Queen Christina (1933): Glamorous Garbo Stars in Fictionalized Biopic of Beloved Swedish Monarch (Lesbian)

It’s easy to forget historical accuracy and to submit completely to the abundant charisma of Garbo as manifest in the historical romance Queen Christina, a pre-Code Hollywood biopic produced by Walter Wanger and directed by Rouben Mamoulian.

Garbo appears with her offscreen lover John Gilbert in their fourth and last film together, proving once and for all that it was not Gilbert’s voice that brought his decline–as myth would have it.

The feature became a huge commercial hit all over the world, solidifying Garbo’s position as MGM’s top star.

Queen Christina of Sweden, who became monarch at the age of six in 1632, was a powerful and influential leader. She is expected to marry a suitable royal figure and produce an heir, but she falls in love with a visiting Spanish envoy whom she is forbidden to marry as he is a Roman Catholic.  Like most of Garbo’s movies, the tale concerns the inevitable rift between love and duty.

The scenario is written by H. M. Harwood and Salka Viertel, with dialogue by S. N. Behrman, based on a story by Viertel and Margaret P. Levino.

The only accurate fact is age: At the time of shooting, Garbo was 28, the real age of her character.

Very loosely based on the life of 17th century Queen, the movie also drew on Strindberg’s history play Kristina.

In this historical fiction, Queen Christina falls in love during her reign but has to deal with the political realities of her society. In real life, Christina’s main reason for abdication was her determination not to marry and to be able to convert to Catholicism.

The queen’s habit of dressing as a man in order to broaden the options available to her as a person is clearly marked in the film: “I shall die a bachelor!” she declares, wears manly clothes and even disguises herself as a man.  The only concession to Christina’s sexuality were some subtle hints that the film character was romantically attracted to one of her ladies in waiting.

At least two scenes have become memorable–the stuff that dreams are made of–albeit for different reasons.

The first, highly eroticized one shows Christina walking around the room, after spending a night with Antonio at the inn, touching sensually all kind of objects in order to imprint them on her memory.

The second one, the film’s most famous image is the closing shot, showing Christina standing as a silent figurehead at the bow of the ship bound for Spain.  The wind blows through her hair, while the camera moves into a tight close-up. Prior to shooting, Mamoulian instructed Garbo to think about  “nothing” and to avoid blinking her eyes. His goal was to create a “blank sheet of paper,” so that viewers could project their own conclusions.

Detailed Plot

Queen Christina, devoted to her country, favors peace for Sweden, wishing to end the Thirty Years’ War: “Spoils, glory, flags and trumpets! What is behind these high-sounding words? Death and destruction, crippled men, Sweden victorious in a ravaged Europe, an island in a dead sea.  I want no more of it. I want for my people security and happiness. I want to cultivate the arts of peace, the arts of life. I want peace and peace I will have!”

To perform her duties, she has spurned any kind of romance or marriage despite pressures from her councilors to wed her cousin Karl Gustav (Reginald Owen) and produce an heir.

One day, escaping the restrictions of her royal life, she sneaks out of town disguised as a man. She finds herself snowbound at an inn, where she has to share a bed with another stranded figure, Spanish envoy Antonio (John Gilbert), who’s on his way to the capital.

Upon revealing that she is a woman, the two fall in love, but she does not disclose the fact that she is the queen.  Several nights later, Christina and Antonio part, but Christina promises to find him in Stockholm. This happens when the Spaniard presents his embassy to the Queen, whom he recognizes as his lover. Despite initial anger, Christina and Antonio patch up their differences.

When Count Magnus (Ian Keith) riles up the people against the Spaniard, Christina abdicates the throne, nominating her cousin Karl Gustav as her successor but declining to marry him. She leaves Sweden to rejoin Don Antonio, but she finds him gravely wounded from a losing duel with Magnus.  When Antonio dies in her arms, she resolves to proceed with her voyage to Spain.

Cast

Greta Garbo as Christina, Queen of Sweden
John Gilbert as Antonio
Ian Keith as Count Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie
Lewis Stone as Axel Oxenstierna
Elizabeth Young as Countess Ebba Sparre
C. Aubrey Smith as Aage
Reginald Owen as Charles X Gustav of Sweden