8 January 2005 | jacksflicks
One of the Great Documentary Dramas
There is a scene in Fall of Eagles, when the German General Ludendorff falls into a fit of rage, screaming "Traitors! Traitors!" Ludendorff will appear later in history, near a certain beer hall in Munich, with an equally enraged colleague, who will visit upon us another world war.
After thirty years, BBC have finally released Fall of Eagles on DVD. What's more, they've done it right, with a beautiful transfer. This elaborate production presents the defining event of the twentieth century, the Great War (World War I), from the points of view of those who brought it about and were themselves consumed by it.
Some may regard Fall of Eagles as soap opera, and it is indeed staged like one, with almost all the scenes shot indoors. However, British television has always worked well within this constraint, as in I Claudius and Elizabeth R. The sets are magnificent and varied, shot in and around some imposing locations. The costumes are lavish and intricate, making me appreciate how "dressing the part" in those times could be called part of one's duty. I can't imagine how the women managed.
Except for Patrick Stewart, Barry Foster, Michael Kitchen, and Gayle Hunnicutt, the cast is made up of character actors unfamiliar to non-British audiences, especially when hidden by beards and mustaches. However, the depth of talent in this huge cast is striking, with convincing portrayals, from the walk-ons to the leads. The producers also should be praised for running a tight ship, which could easily have become an unwieldy mess, due to the parallel and complex events, the 13-episode length and the fact that the directors varied from one episode to the next.
Though the story is made up of undocumentable private dialog (except perhaps via diaries), skillful writing, directing and acting create an intimacy that makes one truly to feel like a fly on the wall. Some of the scenes are indeed contrivances. For example, the future empress of Russia, Alexandra, is told by the current empress Marie Dagmar about her concern, that she, Alexandra, wife of the future Emperor, is not Russian Orthodox but German Lutheran. This should not have concerned the old Empress, since she herself was a Danish Lutheran who had converted and was embraced by the Russians. Alexandra not only converts to Russian Orthodoxy, but does it with a militancy that's downright, well, German. Though such an exchange probably wouldn't have taken place, it serves the historical and dramatic purpose of establishing religion as a major factor in the fate of the Romanov dynasty. Alexandra had something to prove, and she did so with a disastrous vengeance. Another value of apocryphal scenes like this is to portray characters as real people, rather than mere "names on a page".
Through the intimacy of these private scenes, we can see how the lack of detachment from their own affairs and complete detachment from the affairs of their subjects is the central thesis of Fall of Eagles: that mundane concerns and banal motives in an age of romantic excess, drove monarchs, ministers and consorts, who in turn drove history. Oh yes, did I mention the word "hubris"?
Do not let the length of Fall of Eagles put you off. This is one of those wonderful viewing experiences, so rich, so deep, that while watching it the first time, you resolve to watch it again, because you know that characters and events will fall into place, in a seamless, poignant, often maddening saga of real people, caught up in real events, rushing like lemmings to their dooms or, in one case, to a pitiful denouement.
And speaking of the Kaiser, Fall of Eagles is not just a routine chronicle of events, but a particular interpretation of history, not only in its choice of dialog but in its perspectives and emphasis. For example, the actual trigger of the Great War depicted here is more complex than what you may recall from your generalized history lessons. So, yes, there is a bit of revisionism here -- that the Kaiser by no means bears sole responsibility for this tragedy -- which you may or may not be inclined to accept. (As a history buff, I do.) Though Fall of Eagles is conventional, i.e. top-down, in perspective, it makes clear that history is not only driven by individuals in power but by the currents and events confronting them.
If you are truly concerned about how we got where we are today, you owe it to yourself and your children to witness this amazing epic.
1. There are two soundtracks, one for the opening credits, the other for the end credits. (Opening theme is Mahler, I think.) Both are in perfect accord with their subject, the closing music, in particular, a chilling depiction of the title.
2. There is an indispensable program guide included with the DVD. Each episode is supplemented by well-written capsule biographies. There's even a genealogical chart to help keep the dynasty members and their relationships (one might say incestuous relationships) straight in our minds.
3. There are three interviews with two players (not including Patrick Stewart, alas) and a director. Gayle Hunnicutt, in particular, stands out for her insightful observations.