting he must abdicate and head into exile in 1814). Much of the first half hour is a showpiece for Steiger’s bombastic Napoleon. Few other characters get a look in (Welles cashes another of his cheques for one-scene cameos, as a bloated Louis XVIII fleeing into exile). To be honest, much of the first half of the film is a slightly stodgy (more-or-less) faithful trot through historical events leading to the battle.

But this is really to set the table for the film’s central appeal, which is that astonishing recreation of the battle itself. Shot in the Ukraine, the Soviet Union (as their part of the deal) effectively recreated the landscape of Waterloo, bulldozing hills, planting thousands of trees, sowing fields and laying over six miles of drainage to help create the muddy fields. On top of which, the USSR threw in 17,000 troops to serve as extras (insanely impressive, even considering it’s only a fraction of the nearly 191,000 troops involved at various stages in the battle).

Marshalling all this was Soviet director Sergei Bondarchuk. Used to commanding film sets like this – he had previously directed a four-part version of War and Peace, where similar number of Soviet troops had recreated Austerlitz and Borodino – Bondarchuk certainly knows how to show the money is all on screen. Aerial shots and long tracking shots take in regiments of soldiers taking up position. Cavalry charges of hundreds of horses are brilliantly shot. The French cavalry charge against the British infantry squares is stunning in its scale and size. Everywhere you look, wide-angled shots demonstrate the depth of extras, the vast scope of the battle and the huge numbers of soldiers marching across screen. If nothing else it’s a superb marshalling of resources.

Bondarchuk brings a number of stylistic flourishes from his War and Peace to the film here. Sadly many of these choices have dated badly – and even at the time, looked a little silly. Interior monologues are demonstrated with close-ups and the sound of actors whispering over the soundtrack (although Bondarchuk also mixes this up with a prowling Napoleon addressing the camera directly). The film loves crash-zooms and fast wipes – one crash zoom generates giggles as it zooms in on Napoleon as he turns fast to face the camera after particularly bad news. Bondarchuk at times drains out the noise of the battle to focus on small details, most notably in the British cavalry charge. It gives moments of the film an odd dreamy film, particularly striking because most of it is so baked in realism.

To be honest the film is workmanlike, rather than inspired, with all the focus on marshalling the thousands of extras. There are moments of character for both Napoleon and Wellington – flashes of doubt, insecurity, fear are mixed in with supreme confidence. The film also hits a neat line in the horrors of war. The camera tracks along the mangled bodies after the battle, while at the peak of the clash a British soldier has a mental collapse, breaking from his square to bemoan “Why are we killing each other?” Not exactly subtle, but it works.

But the film’s main appeal is that scope – and its breath taking. The film itself is more to look at than think about, but with the detail of its recreation of the battle makes it a must for any Napoleonic history buff. Peter Jackson has said his own cavalry charges in Lord of the Rings were inspired by this film – the difference being Jackson’s horses were CGI, while Bondarchuk literally charged hundreds of horses direct at the camera. And you won’t see scope like that anywhere else.

And that’s partly because the film was a bomb, putting an end to such huge scale films as this and also leading to Stanley Kubrick’s plans for a Napoleon biopic being cancelled. Perhaps the worst part of its legacy.