Updated: Aug 24, 2020
In the middle of the 18th century, a teenage princess was plucked from an obscure German principality to fulfil her destiny of being the Empress of Russia. Her name would echo through the ages: Catherine the Great. She would build on the solid foundation left by Peter the Great half a century previously, when he single-handedly had dragged Russia from the Dark Ages.
Catherine picked up the mantle and dragged the heavy massive behemoth of a country into the Enlightenment, all whilst having lovers, suppressing rebellions, unmasking pretenders and not really spending too much time complaining of 'how heavy lies the head that wears the crown'.
Unsurprisingly, Catherine's story lends itself very well to fiction. The innocent dreamer who has to overcome obstacles, get wiser in the process, and when she's ready, takes the ultimate prize? A classic tale. The fact that she's a woman taking power for herself in the 18th century speaks well to modern audiences. She took the crown, and she took lovers. Her story has all the elements needed for entertainment and more, all set against the backdrop of snowy Russia.
The twists and turns of Catherine's life usually make themselves into a neat stock list of events that the storytellers, such as filmmakers and historical fiction writers choose from, in order to present Catherine's adventures with their own spin. For storytelling purposes, her life is usually split into two parts: her rise to power and her keeping that power. Some productions go for both, some for one, depending on which story they want to tell and how much screen time they have at their disposal.
Here are the events that feature in every production covering the 'Rise to Power' half, telling the story of an innocent girl arriving to foreign court and transforming herself into an enlightened monarch: Catherine arrives to Russia as an innocent teenager. She meets Peter, who was to be her husband and his aunt Elizabeth. Catherine marries Peter, gets disappointed in him pretty fast. Catherine and Peter both have lovers. She is wise and progressive in her thinking; he is her opposite. Russian people grow unhappy with Peter the Tsar. They are, however, very happy with Catherine and her 'Russian-ness'. After securing the support of the army, Catherine pulls off a palace coup and becomes Empress in her own right. In most productions there is an added wrinkle: the choice of becoming Empress in her own right costs her the love of her life: she has to keep her lover or her throne.
The 'Keeping the Power' half tells the story of a seasoned matriarch testing the limits of her potential as an Empress and as a woman. This narrative's must-haves are: the pretenders to Catherine's throne, her relationship with her estranged son, expansion of her empire and her taking lovers, including her favourite favourite - Grigoriy Potyomkin.
Now that we've covered the historical Catherine, let's look at nine main attempts at capturing Cato's life:
There were two black and white feature films, both made in 1934. The two films follow Catherine's rise to power, but are only very loosely based on actual events. Then there's a 1968 TV film based on George Bernard Shaw's play, which has Catherine the Empress as a supporting character in an entirely fictitious series of events. This one is not a biography of Catherine by any means, so is not going to be discussed any further (check the fun facts below, though).
The historical on-screen realism of any kind arrives with the 1990's: a television special in 1991 and another one in 1995. Then the Celluloid Catherine changes genres and thus we get the 'Tudors'-like multi-seasonal Russian series in 2014, followed by another one in 2015. These also stick as close to history as their dramatic writing would let them. In 2019 we get a mini-series which also follow the history route. This is followed by a comedy series in 2020, which, much like its 1934 counterparts, has little to do with actual history, thus completing the Cato circle. Now let's look at these productions in wee bit more detail.
The very first few productions resemble the real story of Catherine very little. One was made in Hollywood, one in London. I don't want to insult the historical consultants of these productions, but it does not seem like anyone was engaged, or needed. I can presume there was not much material available for thorough research on Imperial Russia, especially from across the pond. When you consider when these two films were made; it makes sense that little to nothing would be at hand mere eighteen years after the last Romanov Tsar had been brutally massacred and the supplanting government in a hurry to erase the past.
It seemed like the makers of both 'The Scarlet Empress' (1934) and 'The Rise of Catherine the Great' (1934) use Catherine's life as a vehicle and inspiration for their own stories. Their narratives do follow the actual events, albeit in a very general fashion.
The 1968 TV film is in colour, and has nothing to do with real historical figures, it's called 'The Great Catherine'. The filmmakers make a disclaimer in the very beginning that if the film gets historically accurate, it's only by miracle. This slapstick comedy by George Bernard Shaw simply fits into one day in the life of the Empress. Catherine herself is practically a supporting character. to Peter O'Toole's English envoy.
The two TV specials of the 1990's are the first screen attempts to capture 'real history' and their research really shines through. These are 'Young Catherine' & 'Catherine the Great'. I believe these are also the first productions about Catherine to be shot on location (for the most part). Real palaces, real castles, real McCoy...vska. Thankfully, the attempt at verisimilitude of these Catherine-on-screen productions stay and are applied to all subsequent films and series up until 2019.
The two depictions of Catherine by Russian Television in the mid 2010's are probably the best ones in my opinion. Being produced in Russia, shot in actual locations where the real Catherine lived and rules, and acted out in Russian language definitely brings even more realism to the screen. They are the longest ('The Great' might supplant them) and have more opportunities of bringing as much of the real-life drama of the Empress's life to the screen. And there was a lot of it. She was on the throne for thirty-four years, after all.
This neatly bring me to the last two. (Curious how Catherine Screen depictions are made as rivalling productions. Cat fight?).
2019 brings us 'Catherine the Great' - a magnificent-looking opus, which shows us an much older Catherine for the first time and tell us of her deeds long after she took the throne. The goal, I gather, was to capture the magnificence of her court and give us a glimpse of what was her reign really like. My least favourite on this list, will tell you why in the post about this series.
In 2020 we get introduced to 'The Great', which claims in the very title that it's only occasionally a true story. Historical accuracy is thrown out the window, fed to the bears and gulped down with a lot of vodka. But in a most resplendent way. Let me make my case.
I'm going to be looking at these one by one and see what all the fuss was about and which serves best to represent the unique woman that was Catherine the Great.
My upcoming posts about notable on-screen Catherines. Stay tuned:
The 1930's Catherines: 'The Scarlet Empress' & 'The Rise of Catherine the Great' (1934)
The 1990's Catherines: 'Young Catherine' (1991) & 'Catherine the Great' (1995)
The Russian Catherines: 'Ekaterina' (a.k.a. "Екатерина") (2014-2022) & 'The Great' (a.k.a. "Великая") (2015) - both currently available on Amazon Prime UK
The wrong Catherine: 'Catherine the Great' (2019)
The historically inaccurate yet delightfully comical Catherine: 'The Great' (2020) - currently available on Starz Play UK
Here's a podcast by a historian Janet Hartley and also a documentary on Catherine the Great for your edutainment:
The 1968, despite not being a biography of Catherine the Empress, is definitely worth checking out. The blue-eyed Peter O'Toole of 1968 is worth it, ladies. The most notable thing about this production is Jeanne Moreau as Catherine, and she shall revisit the era by playing the Empress Elizabeth in the 1995 'Catherine the Great' opposite Ms Zeta-Jones in the titular role.
The photos throughout this post (apart from Catherine's movie posters) are from Rundales Palace in modern day Latvia. The Palace has a lot to do with one of Catherine's predecessors - Empress Anna, whose favourite commissioned it from the same architect who built Winter Palace, which Catherine did live in. Later in her life, Catherine gave Rundales Palace to the brother of her own favourite - Valerian Zubov.