A Sinister Influence

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 197th installment in the series.  

August 12, 1915: A Sinister Influence

The Austro-German offensive unleashed in May 1915 drove forward relentlessly with new campaigns in June and July, before reaching its climax with the collapse of the Russian frontline and the occupation of Poland in August. Warsaw fell on August 4, followed by three key fortress towns – Ivangorod, Kovno (Kaunas), and Novogeorgievsk – on August 5, August 19, and August 20, respectively. Describing the final days of the siege of Kovno one observer, the Polish Princess Catherine Radziwill, wrote that “the cannonade surpassed in intensity anything ever experienced before. The firing was heard farther than Vilna, and carried terror into the hearts of the unfortunate inhabitants of the country surrounding the besieged town.” 

The Russian losses in the first year of war were breathtaking: according to some estimates, by the end of August 1915 the Russians had suffered over 3.7 million total casualties, including 733,000 men killed and up to 1.8 million taken prisoner. Meanwhile the empire’s territorial losses included all of “Congress Poland,” with an area of 49,000 square miles and a population of 13 million, equal to 10% of the empire’s total population, as well as most of the Baltic provinces of Courland and Livonia, now known as Lithuania and Latvia. And still the armies of the Central Powers pressed on, into what is now Belorussia and western Ukraine. 

As the Russian Army continued its “Great Retreat,” the blame game was heating up on the home front, and as always in Russia conspiracy theories abounded, accusing key figures of incompetence and even treason. Radziwill quoted a letter from a friend in Petrograd: “I do not know what impression the fall of Kovno may have produced abroad. Here the consternation surpasses everything I have ever seen before… The impression that lies have been told is possessing the mind of the public, which begins to say definitely that somebody has been guilty of systematic deceit.”

At the end of June War Minister Vladimir Sukhomlinov resigned amid insinuations of disloyalty, after totally failing to address critical shortages of artillery shells and rifles. Of course these shortages couldn’t be remedied right away; on August 4, Foreign Minister Sazonov summed up the disastrous situation for the French ambassador, Maurice Paleologue: “What on earth shall we do? We need 1,500,000 rifles merely to arm the regiments at the front. We’re producing only 50,000 a month. And how can we instruct our depots and recruits?” A day later, Paleologue described mounting fury in the Russian Duma, or parliament: 

Whether in public or secret session there is a constant and implacable diatribe against the conduct of the war. All the faults of the bureaucracy are being denounced and all the vices of Tsarism forced into the limelight. The same conclusion recurs like a refrain: “Enough of lies! Enough of crimes! Reforms! Retribution! We must transform the system from top to bottom!”

On August 12, 1915, Ruth Pierce, a young American woman in Kiev, noted the rumors of treachery circulating alongside news of incredible losses from the front: 

They say there was no ammunition at the front. No shells for the soldiers. They had nothing to do but retreat. And now? They are still retreating, fighting with empty guns and clubs and even their naked hands. And still, trainloads of soldiers go out of Kiev every day without a gun in their hands. What a butchery!... How can the soldiers give their lives so patiently and bravely for a Government whose villainy and corruption take no account of the significance of their sacrifices. The German influence is still strong. They say German money bribes the Ministers at home and the generals at the front. 

Indeed, more political casualties would soon follow. Unsurprisingly many critics singled out Russia’s top general, the Grand Duke Nicholas, prompting the Tsar’s momentous, ill-fated decision to relieve his uncle of command and personally direct Russia’s war efforts from now on. However many Russians – aristocrats and ordinary folk alike – blamed a dark, malign presence in the royal court: the mysterious monk named Rasputin. 

The Dark Monk

Born in 1869 into a Siberian peasant family, Grigori Rasputin was just one of two out of nine siblings to survive into adulthood. A loner marked by his strange manner and unusual appearance, Rasputin soon became known for his mystic beliefs and supposed miraculous abilities, his charismatic personality amplified by his captivating voice and intense, “penetrating” gaze. After marrying at the age of 18, Rasputin had several children but then suddenly abandoned his family in 1892 and retreated to a monastery, where he embraced his own unusual vision of Orthodox Christianity.

Although often called the “mad monk” or a “holy fool,” Rasputin was actually an itinerant holy man, part of a long Russian tradition of religious wanderers who crisscrossed the empire’s vast expanses, seeking enlightenment through visits to renowned teachers, holy places, and sacred relics. Rasputin soon gained a reputation for his intriguing interpretations of Scripture, expostulated in long sermons delivered, apparently extemporaneously, in his strange Siberian dialect.

Introduced to high society, Rasputin soon gained followers among Russian aristocrats, especially women, who seemed especially entranced by the rough-hewn mystic from the east. In fact “entranced” may be the best word to describe his effect on them: many contemporaries claimed that Rasputin could hypnotize people simply by looking into their eyes. When he was finally introduced to the Tsarina Alexandra in November 1905, he found another willing acolyte – rendered particularly vulnerable to mystic suggestion by her troubled family life. 

Most notably, Alexandra’s son Alexei – the heir to the throne – suffered from hemophilia, probably due to centuries of royal inbreeding by the crowned heads of Europe. In 1907 Rasputin supposedly saved the Tsarevich’s life during a bout of uncontrollable bleeding through prayer. In subsequent years the Tsarina would turn to Rasputin again and again for his healing power and holy wisdom, urging her husband Tsar Nicholas II to do the same (below, Alexandra and her children with Rasputin in 1908). 

As always in court life, an outsider with special access to the sovereign soon attracted hostile attention from other courtiers, who felt excluded. Rumors began to circulate about the unkempt holy man’s depravity: supposedly he engaged in orgies with his many female followers, taking the virtue of aristocratic women unhinged by religious ecstasy. Some even suggested he was Alexandra’s lover.  Whatever the truth of these allegations (no evidence has ever been presented either way) they reflected both Rasputin’s psychological hold on the unstable empress, and the growing hatred and distrust of him in the rest of Russian society. However his opponents were powerless, for now at least, because of Alexandra’s protection; in May 1914 a failed assassination attempt against Rasputin only served to convince the Tsarina of his holiness. 

After war broke out in August 1914, Rasputin wielded more and more power over the empress, who now spent long periods away from her beloved husband, leaving her in the company of the persuasive holy man and his other followers. Members of the court who tried to warn Tsar Nicholas II against Rasputin’s growing influence, including the Grand Duke Nicholas, found themselves the object of whispered accusations, as Alexandra (at Rasputin’s behest) gradually undermined the Tsar’s trust in them. 

By the summer of 1915, the disastrous military situation gave the Tsarina and Rasputin the perfect opportunity to finally remove the hated Grand Duke Nicholas from power. Almost certainly at Rasputin’s suggestion, the Tsarina urged her husband to remove his uncle from command and take his place as the commander-in-chief of the Russian armies. In one typical note she encouraged his autocratic tendencies and implied that the Grand Duke was out of favor with God himself because of his dislike of Rasputin: “Sweetheart needs pushing always & to be reminded that he is the Emperor & can do whatsoever pleases him… I have absolutely no faith in N – know him to be far from clever and, having gone against a Man of God, his word can’t be blessed.”

By mid-August it would appear Tsar Nicholas II finally succumbed to his wife’s endless campaign against the Grand Duke, despite the advice of literally everyone else in his own inner circle. In a diary entry on August 12, 1915 the tsar’s mother, the dowager empress Maria, wrote of her own shock: “He started to talk about assuming supreme command instead of Nikolai. I was so horrified I almost had a stroke… I added that if he did it, everyone would think it was at Rasputin’s bidding…” 

The tsar’s mother was right to be horrified. By taking personal command of the Russian armies, the monarch would be absent from Petrograd, where only he could direct the affairs of government and manage political relations with an increasingly obstreperous Duma; disastrously he planned to put his German-born wife, already widely distrusted because of her supposed German sympathies, in charge of day-to-day administration. He also left her even more under the influence of Rasputin, who was soon rumored to be the third most powerful person in the empire, after the royal couple themselves. Finally, as commander-in-chief Nicholas II would now be directly responsible for any future military reverses. It was with good reason that Sazonov noted, “The Tsar's sudden decision to remove the Grand Duke Nicholas from the Supreme Command and to take his place at the head of the Army caused a great outburst of public anxiety.” 

Tragically, last-ditch attempts to counter Rasputin’s influence came to naught: on August 19, 1915 two of his most determined political opponents, chief of the royal chancery Prince Vladimir Orlov and the former governor of Moscow, Vladimir Dzhunkovsky, were relieved of duty after publishing a newspaper article exposing Rasputin’s relationship with the Tsarina. Meanwhile the Tsar’s own Council of Ministers sent a letter to the Tsar, protesting: “We venture once more to tell you that to the best of our judgment your decision threatens with serious consequences Russia, your dynasty and your person.” The ministers repeated their protest in person at a meeting with Tsar Nicholas II at the royal retreat in Tsarskoe Selo on August 21, where the powerful agriculture minister, Krivoshein, warned that the empire was “rolling down the hill not only towards a military but towards an internal catastrophe.” 

But the monarch brushed these objections aside, once again at the urging of the Tsarina Alexandra, who argued that it would set a terrible precedent to bend to the will of his cabinet or the Duma: “The Tsar cannot yield. He will only be asked to surrender something more. Where will it end? What power will be left the Tsar?” On August 23 Nicholas II officially dismissed Grand Duke Nicholas, who was sent to take command of the Russian forces facing the Turks in the Caucasus (still a very important position, but a demotion nonetheless). From now on the Tsar would spend almost all his time isolated at the supreme military command headquarters, or Stavka, located at the provincial town of Mogilev – while the situation in the Russian capital slid towards chaos. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

15 Facts About Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure on Its 30th Anniversary

MGM
MGM

In 1989, a couple of slackers from San Dimas, California hopped inside a time-traveling phone booth and gathered a gaggle of key figures from the past so they wouldn’t fail their high school history class. In 1991, they were at it again. Now, 30 years after Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter first cemented their place in sci-fi history as the lovable duo, the long-awaited threequel—Bill & Ted Face the Music—has been officially confirmed. Here are 15 things you might not know about the most excellent original film.

1. Bill and Ted were born in an improv class.

The idea for the characters of Bill and Ted came about in 1983, when UCLA classmates Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson formed a student improv workshop with a few of their peers. “One day, we decided to do a couple of guys who knew nothing about history, talking about history,” Solomon recalled to Cinemafantastique in a 1991 interview. “The initial improv was them studying history, while Ted’s father kept coming up to ask them to turn their music down.” (Solomon played Ted, Matheson was Bill.)

2. Originally, it was Bill & Ted & Bob.

When the skit originated, there was a third character, Bob. But “Bob” wasn’t as into it as Solomon and Matheson, so the trio became a duo.

3. Bill wanted to be Ted and Ted wanted to be Bill.

It’s hard to imagine anyone but Keanu Reeves playing Ted Logan, or another actor besides Alex Winter in the role of Bill S. Preston, Esq., but each actor actually auditioned for the opposite role. But when Solomon and Matheson saw their audition tapes, they thought the opposite would work better. In an online chat with Moviefone, Reeves claimed that he didn’t even know their roles had been switched until after he had been cast. “I got a call saying that I got the part,” Reeves recalled. “So I went to the wardrobe fitting… assuming I was playing Bill, and I get there and Alex Winter, who eventually played Bill, went to the wardrobe fitting thinking he was playing Ted. Then we were informed that that wasn't the case.”

4. Pauly Shore also wanted to be Ted.


Getty Images

Pauly Shore was among the hundreds of actors who auditioned for the role of Ted. In 1991, Shore hosted an MTV special, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Premiere Party, in which Shore corners Reeves in a back room to talk about his failed audition. Lucky for America, Shore did go on to find fame apart from Bill & Ted, and bring the phrase, “Hey, Bu-ddy!” into the popular lexicon.

5. No, Bio-Dome is not Bill & Ted's threequel.

Speaking of Pauly Shore ... For years, rumors circulated that the script for 1996’s Bio-Dome—starring Shore and Stephen Baldwin—was actually written as the third film in the Bill & Ted franchise. In 2011, Winter laid this rumor to rest when he told /Film that the story is “total urban legend as far as I know. No one involved in that movie had anything to do with Bill & Ted. So unless they were just going to try and reboot the franchise with that concept and different actors, I can’t see a connection.”

6. Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter weren't quite nerdy enough.

The casting of Reeves and Winter posed a problem for the script. “Bill and Ted were conceived in our minds as these 14-year-old skinny guys, with low-rider bellbottoms and heavy metal T-shirts,” Solomon told Cinefantastique. “We actually had a scene that was even shot, with Bill and Ted walking past a group of popular kids who hate them. But once you cast Alex and Keanu, who look like pretty cool guys, that was hard to believe.”

7. George Carlin was a happy accident.


Getty Images

In a 2013 Reddit AMA, Alex Winter called the casting of George Carlin (as Rufus, Bill and Ted’s mentor) “a very happy accident. They were going after serious people first. Like Sean Connery. And someone had the idea, way after we started shooting, of George. That whole movie was a happy accident. No one thought it would ever see the light of day.”

8. The time machine was originally a van.

In Solomon and Matheson’s original script, it was a 1969 Chevy van that served as Bill and Ted’s time machine. But in the course of rewriting the script for Warner Bros., who showed early interest in producing the project, there was concern that a motor vehicle as time machine would ring too closely as a rip-off of Back to the Future, which arrived in theaters in 1985. It was director Stephen Herek who suggested a phone booth, as he thought it could lend itself to something akin to a roller coaster in the visuals. (The phone booth’s similarity to Doctor Who’s TARDIS was apparently not a big concern to the studio.)

9. Some Nintendo lover has that phone booth.

As part of a promotion for 1991’s Bill & Ted's Excellent Video Game Adventure, Nintendo Power magazine gave away Bill & Ted’s phone booth as a contest prize. The lucky winner was one Kenneth Grayson, who Reddit tracked down for an AMA in 2011. Grayson spent much of the chat answering questions about whether or not any X-rated activities had ever taken place in the phone booth.

10. The script was written in four days. By hand.

In 1984, Solomon and Matheson wrote the script over the course of just four days. They wrote it by hand, on note paper, during a series of meetings at a couple of local coffee shops. The 2005 box set, Bill & Ted’s Most Excellent Collection, features some of their handwritten notes.

11. Sci-fi wasn't part of the plan.

Keanu Reeves, Dan Shor, and Alex Winter in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)
MGM

Though Matheson is the son of legendary sci-fi writer Richard Matheson, author of I Am Legend, he didn’t intend for Bill & Ted to be a science-fiction movie. “I try to consciously fight it, out of a desire to break away, but maybe I have a predilection toward that because of my dad,” Matheson told Starlog Magazine of the inevitable fantasy elements that emerged. “He’s a great writer and craftsman, and always has suggestions.” In fact, it was the elder Matheson’s idea that the time travel story be its own movie. “We were going to write a sketch film, with this as one of the skits, but my dad said, ‘That sounds like a whole movie,’” Matheson recalled, “And he was right!”

12. Bill and Ted almost traveled straight to television.

Shortly after principal photography on the film was completed in 1987, the film’s financiers, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, went bankrupt. A straight-to-cable release was the most likely path for the time-traveling comedy until Orion Pictures and Nelson Entertainment bought the rights in 1988 for a 1989 release. Because of the delay to theaters, references to the year—which had been filmed as “1987”—had to be dubbed for 1988, resulting in a few scenes where the actors’ lips don’t quite match the sound.

13. Their journeys continued in a variety of media.

In addition to the 1991 sequel, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, the Bill & Ted franchise includes 1990’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures, an animated series for which Reeves, Winter, and Carlin provided the voices. It lasted for one season. The title was revived as a live-action series in 1992, which included none of the original cast and ran for just seven episodes. In 1991, Marvel Comics launched Bill and Ted’s Excellent Comic Book, written by Evan Dorkin.

14. Back in the late 1980s, you could eat Bill and Ted.

As a tie-in to the animated series, you could—for a short while—actually start your morning with a bowl of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Cereal, which was touted as “A Most Awesome Breakfast Adventure.”

15. Bill and Ted will ride again.

Over the past several years there has been a lot of buzz about a third Bill & Ted movie coming to theaters. In 2011, Winter tweeted that the script had been completed and that he was getting ready to read it. When asked about the possibility of a threequel in 2013, Reeves told the Today Show, “I'm open to the idea of that. I think it’s pretty surreal, playing Bill and Ted at 50. But we have a good story in that. You can see the life and joy in those characters, and I think the world can always use some life and joy.” Several references to the possible project have been made since then, and it's now been confirmed that the third film, Bill and Ted Face the Music, is currently in pre-production.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, via a report from the Cannes Film Festival, Matheson and Solomon co-wrote the script and Dean Parisot (Galaxy Quest) is attached to direct. Reeves and Winter will, of course, be reprising their roles, which "will see the duo long past their days as time-traveling teenagers and now weighed down by middle age and the responsibilities of family. They’ve written thousands of tunes, but they have yet to write a good one, much less the greatest song ever written." Excellent!

6 Times There Were Ties at the Oscars

getty images (March and Beery)/ istock (oscar)
getty images (March and Beery)/ istock (oscar)

Only six ties have ever occurred during the Academy Awards's more than 90-year history. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) members vote for nominees in their corresponding categories; here are the six times they have come to a split decision.

1. Best Actor // 1932

Back in 1932, at the fifth annual Oscars ceremony, the voting rules were different than they are today. If a nominee received an achievement that came within three votes of the winner, then that achievement (or person) would also receive an award. Actor Fredric March had one more vote than competitor Wallace Beery, but because the votes were so close, the Academy honored both of them. (They beat the category’s only other nominee, Alfred Lunt.) March won for his performance in horror film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Beery won for The Champ (writer Frances Marion won Best Screenplay for the film), which was remade in 1979 with Ricky Schroder and Jon Voight. Both Beery and March were previous nominees: Beery was nominated for The Big House and March for The Royal Family of Broadway. March won another Oscar in 1947 for The Best Years of Our Lives, also a Best Picture winner. Fun fact: March was the first actor to win an Oscar for a horror film.

2. Best Documentary Short Subject // 1950

By 1950, the above rule had been changed, but there was still a tie at that year's Oscars. A Chance to Live, an 18-minute movie directed by James L. Shute, tied with animated film So Much for So Little. Shute’s film was a part of Time Inc.’s "The March of Time" newsreel series and chronicles Monsignor John Patrick Carroll-Abbing putting together a Boys’ Home in Italy. Directed by Bugs Bunny’s Chuck Jones, So Much for So Little was a 10-minute animated film about America’s troubling healthcare situation. The films were up against two other movies: a French film named 1848—about the French Revolution of 1848—and a Canadian film entitled The Rising Tide.

3. Best Actress // 1969

Probably the best-known Oscars tie, this was the second and last time an acting award was split. When presenter Ingrid Bergman opened up the envelope, she discovered a tie between newcomer Barbra Streisand and two-time Oscar winner Katharine Hepburn—both received 3030 votes. Streisand, who was 26 years old, tied with the 61-year-old The Lion in Winter star, who had already been nominated 10 times in her lengthy career, and won the Best Actress Oscar the previous year for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Hepburn was not in attendance, so all eyes fell on Funny Girl winner Streisand, who wore a revealing, sequined bell-bottomed-pantsuit and gave an inspired speech. “Hello, gorgeous,” she famously said to the statuette, echoing her first line in Funny Girl.

A few years earlier, Babs had received a Tony nomination for her portrayal of Fanny Brice in the Broadway musical Funny Girl, but didn’t win. At this point in her career, she was a Grammy-winning singer, but Funny Girl was her movie debut (and what a debut it was). In 1974, Streisand was nominated again for The Way We Were, and won again in 1977 for her and Paul Williams’s song “Evergreen,” from A Star is Born. Four-time Oscar winner Hepburn won her final Oscar in 1982 for On Golden Pond.

4. Best Documentary Feature // 1987

The March 30, 1987 telecast made history with yet another documentary tie, this time for Documentary Feature. Oprah presented the awards to Brigitte Berman’s film about clarinetist Artie Shaw, Artie Shaw: Time is All You’ve Got, and to Down and Out in America, a film about widespread American poverty in the ‘80s. Former Oscar winner Lee Grant (who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1976 for Shampoo) directed Down and Out and won the award for producers Joseph Feury and Milton Justice. “This is for the people who are still down and out in America,” Grant said in her acceptance speech.

5. Best Short Film (Live Action) // 1995

More than 20 years ago—the same year Tom Hanks won for Forrest Gump—the Short Film (Live Action) category saw a tie between two disparate films: the 23-minute British comedy Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, and the LGBTQ youth film Trevor. Doctor Who star Peter Capaldi wrote and directed the former, which stars current Oscar nominee Richard E. Grant as Kafka. The BBC Scotland film envisions Kafka stumbling through writing The Metamorphosis.

Trevor is a dramatic film about a gay 13-year-old boy who attempts suicide. Written by James Lecesne and directed by Peggy Rajski, the film inspired the creation of The Trevor Project to help gay youths in crisis. “We made our film for anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider,” Rajski said in her acceptance speech, which came after Capaldi's. “It celebrates all those who make it through difficult times and mourns those who didn’t.” It was yet another short film ahead of its time.

6. Best Sound Editing // 2013

The latest Oscar tie happened in 2013, when Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall beat Argo, Django Unchained, and Life of Pi in sound editing. Mark Wahlberg and his animated co-star Ted presented the award to Zero Dark Thirty’s Paul N.J. Ottosson and Skyfall’s Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers. “No B.S., we have a tie,” Wahlberg told the crowd, assuring them he wasn’t kidding. Ottosson was announced first and gave his speech before Hallberg and Baker Landers found out that they were the other victors.

It wasn’t any of the winners' first trip to the rodeo: Ottosson won two in 2010 for his previous collaboration with Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker (Best Achievement in Sound Editing and Sound Mixing); Hallberg previously won an Oscar for Best Sound Effects Editing for Braveheart in 1996, and in 2008 both Hallberg and Baker Landers won Best Achievement in Sound Editing for The Bourne Ultimatum.

Ottosson told The Hollywood Reporter he possibly predicted his win: “Just before our category came up another fellow nominee sat next to me and I said, ‘What if there’s a tie, what would they do?’ and then we got a tie,” Ottosson said. Hallberg also commented to the Reporter on his win. “Any time that you get involved in some kind of history making, that would be good.”

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