Riffing on heavyweight Russian literature (Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment), Woody Allen doesn’t just mercilessly mock these hefty tomes but cheerfully takes down Russian filmmakers (Eisenstein), philosophers (Gurdjieff) and any other international figures – Ingmar Bergman, T.S. Eliot – who takes his fancy.
An assassination plot in Tsarist Russia might seem a bleak backdrop, but on a gag-per-minute ratio, this – closely followed by sci-fi spoof Sleeper (1973) – is probably Allen’s most densely packed comedy.
Not that Allen is content to stay in period, regularly free-associating and directly addressing the audience.
We meet Woody as Boris Grushenko, languishing in a prison cell. He’s to be executed at six in the morning, he tells us – it was to have been five, but he has a good lawyer.
To explain his predicament, he takes us back to his childhood in Mother Russia, where he didn’t entirely fit into the noble, heroic, darkly poetic tradition of the classic novels.
His Dad didn’t fit in too well either. He cared only for his valuable piece of land, explains Woody, and the film cuts to Papa, fondly stroking a lump of dirt he keeps hidden away inside his jacket . . .
Young Boris, vehemently protesting his cowardice, is thrust into war at an early age. “I’m not the army type,” he pleads. “I had to have the light on in my room till I was 30.”
Still, he is dragged off with his butterfly collection under his arm to be initiated – in a series of side-splitting scenes – into the puzzling rites of army life. “If we kill more Frenchmen, we win,” explains his sergeant. “What do we win?” asks wide-eyed Boris.
And thence to war, with stops along the way only for Woody the great lover. “My room at midnight,” husks a lush countess. “Perfect,” replies supercool Woody. “Will you be there?”
Additionally, as is only fitting in a Russian saga, there are endless pauses for metaphysical discussions – dotty dialogues on the existence of God, the meaning of life and death and assorted other heavy matters, where profundity inevitably gives way to absurdity.
Boris woos and wins his girlfriend Sonja (Diane Keaton – whose spacey naturalism again makes the perfect comic foil), and the two ultimately embark on an antic assassination attempt on Napoleon, though Woody can’t really see the point; “What’s the difference between the Czar and Napoleon? They’re both idiots – the Czar is just a little taller.”