Alexander Nevsky / Ivan The Terrible

Alexander Nevsky / Ivan The Terrible (1950)
Image Entertainment

Much of the cinematic vocabulary which we take for granted was once considered radical and new. In the early days of movie making, directors like DW Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein put a great deal of thought and effort into using cinema in ways no other art form could be used. Eisenstein, as one of the central architects of the theory of montage, or editing for dramatic effect and expanded meaning, made some crucial contributions in films like Battleship Potempkin, October, and Strike. Consider a simple montage: a shot of an expressionless man, followed by a shot of a bowl of soup. The meaning we gather is that the man is hungry: a meaning that is only derived from the shot sequence. It may be filmmaking 101, but someone had to create it, and we owe a lot of it to Eisenstein.

While his early silent films laid the groundwork for this new vocabulary, his final works moved into new territories of style and technique. Viewed as his monumental achievements, Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible I and II took Eisenstein beyond simple montage and into epic movie making. Nevsky is a finely textured patriotic war movie that is conventionally seen as an exultation of Communism and call to arms against the Germans. Made in 1938, when Hitler was threatening his neighbors and war was immanent, it was quite transparent in its anti-German and anti-Catholic sentiments. But the film is so finely crafted that it can be subjected to a number of interpretations. It can easily be seen as a standard, Hollywood-style heroic war movie, complete with love story, or even as a Christian allegory. (When we first see Alexander, he is bearded and dressed in a plain white tunic while he and his people fish). Religious symbolism abounds, from the corrupt priests of the Teutonic Knights to the quasi-religious chants of the people to the Inquisition-like massacre of Pskov.

The story presents a vigorous war film in high style. The time is 1242, and the Russian people are under the yoke of rampaging Mongols when they learn of a pending attack from the Teutonic Knights. Some Russian leaders want to capitulate and form a non-aggression pact. These men are regarded as traitors and cowards, which explains why the film was banned by Stalin following his non-agression pact with Germany. War hero Alexander (mesmerizingly played by Russia’s finest actor, Nikolai Cherkassov) is asked by the people to lead them against the invaders, and in one of the most famous and influential battle scenes ever committed to film, he does just that.

Alexander Nevsky is a treasure trove of striking elements. The score is considered by many film music buffs to be one of the greatest ever composed for a movie. Written in close collaboration with Eisenstein by Sergei Prokofiev, one of the 20th century’s most important composers, the music is so intimately entangled with the film that it is impossible to imagine one without the other. Composers frequently borrow its themes, most notably John Williams, who lifted the shark theme for Jaws from the throbbing baselines of Nevsky’s battle scenes. Eisenstein’s famous editing is matched to some amazing shot composition. The wide gray skies threatening on the battlefield are given almost 90% of the frame, and several deep focus shots show the influence of Hollywood. The famous battle on the ice sequence, with its fast cuts and heroic poses, continues to influence battle scenes today, right up to Braveheart. There are moments that shock and delight even today: the grisly and effective scene showing a massacre of children, the corrupt priest trying to sneak away in full regalia, and the shots of Knights slipping to their death on the crumbling ice.

Nevsky is a cinematic masterpiece that dates much better than expected. From the individual shots and stunning music, to the commanding performance of Cherkassov, it ranks as one of the great war movies of all time. Ivan the Terrible, on the other hand, is a very different movie. Both Ivan I & II were shot back to back following Nevsky, and were to be a trilogy before Eisenstein’s untimely death. Rather than being a war movie on a grand scale, it is a highly stylized personal look at one of Russia’s great leaders. The role of the 16th Tsar who united Russia is played in both films by Alexander Nevsky’s Nikolai Cherkassov, who gives a finely textured and commanding performance.

Parts I & II of Ivan must be considered together, since they form the first and second act in a three part drama which was never complete. You can loosely assign the three parts roles: Ivan’s cementing of power and attempt to bring Russia onto the world stage in the first part, the threats to his realm and palace intrigue of the second part, and the heroic battles and conclusion of the never-made Part III. Part I opens with a long and dramatic scene of Ivan’s coronation as Tsar. From the start, the style is sharply different from anything Eisenstein (or any other direction) had tried, alternating brief spurts of action with carefully composed chiaroscuro.

The majority of shots are meticulously composed like a paintings from one of the old masters. They are full of elaborate costumes and baroque sets highlighted by dramatic low-angle lighting. The cutting is most scenes is very static, but the detailed composition of each shot keeps things from every actually feeling static, since the eye is constantly searching the scene for new details. This style persists throughout both films, with dramatic gestures and intricate blocking replacing montage, adding to the melodrama and tension of the narrative. Prokofiev once again scores, and his music also helps provide the static shots with a feeling of drama and movement.

The narrative of Part I deals with Ivan’s life: his coronation, marriage, battles, illness, and the beginning of his fight against the Boyars. Ivan is always active and larger than life, yet there are still intimate moments that give him dimension, such as his scenes with his wife. He takes charge and leads his nation as a powerful and dominant force for history. Part II, however, has a much different pace and tone, with Alexander reacting more than acting. Upon his return to Moscow from Alexandrov, Ivan is still a powerful force, but instead of expanding his power, he is defending it. The portrayed of Ivan is always expansive, yet still surprisingly human. He comes across as heroic yet multidimensional, moreso in the second film than the first, where he is often introspective and troubled. It was the perceived weakness of character in part II, as well as a perceived negative portrayal of the secret police, that lead Ivan II to be banned by the Communist Party and Eisenstein censured. He would die before he had a chance to earn Stalin’s favor again, and the story of Ivan would end with a complex psychological portrait instead of a heroic finale.

These films, kicked around the world with shoddy prints and even more shoddy subtitling, have not aged well. None of the prints seem to have an intact sprocket hole or competent splice. Two reels of Ivan II are in color (the only time Eisenstein worked with color film) and are quite vibrant for their age. The scores sound thin and lack any range, and the soundtracks are marred by pops and hiss. The subtitles, created in the 1980s, are often laugh-inducing. Everyone winds up sounds like Yoda, uttering cryptic phrases like "Fight we must. Brave you are." Because of their quality and importance, they deserve and are due for a full restoration, but the millions this would cost would never be covered by the limited public interest in them. We can only be glad that any print is available, and thank Image for taking a chance making three non-commercial titles easily available. The transfers are crisp and clean, with the black and white as natural as possible considering the source material. There is no <$pixelation,pixelation> or noise, and the only limitations of these disks are the limits of the source material. When I was studying these movies in film school, they were often hard to find. Having them with on a durable medium and with such good packaging is a boon for anyone seriously interested in good movies from off the beaten track.