Peter the Great (1986)

My two all-time favorite biographies have been made into miniseries.  HBO got to David McCullough’s “John Adams” after the turn of the century and gave it a treatment worthy of the best network miniseries of the 1970s and 1980s.  Robert Massie’s masterpiece “Peter the Great,” as astonishing a work of nonfiction as has ever been produced, was made into a miniseries 1986 (and won the Emmy for Best Miniseries).  Despite a notoriously troubled production (the firing of the first director, a leading man who disappeared during filming), this all-star miniseries is sweeping epic saga at its finest.

There are few historical figures as gigantic as Peter the Great, the Tsar credited with bringing Russia into the modern age and giving it the first pushes it needed to become the wealthiest and most autocratic of the European nations.  The man was a force of nature.  He said build a city, and St. Petersburg was erected in a staggeringly short time in a locale not at all likely for a major hub.  He said build a navy, and not only was it built, but Peter himself worked right along with the men making the boats.  He loved to travel and, unlike most European rules, actually did so, mostly incognito.  He had great loves, fought great wars and even killed his own son (indirectly), making for as turbulent a succession after his death  as he found when he ascended the throne.  There is a lot of story to tell here, and with bravery and keen precision, most of it gets told honestly and with the details in the right places (of course, there is license taken, time lines altered characters cut or molded into fictional place keepers, sex added, etc.).  At 380 minutes, “Peter the Great” is massive, but truly worth the time.  Like “John Adams,” or, more familiarly and more to the point, like “Roots,” “Peter the Great” does not dumb down its subject.  This is smart writing, smart enough that it gives us the facts and still manages to entertain. 

The story, narrated by Peter the Great, starts in 1682 when a ten-year old Peter is simply the brother of the current Tsar Ivan, a mentally handicapped youth.  Thus, their mother Natalia (Lili Palmer) is the regent.  Young Peter is less interested in learning “how to think,” but rather “how things work.”  The country ruled by this family was a gigantic expanse, but governed mostly by the Boyars, strong noblemen with their own armies, and the Church.  As Peter narrates, the “real power” was the streltsy, a fearless army formed by Ivan the Terrible toward the end of the 16th Century.  It’s this army that Peter’s half sister Sophia (Vanessa Redgrave, who would play Empress Elizabeth in “Young Catherine”) has convinced that Peter and his mother mean to kill Tsar Ivan.  She hopes this rumor will turn everyone against them and she can take the reigns of government for herself. 

There is wild confusion in Moscow, and in the Kremlin itself.  Prince Romodanovsky (Omar Sharif, who played Tsar Nicholas II in “Anna: The Mystery of Anastasia” the same year), speaking on “behalf of the Council of Boyars,” begs the Patriarch of the Church to get involved, but the wily politician claims, “it’s a secular matter.”  His word saying Natalia does not mean to kill Ivan would settle the matter.  No one knows how this will turn out, so everyone’s bets are hedged.  Poor Tsar Ivan is locked in a closet while Sophia gathers her forces and Peter and Natalia go into hiding.  Ultimately, with a gun to his head, the Patriarch joins Prince Romodanovsky and forces Sophia to show the people Ivan with the promise that she, not Natalia, will be regent.  The streltsy are bloodthirsty and kill anyone they find (almost Peter and his mother, if not for a brave peasant), until the Patriarch calms them.  Sophia brings Ivan to the palace steps to show he is alive, along with Peter and his mother, “united in tranquil harmony.”  The Prince says Natalia has decided to retire as regent and Sophia is officially regent. 

This hardly solves anything.  Prince Romodanovsky, the Patriarch and all of the major players gather to decide the succession because Ivan cannot rule and there are few who back Sophia and her lover as regents and successors.  She claims that when Ivan dies, power will naturally go to Peter, but everything about her demeanor suggests she’ll make sure Peter never gets the chance.  The Patriarch tries to mediate, but Prince Romodanovsky shuts him down, braying that he’s “blind to the lusts of man.”  The proposed solution is that Sophia is regent, but both Ivan and Peter are anointed by “Holy Church” as co-Tsars.  “We would merely be providing for succession in case of emergency, dearest Sophia,” Natalia says with fake sweetness.  With the streltsy dismissed, and with the support of the palace guard, the Patriarch and the Boyars, Natalia is feeling very confident.  Sophia is incensed, but has no choice but to agree. 

Peter wants to return the knife that saved his life to the peasant, Alexander Menshikov (Helmut Griem), even if it means leaving the Kremlin and seeing what the “real Russia” looks like.  Peter finds Alexander in a stable with a woman and insists Alexander return to the Kremlin with him.  On the ride back, Peter allows Alexander to speak freely.  Alexander tells him, “the people don’t care who rules…a man only wants a good woman, his vodka, his black bread,” but Peter says, “it will change” when he takes over as “it is God’s will.”  This is typical Peter, his ear to the ground, actually bothering to listen to what anyone outside the halls of power want.  Unfortunately, a good heart beat within too deep an autocratic body and many of Peter’s changes were easily undone by his successors, though that is getting way ahead of the story.

Sophia enlists the help of a particularly ambitious priest, Father Theodosius (Algis Arlauskas), whom she agrees to “reward in this life as well as the next” if he gains Peter’s confidence and reports back to her. 

The boys go through a heavily traditional coronation, which is troublesome for Ivan, who only wants a “trained bear” out of being Tsar.  But, it’s gorgeously presented, with opulent costumes and lighting, tons of extras, everything as gorgeous as possible. 

Until 1692, “Sophia ruled unopposed” when the Tartars invaded from the south, terrorizing the population and plundering the churches.  Neither the palace guard nor the majority of the Boyars (led, as always, by Prince Rodomanovsky support Sophia’s battle plan, but she says that the “Tsar has absolute powers when it comes to matters of national security.”  Her favorite, Prince Golitsyn (Geoffrey Whitehead), has a plan, though no one is putting too much stock in it.  In swoops an older Peter (Jan Niklas), a rare visitor to state councils, who immediately pokes holes Golitsyn’s plan.  When Sophia forces everyone to go along with the plan, Peter announces he’s moving out of the Kremlin.  Everyone is aghast, but Ivan pipes up that “I don’t like the Kremlin, it’s dark and it stinks.”  Ultimately, Peter doesn’t care who rules Russia.  His interests lay elsewhere, such as shipbuilding, an unknown industry in Russia. 

Peter wants to live in The Wooden Palace, to be surrounded by peasant soldiers where he will be one of the regulars.  He insists that Alexander be his aide and Alexander’s brother be assigned a post as well, making them “the wealthiest family in Moscow,” he is told sarcastically.  “Wealth is the only thing that keeps the people from stealing,” Peter says with a smile.  Away from the Kremlin, Peter can also indulge his love of boats, learning to sail first of all.  He masters it with immediate ease, well, almost.  He capsizes trying to stop and is helped ashore by Captain Gordon (Jeremy Kemp, between his gigs on the Wouk miniseries).  No one can believe the Tsar has come to their small village, but he is unpretentious and thrilled to put on “Western dress.” 

Gordon, who is Scottish, introduces Peter to Western spirits as well: gin, brandy, rum, “all of it.”  There are plenty of seafaring devices he wants to master, things the Russian court, stuck way in the past, has never even heard of.  Gordon has one of Isaac Newton’s books and explains its gravity to Peter.  “I will have it translated,” Peter declares and wants to meet Newton.  Impetuously, Peter asks Gordon to train his personal soldiers. 

Peter, a soldier among his other recruits, goes through Gordon’s “exercises” of training.  He expects to be treated like the rest and even apologizes when he hurts a comrade.  Fresh from the faux battle, Peter decides to have a religious tussle with Father Theodosius before greeting his mother and the Patriarch.  They are there to tell him it’s time to marry.  Sophia is forcing Ivan to get married as well, but no one expects him to produce an heir.  Therefore, it’s up to Peter.  “I have other things on my mind,” he blithely informs them.  Knowing he has no choice, he chirps, “okay, Mother, find someone…set the date!” and leaves them. 

Returning to the foreign colony, Peter is enchanted by everything he sees and hears, especially the women. With one eye always on the ladies, Peter asks the Westerners what they honestly think of of Russians.  “Isolated, fearful, gated,” he is told, and he adds “ignorant.”  The answer to opening up Russia is trade, a merchant fleet protected by a navy.  His new Dutch friends are the experts there.  But Russia has only Archangel as a port.  Of course, in order to produce any of this, the serfs need to be educated.  “If Russia does not learn how to be strong, your land will be stolen by your foes.  Your country will stagnate and cease to exist,” he is told honestly, and appreciates it. 

Gordon has arranged dancing to please the Tsar and Alexander bravely tries to jump in with a physician’s daughter who is to his liking.  He instructs one of the other girls to “ask the Tsar to dance,” but she, like everyone else, is fearful.  He’s the one who is afraid, since he does not know how to dance, but she offers to teach him and he gets the hang of it pretty quickly. 

A proper wife is found for Peter, Eudoxia (Natalia Andreychenko), though the Tsar remains fairly uninterested.  Her father lets her go, giving Peter a whip with which to “admonish” her if she gets out of line.  He kisses her on the forehead and then tells everyone, “see you at the wedding” before bouncing out.  Another interminable but ornate Russian Orthodox ceremony is required for the wedding.  Their first night together is not smooth.  She cries and cries and can’t even drink the vodka he offers.  She’s a virgin and when he bends to kiss her, she falls to her knees in prayer.  He’s actually quite sweet when it comes time for the deed, killing the candles and leaving a flower on her pillow.  But, when she calls making love a “sacrifice,” he storms out and goes for the Dutch tavern girl instead.  “I can offer you whatever I have sire, simple but satisfying,” she tells him. 

Emboldened by that success, he comes home, fakes a bloody sheet to keep everyone away from his door and then announces to his wife, “Madame, the time for modesty is over,” before taking her most brutally.  Here is the more of the dichotomy in Peter.  He can be completely at ease with friends or foreigners, but he was raised to be a Tsar who can have whatever he wants, cruelty included.  This is a struggle Peter will have for the rest of his life, and so ends the first portion.

Returning to his narration, Peter calls his life “rigid,” with fun to be had only when playing with his personal soldiers under the command of Gordon.  “These men would ultimately have to defend me against those Russians who were wedded to the past,” he says ominously.  Along with Gordon and Alexander, Peter has added another companion, Peter Tolstoy (Gunther Maria Halmer).  News arrives that Golitsyn has lost his battle, with 45,000 men gone, though Sofia intends to welcome him home as a hero.  This information is brought to them from Shafirov (Mike Gwilym) and his acceptance by Peter teaches an interesting lesson: as religious as Peter was brought up to be, he’s accepting of all religions.  Shafirov is Jewish, but in the room with him at the time are a Catholic, Lutherans and even a “devil worshipper,” as he lovingly calls Alexander.  He doesn’t care about people’s religious attachments.  A friend is a friend. 

Peter arrives in the middle of Sophia’s amusingly stilted ceremony praising Golitsyn, which even she has trouble getting through.  Peter has Golitsyn sit on his throne as he relays the truth about Golitsyn’s “success” and stomps out just as quickly.  He has his tavern wench to go to and that’s far more exciting to him.  She’s just as sexually rapacious as he is.  It’s worth saying over and over, Peter is a man of vast and insatiable appetites. 

An assassination is attempted, and Peter is involved in hand-to-hand combat saving himself, but at the end of the episode, he hears bells and Alexander says, “I think you’ve become a father.”  Imperial Russia goes into overdrive with the news that he has a son, the Tsarevich Alexis.  After the assassination fiasco, Peter realizes he has to “go back to the Kremlin” in order to be ready for a power grab.  The Wooden Palace is “totally indefensible,” opines Gordon and Peter knows time is approaching for a major political move.  He refuses to harm Ivan, because “my brother and I are at peace.” Shafirov reports to Prince Romodanovsky that Peter is returning to the Kremlin “to overthrow Sophia” and the Prince replies to “tell Peter I am with him to the death.”  The palace guard swears loyalty to him as well.  When Alexander’s brother is killed at the Kremlin, there is certainly no turning back.  He was one of the Tsar’s best friends. 

Peter’s men gain entrance to the Kremlin by posing as drunkards, overpowering the guards to take their revenge on the killer of Alexander’s brother.  Alexander shoots him right in the forehead.  Peter appears at the funeral, though Alexander’s family feels his son was “seduced by the devil that lives in the Tsar’s body.”  This is important because it shows what common people were thinking about Peter and his love of foreigners and their ways.  “If I have to lose the love of my people to do what I have to do for them, so be it,” Peter tells Alexander after hearing the assault on his character. 

While six months of planning the coup are in motion, Natalia becomes sick.  This gives Lili Palmer, a fine actress in her day, one last career chance to play a deathbed scene. 

Meanwhile, Sophia and Golitsyn see the army turning against them.  When they go to arrest a man they see as a troublemaker, Golitsyn ends up a prisoner instead.  The men next go to arrest Sophia, who claims “to be ready.”  They ask where her luggage is.  “I won’t need luggage where I’m going.”  “Where is that?” “Heaven, I hope.”  “The Tsar does not want your life.”  “How foolish, I still want his,” Sophia replies.  That is great efficient writing!  “Do you want to chain me?” Sophia asks on the way out.  “No, I’d prefer to shoot you,” she is told. 

With Peter back in the Kremlin, Prince Romodanovsky reads the verdicts on Sophia and Golitsyn.  Finding that Golitsyn “did not personally aspire to the thrown,” he’s stripped of rank and money and sent to exile in a far-off village “for the remained of his life.”  Sophia is sent to a monastery “for the remainder of her natural life.”  Sophia gives Golitsyn a kiss before going, which Alexander scoffs at.  “Don’t mock them, Alexander.  Love in any form is rare enough,” Peter says watching the episode from high above.  “I wonder if we’ve seen the last of them,” Peter wonders as the two are marched from the Kremlin.  “I doubt it.  She is, after all, your sister,” Alexander replies. 

Peter still keeps his mistress Anna Mons (Renee Soutendjik), whom he tells, “would that I could be a simpler man and spend all my time with you.”  He leaves Anna with presents and a big kiss because his mother’s illness is worsening.  To give his mother her last pleasures, he brings his son to her, but his wife is furious that he would take a baby into a sickroom.  He assures her the doctor said the baby cannot catch what his mother has, but that’s based on foreign doctors, which she refuses to even acknowledge.  Peter then has to deal with the Patriarch, who has been telling everyone Peter is mad, in the service of “foreigners and heretics.”  Peter informs him, “the church is a human institution…in my reign, it will be kept in its proper place…God, Holy Father, looks after many kingdoms and many churches.”  The Patriarch warns him the Russian people will “never accept” this thinking, a threat if ever there was one.  His mother dies. 

Though Peter’s wife makes it clear she won’t mourn for her mother-in-law, call in the extras and the big sets because Russia is putting on a funeral.  Peter is told that the peasants are at the gates, menacing, and Peter orders the gates opened.  The peasants are there praying for his soul, the possessed one the Patriarch has everyone convinces is inside him.  “Anyone who believes that is a fool!” Peter roars at them.  He delivers his credo of catching up with the West, telling them at the end, “I will drag you, kicking and screaming, into the modern world!” and charges off on his horse.  And he means it!  More bad news.  The Tartars have attacked again, killing even women and children.  “We go back to Azov,” he insists,” this time by water,” now ordering a navy built from nothing.  “We leave no enemy alive on Russian soil,” he tells his followers, right there in church.

Years pass as Peter builds his navy and watches his son grow up, keeping him close by to show him, “the Tsar not only rules his people, but he serves them, no matter what the cost.”  His naval dream is not very popular, as it drains the country of money and men, not to mention the Tsar’s distance from Moscow.  He wants a “waterway to the East” through the Black Sea, but tells little Alex that after that, “we will take the Baltic, not in my lifetime, but in yours.”  Those are far-reaching plans, and Peter intended to make it happen. 

Finally, Peter gets to battle the Turks, as he’s always wanted.  The cannon battle is loud and scary for Alexis, but Peter wants him to witness it to make him brave.  It doesn’t work.  The relentless shelling of the fortress at Azov gains Peter a foothold and he exacts horrible revenge on the Turks.  He actually holds Alexis’ head in place to watch firing squads relentlessly mow down enemy prisoners.  It’s here Peter gets the news that his brother and co-ruler Ivan is dead.  Alexis pipes that he thinks Peter had Ivan killed to “become the only Tsar,” information fed to him by his mother. 

It’s celebrating in Azov that Peter meets Catherine (Hanna Schygulla).  In this version, she’s basically a prostitute who works her way up to Alexander Menshikov.  When Peter finds out that Menshikov has been selling inferior uniforms to his soldiers, he’s livid, but Catherine calms him down, grabbing his hand and telling him, “you are a simple man…don’t be so hard on yourself” and she moves on from Menshikov to Peter. 

The Tsar finally returns to The Wooden Palace, Catherine in tow, commenting that the palace could so easily burn down.  “Soon, I will build a city of stone,” Peter insists, another promise he will keep.  Manipulative Catherine consolidates her hold over Peter by telling him his friends and servants “are distant” to her, and he promises to have them killed if that continues.  Peter’s wife leaves The Wooden Palace, refusing to “share you with this…this laundress,” as she called Catherine.  She’s cleverly sent Alexis ahead to Moscow, or so she thinks, assuming that’s her ace, but Peter tells her, “nothing in this world is permanent, not even the wives of the Tsars.” 

A very angry Peter meets his council for the first time in many years, informing them that he intends to fight the Swedes for control of the Baltic and to raise a proper navy by taxing everyone in the land, from the peasants to the Boyars and “even the Church.”  In order to maintain control of the Baltic once he wins it, he decides to build St. Petersburg.  He insists his son go with him, though his wife snaps, that if he takes him, “he’ll hate you even more than he already does.”  This proves to be true as Peter gives him a sailing lesson.  Alexis is rather hopeless and when he falls in the water and dissolves into tears, Peter is furious. 

Back in Moscow, the Patriarch and others unhappy with Peter’s decrees, try to enlist the Tsarina’s help, but she claims “I’m not clever enough” to do battle with Peter and will not openly defy him, though the while time there’s a sparkle in her eyes that says otherwise.  The plotters settle for her silence should they make any moves.  Peter narrates as the second part of the movie ends that the Boyars, the Patriarch and even his old nemesis Sophia are lined up against him.  “The smoldering ashes would be raked into flames.”

More time passes, so much time that Jan Niklas is replaced by Maximilian Schell as Peter.  He’s an infrequent visitor to Moscow, where he’s finally left his son in his wife’s clutches to pursue his goals.  On this trip, Peter seems to have no desire to see Alexis (Boris Plotnikov), who wants to see his father.  Peter argues with Prince Romodanovsky, who has seemingly lined up against Peter with the Patriarch, though the Prince explains why he’s doing it: for promises made by his grandfather to Peter’s and to make for a civil council between the Boyars and the Church.  But the wily Prince can play both sides.  He takes Peter into the supposedly forgotten burial chamber of Tsar Michael, which is filled with treasure, “to be used for Russia’s rainy day.”  The Prince suggests that Peter use it instead of taxing the Church and stop them from halting his plans.  Peter is warned that if he does tax the Church, “it will bring you down and maybe the dynasty.”  “I will use this AND tax the Church,” Peter proclaims, still not one to bow to anyone’s demands.  He then has Shafirov create a spy network that is “loyal only to me,” something Shafirov is more than happy to do.  This network would be a constant source of hatred until the end of the Romanov dynasty. 

In order to get his navy made, Peter needs shipbuilders from Western Europe and the only way to get them is to cozy up to the various countries, so Peter decides that he and his cadre of loyal friends will make a grand tour.  “No Tsar has ever left Russia,” Menshikov says, somewhat alarmed, “the people will panic.  Your leaving Russia will signal the end of the world to many.  That will add to our problems.”  Gordon chimes in to say if this happens, Peter will be “drowned in protocol.”  Peter has a solution for that too: he will travel “incognito” while his minions deal with the protocol.  Intending to find out what has made the Swedes, Germans, French and British so successful, he will steal talent if he has to.  His friends are very nervous.  To be historically accurate, Peter went with two purposes.  The first was to learn, and the second was to form alliances against the Swedes.  He picked a lousy time, with England having just switched dynastic families and the rest of Western Europe involved in The War of Spanish Succession. 

Peter’s greatest foe for nearly the rest of his life would be the King of Sweden (Christoph Eichhorn), everything Peter is not: educated and Western.  His favorite spy is Athalie, Countess Desmond (Ursula Andress), whom he makes sure occupies the beds of all of Europe’s greats in order to learn secrets.  Another of his spies is good old Father Theodosius, who reports all of the Tsar’s movements to him.  King Charles tells Athalie she’s to take up residence in the Tsar’s bed during his European jaunt, but she says, “the Tsar has simpler tastes than I can provide,” a catty reference to Catherine.  Well, then Gordon’s best will be fine. 

In order for us to understand Peter’s mindset, there are two scenes that are superbly written.  The first involves Catherine.  The two are on their way to Moscow when they encounter a woman buried up to her neck for having killed her husband.  Peter orders her shot after Catherine feels pity for her, an act he sees as merciful.  Catherine questions the mercy part, but Peter insists that there are laws, different for men and women, and it’s his job to enforce them, though of course “laws can be changed.”

The second scene follows, with Peter and Alexis.  Having tossed his wife and Father Theodosius out of the room, he orders Alexis to cut off his beard.  Alexis remarks that Peter is going to Europe because “you don’t like Russia.  That you want to shape and make us just like the people of Europe,” sentiment told to him by Peter’s enemies.  Peter corrects him.  “I am going to Europe to learn things, things that will make Russia a better place for ordinary people to live.”  He asks Alexis to accompany him because “it’s time to learn” how to be Tsar.  Alexis tries every argument to get out of it: his mother, his religious studies, abandonment of the people.  “That’s your mother talking, don’t you have a brain of your own?” his father roars.  “I don’t know.  I just don’t want to go,” Alexis meekly replies.  Peter tries even the old “I love you” to entice his son to join him, but Alexis is too weak.  “I’ve lost him.  He doesn’t love me,” Peter notes to Catherine.

In just two scenes, the movie has summed up just about everything going on in Peter’s mind at the time, his views on his job, his family, religion and his nation.  It’s a wonderful way of making history feel vivid, because mindsets don’t make for good TV most of the time.  The Boyars try one more time before Peter sets out to warn him against it, but he is implacable.  He pulls the Prince aside and tells him he’s in charge while Peter is gone.  “You must crush conspiracies, cut off heads and watch my sister.  If she makes the slightest move, kill her,” he says to him in silence. 

The conspirators go visit Sophia in her convent, where she chirps, “you don’t think I’m going to stay here and die,” biding her time until the right moment.  “Would you use force again?” she is asked.  “Perhaps.” 

It seems that everyone is against Peter’s leaving Russia.  He wasn’t expecting the peasants (led by Menshikov’s father) to try to stop him.  They fortify a bridge, but his caravan barrels right through them, knocking them into the icy water.  Catherine is horrified, but Peter refuses to acknowledge the incident.  Once again, he plays the autocrat when it’s convenient.  He will let no one stop him from what he sees as the modernization of Russia.  Ultimately, he would be both right and wrong.

True to his word, Peter goes incognito on his trip.  When they get to Germany, the people are thrilled with his presence.  Athalie is there, on the arm of King Frederick (Mel Ferrer in a big wig), who has Charlotte (Elke Sommer) on his other arm.  Athalie delights them with stories of the Russian Tsar sucking the marrow out of animal bones and wiping his hands on his clothing, a must laughable sight in a ruler.  For Peter, the trip is a working holiday.  He tries to bring Alexis back into the fold and bribes master craftsmen, although he is warned over and over not to bring foreigners into Russia as the Russian people will rebel against it.  Menshikov warns about Peter sending so much newness back to Russia, it’s too much at once.  Peter disagrees.  “One big shock and they will get over it,” he claims. 

Peter’s pals prove to be every bit the disgusting eaters Athalie warned everyone of.  The Germans are really not impressed by their manners, though everyone seems enamored of Catherine.  But, Athalie works Gordon, just like she was instructed.  However, Peter is charming and cozies up to Charlotte by asking her to play “matchmaker” and find a good wife for his son.  He likes Louise (Ulli Philipp), a minor German princess, well-educated and polite (for some reason, her name is changed from Charlotte to Louise for the movie).  “I will have to meet the Tsarevich and see for myself,” Louise tells Charlotte.  “I don’t think that’s the way it’s done in Russia,” Charlotte replies.  “I’m not Russian,” Louise notes with a smile.  This anticipates Catherine the Great more than anything, a minor German princess herself with a voracious appetite for power. 

As Peter cleans his fingernails with a knife, he decides to “discuss business” with King Frederick.  He wants German metalworkers to make cannons, but King Frederick declines, saying he’s not one to share military secrets since “we are a small state and you are the largest country in the world.  Large allies have been known to swallow small allies,” the King says.  Peter vows never to make any territorial gains on King Frederick’s state, and though Frederick believes him, he has no assurance that Alexis will honor that when he becomes Tsar.  Peter gets out of that one too and with a promise for metalworkers to boot. 

When the Russian men explode onto the dance floor with a lively dance, Catherine becomes ill and has to sit down.  “Is the Tsar’s lady ill?” Athalie asks.  No!  She’s pregnant.  Peter is overwhelmed to hear it.  After bedding Gordon, Athalie tries to travel on with him, but he won’t do it.  “Does the Tsar demand celibacy?” she asks coyly.  “No, but I do.  Besides, I could never afford you,” Gordon says, kissing her hand and leaving coins in it, infuriating her.  Okay, okay, this Athalie character is fake and very obvious, but let’s face it, there’s precious little for women to do in this story (at least since Sophia was packed off to a convent), and the miniseries did have to find a place for all the guest stars.  At least no one is demanding anything of Ursula Andress but that she be ravishingly beautiful. 

Back in Moscow, the Tsarina is still filling Alexis’ head with her own take on things.  She convinces him Peter will cut him out of the succession for Catherine’s bastard child.  He can’t believe such a thing would happen, but she says it has before and nothing can stop Peter from doing what he wants.  “Pray extra hard,” she tells the zealously religious Alexis.  When Alexis goes to church, peasants are conveniently brought to beg him for bread and assistance.  He promises to tell his father of their plight, though he doesn’t understand he’s being used. 

The next royal stop is Amsterdam, the home of the world’s greatest shipbuilders.  By this point, Peter has given up his Russian clothing for dandified European silks and scarves.  He has never been more excited than to be around the men who have created such masterful ships. He tells even his aging old friends they will be apprentices to the shipbuilders to learn the trade.  After six months, they are even awarded membership in the guild.  “No honor that I’ve ever received is more important to me than this,” Peter cheers. 

Disguised, Sophia returns to Moscow to plot the downfall of Peter, though Alexis is not allowed to be part of the planning.  She is informed that all of Peter’s letters and Shafirov’s dispatches are intercepted, rewritten and the messengers killed.

Peter and company are off to London.  Peter and Catherine take in a play where Catherine suspects the dispatches are toyed with.  Though she doesn’t ask for marriage, Peter tells her that he can’t marry her and make their daughter Elizabeth an heir unless his wife goes into a convent. 

Zooming to the heights of guest starring, playing King William III is none other than Laurence Olivier, also in a giant powdered wig.  Looking sickly and obviously under-rehearsed, Olivier reads off of cue cards and has very little spark left in him.  William agrees to help Peter learn and build, in return for a deal on exporting tobacco to Russia. 

In England, Peter can finally meet one of his heroes, Sir Isaac Newton (Trevor Howard).  He’s fascinated by the experiments Newton is conducting with light, not to mention the mathematics Newton uses to nail precisely the speed of light.  What Peter can’t understand is what Newton calls “the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake” since Newton has no plan in mind for what to do with results of his experiments.  Peter discusses gravity, religion and asks “is there an end to the universe?”  “Man cannot visualize infinity.  That remains God’s domain,” Newton replies.  A distracted Newton politely declines a trip to Russia and tells Peter “not to believe everything he hears” in answer to Peter’s question of whether the theory of gravity was discovered by the falling apple.

In a manipulative discussion, Sophia tells Alexis she only wants to see his father “step down” in favor of Alexis.  She then gets history wrong in asking Alexis if he knows the first queen of England “who ruled in her own name?”  “Elizabeth,” he answers.  That’s actually wrong, as it was her half sister Mary, but Sophia is making a point: Peter’s “bastard daughter” is named Elizabeth and she wants to convince Alexis that’s not a coincidence.  “We’ve been away too long.  Prepare to return to Moscow,” Peter commands when an obviously forged dispatch from Shafirov arrives.  Unfortunately, even 380 minutes is not enough to show all of Peter’s magnificent years in Western Europe and all that he visited. 

Peter really does need to return home.  The workers he’s sent from Europe are greeted by an angry mob in Moscow, Sophia is plotting and even the messenger Peter sends with a top secret letter is ambushed (though he manages to escape).  He arrives in Moscow to find it on fire, a common occurrence in all-wood Moscow, but here also an excuse for a mob revolt the conspirators can use to their advantage.  The streltsy are recalled, “history repeating itself,” notes Peter, but Peter is waiting for them, using cannon fire on them as they are praying, “the best time,” Peter wryly barks.  When the battle is over, Peter commands the rebels be dealt with severely as an example.  He then goes to see Sophia, telling her he doesn’t put family members to death, instead sending her to an Arctic convent.  “We shall never see each other again,” he tells her.  For the second time, she loses, but this time it will be permanent. 

There are starting to be scenes where Peter is hidden in shadows, or behind large coats and hats.  These scenes would be the ones filmed when Maximilian Schell was not present for filming (there are a few explanations available on what happened).  It’s definitely a flaw in the miniseries, but apparently unavoidable. 

Alexis and Peter are reunited, with Peter telling him letters were intercepted, which is why it seems they were never in touch.  “There is one thing worse than ruling Russia and that’s ruling Russia badly,” Peter tells his son to scare him and then insists he be there for the streltsy executions.  The crowds are there, the Tsarina is there and even the Patriarch, who is most defiant, refusing to take the icon of the Virgin Mary back into the church and actually blessing the souls of the men being executed.  There are rows and rows of hangings and beheadings.  “Would you do this yourself?” Alexis bravely (for the first time) asks.  He is still the Tsar and he proves it by taking Alexis’ challenge and decapitating a line of men.  It’s grisly and Alexis is overwhelmed, but Peter continues.  He may want to bring civilization to Russia, but he is still an absolute monarch.  “Again you are a barbarians among barbarians,” Catherine tells him, but he says force is the only way to handle this situation so the people will be afraid to ever do so again.  His hands full of blood, he holds baby Elizabeth and kisses her.  Little did he know at the time that she would one day be ruling Russia.  This brings the third part to a frightening, yet somehow hopeful, conclusion.

The streltsy are destroyed and it’s time to marry Alexis off to Louise.  “I’m so pleased you changed your mind,” Peter tells Louise after the ceremony.  “I haven’t changed my mind, my father convinced me it was my duty,” she says with building acid.  Leaving the church with his wife, Peter notes, “we were doomed from the beginning.”  “As are they,” she replies.  And this is a wedding, no less!  He also picks this moment to tell her he’s banishing her to a convent and that once she becomes a nun, he will marry Catherine, “according to the law.”  At the wedding banquet, Alexis takes a fancy to Afrosina (Luba Ghermanova), the adopted daughter of a Boyar.  “Meeting you has made this a happy evening for me,” he comments after a dance, Louise seething at another table.  Even Peter orders decorum, but “I’m just following in my father’s footsteps…you wanted me to be more like  you,” Alexis says petulantly. 

Peter intends to fight the Swedes, but to do so, he needs cannons.  However, they cannot mine iron ore from the Urals fast enough, so Peter decides to melt down all the church bells.  “If Russia is to survive, then the church must make its contribution along with everyone else,” Peter (hidden in the darkness and long shots) informs Alexis, who is understandably upset. 

Peter asks King Charles XII of Sweden to meet him in a neutral spot and the two talk standing in feet of snow, toasting each other.  Peter wants to “negotiate a sharing of the port” so that Sweden and Russia can take over as great merchant powers from England and The Netherlands.  Charles says he can do that alone, he doesn’t need Peter or Russia.  “One of us will not survive if we go to war over this,” Peter says, but Charles clucks, “war is the sport of kings.  It keeps them and their subjects vigorous.”  Before walking away, Peter tells Charles, “I will build a port on these marshes and it will be called St. Petersburg!”

As the Kremlin bells are taken from their perches, the peasants rebel again and Menshikov’s father is killed.  Peter’s cannons are successful, “better than bells,” he decrees.  Meanwhile, Alexis gets braver and braver.  Not only does he carry on an affair with Afrosina, but rapes his wife and openly argues with his father.  Peter is too preoccupied with the upcoming war to notice anything else.  “He’s got his cannons, can he hold onto the men who fire them?” Menshikov asks Catherine as he leaves.  He believes Peter has lost sight of Russia and its people and cannot stand by him any longer.  “The more he acts as a Tsar, the more he’s tortured as a man,” Catherine explains, but even her humanization of Peter fails to move Alexander. 

Peter trusts his son with the battle plans, but the nobles around Alexis plan to spill the secrets to King Charles.  However, Charles wants nothing to do with conspirators, preferring to fight openly and honestly, but Athalie takes in the information.  The two of them make a sublimely nasty couple.  They do use the secret information and ambush Gordon, killing him.  Peter has promised not to do anything until Gordon arrives, which gives Sweden time to make plans as the crosses and double crosses keep going back and forth.  Initially, Sweden is winning the war, very close to attacking Moscow, with Peter insisting that if it comes to that, Moscow must be burned, everything in it killed so that the Swedes arrive to find an empty useless city.  The only positive news for Peter is that Alexander Menshikov is rejoining him.  Doubting himself for perhaps the first time, Peter asks Catherine, “what if I had never reached out to the West?”  He would be at peace. 

What was actually a long war is reduced to one gigantic battle here, wonderfully rendered, but not exactly historically accurate.  Yes, the Russians would win the war and the Swedish Empire would fall, but not with just one battle.  “We have secured our access to the sea!” Peter proclaims and now Russia is united behind its ruler.  Alexis becomes more convinced than ever that his father must go.  The plans of the conspirators is falling apart when Father Theodosius is arrested.  Alexis and Alfronsina escape to Vienna.  Peter intends to ferret out all of the conspirators, in another of those missing Maximilian scenes. 

Alexis is charged with treason and Shafirov and Tolstoy go after Afrosina to help them capture Alexis.  She is offered a pardon if she does so.  Reluctantly, she agrees, knowing she really has no choice.  They set a trap for Alexis, he falls right into it and is spirited back to Moscow by Shafirov.  Alexis begs for mercy and Peter intends to give it to him, with one condition, that he name all of the conspirators.  He does so, but “renounces his title as heir to the throne” because he does not name them all.  A trap was set and he fell right into it.  Every time he’s released from his guard, it’s to battle Peter over this treachery, but Alexis holds firm.  Catherine thinks Alexis should be banished to the Arctic, but Peter feels he should uphold the law, which says a traitor must be put to death, son of the Tsar or not. 

Catherine goes to Shafirov to ask him to expose the conspirators and spare Alexis and thus spare Peter seeing his son tortured.  Shafirov cannot help, so she goes to Menshikov.  He won’t help either.  Peter keeps trying to get Alexis to confess, even bringing in Afrosina to be questioned.  She still has no choice but to tell Peter what he wants to hear.  Peter gives him one last chance to confess, but when he doesn’t, Peter announces that Alexis’ fate is now in the hands of the courts.  Alexis departs angrily, condemning his father, renouncing his love and wishing for Peter’s downfall.  Without Peter to protect him, Alexis is tortured mercilessly.  The courts pass a sentence of death on Alexis, which is certainly not a surprise, and Peter is asked to sign the death warrant, which he cannot bring himself to do, meaning Alexis has to endure more torture.  The circumstances of Alexis’ death are still disputed, though it’s widely agreed that he died from the torture.  Since this is a movie, there is a climax scene where Peter sends everyone away and asks Alexis one last time to confess, but Alexis “will only confess to God” and whispers “I loved you father” as Peter storms out before dying. 

With that, Peter narrates that Catherine was crowned Empress because “Russia needed to be a family again and to be a family it need a mother.”  Unique among European monarchs, Catherine, born a peasant, would follow Peter to the throne.  It would be many years before Russia had a male monarch again.

Missing from the narrative is Peter’s building of St. Petersburg, which truly was a marvel, but I suppose that doesn’t have the inherent entertainment value of the wars and treacheries.  Then again, there is no hope of cramming Peter’s whole life into a miniseries, even if it were triple the length.  What we have in “Peter the Great” is as solid a miniseries as is possible.  True, the last hour or so suffers from the missing Maximilian nonsense, but not so much that it crashes.  Like the man himself, the miniseries is towering and strong, not without faults, but zealous in its efforts.

Categories: Historical Miniseries

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