`Peter the Great' is sumptuous but awkwardly written
``Have they cut your hair?'' asks the Czar's son of his mum, the Czarina, when he visits her in the nunnery to which she has been banished by Dad, Peter the Great. ``Yes,'' she replies, ``but at least I don't have to wash it.''
Peter the Great (NBC, Sunday through Wednesday, 9-11 p.m.) is like that -- unexpectedly and amusingly practical in the midst of spectacular pretentiousness. It is commercial television's most sumptuous miniseries since ``Shogun,'' lushly photographed in gorgeous locations in the Soviet Union, Austria, and Germany with a cast featuring such international luminaries as Maximilian Schell, Vanessa Redgrave, Lili Palmer, Omar Sharif, Hannah Schygulla, and Ursula Andress.
Not enough? How about cameos by Laurence Olivier, Trevor Howard, and, oh yes, Elke Sommer? Based on Robert K. Massie's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, ``Peter the Great'' is an ambivalent miniseries that can't decide whether its focus is Peter's determination to open Russia to the outside world or Peter's complex relationships with his wife, mistress, and son. It opts to do all of the above, which allows for lots of spectacular battle scenes and lots of sex and angst. Through it all there is plenty of chanting and church-bell ringing.
Throughout the film, there are echoes of the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein and the American director Cecil B. De Mille. Although all the acting passes muster (some of it a bit on the heroic side, as if the film were silent), the real star is the director of photography, two-time Oscar-winner (``Reds'' and ``Apocalypse Now'') Vittorio Storaro, whose camera work is often worthy of comparison with the genius of Eisenstein. But the direction by Marvin J. Chomsky and Lawrence Schiller and teleplay by Edward Anhalt are more worthy of comparison with the kitsch of De Mille. Peter as an adult is played with marvelously erratic strength by Maximilian Schell. It seems he was not available for part of the shooting, so it may prove to be a challenge for viewers to try to figure out which of his scenes in the final four hours were shot with a double.
The two-generation story is difficult to follow with its complicated intrigues and long list of characters. But Peter's triple obsession -- with his mistress and later Czarina Catherine, with his son Alexis, and with his determination to open Russia to Western culture -- is followed with stops only for the camera to gaze enraptured at the breathtaking landscapes and architecture. I hesitate to poke too much fun at ``Peter'' because, whatever its faults, it is an earnest attempt to make a serious historical entertainment.
``Peter the Great'' hopes to cash in on the ``Shogun'' syndrome: Millions of people watched, even though often uncomprehending, because it was so beautiful, so spectacularly photographed, so teasingly unattainable. And it became the thing to do. Viewers who choose ``Peter'' can be assured that they will be seeing the most beautifully photographed, costumed, and designed show of the year. They may even learn a bit of Russian history, if they can manage to overcome resistance to some of the oversimplified dialogue. The scenes of 17th- and 18th-century Russia shot in still-unspoiled locations within that country are so breathtakingly beautiful that they simply overwhelm everything in their path -- the awkward script and the hardworking troupe of polyglot actors.