RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK
While the Hammer name is incontrovertibly intertwined with horror, less well known is their production of historical films. They made a number of these, including swashbucklers and historical adventure films like Dick Turpin Highwayman (1956), Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960), The Crimson Blade (1963), The Brigand of Kandahar (1965), A Challenge for Robin Hood (1967) and The Viking Queen (1967); as well as various World War II films The Steel Bayonet (1957), The Camp on Blood Island (1958), Yesterdays Enemy (1959) and The Secret of Blood Island (1964). They seemed particularly fond of historical films that could be pushed towards horror or at least have an emphasis on the lurid and sadistic, as with the likes of The Stranglers of Bombay (1959) and pirate films like The Terror of the Tongs (1961), Night Creatures (1962), The Pirates of Blood River (1962) and The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964). Rasputin the Mad Monk sits somewhere here, although has clearly been mounted as far more of a horror film than it ever has as an historical film.
Rasputin The Mad Monk focuses on the true life character of Grigori Rasputin. Rasputin is a figure that holds an undeniable fascination in history, as much for the myth that surrounds him his reputed healing powers, the intensity of his wild man presence (it was claimed that he never bathed), his reputation as an orgiast, his sinister influence over the Russian crown, his almost supernatural-seeming defiance of death than any historical detail, which often disputes many of these claims. Rasputins origin and birthplace is uncertain. He gained a reputation as a holy man and healer of reputedly mystical powers. His fame came in 1905 when Alexandra, the wife of Nicholas II, the Tsar of Russia, came to seek help for their son Alexei who suffered from haemophilia (the inability of blood to clot and cuts to naturally heal). It is unknown how but Rasputin managed to heal Alexei. Both Nicholas and Alexandra soon readily sought Rasputins advice, even taking notice of the prophetic visions he made claim to. This gave Rasputin much influence over the court and he began to demand the firing and appointing of officials. Rasputin was also reputed to engage in wild orgies and bedded numerous wives of the aristocracy, although many of these claims may have been made up by rivals who sought to blacken his reputation. This came to a head in 1916 when a group of aristocrats invited Rasputin over and attempted to kill him. Exactly what happened is debated but by a later published account, several attempts were made to kill Rasputin they feeding him poisoned cakes and wines, then shooting and attempting to club him to death, all of which kept having no effect until he was finally dumped into the nearby river.
Rasputin The Mad Monk was directed by Don Sharp, who had made various Hammer films including Kiss of the Vampire (1962), The Devil-Ship Pirates and their last theatrical film The Thirty-Nine Steps (1979). At the time that he made Rasputin the Mad Monk, Don Sharp had then just come from the success of the lush period version of The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), starring Christopher Lee for Anglo-Amalgamated. Sharp is one of the less celebrated directors in Anglo-horror. Mostly his career was marked by dreary hackwork like The Curse of the Fly (1965), Jules Vernes Rocket to the Moon (1967) and Secrets of the Phantom Caverns/What Waits Below (1984), although he did make a number of other minor ventures into Anglo-horror with the likes of Witchcraft (1964), the demented Psychomania (1973) and the psycho-thriller Dark Places (1973). When he was given a decent opportunity, as in Kiss of the Vampire and particularly here and The Face of Fu Manchu, which remain his two best films, Sharp showed that he really could do something. In these outings, Sharp brought a touch that made him perhaps the one other director working in this era of English horror to closest approximate the lush floridness that Terence Fisher imprinted on the genre.
Sharp creates an unforgettable opening to the film: a doctor is seen departing from tending the innkeepers wife, shaking his head, whereupon Christopher Lees Rasputin barges in through the inn door, looking like a wild man, and then goes up and touches his hands to the wifes face and heals her, mostly doing so it would seem with the piercing intensity of his eyes. He then returns downstairs, where he gets drunk and dances, before taking the innkeepers daughter off to the barn to have his way with her, where her fiance breaks in and tussles with Lee, Lee manages to sever the fiances hand with a scythe and immediately returns to force his way with the innkeepers daughter, before the angered locals return in a mob, forcing Lee to flee through the barn roof and away on horseback, where we then see him scale a wall to return to his monastery. The abrupt juxtapositions that these scenes require between healer and drunken lecher, between wounding a man and returning to force his way onto the mans fiancee, between the carnality we have just seen and the revelation that the character lives in a monastery are breathtaking. In the subsequent scene, Christopher Lee is brought before his bishop by the accusing villagers and offers up a superbly arrogant response: When I go to forgiveness I dont offer God petty sins, I offer sins worth forgiving. The scenes in the Cafe Tsigani also have a superb dramatic power the drinking competition between Rasputin and Richard Pascos discredited doctor; Christopher Lee turning on Barbara Shelley after she laughs at his dancing, demanding with piercing intensity: You will apologise for laughing at me ... You will come to me and apologise. A couple of scenes later we see Christopher Lee on a balcony looking out over the city, seemingly commanding with his eyes that Barbara Shelley hear his call and return to him.
As one can see, this is the Rasputin story mounted as a horror film. Indeed, Hammers Rasputin is just another face on the character of the carnal demoniac figure that Christopher Lee incarnated in their Dracula films. Rasputin, like Hammers Dracula, is a diabolic force personified, with powers of supernaturally magnetic intensity and representative of a brutish animalism that bursts forth to disrupt polite society. (One of the most interesting dichotomies, one that remains unexplored in the rest of the film, is the contrast between Rasputin who is a holy man with divine healing powers yet is a pure devil figure in his deeds). There are probably few actors better suited to playing the role of Rasputin than Christopher Lee, who was one of the undisputed cornerstones of Hammers success. Lee, aside from physically looking the part, has a commanding regal power and a piercing intensity that is not unlike what the historical Rasputin is credited with having.
The latter half of the film is less interesting than Don Sharps superb opening. The machinations that go on among the Russian aristocracy are dreadfully standard British upper-class costume drama. Certainly, Sharp makes the murder of Rasputin into a dramatic climax, passing through poisoned chocolates and wine, a syringe stabbed in the neck and Rasputin then thrown out of the window. The scene is well drawn out, although one feels that the film is somewhat pinned in by the adherence to the historical facts watching Christopher Lee engorge himself on chocolates and wine is not a particularlydramatically intense climax. (Although even here, the film does depart somewhat from historical fact).
The film is often called historically inaccurate. In fact, this is a case that has been overstated and the film adheres to the Rasputin story more than many might give it credit for. Aside from the aforementioned death scene, there are no outstanding scenes where one can see that the film, at least in terms of what it does depict, blatantly fictionalises the Rasputin story. Certainly, the film regards Rasputins powers as actual, but in that nobody has any clear idea of how it was that Rasputin managed to heal Prince Alexei and many did believe that he have such powers, this can be an acceptable dramatic licence. The biggest departure from history is the reasons for the murder of Rasputin. The film contrives a fiction that this was revenge by the brother of a woman that Rasputin hypnotised and then made kill herself after he had finished with her, whereas in fact Rasputins assassins were a group of aristocrats who wanted to remove him from influence over the crown.
Rasputin The Mad Monks main problem however is not so much historical inaccuracy as it is historical omission. There is no mention of Alexeis haemophiliac condition instead, the film is happy to give the impression that Alexei is a perfectly healthy child that Rasputin sets up with an accident in order to get close to the royal circles. Perhaps as a result of a desire not to cross over into any issues concerning Communism, there is no mention whatsoever made of the Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution that was occurring around the time, during which Tsar Nicholas was unseated and he and his family murdered. The Tsarina is also made into a fairly minor character she only gets about two scenes and we see nothing of Tsar Nicholas II at all.
The film has been beautifully shot on rich sets (and given a superb restoration on the dvd release). The sets, one might note, are also the ones that Hammer used around the same time in Dracula Prince of Darkness (1965). In particular, the mansion exterior with its iced-over lake where Alexei falls and Rasputin meets his end is the same one where Christopher Lees Dracula was finally despatched in Prince of Darkness.
Other screen incarnations of the character of Rasputin include: the silent German Rasputin The Black Monk (1917), the silent German Rasputin (1928), the Hollywood version Rasputin and the Empress (1932) starring John Barrymore, the German Rasputin, Demon with Women (1932), the French Rasputin (1938), the French Rasputin (1954), the French The Nights of Rasputin (1960) starring Edmund Purdom, the French I Killed Rasputin (1967) wherein one of Rasputins assassins Prince Felix Yusupov played himself, the Russian-made Agony: The Life and Death of Rasputin (1981) and Rasputin (tv movie, 1996) starring Alan Rickman. Rasputin has also appeared as a supporting character in the historical film Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) where he was played by Tom Baker, as a black sorcerer in the animated Anastasia (1997) and as the chief villain in Hellboy (2004). There was also the Australian Harlequin (1980), which updated the story of Rasputin to the modern day and had Rasputin played by an appealingly ambiguous Robert Powell. Other oddities include the Boney M disco song Rasputin (1978) and one of the mutants in Marvels X-Men series who is named Peter Rasputin aka Colossus.