If you had asked the typical American standing in line to buy a movie ticket in 1933 to name the most destructive war in history, most, if not all, would have answered “World War I,” or “The Great War.” Almost as many would have had strong opinions on the Presidential Election of 1928, which was marred by xenophobia and anti-Catholicism. You wouldn’t have had to tell anybody about the Great Depression, or the looming shadow of fascism in Europe, but I suspect that if you had asked them to name the most destructive war Europe had experienced before “The Great War” many would have drawn a blank. Some might have said “the Napoleonic Wars.” Some might have said “The Hundred Years War” or “The Seven Years War” or “The War of the Roses,” and they all would have been wrong. The correct answer would have been “The Thirty Years War,” the religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics that was so destructive that it ruined the economy of the Spanish Empire and almost took Germany entirely out of western civilization.
The greatest Protestant general of the Thirty Years War was the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus. Before he was killed in 1632 at the Battle of Lützen, Swedish armies had conquered most of Central and Eastern Europe. Queen Christina, the pre-code movie directed by Rouben Mamoulian, and starring Greta Garbo in one of her most iconic roles, begins with his death. “Who are you?” a group of soldiers asks a man dying on the battlefield. “I was the King of Sweden,” he responds. In the next scene, we flash to the coronation of new “king”of Sweden, Christina, a seven-year-old girl played by Cora Sue Collins, and who, we’re told, was “raised as a boy.” Under the prodding of Lord High Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna, she, or rather “he” vows to continue for the defense of the Protestant faith. Twenty years later, Christina, now played by Greta Garbo, isn’t quite so sure. Axel Oxenstierna, still Lord High Chancellor, wants her to marry her cousin Karl Gustav, and give Sweden a male heir. Not only does Christina reject the idea of marrying her cousin. War, she points out, will only continue to drain the treasury and bleed the common people dry.
Spoils, glory, flags and trumpets! What is behind these high-sounding words? Death and destruction, triumphals of crippled men, Sweden victorious in a ravaged Europe, an island in a dead sea. I tell you, I want no more of it. I want for my people security and happiness. I want to cultivate the arts of peace, the arts of life. I want peace and peace I will have!
Nobody in Europe or the United States in 1933 would have failed to make the connection between Christina’s Thirty Years War and the “Great War,” or between Karl Gustav, who literally shouts when he talks, and Hitler or Mussolini. The historical Christina actually did abdicate the throne to spend the last twenty years of her life studying art in Rome and in southern Europe, but it was mostly because she realized she was uninterested in governing. She was also probably a lesbian. Christina, as imagined by Rouben Mamoulian and realized by Greta Garbo, is much more, something close to an ideal head of state. She’s an intellectual who reads Moliere in the original French, and a populist who disguises herself as a young man to live among the people as one of them. She’s a utopian dreamer who tries to convince her sketpical advisers that “another world is possible.” She’s a lonely, anti-fascist monarch who tries, and fails to head off the catastrophe before it begins. Unlike the real Christiana, she’s also a beautiful, charismatic movie star who lends the Swedish throne an air of Hollywood glamour, then throws it all away for a doomed romance.
The great Catholic power of the age was, of course, the Spanish Empire. Under the Habsburg King Phillip IV, Spain crown ruled over 12.2 million square kilometers of land, not only in the Spanish colonies in the Western Hemisphere, but in Central and Eastern Europe. Austria and the Holy Roman Empire were basically client states of the Spanish crown. Phillip has some down through history with the reputation as a weakling, dominated by his court. He was also a patron of artists like Diego Velázquez. When he sends an emissary to Sweden to propose marriage to Christina, therefore, the Swedish Queen sees an opportunity. A marriage to a Catholic monarch will effectively end the Thirty Years War, but Christina is also far too passionate a woman to coldly plot a marriage of convenience. Spain, Valasquez, all of Southern Europe eventually becomes personified in the form of the Spanish Ambassdor Antonio, played by Garbo’s real life lover John Gilbert, whom she meets on one of her incognito listening tours among the common people. Riding through the countryside with Aage, her loyal manservent and gentleman in waiting played by C. Aubrey Smith, she comes upon coach that’s gotten stuck in a snow drift, Antonio’s retinue. After Christina, disguised as a man, gives the Spaniards advice on how to get the coach moving again, Antonio tosses the “young man” a gold coin and precedes on his way.
When Christina and Antonio run into each other again at a local Inn, where there’s only one vacant room they both have to share, he still believes she’s a man.Greta Garbo had a bit of an androgenous quality, but it takes some suspension of disbelief that anybody would believe she’s anything but a woman. Nevertheless, it serves its dramatic purpose. If there are hints that Christina is a lesbian, there are also hints that Antonio is gay, a possiblity we quickly forget about, and he dismisses with a great deal of relief when she removes her coat to reveal that she has breasts. They not only become lovers. The sex is so good that Christina remarks that she feels “like God must have felt after he created the world.” Detail by detail she memorizes the room at the Inn. Since she has a premonition she will come to a tragic end, she wants to remember the moment forever. She does not, however, see fit to tell Antonio that she’s not only a woman. She’s the Queen of Sweden. Antonio, in turn, doesn’t bother to ask her why she was riding through the countryside dressed as a man. It all reaches its climax, pun intended, a few days later when Antinio delivers his credentials to the Swedish court in Stockholm. The look on John Gilbert’s face says it all. “Holy shit. I just fucked the Queen.”
For Antnio, sex with the woman betrothed to King Phillip is something akin to treason. If he had been a samurai and not a “knight of the Holy Roman Empire” he probably would have had to committ seppuku, but Mamoulian’s film doesn’t really dwell on his dilemma. Instead, it’s all about Christina. Not only does she love Antonio, and not Karl Gustav or the far off Phillip IV, the impossible goal of marrying the Spanish Ambassador becomes the symbolic representation of her dreams of peace and a better world. When Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie, the film’s villain played by Ian Keith, and Christina’s spurned ex-lover, begins a whispering campaign against the Queen, and whips up xenophobic and anti-Catholic sentiment among the masses, it would have been hard for an American not to see parallels with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and the viciously anti-Catholic smears against Al Smith in the Presidential election of 1928. Christina, for an American, would have represented the liberal ideals represented by Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, the promise of peace and prosperity in the middle of the Great Depression. Queen Christina, in many ways, is a remarkably prescient document. Magnus’ anti-Catholic mobs not only resemble American lynch mobs, they look forward to Nazi German and Kristalnaacht. “Kill the Spaniards. Kill the Catholics.” Do you really want to go back to the time of the Thirty Years War? Mamoulian seems to be saying as Christina faces down an angry horde of torch wielding peasants.
Queen Christina, I feel, could have been an even greater film than it is. All through the movie, there’s an implicit critique of mass propaganda. Disguised as a man, incognito among the people, Christiana settles a debate. Did the Queen have six lovers the previous year, or nine? “Twelve,” she says to the believing dupes, then remarks to Antonio that “truth is irrelevant when lies are told with enough authority.” The last third of Queen Christina stops short of fully exploring the political themes the film has succeeded in raising. After Christina abdicates her throne to Karl Gustav, we wonder what happened to her dream of peace. Karl Gustav is chomping at the bit to renew the war with Spain, something Magnus’ having killed their Ambassador in a duel will make that much easier. Has she really decided to throw it all away to run away to the “valley of the moon” — a clear reference to Sonoma County, California, where I suppose the Spanish did have settlements in the mid-sixteenth-century – with Antonio? I suppose she does, a move that certainly facilitates Garbo’s star turn – the final shot of Queen Christina on the prow of a Spanish ship carrying the body of the slain Antonio back to his estate in Spain is among the most famous in all of cinema – but which detracts from the political message the film has so successfully built over the previous ninety minutes. I suppose in 1930s Hollywood, love conquered all, even the possibility of a better world.