Directed by Rouben Mamoulian, Queen Christina is a pre-code historical biopic which stars Greta Garbo as the eponymous monarch, who struggles to balance the wishes of her subjects and advisors with her own desires. John Gilbert plays Antonio, a handsome Spanish envoy who becomes the queen’s great love.
The film’s story is based loosely on the life of Queen Christina of Sweden, a 17th century monarch who abdicated her throne in part due to her wish to convert to Catholicism. In the film, this religious fervour is replaced with a call of the heart. Christina is exasperated by both her advisors and her subjects, all of whom seem to want nothing but more war and destruction. She feels trapped by the life she has been destined to lead from birth, and the burden of fate weighs heavily upon her shoulders. In order to take a break from the relentless expectations of royal life, Christina decides to disguise herself as a man and ride out to visit an inn. It is here that she meets Antonio, an envoy sent from Spain, and (once he discovers she is really a woman) they fall in love. Heavy snowfall keeps them at the inn for several days, and it is whilst they are together that my favourite scene occurs.
It’s pure silent film magic, with not a line of dialogue spoken. Antonio sits watching Garbo as she moves around the room, lightly touching some objects, and staring longingly at others. It is as though she is in a trance, and yet the couple’s feelings towards one another are communicated so clearly. Eventually Antonio breaks the spell by asking what she is doing. Christina tells him that she is memorising everything about the room, everything that she would be able to recall later which would remind her of their pure happiness together. John Gilbert and Greta Garbo were, of course, both incredible silent film actors, and this scene really lets them shine. I love it.
Eventually the couple must part, with Antonio still unaware of Christina’s true identity as the Queen of Sweden – that is, until he arrives at the palace to meet with the monarch on behalf of Spain. They try to continue their romance at court, but are continually thwarted by Charles Gustav (played by Reginald Owen), a war hero beloved by the people (and despised by Christina) who is jealous of Antonio, as he himself had planned on marrying the queen.
Finally Christina is forced to decide between the man she loves and the people she rules. Arguably, in her decision to abdicate, she is choosing both. Christina nominates the popular Charles Gustav to replace her, which she believes will please her subjects, and decides to leave Sweden in order to be with Antonio. Sadly it’s not to be, as before they can sail Antonio is mortally wounded in a duel with Charles Gustav, and he dies in Christina’s arms aboard the ship. Christina – determined to forge a new fate for herself – decides to sail anyway. The film’s final scene is also one of its most iconic, as Christina stands at the bow of the ship, looking determinedly towards the future.
Whilst Queen Christina definitely could not be said to be wholly historically accurate, it does reference a few true events and figures of the period. Charles Gustav really was a war hero who took the throne after Christina’s abdication, but her deeply-held convictions about love were pure fiction; in truth, part of what drove the real Christina from the throne was her utter refusal to marry.
The script was co-written by H.M. Harwood, S.N. Behrman and Salka Viertel. Viertal, who had moved to Hollywood from Germany in 1928, was a close friend of Garbo’s. In 1931 the pair appeared together in the German-language version of Anna Christie, with Viertel playing Marthy Owens, which was Marie Dressler’s role in the English-language release. Viertel and Garbo spent time planning Queen Christina during the latter’s 18-month absence from MGM whilst she was renegotiating her contract.
Garbo is rightfully remembered as one of the greatest actors ever to appear on screen, and Queen Christina is one of her finest performances. A flutter of movement passes across her face, and a whole world of meaning is communicated. Film historian Kevin Brownlow describes Garbo as having been one of the “rare actresses who was able to become the person she was playing and experience the emotions that that person was having”, and here those emotions are expressed with whichever degree of subtlety or grandiloquence the scene requires.
Queen Christina premiered in New York City on 26th December 1933, and was a huge box office success; it grossed over $2,500,000, making it one of the most lucrative films of Garbo’s career. It was also a great artistic success, with her performance receiving high praise from contemporary critics, and its reputation as one of Garbo’s best pictures has endured the almost 90 years since its release.