Friday, December 29, 2006

'Fall of Eagles'

I gave Dean the dvd set of the BBC's 1974 series 'Fall of Eagles', and we've been watching it over the past few evenings. My memories of it were pretty accurate, but I was surprised by how really artistically good it was. The sets are fabulous - I'm guessing they used a number of palaces to film in - and so are the costumes and the hairdos. This is really the definition of lavish. But you can also see that a lot of good, hard thinking went into the filming. They use interesting camera angles, much more than you'd expect from a TV dramatization, so sometimes we're looking down on a conference from the position of a chandelier hanging over the table, or else we're down low, looking up, as if we were dogs sitting beside a chair. It's great to see that sort of attention given to the mechanics of making a film. I remember a complaint about Peter Jackson's 'Lord of the Rings' was "Why, when you've spent millions of dollars creating Helms Deep in anorakish detail, can't you spend half an hour thinking of an original direction from which to point a camera at a horse?"

I loved the section on the Hohenzollerns; the actor who plays Wilhelm II really looks like him. I asked Dean if Wilhelm was really that annoying in real life, and he said he was probably a lot worse. The actor's terrific, though.

It's funny how one changes with time. When I first watched this, I was a teenager, very romantic and steeped in history, so all my sympathies were with the fallen royal families. I thought how awful it was that something so ancient and beautiful was replaced by the ugliness of modernity, especially Socialism and Communism. Now that I'm middle-aged and a mother, I watch these scenes of the impoverished workers in St. Petersburg, and I think how I would have felt if I were in their place, my children sick and starving, and things getting worse all the time. I realize I'd probably be bitterly wishing for strikes and anarchy - anything that might change the hopelessness.

When I was watching the early Romanov section (we're about halfway through the series at the moment) I had a strange feeling - Nicholas II reminded me a little of George Bush. Not in his tactics or policies - but in a sort of dreamy certainty that God has put him in charge of things and there's nothing more to be said. I've called it those times when Bush "goes all mystical on us", but I really liked Mark Shea's expression for it: "I, the President, do verily look upon the heart and judge not as man judgeth". I've sometimes gotten this creepy feeling when he's repeating the same old tired catchphrases again and again: "Stay the course", "It's hard work", etc. It's as if he feels all he has to do is BE the President, and that's enough. As if it shouldn't be necessary to argue and fight and protest; the glory of Being President should be evident to all, and if it isn't, he doesn't really know what to say.

I don't think it's really an Evangelical thing, though it seems very un-Catholic to me somehow. I think it's more a sort of American "aristocracy" thing, but filtered through a "God is in charge" kind of attitude. The Czars were pretty upfront about their authority - God appointed them king, and gave everything to them, and that's the way He wanted it, so don't even think of arguing or asking them to share. You can't do that sort of thing in America, but you can get a mild version of it when you think that God chose you to do a job, and He can't have made a mistake, so "everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds." I do get that vibe from Bush sometimes.

I know this is incoherent, because it's just an impression I get sometimes, and I don't know how else to describe it. I generally liked Bush in his early days, but it was when he seemed more decisive. Now I feel as if everything is drifting, and he's convinced himself that somehow God will fix it all. I remember reading about James II, and his hyper-Catholic court, when William of Orange was invading England from Holland. James sort of dithered and agonized over what to do, and couldn't even pull himself together to get his armies ready to fight. His advisors pleaded with him, but he turned to them triumphantly and said that all would be well - William's fleet had been turned back by an unfavourable wind, and it was no surprise, because the Host had been exposed for the past 2 days! The disgusted nobleman wrote of his failed attempts to persuade the king to act, "'Tis all nought; the Virgin Mary is to do all."


Blogger Nasty, Brutish & Short said...

Dr. M.,
I want to email you. Could you email me at

11:54 pm  
Blogger Craig Goodrich said...

This is a thought-provoking post; many thanks. I'll have to put the series on my gift list (next year).

I've been reading on the same period (sort of), as part of my continuing quest to figure out what precisely went wrong -- turning a basically OK late-19th-century, with increasing liberalization in all the monarchies (even the Habsburgs) and the US largely recovered from Lincoln's War Fascism, into the bloodiest half-century the planet has ever seen.

Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World (MacMillan & Holbrooke) -- since I'd already read The Guns of August -- lead naturally to Kershaw's 2-volume Hitler (around 1300 pages plus voluminous notes), Bosworth's Mussolini, and Conquest's (sketchy) Stalin.

A depressing month of reading.

Unfortunately, I have no satisfying conclusions yet, except that researchers who spend years immersed in foreign documents sometimes lose some of their native language intuition -- about every dozen pages or so, both Bosworth and Kershaw would emit a sentence that was more Italianate or Germanic (respectively) than normal English. (Both are decent writers, otherwise; above average for academics. I'm more sensitive to this than most because I was a language guy back in college.)

One obvious lesson, I suppose, is just how fragile civilization is. Another is how eager people are to be told what they want to hear. Still another -- principally from Stalin -- is just how totalitarian a regime can be if its leadership is sufficiently ruthless and sociopathic. All of which reinforces the necessity we feel to combat the "morality of the month" mentality of the American chattering class and the complacent vandalizing of our institutions by indignant armchair utopians.

But, as I say, no simple, satisfying explanation. Perhaps none exists. If you find one, please be sure to let us all know...

1:07 am  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

NBS - I've sent you an email; hope it got through!

Craig - I *highly* recommend the series; knowing the history in more detail would make it even more enjoyable for you. I think we have some of those books you've listed - the Conquest book, for sure, and I think also 'Paris 1919' and 'The Guns of August'. There was one thing about the series that I meant to mention in the post, but forgot - the amount of anti-Semitism in the dialog was really shocking. Particularly when you recall that this was produced in *1974*, when such things were completely unacceptable, as WWII and the Holocaust were still recent memories, and Israel was still admired and supported. I suggested that maybe the writers were deliberately adding such expressions to "load the dice" in a way, to show how very bad these autocrats were, and why they deserved their fate. Dean disagreed - he thinks that it was just pure accuracy. People DID think and talk that way, all the time - educated, sophisticated men and women, just casually announcing "Well, what can you expect from a Jew?", and announcing that they just didn't like Jews, period. And yet, here we are again, with anti-Semitic slurs once again on the lips of the best and the brightest, especially in Europe. Mark Steyn was the first to say that it's as if WWII had never happened, and it's 1914 again.

2:03 pm  
Blogger Craig Goodrich said...

It's interesting that by most accounts anti-Semitism was particularly rampant in the Catholic (Bavaria & Austria) section of Germanic Europe, rather than the Protestant section, but at the same time Vienna was the rival of Paris as the cosmopolitan cultural center of Europe. Also, while there was a lot of anti-Semitic talk, I've seen no signs of any legal restrictions (in the late 19th century, anyway).

And of the tyrants I mentioned above, Mussolini comes out as almost (but not quite) a sympathetic figure, who could never quite get his anti-Semitism right. At one point in the late '30s, where he has come firmly under the thumb of Germany, he tried to ape the Nazi "scientific" racism, and in one speech said something like, "And of course we have to eliminate the evil Jews. I don't mean, of course, our good Italian Jews who fought in the [Great] War. But we must ruthlessly combat ..." It's kind of blackly comical.

For an enjoyable and witty view of late Habsburg civilization: Vienna 1888-89

For another revealing picture of the same era: Crown Prince Rudolf

And of course, for an entirely different view, Rebecca West's incredible Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Like most Advanced Thinking Intellectuals (in the '30s or now), whenever she talks economics her ignorance becomes embarrassingly obvious, but the book is an absolute Must-Read anyway, and an enjoyable one at that.

(I originally read West for background when I was agitating against the bombing of Yugoslavia in '99. I studied the history of the French in Vietnam in the '60s for the same reason. I am so damn tired of learning history because my country is bombing somebody new... I've been too burned out to do anything on Iraq.)

4:22 pm  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

Craig: Thanks for the book recommendations; I think I may get 'Vienna 1888-89' for Dean for his birthday. 'Fall of Eagles' has one episode devoted to the Mayerling incident, and it's very good. Rather different in style from the other episodes in the series, it's almost constructed like a police mystery story. It shows the timeline immediately following the deaths, and the frantic efforts to coverup the truth, as well as the misinformation that was being passed about as the scandal started to emerge.

5:39 pm  

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