Filmsite Movie Review
Queen Christina (1933)
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Queen Christina (1933) is one of Greta Garbo's quintessential, most-remembered screen portrayals (and one of her finest films), with glowing scenes (enhanced by her favorite cinematographer William Daniels) that reflect the mystique of the lovely, enigmatic actress. This MGM film, Garbo's first and only film with director Rouben Mamoulian, luxuriously captures the graceful allure and persona of one of Hollywood's most famous and lovely performers - especially in its final enigmatic closeup. However, the romantic tragedy was poorly received if measured by its box-office appeal. But Garbo would go on to make some of her greatest films: including Anna Karenina (1935), Camille (1936), and Ninotchka (1939). However, this film was not nominated for Academy Awards.

The biopic of independent-minded, controversial Christina, queen of 17th century Sweden, paired Garbo with popular silent-screen actor John Gilbert (her former fiancee and co-star was also purported to have been her passionate, off-screen lover). Although Gilbert's career star was fading, Garbo insisted that he play the male lead role (although Laurence Olivier had been the original choice). The plot, ending with the Queen's abdication from her kingdom and self-imposed exile and withdrawal (for the ill-fated love of a Spanish nobleman-envoy), in order to follow her heart to Spain (to return her slain lover to his homeland), prophetically echoed the same sort of conflict that Garbo struggled with in her private life.

It was Garbo's first film in a year and a half. Her long absence from the screen and residence in her native Sweden were being interpreted as a retreat from cinema altogether. [Note: She gave up film-making eight years later in 1941.] And Gilbert, who had been relegated to second-class status following the advent of the talkies, starred in only one other film (in 1934) before his 1936 death.

The screenplay for the semi-historical, costume melodrama, written by H.M. Harwood, Salka Viertel (an actress-writer, and Garbo's personal friend and professional colleague), and with dialogue by S. N. Behrman was based on Viertel's own original screen story (co-authored with Margaret P. LeVino). History is partially rewritten in the tale of sacrificial love, duty, and strength.

Taglines advertising the film proclaimed:

  • "A 17th century maiden who loved with a 20th century madness"
  • "She was crowned King of Sweden...lived and ruled as a man...But surrendered to Love."

Since the actual Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689) was bisexual in orientation, this provided the story with a pretext for its lesbian leanings. Furthermore, the cross-dressing and gender disguises of Garbo, her romantic attraction to her own lady-in-waiting, and her notorious bedroom scene in the inn with Gilbert further troubled film censors, but engendered curiosity for the glamorous star.

Plot Synopsis

The film's foreword presents a scrolling title card with historical background, displayed above an emblematic crest of Sweden's king:

In the year 1632, the armies of Sweden, under the banner of its hero, King Gustavus Adolphus, were in the midst of the great Thirty Years' War that was to give the Norsemen the leadership of Europe. But the Swedish triumphs were darkened when, leading his hosts at Lutzen, King Gustavus fell on the battlefield.

The beginning and end of the film are both marked with the 'death' of a King/Queen. The elderly king of Sweden falls mortally wounded at the Battle of Lutzen, uttering his last words: "I was King of Sweden." A sweeping camera moves from the King's crown (resting on a velvet pillow) back through the council in the Swedish court. Lord Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna (Lewis Stone), the regent and head of the council, announces that after the "grievous war" - a war that has lasted fourteen years while Sweden fought "for the Protestant cause," the King has died. Christina, the King's six-year old daughter, will be the new reigning ruler, serving as King under the regency of council and the Chancellor:

But his spirit still lives in us, in his child Christina. Her father, our King, brought up this child as a boy, accustomed her ears to the sound of cannon fire, and sought to mold her spirit after his own.

One of the peasants cries out: "Let's see the child." The young, dimunitive Christina (Cora Sue Collins) enters in a processional and independently mounts the elevated throne - insistently by herself. She is crowned in a brief coronation ceremony as the new sovereign. She dismounts and delivers a decisively-strong speech - her first - to the assembled court:

Good lords and Swedish men, Queen Christina by grace of God, Queen of the Swedes, the Goths and Vandals, promises you to be a good and just king, to protect you all, and to guard the kingdom as our father did, to wisely and with God's help, to keep the standard as we've received it from our fathers. Concerning this war which we are bitterly waging, we promise...we promise...[Oxenstierna prompts her with "to wage it with courage"] We promise to win it! I bless you all.

Sixteen years later, Christina rides furiously through the woods on horseback, accompanied by her servant Aage (C. Aubrey Smith) after being summoned to the palace. She dresses as a man, wearing pants, a shirt with a stiff white collar, and a wide-brimmed hat. Her face is finally revealed after a long entrance sequence as she strides in (with her two giant mastiffs) and bounds up the steep staircase. Her heroic, victorious cousin from the warring Swedish army, Prince Palatine Charles Gustavus (Reginald Owen) has arrived home, and "Sweden now has the commanding place in Europe" after thirty years of war. She is dismayed by the expensive costs of a victorious war in Swedish resources (4,000 horses and 200 cannon) and lives (10,000 Swedes). A gigantic portrait-painting of King Gustavus hangs behind her massive wooden table where she signs documents. Oxenstierna advises a political marriage with the Prince:

Lord Chancellor: They clamor for a Swedish marriage for your majesty. They clamor for an heir of Swedish blood.
Christina: In short, Chancellor, they clamor.

Her former lover and also Lord Treasurer, Count Magnus (Ian Keith) is put off by the Queen - she has lost interest in his unwelcome advances, and argues that she is busy: "I am not an idle woman, Magnus. I have a war on my hands." He petulantly wonders if she will marry the "national hero."

Prince Charles Gustavus is ceremonially greeted by the Parliament and Queen and thanked on behalf of the Fatherland: "For the great victory you have won, Sweden is grateful. We will not forget." After all of her constituents (the nobles, a gallant general, the Archbishop (David Torrence), and the Prince) have clamoured for more war against the "barbarians" to avenge the glory of Sweden, Queen Christina disagrees with the Archbishop: "It is for our faith and for our God." She counters: "God is being invoked in many lands these days, Your Grace. What about the enemy's God?"

She requests another opinion from the down-trodden peasants who are the ones sacrificed: "But what of the peasants? You peasants have fought this war." When a representative from the peasants proclaims that they will go when ordered, she commands: "You shall go no longer." With a proclamation of peace, she rejects calls for more violence and decrees that the bloody war will end:

There are other things to live for than wars. I have had enough of them. We have been fighting since I was in the cradle and many years before. It is enough. I shall ask the powers to meet for a speedy and honorable peace. There must be an end!...Spoils! Glory! Flags and trumpets! What is behind these high-sounding words? Death and destruction! Triumphals of crippled men! Sweden victorious in a ravaged Europe. An island in a dead sea. I tell you, I want no more of it. I want for my people security and happiness. I want to cultivate the arts of peace. The arts of life! I want peace and peace I will have.

In a close-up of the document, Christina signs a peace treaty following a conference in which she was represented by Senator Count John Oxentierna and Senator John Adler Saleins.

In the next scene, Christina is in a canopied bed one early morning, voraciously reading by candlelight to acquire knowledge: "I have so little free time Aage. To spend it sleeping seems a waste." The camera pulls back from a close-up of her face to a long shot. She pushes aside the large windows of the constraining interior of her bedroom and climbs out to the battlements. Christina takes a deep breath of the fresh, wintry air, and then washes her face by rubbing it with a handful's scoop of snow. While having her hair groomed by Aage, she expresses her literary preference for Continental culture - and French writer Moliere:

Oh, what a clever fellow is this...Moliere...He writes plays...He makes fun here of pretentious ladies. 'As for me, uncle, all I can say is that I think marriage is an altogether shocking thing. How is it possible to endure the idea of sleeping with a man in the room?'

According to her servant, the people say that she prefers the crafty Lord Treasurer Magnus over heroic Prince Charles. In fact, the wilful queen appears happier with her lady-in-waiting Countess Ebba Sparre (Elizabeth Young), whom she affectionately greets with a mouth-to-mouth kiss. Christina must attend to her official duties of "ambassadors, treaties, councils" instead of going sleigh-riding with Ebba:

Christina: But we'll go afterward, Ebba.
Ebba: Oh, you always say that, but at the end of the day, you're never free to go anywhere. You're surrounded by musty old papers and musty old men and I can't get near you.
Christina: Today, I'll dispose of them by sundown, I promise you, and we'll go away for two or three days in the country. Wouldn't you like that?
Ebba: Oh, I'd love it.

In the Council chamber, the Queen conducts affairs of state - in a montage of meetings. With the arrival of the Spanish ambassador expected shortly, the French ambassador Chanoux (George Renavent) urgently wants Sweden to sign a treaty with France. She charms him by telling him: "You are the only ambassador, Monsieur Chanoux, who doesn't treat me like an institution. I must confess it's very agreeable." And then she assures the envoy that there's always been a "natural harmony between Sweden and France," with or without a treaty. Regarding a request by the Archbishop to prohibit professors from Spain or Italy from teaching at Uppsala University, the oldest university in Sweden, she wisely warns against narrowness and staleness of instruction: "The danger is not so much of corruption, my lord, as of staleness. We need new wine in the old bottles."

With the Lord Chancellor, she analyzes a revised treaty from Cromwell in England. When he again broaches the subject of her marriage to Prince Charles, she dislikes the tiring topic. The Queen repeatedly avoids politically-inspired marriages. Confronted with the pressing demands of a head of state, Christina feels stultified, constrained and limited by the thought of a political marriage, by the roadblocks to her remaking of the world through philosophy and art, and by her expected duty to marry a Swedish hero - to provide a racially-pure heir and successor to the throne. Distraught, she steadfastly avows not to marry and proclaims herself a life-long "bachelor":

Christina: This eternal talk about Charles. I cannot tell you how it wears me. I do not see eye-to-eye with Charles about anything...There are varieties of heroes. He's a hero with fighting and fighting bores me. His only gift is with a sword.
Chancellor: The sword has made Sweden great, your Majesty.
Christina: Yes, do we not exalt that gift too much, Chancellor?
Chancellor: Ah, you cannot remake the world, your Majesty.
Christina: Why not? Look, Chancellor, the philosophers remake it, the artists remake it, the scientists remake it now, why not we, we the power. The people follow blindly the generals who lead them to destruction. Will they not follow us? We'll lead them beyond themselves where there's grace and beauty, gaiety and freedom.
Chancellor: Europe is an armed camp, your Majesty, not utopia peopled with shepherds.
Christina: But Chancellor...(She looks out the window) Snow again, eternal snow.
Chancellor: Your Majesty, it is for Sweden. It is your duty.
Christina: Why is it my duty? My days and nights are given up to the service of the state. I'm so cramped with duty that to be able to read a book, I have to rise in the middle of the night. I serve the people with all my thoughts, with all my energy, with all my dreams, waking and sleeping. I do not wish to marry and you cannot force me.
Chancellor: You must give Sweden an heir.
Christina: Not by Charles, Chancellor.
Chancellor: You are Sweden's Queen. You are your father's daughter.
Christina: (in a stylized pose with her face looking heavenward, in a closeup) Must we live for the dead?
Chancellor: For the great dead, yes your Majesty.
Christina: Snow is like a wide sea. One could go out and be lost in it and forget the world and oneself.
Chancellor: There are rumors that your Majesty is planning a foreign marriage.
Christina: They are baseless.
Chancellor: But your Majesty, you cannot die an old maid.
Christina: I have no intention to, Chancellor. I shall die a bachelor!

The crafty Magnus favors the marriage, and is disappointed at his former lover's politically-incorrect decision not to marry Prince Charles, even though he would be an ideal choice: "I'd much rather him than another. Charles spends all his time reviewing troops." She is no longer stirred by her ex-lover's amorousness, and questions her past love for him:

Christina: He (Charles) at least is no opportunist...I look at you and I look at a stranger, a stranger whom I do not altogether like.
Magnus: I grant you your preferences if you love me.
Christina: Love you? I wonder now, Magnus, if I have ever loved you.
Magnus: I am your destiny, Christina.
Christina: Are you? I long to escape my destiny.
Magnus: You will long to return to it.

After her day's work, Christina seeks out Countess Ebba. On the stairs as she stands below, she happens to eavesdrop on a conversation between Ebba and her sweetheart Count Jacob (Edward Norris). She discovers that Ebba resents her stubbornness and domination over her:

Jacob: The Queen is selfish. It is simple for her. She orders and you obey. How long are you going on this way? Every time we meet, you promise to tell her you love me and that you want to marry me and you never do.
Ebba: The trouble is the Queen is so dominating. She's interested only in her own concerns. She never asks me.

Angered by their criticism - and the thought of Ebba's impending marriage, Christina confronts Ebba for her pretentious behavior:

Christina: It is you I cannot forgive, Ebba. You needn't fear my domination any longer.
Ebba: Your Majesty, please.
Christina: You pretended to be interested in me and my problems. Your sympathy, your concern - all pretense, underneath which you resent me.
Ebba: Oh, you do not understand, your Majesty.
Christina: The difficulty, Ebba, is that I do.

Further, Christina is warned about the visit of the Spanish envoy by the Chancellor: "Sweden is the great Protestant stronghold of Europe. Therefore, with this Spaniard, you must be polite but reserved." To satisfy the cheering masses of Swedish people outside the palace, she appears on the snowy battlement and hears their shouts: "We want Prince Charles for our King and Christina for our Queen." But she is again upset by the Chancellor's maneuverings and court intrigue to have her wed Charles: "This is what comes, Chancellor, from feeding the people a false hope."

To be lost and forget her problems in the snow ("One could go out and be lost in it and forget the world and oneself"), she summons Aage to get her riding coat:

Aage: The hunt, your Majesty!
Christina: At least not to be hunted.

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