Nicholas and Alexandra (1971): Oscar-Nominated Historical Drama, Starring Michael Jayston and Janet Suzman, and Irene Worth as the Queen Mother

Columbia (Horizon Pictures Production, UK)

In the 1970s, two historical epics were nominated for Best Picture Oscar, Nicholas and Alexandra in 1971, and Barry Lyndon in 1975, but they could not have been more different in narrative strategy and style.

Director Franklin Schaffner, fresh off from his success with Patton the previous year, made a sporadically involving saga from James Goldman and Edward Bond’s script, which was based on Robert K. Massie’s well-received novel.

Grade: B (*** out of *****)

Nicholas and Alexandra
Nicholas and alexandra.jpg

Original theatrical release poster

This lavish, long (183 minutes) tale had meticulously reconstructed the last years of Russian tsarist history, centering on the last czar, Nicholas II (Michael Jayston), and his wife Alexandra (well-played by the British stage actress Janet Suzman, in an Oscar-nominated turn).

Setting:

The story begins in 1904, when Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, wife of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, gives birth to their fifth child and first son, Alexei. Despite pleas from Grand Duke Nicholas and Count Sergei Witte, Nicholas refuses to end the Russo-Japanese War or accept demands for constitutional monarchy, fearing he might look weak.

The following year, Alexandra meets Grigori Rasputin, a Siberian peasant passing as holy man, at a gala celebrating the birthday of Dowager Empress Marie and turns to him for guidance after court physician Dr. Botkin diagnoses Alexei with hemophilia.

In October 1917, Russia falls to the Bolsheviks, who intend to take the royal family to Moscow to stand trial. However, when Moscow is captured by the White Army during the Civil War, the royals are diverted to Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg. Under harsher conditions they are guarded by the cold-blooded Yakov Yurovsky and his troops. When a Soviet soldier grabs Alexei’s gold chain and strikes the child, his bodyguard Nagorny leaps to his defense. Nagorny is taken away and shot, though Yurovsky promises punishment for the thief.

The family receives withheld letters from friends and relatives and laugh together as they read through them. On the morning of July 17, 1918, the Bolsheviks awaken the family and Dr. Botkin, informing them that they must be transferred again. As they are waiting in the cellar, Yurovsky and his assistants enter the room and open fire.

Despite the interesting political context and the tragic fate of the royalty, the tale was too sprawling for the two central characters to come to life.

The film’s art direction and costume design deservedly won Oscars.

In the end, despite extensive publicity campaigns, Oscar nominations and two awards, the movie did not perform well at the box-office.

End Note

Some of this film’s secondary characters featured prominently in other Hollywood historical tales, such as “Rasputin” and “Anastasia,” in 1956, for which Ingrid Bergman won her second Best Actress Oscar.

Cast:

The Imperial Family
Michael Jayston as Nicholas II, the Tsar
Janet Suzman as Alexandra, his wife, the Tsarina
Roderic Noble as Alexei, their son, the Tsesarevich
Ania Marson as Olga, the eldest child
Lynne Frederick as Tatiana, the second child
Candace Glendenning as Marie, the third child.
Fiona Fullerton as Anastasia, the youngest daughter.
Harry Andrews as Nikolasha, Nicholas’s cousin
Irene Worth as Marie Fedorovna, The Queen Mother
The Imperial Household
Tom Baker as Grigori Rasputin
Jack Hawkins as Vladimir, Minister of the Imperial Court
Timothy West as Dr. Botkin, the court physician
Jean-Claude Drouot as Gilliard, the children’s Swiss tutor
John Hallam as Nagorny, sailor who’s Alexis’s loyal bodyguard
Guy Rolfe as Dr. Fedorov, the Imperial Court Surgeon
John Wood as Col. Kobylinsky, the Romanovs’ captor
Katharine Schofield as Alexandra Tegleva, the nursemaid

The Statesmen
Laurence Olivier as Count Witte, the Prime Minister
Michael Redgrave as Sazonov, the Foreign Minister
Eric Porter as Stolypin, the Prime Minister after Witte
Maurice Denham as Kokovtsov, Prime Minister after Stolypin
John McEnery as Kerensky, leader of Russian Provisional Government
Gordon Gostelow as Guchkov, War Minister of the Russian Provisional Government
Ralph Truman as Rodzianko, chairman of the Duma

The Revolutionaries

Michael Bryant as Lenin, leader of the Bolsheviks
Vivian Pickles as Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife
Brian Cox as Trotsky
James Hazeldine as Stalin
Ian Holm as Yakovlev
Alan Webb as Yurovsky
Stephen Greif as Martov
Steven Berkoff as Pankratov (ru)
Leon Lissek as Avadeyev
David Giles as Goloshchyokin

Oscar Nominations: 6

Picture, produced by Sam Spiegel
Actress: Janet Suzman
Art Direction-Set Decoration: John Box, Ernest Archer, Jack Maxsted, Gil Parrondo; Vernon Dixon
Cinematography: Freddie Young
Dramatic Score (Original): Richard Rodney Bennett
Costume Design: Yvonne Blake and Antonia Castillo

Oscar Awards: 2

Art Direction
Costume Design

Oscar Context

In 1971, Kubrick’s “Clockwork Orange” lost in each and every category to “The French Connection,” which won Best Picture, Best Director for William Friedkin, Best Screenplay for Ernest Tidyman, and Best Editing for Jerry Greenberg. The other three Best Picture nominees were Norman Jewison’s musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” Bogdanovich’s superb period small-town drama “The Last Picture Show,” and the old-fashioned historical epic “Nicholas and Alexandra.”

Oswald Morris won the Cinematography for “Fiddler on the Roof,” and Michel Legrand the Score award for “Summer of ’42.”

Credits:

Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
Screenplay by James Goldman, based on Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie
Produced by Sam Spiegel
Cinematography Freddie Young
Edited by Ernest Walter
Music by Richard Rodney Bennett

Production company: Horizon Pictures

Distributed by Columbia Pictures (through Warner Distributors)

Release date: December 13, 1971

Running time: 188 minutes
Budget: $9 million
Box office $7 million (rentals)