The End of the Romanov Dynasty

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 270th installment in the series. 

March 15-17, 1917: The End of the Romanov Dynasty

After mass strikes and a huge military mutiny in Petrograd turned into revolution on March 8-12, 1917, there was still a chance – however slim – that Tsar Nicholas II or some other Romanov might continue on the throne, reigning as the mostly symbolic figurehead of a constitutional monarchy. However a series of missteps and accidents over the next few days closed this door forever, ending the 300-year-old dynasty and leaving the long-suffering country to endure yet more upheavals, culminating in a brutal civil war and finally ruthless dictatorship.

Fittingly Nicholas II wasn’t even present in the capital for the last days of the monarchy, following his departure for military headquarters at Mogilev just before the revolution began. Here he received sketchy, conflicting reports of protests in Petrograd from officials including Interior Minister Protopopov, who downplayed their seriousness, leading him to believe it was just another economic strike, easily contained like its many predecessors. Even when news of the military mutiny arrived, Nicholas II at first planned to suppress it with loyal troops, and ordered several divisions to Petrograd in preparation for a counterattack on the mutineers. 

However the tsar was totally out of touch with the fast-changing situation. On March 12, the chairman of the Duma, Mikhail Rodzianko, sent an alarming telegram begging Nicholas II to allow him to officially reconvene the Duma (now meeting despite the tsar’s order dissolving it) and form a new cabinet empowering reformists, warning that this may be the last chance to save the monarchy: 

The last bulwark of order has been removed. The Government is completely powerless to suppress disorder. The troops of the garrison are unreliable. The reserve battalions of the Guard regiments are caught up by the revolt. They kill their officers… Give orders immediately to summon a new government on the basis outlined to Your Majesty in my telegram of yesterday. Give orders to abrogate your Imperial decree and to convoke again the legislative chambers… In the name of all Russia I implore Your Majesty to fulfill these suggestions. The hour which will decide your fate and that of the motherland has struck. Tomorrow may be already too late.

But Nicholas II, still hoping to restore order on his terms, refused to make this concession to the Duma – a fatal mistake, as the events of the next 48 hours would reveal. 

Undemocratic “Democracy”

Fearing for their lives amid the continuing anarchy, the liberal reformist members of the Duma had no choice but to form a new Provisional Government on their own. Lacking the tsar’s stamp of approval, they decided to shore up their legitimacy by seeking popular support, which would also help calm the angry mobs and restore order. 

They knew exactly where to go. While the Duma generally represented the factory owners, middle class professionals, landowners and aristocrats, the mantle of representative of the “people” – meaning industrial workers and soldiers – had already been claimed by the new Petrograd Soviet, or “council,” which was convened on March 12 by various socialist parties and the newly-liberated members of the Central Workers Group, imprisoned by Protopopov a month before (the tables had now turned, as Protopopov himself was now under arrest along with most of the other tsarist ministers). 

The hastily organized Soviet, modeled on councils established during the previous Russian Revolution of 1905, was hardly a democratic organization. Rather than straightforward proportional representation by district, it was composed of delegates chosen by the two big interest groups, soldiers and workers, as well as numerous sub-groups (such as divisions and regiments or factories and workshops). Because there were so many more units claiming representation within the Petrograd garrison – all the way down to brigades and companies – the soldiers had far more delegates in the 3,000-strong Soviet than the workers, even though the workers made up most of the population of the city.

Even more undemocratically, the Soviet only represented the civilians and garrison troops of Petrograd, a small fraction of the Russian Empire’s entire population of around 170 million, and as noted its composition was limited to soldiers and workers, even though most of the empire’s population were rural peasants – meaning the majority of the Russian population had no representation at all. Finally, the executive committee of the Soviet, the “Ipsolkom,” wasn’t even chosen by the Soviet’s own members, but was drawn instead from the leadership of the main socialist parties, including the Socialist Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, Trudoviks, and Bolsheviks, who usually made decisions on their own, without even consulting the rest of the Soviet.

Despite all this, the liberal Duma members who formed the Provisional Government saw that the Soviet had the backing of the revolutionary mobs and was already proclaiming itself the voice of the people, making it the closest thing to a democratic body in Petrograd at the moment. Desperately casting about for a source of legitimacy after Nicholas II refused to provide it, the new Provisional Government turned to the Soviet, which agreed to endorse the government – with some important conditions (described below). 

Now that the Provisional Government could base its legitimacy on popular support, it no longer needed the tsar. Belatedly realizing that the events in Petrograd were spinning out of control, Nicholas II decided to return to his residence outside Petrograd at Tsarskoe Selo in the early morning of March 14, but logistics intervened: the imperial train and its escort had to take a circuitous route to enable a train carrying loyal troops to go ahead of them to fight the mutineers in Petrograd – another seemingly minor detail with major consequences. 

After embarking on its roundabout journey, the imperial train halted about 200 miles southeast of Petrograd because the way was blocked by troops who had gone over to the revolution. Backing up, the imperial entourage now proceeded west to the town of Pskov, headquarters of the northern section of the Eastern Front. 

This accident had two unforeseen results. The first was that Nicholas II was separated from his wife, the Tsarina Alexandra, who had helped stiffen his spine on previous occasions, encouraging him to take a hard line with dissidents in the Duma. The second was that he came under the influence of General Nikolai Ruzsky, pro-reform commander of the northern front, and also received a stream of discouraging telegrams from General Mikhail Alekseyev, second in command of the Russian Army after the tsar himself. 

Still in Mogilev, Alekseyev was getting alarming reports from all over, including the news that the disorder had spread to Moscow, the other center of the Russian armament industry. Alekseyev warned the tsar that the continuation of the war effort, his primary concern, would be impossible if disorder spread: “A revolution in Russia – and this inevitable once disorders occur in the rear – will mean a disgraceful termination of the war, with all its inevitable consequences, so dire for Russia… It is impossible to ask the army calmly to wage war while a revolution is in progress in the rear.”

Shocked by the wavering attitude of his own top generals, late on March 14 Nicholas II reversed his earlier position and declared himself ready to compromise by allowing the Duma to form its own reform cabinet – but it was too late, as the Provisional Government had by now formed its alliance with the Petrograd Soviet, which it couldn’t abandon for fear of sparking more mob violence. Early on March 15 Rodzianko responded with a telegram to Ruzsky: “It is obvious that His Majesty and you do not realize what is going on here. One of the most terrible revolutions has broken out, which it will not be so easy to quell… I must inform you that what you propose is no longer adequate, and the dynastic question has been raised point blank.”

Alekseyev, now more alarmed than ever, ordered the transcript of Rodzianko’s telegrams with Ruzsky be shown to Tsar Nicholas II, and at 3 p.m. the tsar – who considered the defense of Russia his primary responsibility – agreed to abdicate in order to allow the war effort to continue. His abdication address, signed on March 15, made his reasons clear (below, the original text):

Internal popular disturbances threaten to have a disastrous effect on the future conduct of this persistent war.  The destiny of Russia, the honour of our heroic army, the welfare of the people and the whole future of our dear fatherland demand that the war should be brought to a victorious conclusion whatever the cost… In these decisive days in the life of Russia, We thought it Our duty of conscience to facilitate for Our people the closest union possible and a consolidation of all national forces for the speedy attainment of victory. In agreement with the Imperial Duma We have thought it well to renounce the Throne of the Russian Empire and to lay down the supreme power. 

Unable to bear the idea of going into exile without his son Alexei, he also abdicated on behalf of the tsarevich (something he technically had no right to do) and the line of succession passed to his own younger brother, the Grand Duke Michael, who tentatively agreed to accept the crown on March 16. 

However on March 17 the members of the Provisional Government, now with the backing of the Soviet, warned Michael that any attempt to take the throne would probably lead to fresh violence. The Grand Duke responded that he would only accept the crown if he had the support of the Russian people, which would require the convening of a new constituent assembly – something that would take weeks if not months. Until then he would stand aside and respect the authority of the Provisional Government. On that anti-climactic note, the Romanov Dynasty had ended. 

The sudden end of the monarchy doubtless came as a shock to conservative Russians, including many older people who couldn’t imagine a world without the supreme ruler. This reaction cut across class lines, as many peasants also held traditional views. Ivan Stenvock-Fermor, then a young army officer, recalled the reaction of two senior men from very different backgrounds: 

When I told it to my orderly, he started weeping. At the same table was sitting an old, gray-haired army colonel, and when he heard the tragic news, he started sobbing and he said, “Now that the Tsar has abandoned us I am going to serve the Sultan of Turkey.” That old colonel had been brought up with the notion that he had to serve a master, and his master was the Tsar, who held his power by the Grace of God and was anointed in the Moscow Cathedral in a great, great ceremony. For that colonel, the Tsar’s word was God’s word, and he reigned and he ordered by the Grace of God. And now this old colonel was deprived of the Tsar that he loved, and so sobbing and weeping he declared that he would go to the Turks, the arch enemy of all Russia, and serve the Sultan. You have to really comprehend the state of mind of an old Russian line officer to understand the tragic meaning of what he was saying. 

Calculated Confusion  

Meanwhile the Soviet’s endorsement of the Provisional Government was far from enthusiastic, due to the socialist Ipsolkom’s deep distrust of the “bourgeois” liberals appointed by the Duma to lead it. As a result they reserved the right to veto or ignore any decisions they disagreed with, and also asserted the right to legislate and make policy on their own, creating an unusual (and unstable) two-headed government: real power was held by the Soviet Ipsolkom, while the Provisional Government, now led by the ineffectual idealist Prince Lvov, played an increasingly marginal role. 

Why didn’t the Ipsolkom just brush aside the Provisional Government and seize power right from the start? While the answer is complicated, the socialists who dominated the Soviet’s executive committee apparently made the decision for a few main reasons.

At a pragmatic level, the Soviet’s executive committee realized that the experienced politicians and statesmen of the Provisional Government were better equipped to carry on the war effort against Germany – which most of the socialists still endorsed as a struggle against imperialism – especially in matters of strategic coordination and obtaining financial support from Russia’s French and British allies. 

In a cynical calculation, the Ipsolkom also seems to have decided it would be advantageous to leave the job of enforcing many unpopular but unavoidable measures to the Provisional Government, basically using the liberal reformers as lightning rods for popular discontent while the Soviet hung back, intervening only when the vital interests of “the people” were at stake. Once again, Russia’s relations with the Western Allies are a good example: as many ordinary Russians distrusted Britain and France, it was better to let the Provisional Government dirty its hands dealing with the foreign imperialists. 

Luckily, ideology provided a convenient fig leaf: as Marxist determinists, the more doctrinaire members of Ipsolkom could always argue that the Provisional Government corresponded to the bourgeois phase of the state that Marx predicted would inevitably follow the feudal phase (the tsarist regime) and be supplanted in its turn by the communist phase (that is, themselves). As such it was a necessary evil which they would allow to exist, if only temporarily, in order to enable the reorganization of society by the bourgeoisie, thus setting the stage for the proletariat's eventual seizure of power. In reality the government provided a ready source of ministerial and bureaucratic jobs for them and their followers – earning the contempt of Lenin, leader of the radical Bolsheviks, who advocated the immediate overthrow of the "bourgeois" state.

In the long run the tension between the Provisional Government and the Soviet provided a political launch pad for the only person who happened to be a member of both – Alexander Kerensky, the ambitious young lawyer who somehow managed to straddle the two worlds, liberal and socialist, and later seemed to offer the only hope of national unity, parlaying his indispensable position and charisma into a short-lived dictatorship. 

Dereliction and Desertion 

In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, however, the two-headed government produced exactly what might be expected: chaos. Dmitrii Fedotoff-White, an officer in the Russian Navy, expressed what was doubtless a common feeling of bewilderment in his diary on March 15, 1917: 

It is so strange to see the names of the old generals alongside those of liberal barristers and leading socialists. This is a topsy-turvy world. I am unable to understand anything. It is not even quite clear who wields the real power. A council of workers and soldiers has made its appearance in addition to the government formed by the Duma. Where did it come from?

Later in the same entry he noted:

Instructions from Petrograd are also far from helpful. They are issued by: (1) The Military Committee of the State Duma; (2) The Provisional Government; and (3) The Petrograd Soviet. Sometimes instructions appear bearing the joint signatures of two or all of these bodies. The seamen are giving credence only to documents signed by the Petrograd Soviet. 

The military situation was about to become even more chaotic thanks to the first major policy decision from the Petrograd Soviet, Order No. 1, decreed March 14, 1917. Issued by the Soviet in response to the Provisional Government’s attempts to reestablish control of the army, it abolished all rank within the military in favor of a new system of democratic control – in short, the end of military hierarchy and discipline. From now on, officers had no authority to give orders or compel soldiers to carry them out; instead, all decisions, including those regarding basic military functions like attack and defense, would be made collectively by the soldiers in their own councils, each essentially a small version of the Soviet, under the influence of “political commissars” appointed by the Soviet.

Unsurprisingly, the result of Order No. 1 was almost total paralysis, as officers were stripped of their rank and soldiers no longer feared punishment for disobedience (if someone was bold enough to try giving an order). Many officers, demoralized by the effective abolishment of their profession and the traditions which had structured their lives, simply quit and went home. Others struggled to maintain the basic cohesion of their units, and continue the fight against the Germans, through the undignified means of flattering and cajoling rank and file soldiers.

The female soldier known by the nom de guerre Yashka (real name Maria Bochkareva), serving as a sergeant, recalled the sudden change in attitude: 

There were meetings, meetings, and meetings. Day and night the Regiment seemed to be in continuous session, listening to speeches that dwelt almost exclusively on the words of peace and freedom… All duty was abandoned in the first few days… One day, in the first week of the revolution, I ordered a soldier to take up duty at the listening-post. He refused. “I will take no orders from a baba,” he sneered, “I can do as I please. We have freedom now.” 

In many places Russian frontline troops, understandably reluctant to risk their lives, began fraternizing with the enemy, who were naturally eager to help undermine discipline in the opposing forces. General Anton Denikin left a vivid account of a typical day at the front in the weeks immediately following the revolution (below, Russian and German troops fraternizing). 

The first to rise are the Germans. In one place and another their figures look out from the trenches; a few come out on the parapet to hang their clothes, damp after the night, in the sun. A sentry in our front trench opens his sleepy eyes, lazily stretches himself, after looking at indifferently at the enemy trenches. A soldier in a dirty shirt, bare-footed, with coat slung over his shoulders, cringing under the morning cold, comes out of his trench and plods towards the German positions, where, between the lines, stands a “post-box”; it contains a few number of the German paper, The Russian Messenger, and proposals for barter. All is still. Not a single gun is to be heard. Last week the Regimental Committee issued a resolution against firing… 

Charles Beury, an envoy from an American relief organization, struck a similar note in his account of conditions on the Turkish front in Anatolia, where the soldiers also refused to fight:

When we asked the Russians at the front why they did not shoot, they said, “What’s the use? If we fire, the Turks simply fire back; someone is likely to be hurt and nothing is gained.” Class distinction between officers and men had broken down… The soldiers’ committees passed on any action and no important movement was possible without their consent. 

While these soldiers were obviously shirking their duty, at least they remained in the trenches – unlike thousands who opted to join the swelling crowds of deserters behind the lines, contributing to the disorder and logistical difficulties in the big cities. With no one left to stop them, it was just a question of hitching a ride on a train or peasant wagon, or simply walking hundreds of miles (a prospect which didn’t deter men used to marching dozens of miles a day).

Thus the anonymous British embassy official believed to be the diplomatic courier Albert Henry Stopford, wrote on March 23, 1917: “The news from the Russian trenches is bad – utter ruin of all discipline and the wholesale deposition of officers, if not worse!... Whole regiments are leaving the Front and walking off to their homes…” And Denikin described soldiers’ activities in Petrograd: “They were holding meetings, deserting, indulging in petty commerce in shops and in the street, serving as hall-porters and as personal guards to private individuals, partaking in plundering and arbitrary searches, but were not serving.” 

The spreading disorder disrupted communications and transportation, endangering the food supply of the big cities. George Lomonosov, a senior officer and engineer in charge of the military railways, received a frantic message from the chief of a rail station outside Petrograd on March 15, 1917: 

I earnestly beg of you to do something to safeguard the line and especially the station of Oredezh from pillage by drunken and hungry soldiers… All the stores were pillaged today. An attempt to loot the former provision station was prevented by my personal appeal to the troops. All the employees are terrorized and their last piece of bread is taken away from them… Yesterday Locomotive No. 3 arrived carrying fifteen drunken soldiers who had been shooting all the way from Viritza. The employees refuse to go to work in the day time for fear of being shot… besides that, the peasants today looted the co-operatives and the freight station and we were obliged to give them out flour destined for shipment. The man in charge of the station was beaten and is almost dead. The situation is very threatening. We cannot telegraph or telephone.

Administrative Anarchy 

Nor was this disorder confined to the military. In an incredibly ill-advised move, the Provisional Government attempted to curry favor with the long-oppressed population by disbanding the police, who would be replaced by citizens’ militias, and firing all the regional governors and provincial bureaucrats appointed under the tsarist regime. Day-to-day responsibilities of government would be left to revolutionaries with no experience of any kind. 

Equally harmful was the order that all civilians, including state employees, should form their own democratic councils modeled on the Soviet, which would henceforth manage everything from mines and power generation to canals and railroads by popular decisions. On March 18 Lomonosov recorded his colleagues’ reaction to the latest upheaval:

Boublikoff and I were thunderstruck… what kind of representation of employees and workmen in the administration of the railroads were they speaking of? What kind of parliamentarism was possible in a railroad organization which was to work like a clock, submitting to a single will whose foundation lies in the command of each second? “And what’s most important,” Boublikoff shouted, “we must give them something now, you understand, now, immediately!” 

Unbridled Optimism

Despite all the confusion and chaos, ordinary Russians – and sympathizers abroad – were still wildly optimistic about the future of the country now that the tsarist regime had been overthrown. Vasily Mishnin, a medical orderly stationed at a field hospital in Belarus, expressed a typical view in his diary on March 19, 1917:

Such joy, such anxiety that I can’t get on with the work… Good Lord, it’s so great that Tsar Nicholas and the autocracy no longer exist! Down with all that rubbish, down with all that is old, wicked, and loathsome. This is the dawn of a great new Russia, happy and joyful. We soldiers are free men, we are all equal, we are all citizens of Great Russia now!

Many Western liberals, who deplored the tsarist tyranny and found it hard to square the alliance with Russia with their own ideals, also believed a bright democratic future had dawned. On that note Clare Gass, an American nurse volunteering in France, wrote in her diary on March 17, 1917: “Definite news of a revolution in Russia reached us today. The people at last are demanding freedom from the many trials which for years they have borne.” Similarly Yvonne Fitzroy, volunteering with Scottish nurses on the Romanian front, wrote in her diary on March 18, 1917: “There is the wildest enthusiasm and confidence everywhere… Everyone is beaming, and one cannot even in these early days but rejoice at the change of attitude.”

Not everyone shared the unbridle optimism, however. Fedotoff-White, the Russian naval officer, quietly confided his personal skepticism in his diary on March 15, 1917: 

The people believe that the Golden Age has come to Russia with the Revolution – and are convinced that theft, murder, and other crimes will now cease. Prisons will be closed and men will treat each other with love and consideration. It all strikes me as a little pathetic… Those simple creatures believe that human nature has been changed overnight and is now freed of all evil impulses. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Warner Bros.
19 Shadowy Facts About Tim Burton's Batman
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Superhero movies are bigger than they’ve ever been before, but we arguably wouldn’t be here at all without 1989’s Batman. Produced at a time before comic book movies were considered big business, Tim Burton’s dark look at a superhero then best known for a goofy TV show is a pop culture landmark, and the story of how it was made is almost as interesting as the film itself. So, to celebrate Batman—which was released on this day in 1989—here are 19 facts about how it came to the screen.

1. AN EARLY MOVIE IDEA RELIED ON THE CAMPINESS OF THE CHARACTER.

As development of a Batman movie began, studio executives were still very tied to the campiness embodied by the Batman television series of the 1960s. According to executive producer Michael Uslan, when he first began attempting to get the rights to make a film, he was told that the only studio who’d expressed interest was CBS, and only if they could do a Batman In Outer Space film.

2. IT TOOK 10 YEARS TO MAKE.

Uslan lobbied hard for the rights to Batman, and finally landed them in 1979. At that point, the fight to convince a studio to make the film ensued, and everyone from Columbia Pictures to Universal Pictures turned it down. When Warner Bros. finally agreed to back the film, the issue of developing the right script had to be settled, and that took even more time. In 1989, after years of battling, Batman was finally released, and Uslan has been involved in some form in every Batman film since.

3. AN EARLY SCRIPT FEATURED BOTH THE PENGUIN AND ROBIN.

When Uslan finally got the chance to develop the film, he drafted legendary screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, who had been a consultant on Superman, to write the script. The Mankiewicz script included The Joker, corrupt politician Rupert Thorne, a much greater focus on Bruce Wayne’s origin story, The Penguin, and the arrival of Robin late in the film. The script was ultimately scrapped, but you can see certain elements of it in Batman Returns.

4. TIM BURTON WASN’T THE FIRST POTENTIAL DIRECTOR.

Though Warner Bros. ultimately chose Tim Burton to helm Batman, over the course of the film’s development a number of other choices emerged. At various points on the road to Batman, everyone from Gremlins director Joe Dante to Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman was in line for the gig.

5. MANY STARS OF THE TIME WERE CONSIDERED FOR BATMAN.

The casting process for Batman was a long one, and involved a number of major stars of the day. Among the contenders for the title role were Mel Gibson, Bill Murray (yes, really), Kevin Costner, Willem Dafoe, Tom Selleck, Harrison Ford, Charlie Sheen, Ray Liotta, and Pierce Brosnan, who later regretted turning down the role.

6. TIM BURTON HAD TO FIGHT TO CAST MICHAEL KEATON.

At the time, Michael Keaton was best known for his comedic roles in films like Mr. Mom and Night Shift, so the thought of casting him as a vigilante of the night seemed odd to many. Michael Uslan remembers thinking a prank was being played on him when he heard Keaton’s name pop up. Burton, who’d already worked with Keaton on Beetlejuice, was convinced that Keaton was right for the role, not just because he could portray the obsessive nature of the character, but because he also felt that Keaton was the kind of actor who would need to dress up as a bat in order to scare criminals, while a typical action star would just garner “unintentional laughs” in the suit. Burton ultimately won the argument, and Keaton got an iconic role for two films.

7. JACK NICHOLSON WAS THE FIRST CHOICE FOR THE JOKER, BUT HE WASN’T THE ONLY CHOICE.

From the beginning, Uslan concluded that Jack Nicholson was the perfect choice to play The Joker, and was “walking on air” when the production finally cast him. He certainly wasn’t the only actor considered, though. Among Burton’s considerations were Willem Dafoe, James Woods, Brad Dourif, David Bowie, and Robin Williams (who really wanted the part).

8. TIM BURTON WON JACK NICHOLSON OVER WITH HORSEBACK RIDING.

When Nicholson was asked to discuss playing The Joker, he invited Burton and producer Peter Guber to visit him in Aspen for some horseback riding. When Burton learned that was what they’d be doing, he told Guber “I don’t ride,” to which Guber replied “You do today!” So, a “terrified” Burton got on a horse and rode alongside Nicholson, and the star ultimately agreed to play the Clown Prince of Crime.

9. EDDIE MURPHY WAS ONCE CONSIDERED TO PLAY ROBIN.

Though the character of Robin was ultimately scrapped because it simply didn’t feel like there was room for him in the film, he did appear in early drafts of the script, and at one point producers considered casting Eddie Murphy—who, you must remember, was one of the biggest movie stars of the 1980s—for the role. 

10. SEAN YOUNG WAS THE ORIGINAL VICKI VALE.

Burton initially cast Blade Runner star Sean Young as acclaimed photographer Vicki Vale, who would become Bruce Wayne’s love interest. Young was part of the pre-production process on Batman for several weeks until, while practicing horseback riding for a scene that was ultimately cut, she fell from her horse and was seriously injured. With just a week to go until shooting, producers had to act fast to find a replacement, and decided on Kim Basinger, who essentially joined the production overnight.

11. TIM BURTON WASN’T OFFICIALLY HIRED UNTIL BEETLEJUICE BECAME A HIT.

Though he was basically already a part of the production, Burton wasn’t officially the director of Batman right away. Warner Bros. showed interest in him working on the film after the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but according to Burton they only officially hired him after the first weekend grosses for Beetlejuice came in.

“They were just waiting to see how Beetlejuice did,” Burton said. “They didn’t want to give me that movie unless Beetlejuice was going to be okay. They wouldn’t say that, but that was really the way it was.”

12. DANNY ELFMAN THOUGHT HE WAS GOING TO BE FIRED UNTIL HE PLAYED THE MAIN THEME.

Danny Elfman is now considered one of our great movie composers, but at the time Batman was released he didn’t have any blockbuster credits to his name. He recalls meeting with Burton (with whom he had worked on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure) and producer Jon Peters to go over some of the music he’d already written for the film, and feeling “a lot of skepticism” over whether he should be the composer for Batman. It wasn’t until Burton said “Play the march,” and Elfman went into what would become the opening credits theme for the film, that he won Peters over.

“Jon jumped out of his chair, really just almost started dancing around the room,” Elfman said.

13. THE JOKER WASN’T ALWAYS GOING TO KILL BATMAN’S PARENTS.

In the final film, The Joker (then named Jack Napier) is revealed to be the gangster who guns down Bruce Wayne’s parents in the streets of Gotham City. It’s a twist that some comic book fans still dislike, and according to screenwriter Sam Hamm, it definitely wasn’t his fault.

“That was something that Tim had wanted from early on, and I had a bunch of arguments with him and wound up talking him out of it for as long as I was on the script. But, once the script went into production, there was a writer’s strike underway, and so I wasn’t able to be with the production as it was shooting over in London, and they brought in other people.”

Hamm also emphasizes that it was also not his idea to show Alfred letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave.

14. THE CLIMACTIC SCENE WAS WRITTEN MIDWAY THROUGH SHOOTING.

Though much of the film is still derived from Hamm’s script, rewrites continued to happen during shooting, and one of them involved the final confrontation between Batman and The Joker in a Gotham City clock tower. According to co-star Robert Wuhl, the climax was inspired by Jack Nicholson and Jon Peters, who went to see a production of The Phantom of the Opera midway through filming and watched as the Phantom made his final stand in a tower. Together, they somehow determined that a final fight in the tower was what Batman needed.

“The next day, they started writing that scene … the whole ending in the tower,” Wuhl said.

15. MICHAEL KEATON’S BATMAN MOVEMENTS WERE INSPIRED BY THE RESTRICTIONS OF THE COSTUME.

Batman fans still love to make jokes about the original costume, and Michael Keaton’s inability to turn his head (there’s even a dig at that in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight), but the restrictions of the costume actually inspired how Keaton performed as the Dark Knight. In 2014, Keaton revealed that his performance as Batman was heavily influenced by a moment when, while trying to actually turn his head in the suit, he ended up ripping it.

“It really came out of the first time I had to react to something, and this thing was stuck to my face and somebody says something to Batman and I go like this [turning his head] and the whole thing goes, [rriipp]! There was a big f***ing hole over here,” he said. “So I go, well, I've got to get around that, because we've got to shoot this son of a bitch, so I go, 'You know what, Tim [Burton]? He moves like this [like a statue]!’”

“I'm feeling really scared, and then it hit me—I thought, 'Oh, this is perfect! This is perfect.' I mean, this is, like, designed for this kind of really unusual dude, the Bruce Wayne guy, the guy who has this other personality that's really dark and really alone, and really kind of depressed. This is it.”

16. GOTHAM CITY WAS REAL, AND IT WAS EXPENSIVE.

Production designer Anton Furst put a lot of work into the incredibly influential designs for the film’s version of Gotham City, and the production was committed to making them pay off. The production ultimately spent more than $5 million to transform the backlot of London’s Pinewood Studios into Gotham City, and you can see the dedication to practical effects work in the final film.

17. PRINCE WAS PART OF THE PRODUCTION EVEN BEFORE HE JOINED IT.

Batman famously features original songs by Prince, who wrote so much new material for the production that he basically produced a full album. Even before the Purple One was drafted to write for the film, though, he was influencing it. Burton played Prince songs on set during the parade sequence and the Joker’s rampage through the museum.

18. THE FILM’S MARKETING WAS SO EFFECTIVE THAT IT INSPIRED CRIMES.

By the time Batman was actually on its way to release, it was becoming a phenomenon, and the marketing for the film was inspiring a frenzy among fans. People were buying tickets to other films just to see the first trailer, and selling bootleg copies of the early footage. The poster, featuring the iconic logo, was so popular that, according to Uslan, people were breaking into bus stations just to steal it.

19. IT WAS A BOX OFFICE LANDMARK.

Though studio executives resisted the idea of a “dark” Batman movie for years, the film ultimately set a new standard for box office success. It was the first film to ever hit $100 million in 10 days, the biggest film in Warner Bros.’ history at the time, and the box office’s biggest earner of 1989—and that’s not even counting the massive toy and merchandising sales it generated.

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Karl Walter, Getty Images
When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

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