Tuesday, May 20, 2014

#5 - Alexander Nevsky (1938)

BACK-STORY:   “Alexander Nevsky” was the great Sergei Eisenstein’s first and most successful sound motion picture.  It came thirteen years after his other masterpiece “Battleship Potemkin”.  He chose to do a film on Nevsky because little was known about him so Eisenstein hoped to be able to structure the narrative the way he wanted.  He was not given the free rein that he had hoped for.  For this film he was kept on a short leash as the Soviet government wanted to make sure it got the propaganda product it commissioned.  Eisenstein was assigned a co-writer and co-director to look over his shoulder.  The co-writer was probably a secret police agent.  The film is most famous for two elements:  the battle on the ice and Prokofiev’s score.  The iced lake scenes were filmed outside Moscow in the dead of summer.  The cinematographer went to remarkable lengthes to create the lake setting.  The ice was actually asphalt and melted glass.  The fake ice rested on floating pontoons that could be deflated on cue.  Some scenes in the picture were cut to match the score.  The film was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1941 and Eisenstein (and the co-director) was given the Order of Lenin by Stalin.  Speaking of Stalin, he was shown a rough cut of the film and either did not like a scene showing a riot of the citizens of Novgorod or the reel was accidentally left behind so it was not vetted by the supreme ruler.  Either way, the reel was left out of the final cut.

OPENING:  Background information tells us that it is the 13th Century and Russia is just coming out of a Mongol invasion and now the Teutonic Knights of Germany are at the doorstep.  “German plunderers expected an easy victory over our people”.  The camera pans over a desolate landscape strewn with the skeletons of dead Mongols.  At Lake Pleshcheevok, a group of fishermen are seining as a patriotic song about the defeat of Sweden plays.  A roving band of Mongols try to recruit the leader of the fishermen – Prince Alexander.  He turns them down because his first priority is to defeat the Germans.  “It is better to die on your own land than to leave it.”  Alexander realizes that the key to defeating the Germans is maintaining the port of Novgorod.

Fu Manchu meets Superman
SUMMARY:  In Novgorod, two warriors (Vasili and Gavrilo) are competing for a young lady named Olga.  A wounded man arrives from the recently fallen city of Pskov to inform the populace of the threat.  The city leaders scoff and remind everyone that they have a treaty with the Germans and they can always buy them off.  Olga speaks out against appeasement and a man demands they send for Alexander Nevsky.

                In Pskov, the destruction is matched by destruction music.  The leaders of the Teutonic Knights have really cool helmets with various things on top.  One has a talon and another has a hand making the universal sign for loser.  The foot soldiers have helmets reminiscent of German WWII “coal scuttles”.  They also are accompanied by priests that look like the spawn of Nosferatu.  Crosses abound.  Swastika-like symbols as well.  After disposing of the leaders of the resistance (including the father of a young woman named Vasilisa),  the victory celebration culminates with children being thrown into a bonfire.

Would you buy a religion from this guy?
Note the symbol on his hat
                A delegation from Novgorod arrives at Alexander’s home to beg him to save Russia.  Okay, he says.  Let’s ask the peasants to join.  Done to a recruitment song.  Alexander arrives in Novgorod with his patriotic army.  Now we here a “let’s do it!” song.  The populace is fired up and on board – mostly.  There are two traitors who are with the Germans.  Vasilisa suits up with armor to avenge her father.  Olga tells Vasili and Gavrilo she will wed whoever is the bravest in the upcoming battle.

                After his advanced guard is ambushed in the woods, Alexander needs to plan for a climatic battle on the lake.  He gets the idea for his battle strategy when he overhears the Master Armourer telling a campfire story about a rabbit fucking a fox.  It involves a double envelopment. 

Here's the plan:  my left fist is the fox's ass and
my right fist is the rabbit
                The battle takes place on April 5, 1242.  Alexander’s center, comprised of foot soldiers led by Vasili, waits anxiously for the Teutonic Knights.  Here they come to “Jaws”-like music.  The Germans are in a wedge formation and the Russians are in a shield wall with pikes and swords.  A melee with lots of clanging ensues.  Apparently you could kill people back then by hitting their sword with yours enough times.  Alexander and Gavrilo arrive with the flank attack.  All of the main characters get their due.  Stavka is killed and his father goes off like the father-son death scene from “300”.  Gavrilo is wounded protecting Alexander’s back.  The climax of the battle is a duel between Alexander and the Teutonic Grand Master.  The fighting stops for everyone to watch, of course.  The battle concludes with a lot of running.  The surviving Germans crash through the ice.  The Grand Armourer is killed by the treacherous traitor who is in turn dispatched by Vasilisa.  In a corpse strewn landscape to somber music, Olga finds Vasili and Gavrilo.  Gavrilo is mortally wounded, but Olga helps him walk it off.

Put your money on the one Stalin wants to win
CLOSING:  In the liberated Pskov, the victorious army arrives proceeded by the dead heroes.  Alexander rides in to great adulation.  He makes a speech, the gist of which is “thus be it to all our enemies”.  The German foot soldiers (the proletariat) are set free.  Gavrilo gets Olga and Vasili gets Vasilisa.  Alexander:  “He who comes to Russia with the sword, dies by the sword.”  You hear that Adolf?

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  More than a male war movie lover.  There are two main female characters and one of them kicks ass.  The other manipulates two suitors.  Something for every female viewer.  The actor that plays Nevsky is hunky in a Fabio sort of way.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The movie is surprisingly accurate.  Of course, you have to factor in that Alexander is a legendary figure so we can’t be sure about all of the facts.  Alexander was born the son of a prince.  In 1236 the people of Novgorod asked the fifteen year old prince to defend them against the Swedes and the Germans.  He defeated the Swedes at the Battle of Neva in 1240.  From this triumph, he acquired the sobriquet “Nevsky”.  However, after the victory the boyars (nobles) forced him into exile.  This is the situation when the movie begins.

                The scene with the Mongols is an interpretation of Alexander’s relationship with the Golden Horde.  He has been accused of collaboration, but the movie is probably close in interpreting him as realizing that the other threats needed to be dealt with and the Mongols were not threatening Russian culture.  He felt paying tribute to the Mongols was the right choice among bad choices.  The movie does a fair job showing how Alexander was called back to Novgorod after the fall of Pskov to the Livonian Order of the Teutonic Knights.  The Novgorodians had a democratic custom called veche where the merchants and boyars would openly discuss a proposal such as bringing in a sixteen year old to rule them. 

                The Teutonic Knights were a German military order created in the Middle Ages.  It was formed to aid pilgrims going to the Holy Land and established hospitals in the Middle East.  The organization evolved into a military  order.  When the Crusades ended in failure, they took their act to Europe to defend Catholicism.  Dressed in white robes with black crosses, they participated in crusades with a small c.  They fought in Prussia and became a major power there.  The Livonian Brothers of the Sword was created using the Teutonic model.  Its goal was spreading Catholicism to the Baltic states.  In 1237, it merged with the Teutonic Knights and became the Livonian Order.  Subsequently, their knights expanded eastward into Russia with the intention of conquering Novgorod.  They were led by a Grand Master as depicted in the film.

                The Germans did capture Pskov and the occupation was probably harsh, although baby burning may have been an exaggeration.  They were definitely religious and had all the trappings, but power, wealth, and territory were strong motives behind the invasion.  No doubt they evidenced the religious intolerance typical of that time period.  They certainly were intolerant of the Eastern Orthodox Church. 

                There is some dispute about what happened in the Battle of the Ice.  The battle (officially the Battle of Lake Preipus) was a confrontation as the Germans marched on Novgorod.  The tactic of Alexander was to lure the Knights into a frontal attack on his center.  He may have feigned retreat or more likely the cavalry attack pushed his center back.  At this point, Alexander assaulted the German flanks with his archers and when fresh Russian cavalry entered the battle, the Germans were routed.  They retreated across the iced-over lake and many drowned when the ice collapsed under them.  Some historians question the high casualty totals for the Germans and some even doubt that the famous ice cracking happened.  They do agree that the climactic moment of the battle was when Alexander won a duel with the Grand Master.  Just kidding.  You don't have to make a movie in Hollywood to be Hollywoodish.  Alexander’s closing admonition that anyone who comes to Russia with a sword will die by the sword is a repeat of his famous quote.

CRITIQUE:  This is an Eisenstein film so you can prepare to be wowed by his craft.  He loves close-ups and you can pop into any scene cold and tell who the bad guys are by their close-ups.  He tends to use a stationary camera with movement across, away, or towards the camera.  It seems quaint compared to our modern frenetic cinematography.  Some of the shots are off-center which usually strikes me as a stunt to wake people up or get film school students excited.  The movie pairs the genius of Eisenstein up with the genius of Prokofiev.  The score has been universally lauded.  To tell the truth, I found it to be a bit bizarre.  When I first watched the movie on You Tube, I wondered whether I was hearing the original music or something that the downloader had dubbed in.  A subsequent viewing of a DVD version proved that I had heard right.  I was expecting a Wagneresque score and instead there are parts that seem to have been composed by the band in the “Star Wars” cantina scene.  The music for the big battle scene starts out ominously pompous and devolves into Keystone Kops.  Sorry, but I just was not impressed.  The songs were interesting as blatant propaganda.

                The acting is meh.  Cherkasov is a walking statue.  In fact, he resembles a statue of Alexander.  He spends much of the film with his hands on his hips a la Superman.  Appropriate since he is pure and good like the man of steel.  Hmmm, what Russian leader was also a man of steel?  Two coincidences create a fact.  At least he does not overact – far from it.  The rest of the cast seem to think they were making a silent movie.  Thank God they toned it down a bit or their performances would have been intolerable.  They are not helped by the extreme stereotypes they are portraying.  Vasily and Gavrilo are the comic relief.  Nikolai Okhlopkov (Vasili) gives the most grating performance, but it is the only one that I shook my head at.  The Master Armourer provides the rest of the sparse humor and he does it in an old men can say anything sort of way.  The villains are hissable based on their attitudes and actions, not based on twirling their mustaches or rubbing their hands together.  The best of the cast are the two females.  Vera Ivashova is a bit feisty as the love interest for Vasily and Gavrilo.  Aleksandra Danilova plays the tom-boyish Vasilisa well and either by purpose or lack of training, fights like a girl in the battle.

                “Alexander Nevsky” could not have been more propagandistic than if they had tried.  Oh wait, they did try!  And succeeded.  The  themes are not subtle.  Clerics in general and Catholics in particular take a beating.  The movie is not atheistic (Alexander even quotes Scripture at one point), but the Catholics are demonized to a cartoonish extent.  Speaking of demonization, even today’s current events challenged younger generation would have been able to figure out that the movie is about the Nazi threat.  It is obvious that the movie was made to warn the Russian people about the 1930s version of the Teutonic Knights.  Interestingly, Nazi Germany used their heritage for propaganda and ideological purposes.  Himmler modeled the S.S. after them.  However, in an act of contradiction, Hitler abolished the order in 1938 because of its Catholicism. 
Winners of the art class Evil Helmet Contest

                The timing of the movie is intriguing.  It came out in 1938 at the time that Germany was expanding eastward toward the Soviet Union so the movie was perfectly timed to warn about the threat.  Dual mission accomplished because the film also fires up the patriotism of the Russian people.  The movie makes a point of depicting the common people as the key to Alexander’s victory.  It also clearly shows the threat of the Nazis.  Oh, and don’t forget the correlation of Alexander to Stalin.  Ironically (and almost comically) the signing of the Russo-German Nonaggression Pact in 1939 made the movie “cinema non grata” for a while.  It was pulled from the theaters, but given new life when the Wehrmacht invaded Russia in 1941.  I’m sure Eisenstein was pleased to say “I told you so!”

CONCLUSION:   I know I will take some grief for this, but this movie is overrated.  I recognize that it is a masterpiece and a must see.  I am glad this project of watching the supposed 100 Greatest War Movies has forced me to watch a movie that I never would have seen otherwise.  The word “supposed” is the key here.  Once again I have to question the decision making of the panel for Military History magazine that determined the 100.  “Greatest” can mean different things.  If it refers historical importance, then “Alexander Nevsky” belongs in the top ten.  If you are looking at a war film purely for quality, it does not hold up.  The best way I can explain this conundrum is to look at the famous battle scene.  Eisenstein’s staging of the Battle of the Ice is very influential and has been copied by films like “Spartacus” and “Braveheart”.  The plain fact is that although “Alexander Nevsky” did it first, no one with a right mind can argue that it does it better than most (all?) of its modern imitators.  I despise “Braveheart”, but Mel Gibson’s battle scene is certainly more realistic and entertaining than Eisenstein’s.  The scene in “Alexander Nevsky” could be replicated with a gaggle of fourteen year old boys with swords in a back yard.  Not the ice breaking part.  Have a kazoo band playing in the back ground.


Acting -  C
Action -  8/10
Accuracy -  A
Realism -  B-
Plot -  B
Cliches -  C


the Battle of the Ice



  1. Epic review (yet again) for a not so epic movie. I stll really want to see it though. I really enjoy your picture captions.

  2. Thanks. You are the first to comment about the captions. I think I have a weird sense of humor. I am second guessing the B-, but I tell myself it is the accuracy that overcomes the movies shortcomings.

  3. A movie like this had no hope of escaping the political climate in which it was made. If Eisenstein could have made the movie he wanted how do you think it would have turned out?

    1. I suspect some of that what-if speculation is from Eisenstein fans who want an excuse for the blatant propaganda of the piece. We are told that he wanted to be more iconoclastic, but I have my doubts about that. Keep in mind the plot follows the actual history fairly closely. He did gte the movie that he wanted in the sense that he did want to warn about the Nazi threat.

  4. I saw it on PBS many years ago; apparently, it was considered historically significant enough for educational TV. It was something of a letdown, and looked more like a stage play than a movie. In fact, I've seen low budget "B" Westerns with more impressive action scenes. I can't deny its historical importance, but it is overrated by critics, who apparently follow a party line that any movie by Eisenstein must be a masterpiece. Another example of a movie as the Emperor's New Clothes.

    1. I agree. I use that "Emperor's New Clothes" a lot with the classics. Perhaps in 1938 the battle on the ice was impressive, but it is laughable to claim it is still one of the great battle scenes. Speaking of the attitude that Eisenstein could do no wrong, the adulation for Prokofiev's score is even more head-scratching.

  5. I have not seen it, and your review makes me dread the time when I will have to review it, which is fortunately far off.

    1. It is a must see, but any time before death will be fine.

  6. No, I disagree with the review. Nevsky stands alone as one of the greatest war movies simply because of Prokofiev's score. Battle of the Ice. . . .with its mood of "THEY are coming" is the most terrifying piece in musical history, bar none. It was the inspiration of Khan's battle scenes in Star Trek II and makes the Darth Vader theme sound like pop. The anxiousness as the army awaits the oncoming evil horde. . . just a black dot on the horizon, mixed in with THAT music is stellar.

  7. I am also a fan of the film, and the soundtrack is also the main cause. In my case I had listened to the score several times before I had seen the film and was better able to ignore any incongruities between the tone of the music and the events on the screen.

    The blatant propaganda did not bother me as much as it might have in another movie, perhaps because I did not identify with the villains and was not asked to accept any principles or beliefs from the heroes beyond a generic nationalism. The propaganda aspects of the movie therefore only served to add bombast and at worst a comic cheesiness to the action, making it like a children's cartoon or a lowbrow adventure flick.

    I understand that Adolf Hitler was strongly influenced by his understanding of history (along, of course, with his paranoid hatred of Jews and his obsession with race). One of the main purposes of his invasion of the Soviet Union was to conquer land that was to be filled with German settlers in a kind of reenactment of Eastward German migration that occurred around the time of the Teutonic Order. This adds another layer of historical irony to the film - the analogy of Alexander Nevsky to contemporary events, while questionable to us, had acceptance among both sides of the Eastern Front.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.