• Warning: Spoilers
    1934 was a strange year. While there have been relatively few films about Catherine the Great of Russia, apparently 1934 was an exception. Not only were there two big-budget films about her, but both covered the exact same period of her life--when she first comes to Russia to marry and ending when she assumes control of the nation. Of the two, my personal favorite was "The Scarlet Empress" with Marlene Dietrich. But, "The Rise of Catherine the Great" is still a pretty good film.

    Now I must stop for a minute to talk about the shortcomings of BOTH films. History, they say, is made by the winners and historians at the time seemed to spin Catherine's usurping the throne and the 'accidental death' of her husband as necessary because he was evil and insane. However, this is not the view of everyone--and many historians are just as convinced that she was a conniver and the only reason she was backed in her coup was that her husband was a reformer--and it was simply a case of the nobles wanting to keep their power. Whichever the case (and perhaps neither is correct), both films clearly portray Catherine in almost saint-like terms and a woman forced to take this action--which, by the way, would NOT fit her character later in her reign. In other words, she was one tough lady and probably not the little wall-flower you see in these films. After all, she went on to become one of the most powerful and feared of Russia's leaders.

    I think my biggest problem with this film, despite the nice direction by Alexander Korda, is that the script doesn't seem to know what sort of film it is. In the first half, it's a love story about Peter and his new bride, Catherine. Both care for each other but Peter later comes to believe that he was manipulated into the marriage and pulls away from his wife. Later, through clever manipulation, she wins his hearts. It's clearly a love story....period. Yet, oddly, as soon as the Empress is ready to die, the elderly lady (Flora Robson) tells everyone that Peter (her nephew) is crazy and dangerous. In light of everything we've already seen, there was no indication of this at all---none. And suddenly, Peter (Douglas Fairbanks) starts behaving crazy and very, very cruel and vindictive. As a result of many threats against his loving wife, Catherine (Elisabeth Bergner) is forced to fight fire with fire and she takes the throne. So what did the two halves of the film have to do with each other--just about nothing other than the names of the characters! While both halves were good, they just didn't fit together well. Additionally, I felt the weak point acting-wise was Bergner--whose interpretation of Catherine was way too weak and sentimental.

    My feeling is that this is a watchable film even if its accuracy is in question. But, how many want to watch two films on the exact subject? If you don't, then I suggest the Dietrich version instead--it's made better and the acting is better.