Saturday, August 13

“Fall of Eagles,” Disk 3 (1974)

Directed by John Elliot

Have now finished the third disk of four in this BBC “docudrama” about the collapse of the ancient dynasties that had ruled Central and Eastern Europe for centuries. (See what I had to say about the first here and the second here.)  There's only one more episode to go, and I'm not sure what “special features” are on the fourth in addition to that last episode.

“Dress Rehearsal” – Focusses on the1908 Balkan Crisis sparked by Russia's eternal quest for a warm-water port, or at least convenient access to such, and a proposed deal between Russia and Austria-Hungary centered on the latter's ambitions in the Balkans. Political machinations and betrayals abound, resulting in Austria-Hungary annexing Bosnia in the Balkans and a new hostility erupting between Austria-Hungary backed up by Germany vs. Russia (which gains nothing), France, and England.

“Indian Summer of an Emperor” – In the summer of 1914, elderly Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph, for health reasons although he still keeps an astoundingly busy daily routine obsessively concerned with protocol, reluctantly delegates a visit to the province of Bosnia to his disliked nephew and heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Ghoulishly, Franz Ferdinand and visiting Kaiser Wilhelm review the former's already-written speech eulogizing the “deceased” Emperor – little realizing that the ancient Emperor would outlive his nephew by two years. As a result of Franz Ferdinand's assassination on that trip, those last two years of Franz Joseph's life would be marked by a devastating World War. This episode has a wonderfully ironic closing line, the British Undersecretary of State dictating a communique to the ambassador in Russia: “The tragedy which has just taken place in … Sarajevo – S-A-R-A-J-E-V-O … will not, His Majesty's Government trusts, lead to further complications ….”

Tell the King the Sky is Falling”

Quickly recounts the early days of World War I with its line of dominos which were the various declarations of war, then focusses on Russia and the tensions within the Russian Imperial Family due to the demonic influence of the mad, debauched “holy man” Rasputin on the Tsarina, and her consequent interference in the government and military. (By the way, this actor just did not capture the crazed, penetratingly spooky gaze of Rasputin.) Over time the people and even the army start losing faith in the Tsarist order as Nicholas shows himself irresolute and indecisive, and thinking the unthinkable.

The Secret War”

Two and a half years in, the war is going badly for Germany. Wilhelm's advisors push him to use U-Boats to cripple England and to foment revolution to get Russia out of the war. He reluctantly agrees even as he foresees that these actions will bring America into the war and create a monster in the East that will be a far worse threat to Germany. Even with the “mad monk” Rasputin assassinated by an aristocratic conspiracy, calls for a change of government and even the Tsar's removal increase. Hearing of revolution, Lenin returns from exile in Switzerland with the help of Germans – aiming to take control in the name of the “proletariat” from the “bourgeois.” He finds a joyous reception.
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Really, I have to say that I imagine this series is pretty incomprehensible to someone coming to it without any knowledge of the events. You really get only the highlights, isolated vignettes with a great deal of important development overlooked – or simply mentioned in passing in dialogue (sometimes seeming forced in the doing). I did a minor field in Austrian history long ago, but I haven't taught the latter half of Western Civ survey in about a dozen years, I've not really reviewed these events in a long time, and I had to pause frequently and do a quick bit of research just to keep up with what was going on.

One thing this series does fairly well is humanize the rulers as ordinary men, perhaps even overemphasizing just how unsuited such men as Nicholas and Wilhelm were for rule. They in particular just come across as pathetic incompetents here – Nicholas basically a good man but indecisive, Wilhelm more a blowhard than anything else. Even Franz Joseph comes across as hopelessly stuck in a world that had long since left him behind.

In my previous post on this series I mentioned the various imperial eagles and the possible significance of one- vs. two-headed eagles – per the wikipedia article on Wilhelm II, a single-headed eagle looking leftward (westward) is the arms of the House of Hohenzollern/German Empire. Double-headed eagles are either the arms of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine – Austria – per the article on Franz Joseph, or the arms of the Russian Empire. As to specifically which is which for the latter two, I have no idea. But to venture a guess as to symbolism, perhaps the single-headed eagle looking westward signifies that Germany has always firmly conceived itself part of western Europe while both the Austro-Hungarian and especially the Russian Empires have sort of a dual, western and eastern, nature. I'm pretty sure that's not any original insight on my part.

Oh, and last time I identified the persons shown on the DVD cover.  They are not the same as the actors' names listed below - of those shown, only Patrick Stewart is listed by name.  John Rhys-Davies (a wonderful actor I most identify with Indiana Jones' buddy Sallah in Raiders of the Lost Ark) plays one of Lenin's companions in his Swiss exile.  Gemma Jones played Empress Victoria (Princess "Vicky") way back in "The English Princess" on Disk 1.  And Michael Kitchen played Leon Trotsky.

Dosvidanya or Auf wiedersehn!

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