When I came home for spring break, my mom welcomed me with a good dinner, homemade brownies, and a copy of the 1971 Oscar-winning film Nicholas and Alexandra. Based on Robert K. Massie’s book of the same name, this film chronicles the story of the last Tsar and his family from the birth of their son Alexi until their execution in 1918. My mom said the book and the movie were among her favorites when she was a kid, and she has an interest in Russian history that she has been satisfying by living vicariously through me over the course of the semester.
We watched the film together later during my break, and I was struck by how the filmmakers managed to provoke sympathy for both the royal family and the peasants, revolutionaries, and soldiers who wanted to see their downfall. Though there were scenes revolving around the Russian masses and their hardships, the film did focus (as the name suggests) on the dynamics within the royal family and their closest advisors and friends. In our study of the last days of the dynasty, the tsar seemed to be an inefficient and irritating institution that did nothing to advance social progress. This view was confirmed in the film – Nicholas was clearly a lousy military commander, and generally unfit for the responsibility that fell to him. However, the film represented a human component of the tsar that I think is easy to overlook in a sweeping view of Russian history. Nicholas came into power based solely on his birth, and did not seem to relish or enjoy his responsibilities. One could place blame on the institution of the dynasty and the passage of power from generation to generation rather than Nicholas’s innate shortcomings. Looking at reviews from when the film was first released, it seems that viewers were disappointed that the film focused on the people with, as Roger Ebert put it, the “least interesting perspective” on the revolution. While the film did touch upon revolutionary activity, and that activity would have made a fascinating film in itself, I think that the choice to tell the story of the royal family reminds viewers (both those seeking entertainment and history) that the royal family has a human component that shouldn’t be overlooked.
I’d recommend this film to anyone with a few hours to kill and a desire to see the Romanovs brought to life. If you need further enticing, there’s also a scene with an opium-smoking Rasputin and a cross-dressing orchestra member, but that’s another story for another day.