"Peter the Near-Great" would be a better title than "Peter the Great," considering the fact that NBC's four-part, eight-hour, $26.5 million mini-series lacks in dramatic value what it boasts in scenic splendor. Still, however stiff the story and characters in this historical epic, "Peter" is a masterpiece compared to its mini-series competition, the seamy steam bath "Sins," with Joan Collins, on CBS.
Great Pete meets allegedly Great Joan in the entertainment Super Bowl of the February ratings sweeps tomorrow night, when both "Great" and "Sins" begin their multinight runs. "Sins," at 8 on Channel 9, gets a one-hour jump on NBC's show, at 9 on Channel 4. Not wanting to play the part of the New England Patriots in this match-up, NBC is sending in Gen. Bill Cosby and his troupe to give the CBS eye a shiner. A special edition of "The Cosby Show," with Danny Kaye guest starring as a crotchety dentist, has been slotted opposite the first half-hour of "Sins."
After that, it's every mini-series for itself, although NBC may lose many of its "Cosby" viewers by airing another of those lamely "Amazing Stories" post-Cos and pre-Pete. In terms of worth and intelligence, "Peter the SK,2 SW,-2 LD,10 Great" is by far the superior show. There is no contest. The best thing about it, though, has nothing to do with acting or scripts; it's the frigid magnificence of the Russian locations where the movie was made over seven bone-chilling months.
"Peter the Great" is spectacularism personified, and it's spectacular in a way that does work on television, largely because of the awesome beauty of the sets and locations and also because they were photographed in glorious golden light by the famous Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. This is perhaps the most eye-filling mini-series ever seen on television.
To say the production had its problems is a world-class understatement. Lawrence Schiller, originally producer and director, had a big fight with NBC during filming and was replaced as director by Marvin Chomsky. Schiller is now suing the network. In addition, Maximilian Schell, who plays Peter, couldn't seem to hang around for all the shooting, so in some scenes, a double is used with Schell's voice dubbed in. This explains why in certain sequences, Peter is standing in the darkness away from the camera. Peter says he's going "incognito" to Europe and he goes incognito in parts of the film, too. A telltale credit at the end of each episode reads: "And Denis de Marne as the adult Peter in selected scenes."
Schell doesn't assume the role until night three, halfway through the mini-series, anyway. In the first two installments, the semiadult Peter is played by Jan Niklas, a fairly dashing German actor. In addition to displaying parts of the Soviet Union totally unfamiliar to western viewers, "Peter the Great" includes performances by 21 Russian actors unknown here, including Boris Plotnikov in a touching portrayal of Peter's troubled son Alexis and Natalya Andreichenko as Eudoxia, Peter's surly first wife.
NBC is making bigger promotional hay, naturally, out of the famous names in the cast. Vanessa Redgrave brightens the early chapters as Sophia, Peter's sinister sister, and Omar Sharif looks vaguely Rasputinish as Prince Romodanovsky, who storms in and out of the picture. Lilli Palmer, who died Wednesday, plays Peter's mother; at 71 she was still elegantly pretty. But top-billed Laurence Olivier is seen only fleetingly, once, in Part III, in the incidental role of King William of Orange. Trevor Howard has a virtual cameo, though an effective one as Isaac Newton, who shows Peter sunlight's colors through a prism during Peter's European foray.
Edward Anhalt's script shifts back and forth, as these historical mini-series do, from battlefields to bedrooms. In "Peter the Great," we get the Kremlin as Sludge Falls. Peter is constantly at odds with his sister, his wife and his son. The courtship and marriage, in Part I, find Peter abandoning his wife on the wedding night. "Aren't you going to take off your cross?" she asks across the waiting bed; what a downer! He stomps out of the room and, still hotski to trotski, ends up in the embrace of a mere scullery maid. "I can offer you whatever I have -- simple, yet satisfying," she says across a waiting kitchen table. Later Peter finds a novel way to validate the defloration of his bride to a crowd waiting for evidence.
In Part III, Schell as Peter gives an indication of the stability of the royal family when he tells an aide, "Watch my sister. If she makes the slightest move, kill her." He later orders his son Alexis disinherited and tortured. In voiceover, Peter says, "A man pays a terrible price for power."
Some may deride this as history-as-soap opera, but when you think about it, history is soap opera. "Peter" gets better as the familial conspiracies thicken, and Schell cuts a virile swath. Voila , a tsar is born.
NBC says its mini-series is "the first totally independent American drama ever to film in the Soviet Union," whatever totally independent means. The Soviets had little to lose in cooperating with the producers of this look at prerevolution Russia. According to this version of history, Russia was better off without religion, since church leaders oppose all of Peter's expansionist and modernizing ambitions for his country. He is labeled "Satan" and "the anti-Christ" for his trouble.
Much prettier than it is powerful, dominated as it is by starkly gorgeous battle scenes and such eye poppers as the torchlit funeral of Peter's mother in the first hour of Part II, NBC's "Peter" still is an at least vaguely educational, and passably engaging, viewing experience. It does give you a sense of the times and, however accurate, an inkling of what kind of a guy might have "the Great" as his last name.