Alexander Nevsky: a well-made though not brilliant propaganda film about a Russian mediaeval hero

Sergei Eisenstein, “Alexander Nevsky” (1938)

Unashamedly patriotic and stirring action-movie propaganda for the masses and the Soviet government under Joseph Stalin at the time of release, this historical fiction drama recreates one of the two battles fought by the 13th-century Russian hero Alexander Nevsky that determined his future career as a prince and politician: the 1242 battle against and defeat of the crusading Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire on the frozen Lake Peipus which now forms part of the border between Estonia and Russia. The other significant battle which Nevsky fought and after which he was surnamed – the 1240 battle against Swedish forces on the Neva river near present-day St Petersburg – is mentioned at the beginning of the movie. “Alexander Nevsky” is straightforward in its narrative, starting with a Mongol ambassador visiting Nevsky (Nikolai Cherkasov) and offering him a position with the Mongols’ Golden Horde which was in charge of Moscow at the time. From there the film hops to the Teutonic Knights’ take-over of the city of Pskov near Lake Peipus where they massacre the population. The Knights march towards Novgorod city where the aristocrats and wealthy traders decide to surrender to the Knights to avoid losing their riches. Nevsky then rallies the common people of Novgorod to resist the foreigners. Interwoven with these events is a sub-plot about two warrior friends, Vasili Buslai (Nikolai Okhlopkov) and Gavrilo (Andrey Abrikosov), who are dead keen on marrying the demure and beautiful girl Olga (Vera Ivashova) who likes them both. She sweetly worms her way out of being forced to choose between her suitors by telling them she will only marry the braver of the two in battle.

The battle against the enemy on the frozen lake (the Battle on the Ice) takes up half an hour of the film’s running time and can be interesting to watch as soldiers seem to hack aimlessly and in all directions and there are very few scenes of stagey-looking stand-offs between individuals of opposing sides. Editing, sometimes quick, with a view to portraying the fighting from different points of view – some shots are close up, others are at a distance or from a bird’s-eye point of view – ensures the constant tussling never gets boring. Scruffy Russian soldiers hack with axes and run about here and there while the more disciplined white-clad Teutonic knights charge as ordered and the foreign cavalry, infantry and archers work together as a machine. Fear not: Nevsky does use a strategy of dividing his forces into three groups to surround the invaders on three sides. As the fight progresses, some of the Russians are exhausted and are felled by lances or blows from the enemy; there isn’t much gore but the fighting is as realistic as Eisenstein dared to go at the time. The horseback fighting scenes look a little cartoony and have the style of 1920’s-era silent film as music often plays over these scenes and the action is quick and abrupt. When the camera remembers to focus on Nevsky himself in the heat of fighting (which isn’t much actually), he’s filmed from the waist up striking with his sword at unseen enemies but not pursuing them on horseback or helping his fellow warriors fend off attacks.

Keeping in mind the circumstances in which Eisenstein made this film – he was under suspicion of disloyalty for having worked in Hollywood and Mexico in the early 1930’s, socialising with painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and writer Upton Sinclair among others, with nothing to show for his efforts – viewers will understand “Alexander …” isn’t as experimental as some of Eisenstein’s other films and is made in a way that glorifies its main character as a god-like folk hero who can do no wrong and which elevates the defenders of Novgorod as heroic yet ordinary people who, given the right kind of leadership, can do extraordinary things. The message behind the portrayal of the Russian side becomes obvious: common people have potential to be heroes but only under Communist leadership and specifically Stalin’s leadership can that potential be put to work and fulfilled. As for the Teutonic Knights, in spite of their white garb (a duplicitous ploy), they are dehumanised by their armour and helmets which cover the entire face and body and sprout talons, antlers and devilish horns. They behave as cogs in a well-oiled war machine which further emphasises their lack of humanity. On conquering Pskov, they are nasty enough to throw little kids onto flaming pyres. Foot soldiers for the enemy wear steel helmets typical of what German soldiers wore in the later part of World War 1 and which they were to wear again in World War 2. The enemy forces are led by the Grand Master who resembles a twisted, demonic version of the fair-haired, square-jawed Nevsky and receive blessings from the Roman Catholic Church whose representatives are shown as sinister and fanatical.

Remarkably given Eisenstein’s need to ingratiate himself with the Stalinist government, the film shows the tragic side of war in which bodies of both sides are strewn over the snowy ground and women search for husbands, fathers and sons and mourn their dead. Although on second thoughts this display isn’t that remarkable as Russian portrayals of war have traditionally called attention to the carnage and tragedy of war and the sorrow of families whose men have died. The film also makes a point of showing Nevsky as a merciful and just hero who pardons and frees the foot soldiers who are assumed to have been drafted against their will into the Teutonic Knights’ army. The knights themselves and their leaders are held for ransom but Nevsky throws a Russian, Tverdilo (Sergei Blinnikov), to vengeful crowds for betraying Pskov to the enemy. Again the message here is ordinary people as a group are basically good and potentially heroic but they can be led astray by the wrong sorts of leaders (read: rich capitalists, self-styled aristocrats and their allies in anti-Communist governments who think only of their own material comforts and would sell their mothers and grandmothers for more wealth) and only someone like Nevsky who loves his mother country Rus is the ideal leader.

Character development as such is non-existent: Cherkasov as golden boy Nevsky stays in heroic mode throughout (which means his end scene where he urges people to celebrate is hilarious, he is so strait-jacketed in the stereotype) and the love triangle sub-plot doesn’t quite work as it should in spite of the best efforts of Okhlopkov and Abrikosov as the suitors who are brave and heroic in battle but comic and awkward in love. Olga remains modest throughout the film and hardly demonstrates much passion for either suitor and Gavrilo himself spends much of his screen time hardly conscious. Okhlopkov puts in the best acting as a heroic fighter who manages to escape death, as a near-buffoon and as an honest suitor who admits he wasn’t the brave one in battle and nearly gets scolded by his mum.

The rousing music by Sergei Prokofiev fits in well with the sequencing of scenes and encourages the rise and fall of tension and emotion throughout the movie. For this reason, the movie is best seen in its 1995 re-recorded edition on DVD or in a cinema environment where the sound quality is good and consistent. A live orchestra playing the music soundtrack as the film screens is a bonus.

Not a brilliant piece of film-making but “Alexander Nevsky” will be of some interest to Russian history buffs and film-makers who need to know how to stage and film battle scenes in a way that retains audience attention and interest.

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