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    10 films about the final days of rulers

    7 January 2021

    ‘All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.’

    Enoch Powell, (Joseph Chamberlain, 1977)

    As President Donald J Trump witnesses the remaining days of his presidency ebb away, we take a look at the inevitable time when leaders face their ouster.

    Some face the end with resignation and fortitude, but sadly (for them), many cannot accept that they no longer hold the reins of power.

    So, as a no doubt disconsolate POTUS tucks into yet another cheeseburger (with two scoops of ice cream to follow), some motion pictures for him to reflect on.

    ‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

    Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

    Ozymandias (1818) – Percy Bysshe Shelley

    In chronological order of release:

    Mary, Queen of Scots (2018) – Netflix & Amazon Rent/Buy

    The monarch has featured in many a movie/TV biopic (played by the likes of Vanessa Redgrave, Samantha Morton, Clémence Poésy, Adelaide Kane, Camille Rutherford and Barbara Flynn), with Saoirse Ronan opting in this instance to play Mary Stuart with a Scottish accent.

    Why worth mentioning? As Mary spent from the age of five to eighteen in France, it’s doubtful whether she would have much (if any) of a brogue – although she could speak colloquial Scots.

    She was also taught French, Italian, Latin, Spanish, and Greek – but apparently not English.

    Margot Robbie plays her fellow Queen and eventual jailer/executioner Elizabeth I of England.

    The movie received largely average reviews. Mary’s execution was famously fumbled, with the Queen suffering several blows from the axe before her head was finally severed.

    As illustrated by Mary’s beheading scene from the Ch4 mini-series Elizabeth I (2005).

    Mary would have been much better off if Elizabeth had hired a more efficient French swordsman to perform the act – as was the case with her own mother, Anne Boleyn.

    The Death of Stalin (2017) – BBC I-Player

    Based the 2010 and 2012 French graphic novel La Mort de Saline, Armando Iannucci’s knockabout semi-farce follows the political upheavals in the upper echelons of the Soviet leadership after the demise of Joseph Stalin in 1953.

    Aside from the overly broad acting of much of the cast (to varying degrees of success), my main peeve with the picture is the lack of screen time devoted to Stalin himself, who’s exceedingly well played by stage veteran Adrian McLoughlin.

    For me, the dictator was most memorably portrayed by Colin Blakely in the 1983 TV movie Red Monarch, with David Suchet as the suitably slimy henchman Beria (Simon Russell Beale in TDOS).

    The Exception (2017) – Amazon Prime

    Christopher Plummer plays a rather affable version of the emotionally unstable Hohenzollern monarch who was the last Kaiser (emperor) of Germany/King of Prussia. To date.

    Based on Alan Judd’s 2003 novel The Kaiser’s Last Kiss, The Exception sees ex-Kaiser Bill during his last days in exile in Holland at Huis Doorn (Leeuwergem Castle, Belgium was used in the picture).

    When the Germans occupy the country, some of Wilhelm’s court-in-exile are encouraged to believe that Hitler will restore him to the throne. Meanwhile a British spy is reported to be in the vicinity.

    The Exception is undemanding entertainment, proving once again what a remarkably fine actor the 91-year-old Plummer has become in his later years.

    Lincoln (2012) – Amazon Buy

    The final four months of President Abraham Lincoln’s life are detailed in this enjoyably talky movie from Steven Spielberg.

    Daniel Day-Lewis won another Academy for his affecting portrayal of the President; we never actually see his assassination in Ford’s theatre on the night of April 14th, 1865, so my inclusion of the oft-told joke,  ‘But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?’,  may be somewhat gratuitous.

    The performance the Lincolns were watching was the (then) popular comedy Our American Cousin.

    Two years earlier, Robert Redford’s The Conspirator dealt with the aftermath of the plot to kill the president:

    Downfall (2004)

    The movie that inadvertently launched a thousand memes, Downfall concentrates on the last few months of the so-called Thousand Year Reich (twelve years in reality) where an increasingly enfeebled/unhinged Hitler spends his time holed up in his dingy Berlin bunker.

    The Fuhrer occupies himself by directing imaginary armies to the relief of the capital, hoping for an event analogous to the ‘The Miracle of the House of Brandenburg’ (January 1762), when Frederick the Great’s Prussia was saved by the death of his implacable enemy Catherine I, Empress of Russia.

    Hitler briefly perks up when he hears that US President Franklin D. Roosevelt has died (12th April 1945). No such luck, Adolf.

    Some were angered by the late Bruno Ganz’s depiction of a more ‘human’ Hitler, but he still comes across as a singularly repulsive individual, at least to this viewer.

    To Kill a King (2003)

    Mike Barker’s unfairly overlooked English Civil War drama makes the most of a relatively low budget to deliver a satisfying movie with strong performances from Tim Roth (Cromwell), Dougray Scott (as general Thomas Fairfax, the unheralded general who won many of the Roundhead victories) and especially Rupert Everett, as a not-especially-nice Charles I.

    Indeed, the monarch’s dignified behaviour at his execution in the picture brings to mind the quote from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth that ‘Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.’

    Other familiar names round out the cast, including Olivia Williams, James Bolam, Corin Redgrave, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Adrian Scarborough and a young Benedict Cumberbatch.

    The Emperor’s New Clothes (2001, released in the UK in 2004) & Monsieur N (2003 – Amazon Rent/Buy)

    Two movies that posit a ‘what if’ version of history, where Napoleon escapes imprisonment on St Helena, going on to live an entirely different kind of life to what might be expected (i.e., plunging Europe back into war etc).

    Of the two, Alan Taylor’s Emperor’s New Clothes is the gentler, with the late Ian Holm playing the diminutive former emperor for the 3rd time (after Napoleon and Love and Time Bandits) in this enjoyable comedy-drama.

    Antoine (Eurotrash) de Caunes showed himself no slouch in the director’s chair with Monsieur N, where Bonaparte (moodily played by Philippe Torreton) absconds from St Helena and the petty tyranny of the island’s governor, Major-General Sir Hudson Lowe (Richard E. Grant).

    The picture ends with a scene of a then 71 year old Napoléon (in real life he died aged just 51) and his younger English wife attending the fake Bonaparte’s burial in the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris in December 1840.

    Margaret (2009 Full Movie -YouTube) and Thatcher: The Final Days (1991 – Full drama – YouTube)

    We’re certainly spoiled for choice if you fancy watching a drama that recounts Margaret Thatcher’s last days as Prime Minister.

    This autumn we’ve had Gillian Anderson’s mannered turn as the former PM in season 4 of The Crown, a performance with echoes of Julie Walters’ Mrs Overall (from Acorn Antiques) meeting Gary Oldman’s bun-coiffured Dracula.

    Further back, there was Meryl Streep as The Iron Lady and many other representations, but the two TV movies selected are concerned solely with the events surrounding her ousting.

    Lindsay Duncan takes the lead role in Margaret, with the events of her 1990 fall dovetailing with her own toppling of Edward Heath fifteen years earlier.

    A superb cast includes Ian McDiarmid (Denis Thatcher), Robert Hardy (Willie Whitelaw), James Fox (Charles Powell), Kevin McNally (Kenneth Clarke), Roy Marsden (Norman Tebbit), Oliver Cotton (Michael Heseltine) and the late John Sessions (Geoffrey Howe). Much closer to the actual action is 1991’s ITV one-off Thatcher: The Final Days.

    A steely Sylvia Syms plays an imperious PM, in a hurried but watchable 50-minute drama, the short length probably due to ITV executives fear of boring their viewers with what could be seen as an overly long political talkfest.

    Stand-out support comes from those great thespians John Wood (Michael Heseltine), Harold Innocent (Peter Morrison), Paul Rogers (Geoffrey Howe) and Edward de Souza (John Wakeham).

    Other, older movies with dealing with the loss of power include Nicholas & Alexandra (1971), The Assassination of Trotsky (1972), The Last Days of Mussolini (1974), The Prince and the Pauper (1977 – Charlton Heston as a dying Henry VIII) and Caligula (1979).

    And, of course, the many movies depicting the fall and declining years of Richard Milhous Nixon, such as Frost/Nixon (2008), Dick (1999), Nixon(1995), The Final Days (1989) and Secret Honor (1984).

    Gal (Wonder Woman) Gadot will play Cleopatra in an upcoming biopic, where we can assume that the suicide of both herself (by asp) and then squeeze Mark Antony (sword) will feature, as well as the murder (multiple daggers) of her previous boyfriend, Dictator-for-life Julius Caesar.