Queen Christina (U.S., Rouben Mamoulian)
Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina purports to relate the story of the seventeenth century Swedish queen’s life and reign, but is so far from reality that it’s a miracle the movie is as good as it is. Mamoulian and screenwriters H.M. Harwood and Salka Viertel avoided any historical context and invented a storyline that not only isn’t accurate, but obscures the true reasons for Christina’s abdication of the Swedish throne in 1654, probably in an effort to placate a religiously diverse U.S. population (more on that in a moment). The good news is the fictional story they tell is worth seeing in its own right, a tale of the clash between forbidden love and national (and, at the time, the intertwined religious) duty.
Greta Garbo delivers one of her most accomplished performances as the emotionally embattled queen. She chaffs under the social confines of her royal station, periodically donning common clothes (as a man no less) and venturing into a Sweden over which she rules but has little direct contact. It is on one of these trips, when she gets snowed into a country inn, that she meets and falls in love with Antonio, the Spanish ambassador played by John Gilbert in one of his last roles. Her relationship with Antonio causes a fair amount of scandal. Not only did most assume that she would marry national war hero Karl (Reginald Owen), but Catholic Spain is a natural enemy of Protestant Sweden and had been fighting on opposite sides of the Thirty Years War for – well, almost 30 years. Christina labors to balance her duty as the leader of a Protestant nation and her love for a Catholic man, ultimately ending in her abdication of the throne.
This movie would end up higher on my list had the studio not skirted the issue of religion and the wars waged over it. We know that Sweden has been heavily involved in the Thirty Years War (which concluded in 1648), but Mamoulian avoids probing the causes of the war – both the religious and diplomatic (not necessarily different things at time). Catholics and Protestants are vaguely defined and as far as what we see on screen the friction might as well have been caused by divergent pound cake recipes rather than the theological and geopolitical quarrels that tore Europe apart. In reality Christina secretly converted to Catholicism well before she abdicated and her abdication was directly related to her inability to reconcile her religious beliefs with her obligations to Protestant Sweden. (After her abdication she moved to Italy and became a fixture at the Vatican.) These would have been fascinating aspects to explore, but Mamoulian and MGM eschewed frank discussions about religion. After all, they were trying to sell their product to a religiously diverse nation and probably wanted to avoid appearing to take the side of any specific denomination. Instead of dealing with the touchier (and potential richer) subject of religious intolerance, they fell back on a standard love story trope. But the fact that Mamoulian is able to create a compelling love story out of this bastardized history lesson is telling of his skills as a filmmaker. Garbo and Gilbert are, as always, magnetic together, bringing tenderness to their parts that would have been missing had they remained faithful to the historical record. I don’t like to see history willfully ignored in movies, but when it is I hope to see it in a movie as well done as this.