14 August 2005 | theowinthrop
A Distant Memory Now
Bernard Shaw wrote GREAT CATHERINE (WHOM GLORY STILL ADORES) back in the teens, and it is occasionally revived. Not all of his plays get revived. In particular his "short" plays. GREAT CATHERINE is a one act play, and it runs about ninety minutes (short, in comparison to say PYGMALION or MAJOR BARBARA). As it is a historical play, one has to note that Shaw - while he tried to be accurate on his history in his plays - based his history on the current state of knowledge, which was usually not as correct as we now know.
Basically, GREAT CATHERINE is about how a young British officer is sent to the court of Catherine the Great of Russia, one of the most fascinating rulers in Europe in the 18th Century. He is involved not only with her, but with her crafty chief minister, Potemkin (whom the battleship in the classic Eisenstein silent film is named for). The officer attracts her attention because he is handsome, and the British Minister is fully willing to let him see the Empress, as he may hear something of use and he may "ease" Anglo-Russian relations. As it turns out, the young ninny is such a believer in middle class morality that he blows a great opportunity, loses a chance to witness a great figure in world history, and even - unwittingly - so misunderstands things that he accidentally insults her. Only her own sense of values keeps her from taking up an offer from a furious Potemkin to have the young man killed.
The basics of the play are kept in the movie, but it was jazzed up a bit. Jeanne Moreau makes a very attractive, sexy, alluring Empress. Peter O'Toole is a proper aristocratic numskull. Akim Tamiroff is a comic guard, browbeaten by his boss Potemkin (played with relish by Zero Mostel - a nice historical part for him for a change). Also, in one of his last roles, the now tragically silenced Jack Hawkins, giving his all as the British Ambassador.
I have given the film a 6, for it's attempt to record a minor play by Shaw, for it's cast, and for a scene I liked that dates the play - when O'Toole is supposed to show how the battle of Bunker's Hill was fought. The confrontation ends with the total demolition of the model of the battlefield. It is a minor sequence, but I did like it. But for all I do like about the film, if you are interested in the best work of George Bernard Shaw I would not go to this film first.