Tuesday, August 23

Fall of Eagles, Disk 4 (1974)

Created by John Elliott

This disk has only the thirteenth, final episode as well as three interviews with members of the cast and crew – Charles Kay (Nicholas), Gayle Hunnicutt (Alexandra), and David Cunliffe (who directed three of the episodes). See my comments on Disk 1, Disk 2, and Disk 3.

“End Game”

By August 1918, the ultimate outcome of the War is pretty clear to all but the deluded Emperor Wilhelm, especially now that the Americans have been provoked into the War. By this time the Russian imperial family has been murdered by the Bolsheviks and the new Austrian Emperor is suing the allies for a separate peace. Insincere pleas by the Germans for an armistice (during which they plan to regroup for a renewed fight) are rebuffed even as the once-mighty German army crumbles. Wilhelm's ministers urge democratic reforms on him, but it's all ultimately too late. Although a faltering assault on Germany by its enemies emboldens some among the military leadership, desertions mount as riots and uprisings spread across the country and it becomes clear that the only way out of the debacle is for the Emperor to abdicate – which is announced preemptively without the Emperor's consent. Initially vowing to fight to the last bullet in his “cottage,” Wilhelm finally quietly boards a train and seeks refuge in Holland. Field Marshall Hindenberg throws his support behind the social democratic government to preserve what's left of the army and save Germany from Bolshevism, which has spread rapidly from Russia. And he hopes for “favorable terms from the peace treaty.” As he arrives in Germany, Wilhelm learns that the Austrian Emperor has fled. It is “the end of an epoch” as he retires for … “a cup of good English tea.”
* * *
Well, I made it. I can't say that this was the most engrossing docudrama I ever saw. It's not for a lack of good actors – in fact a few of them deliver quite good performances. Patrick Stewart as Lenin comes most readily to mind, but especially in this final episode Barry Foster as Wilhelm II manages to convey very effectively just how little of a grasp on reality the German Emperor really had. How he commanded the loyalty that he did among some of his senior military officers who knew long before he did that Germany was spiraling down into defeat I'll never know. But beyond the main characters, I need to qualify what I wrote just above – many of the secondary characters' performances were pretty wooden. For those main characters, however, I think this series does one thing very well, bringing to some measure of life the human side of these last generations of autocratic, all-but-absolutist rulers utterly convinced of their divine right to their positions and with an overweening pride that blinded them to all reality. Wilhelm is the poster child for that phenomenon, but Nicholas of Russia comes in a close second.

As far as other production values … Well, some of the sets looked pretty good, but nothing spectacular. And as I mentioned in my blog on the first disk, the interspersing of original, grainy, jerky, black and white newsreel footage with scenes from what were for all intents and purposes a stage play made for some odd dissonance. It was downright annoying at times. I have no idea what kind of budget this had or what that amounted to in 1974, but the effect (barring the newsreel stuff) was reminiscent of other English productions of the period that I remember – or even have seen recently, such as the great British spy series The Sandbaggers, “the best damned television show you never saw,” from just a few years later, although the overall result there was much more pleasing. I've read some reviews of Fall of Eagles online that are very critical of the production values, but I think some of them go a little overboard. It is what it is, and for telling the basic story and – as I indicate above – getting at the very flawed humanity driving some of the most momentous events of the end of the 19th, early 20th centuries, it does all right. I think it could have been better, though.

As to the history, well, I have a better than average but hardly a specialist's knowledge of the period, and one that's been largely dormant for over a decade. I didn't pick up on anything that was obviously wrong. It seemed pretty on-target for the most part, and I think I'm coming away with a somewhat better understanding of certain aspects of the period. It's been a long time since I studied it, and even then it was largely “book-l'arnin',” and there is nothing like seeing events come to (even if somewhat stilted) life. So would I recommend this? If you're really interested in the period, yes. If you're expecting to be – to use the word I started this commentary on – engrossed and drawn into the events … no. I am glad I finally got around to watching this through, however.

By the way, I did not bother watching the interviews. I'm just not that interested, although perhaps the issue of the production values is addressed, perhaps by Cunliffe. I don't want to find out badly enough, though.


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