I’m always unabashedly drawn to historical movies with strong women figures, and stumbling on this 2019 movie on Prime caused a knee-jerk reaction: gotta see this one! My immediate reaction, during and right after the viewing was, Men! What jerks!
So, Queen Marie was queen of Romania; in fact she was the last queen of Romania, a fact that I gleaned by immediately jumping on my phone and checking out the historical facts online. I can’t watch anything historical without thoroughly understanding its background. Somehow I wish they had included a sort of historical epilogue to put this whole episode in the context of world history. There was indeed an epilogue, but it only covered the immediate celebration and triumph, not the long-term futility of it all.
Who then was Queen Marie? She was actually the granddaughter of Queen Victoria (yes, THE Queen Victoria of Great Britain) through her father, Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, and therefore was officially “Her Royal Highness Princess Marie of Edinburgh” since her birth at Eastwell Manor in Kent though informally the family called her Missy. Her mother was Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna or Russia, thus the paternal aunt of Czar Nicholas II, the last Russian monarch who was shot along with his family after the Boshevik revolution.
At eleven, she moved with her family to Malta when her father became commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean Fleet. Her first cousin Prince George (later George V) was then in the Royal Navy and visited often.
Three years later, the family moved again, this time to Coburg, Germany when her father suddenly was named heir-presumptive to Ernest II, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Why? Well, Duke Ernest was the elder brother of Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, — and therefore her father’s paternal uncle– and had remained childless all these years. Marie, who obviously spoke English, and had had a French governess so far, now had a German governess. Being multilingual was a fact of life for royals back then, no big deal.
In the meantime, Marie grew into a lovely young lady and was courted by several royals including her cousin George. Both mothers were against the marriage, and although Prince George did propose, nothing came of it.
Eventually, in 1893, at the age of 18, Marie married Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania. Today, we think of Romania as one of those Eastern European countries more associated with the Soviet Union than with Germany. However, Ferdinand was born in the House of Hohenzollern, a German royal dynasty. I know, right? European royal history is fascinating. Romania thus got a king born of a German father and Portuguese mother, and a queen born of a British father and Russian mother.
The marriage produced five children –there was a sixth one but he died when three years of age — the eldest being a boy, Carol, who naturally became later the crown prince. Apparently, Marie was highly spirited and caused frequent controversies at the court of King Carol I, an austere and rather tyrannical father-in-law. She also became romantically involved with a string of very interesting men, at least two of whom were featured in the movie. She found finally an interest in nursing and aiding hospitals when a cholera epidemic broke out during the short Second Balkan War.
In October 1914, a few months after the start of WWI, King Carol I died, thus making Ferdinand King and Marie Queen of Romania. Marie was then 39. Historians seem to agree that she had a lot of influence on her husband who accepted that she had a better worldview. Apparently, she was the woman behind the great man. With war all around them, it became urgent to officially declare their position, join one of the sides or remain neutral? Marie pushed her husband to join the Triple Entente. It seems natural to us, looking back from our 20/20 retrospective vantage point, that it was a logical decision. But, after all, Ferdinand descended from German stock.
Therefore, on August 17, 1916, Romania entered the war. Marie threw herself wholeheartedly into the war effort, dismissing all German servants, and helping out daily at military hospitals dressed as a nurse. No less than nine battles occurred within the first month of conflict. Originally a “buffer” for Russia, Romania became surrounded by enemies after the Bolshevik revolution when Russia withdrew from the war. Prime Minister Brătianu and King Ferdinand judged their position perilous and thus signed the Treaty or Armistice of Focșani, a peace treaty with the Central Powers, despite Marie’s opposition to it. Ferdinand, however, did heed Marie’s advice and refrained from signing the Treaty of Bucharest in December 1917,
This is where the movie opens. Romania is in tatters and its people starving. Queen Marie still personally delivers food to the poor against her husband’s objections. Her eldest son Carol has become a fully rebellious overgrown teenager who insists on sleeping with his unsuitable girlfriend Zizi (gratuitous sex scene inserted here probably for better sales). We now are introduced to the main topic: Ferdinand –meaning, of course really, Marie– wants to create of a Greater Romania, which would include all areas where the population speaks Romanian. This means Transylvania, Bukovina, Bessarabia and parts of Banat, Crisana, and Maramures, effectively doubling the size of Romania. And also, by the way, the need to get relief supplies for the people.
King Ferdinand sends Prime Minister Brătianu to the 1919-20 Paris Peace Conference to lobby for their new borders, which Romania feels they have earned through the bloodshed of their own people and efforts during the war. Now, Brătianu looks the part. He is male, older, has a big beard and a loud voice, and so we assume that in those days, that would earn his some respect from the good old boys. But, he is Romanian, which means he is a small unimportant piece on the chessboard which the Big Four (US, UK, France, and Italy) plan to carve out. He presents his case over and over in front of the conference. The camera kindly pans over the name plates to let us know that the rude people chatting among themselves and eventually just walking out when they receive a telegram are French Prime Minister Clemenceau, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, and President Woodrow Wilson of the USA. Brătianu is furious but feels totally impotent.
The French Minister to Romania (a Minister is only slightly lower in rank than an Ambassador, leading a legation instead of an embassy), the Count of Saint-Aulaire, suggests to Marie that she should go personally to plead their case at the Paris Conference. King Ferdinand approves, against the disagreement of Crown Prince Carol (“I should be the one going”) and the cabinet (“A royal has no place in politics”). They actively go on to sabotage her efforts, stir-frying public opinion and local news media, protesting her “lavish trip” to Paris to buy dresses while the people are starving and dying.
Once in Paris, she is presented with a loaded schedule of frivolous activities. Upset at first, she calms down when the Count de St-Aulaire remarks that she needs to be seen before she can be heard. She goes on to be seen in all her regal manner, with her daughters tagging along, and Paris loves her. A woman who cheers her in one of the scenes is probably Colette, the famous French writer, who describes her as “magnificent”. At the press conference, when pressed on the question of whether she is here to address the Peace Conference on behalf of Romania, she pauses, but does answer no. After all, Romania is officially a constitutional monarchy and the queen is supposed to stay out of politics. As if Marie could be kept out.
I cannot describe my furor when she is openly snubbed and ignored by the Big Four. It brought back whiffs of my own struggle to stand as a professional instead of as a lowly female. Queen Marie pulls out whatever she can from her box of tricks, her status as queen, as granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and even fake tears. Unfortunately, it seems that the tear trick works in Europe as well as in China. The saying goes (in China) that women have three weapons, “one, cry; two, fuss; three, hang oneself”, the latter meaning threatening suicide, not really dying. Clemenceau softens and changes his attitude on Romania. Lloyd George becomes polite and deferential. However, after figuring out that out of the Big Four, all three listen only to the Fourth, US President Woodrow Wilson, she is determined to meet him. However, he outright refuses to meet officially with her. Finally, she manages to finagle a lunch with him through his wife. He tells her point blank he won’t give Romania anything since they signed the treaty with the Central Powers, despite her reiterating that the king never did ratify it. He finally pays some attention when she lays out the picture of a Bolshevik Russia growing to engulf eastern Europe, with only Romania to buffer it all. So you would need a bigger and stronger Romania to do so.
After her week in Paris, she travels to London where she meets King George V (incidentally, I suddenly realize why there’s an Avenue George V in Paris, next to the the Champs-Elysees! Duh), her first cousin and ex-beau. He starts by telling her there’s not much he can do. Hey, after all, Britain is also a constitutional monarchy. Politics goes to the prime minister. Finally, she heads home with bunches of relief supplies and the promise from the Big Four that they will work on her request.
However, her happy speech in front of her government is greeted by stony silence from all and explosive derision from her son. Promises? Really? Did she even know that the Bolsheviks have attacked Hungary and that Budapest has fallen? She walks out, forcing herself to control her tears. She moves to a provincial castle to rest and recover from her anger and disappointment, leaving behind a letter to her husband.
Final scene: King Ferdinand shows up announced at her scenic hideout. Yup, all those castles and landscapes are really amazingly beautiful, and I’m putting Romania on my bucket list of places to visit. He assures her of his love, and tells her she has succeeded. The Big Four are redrawing the map of Romania to their specification. Romania now becomes the biggest it has ever been in its history, and adding 10 million people to its population. The historical snapshot epilogue shows them at their coronation in 1922 as rulers of Greater Romania.
What the movie did NOT show was what happened afterwards. A quick internet search will show that three years later, Crown Prince Carol renounced his position, thus passing on the succession to his 4-year-old son Michael. King Ferdinand died soon after, in 1927, of cancer. Michael became king, supervised by a regency formed of three: Prince Nicholas (Marie’s second son, thus a representative of the royal family), a patriarch (representing the church) and the president of the Supreme Court of Justice (representing the judicial arm). However, Carol returned in 1930 to claim his right to the throne as Carol II. He was forced to abdicate in 1940, so Michael became king again. Communism reared its ugly head and by 1947, Michael was forced to abdicate.
The Greater Romania achieved by Queen Marie became a communist nation and it wasn’t until the end of the Cold War that Romania was able to climb out of poverty and not until the 2000s that it became economically the Tiger of Eastern Europe. What a long climb!
What happened to Marie then? When Carol returned as king, he did his best to push his mother out. She then spent her time between Bran Castle and the palace she had built at Balchik. She was a talented author of several books, including her autobiography and diaries. Marie died in 1938 of pancreatic cancer, with her heart taken out of her body and kept in a separate box, as per her instructions. During the communist regime, she was reviled as being promiscuous, and her resting place was vandalized. Her good name was re-established in the years preceding the 1989 Romanian Revolution. The Order of the Cross of Queen Marie was established in her memory. She is acknowledged today as one of the greatest figures in Romanian history.
One more great historical figure I’d never heard of.