August 20, 2013

Movie Review: Alexander Nevsky (1938)

Those who come with a sword to us will die from that sword! - Alexander Nevsky (Nikolai Cherkasov)

Directors: Sergei M. Eisenstein and Dmitri Vasilyev

Writers: Sergei M. Eisenstein and Pyotr Pavlenko

Production Manager: Igor Vakar

Studio: Mosfilm

Major Stars: Nikolai Cherkasov

Note: In keeping with my policy about movies 25 years old or more, I feel no compunctions about revealing what happens in the film. With that in mind, there may be SPOILERS below. If you haven’t seen the film yet, you may want to avoid this review.

Alexander Nevsky isn’t the best war film ever. But the story behind its creation may be the most interesting one I have ever learned.

The movie is based on the real life of Aleksandr Yaroslavich Nevski, the Grand Prince of Novgorod and Vladmir during the mid-13th Century. He is, in many ways, the father of the modern Russian nation. And this film focuses on a critical moment, the invasion of Russia by the Livonian Order, a branch of the Teutonic Order.

The Order was invading, supposedly, to convert the people to Roman Catholicism as a part of the larger event known as the Northern Crusades. More often it was simply an excuse to pillage, plunder and take land. The Order attempted to take advantage of the Novgorodians after they were mauled by the Mongols. Instead, Nevsky cut a treaty with the Mongols and rallied his people to meet the Order on the shores of Lake Peipus, which is on the border of Russia and Estonia.

The battle actually occurred on the ice of Lake Peipus. It was early April, so the ice was weakening. After hours of hand-to-hand fighting, Nevsky called in his horse archers and cavalry. The knights of the Order were so exhausted they tried to retreat across the lake. The ice gave way and they fell into the water and drowned. It was a massive victory for Nevsky and stopped German expansion into Russia.

The film itself is beautiful to watch, an amazing achievement when you realize that it was made in the late 1930s and under the watchful eye of Soviet censors. The centerpiece is the half-hour battle on the ice of Lake Peipus, a beautifully-shot sequence. Not that it needs saying here, but Eisenstein was a remarkable director.

But what really makes the film, what makes this such a superb work of art, is the score. The music is provided by Sergei Prokofiev, one of the greatest composers of all time. Imagine someone like Brahms or Verdi creating a musical score for a film today. That is the quality of music Eisenstein was provided with. The highlight of the score coincides with the battle on the lake. It’s a majestic piece that tells the story aurally and is the origin of that practice today (an oft-cited example is John Williams’ The Battle Of Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back).

The problem is that the sound on the film was mangled by Stalin (I’ll cover this later). So unless you’ve seen this with an orchestra performing the music (a joy I have yet to experience) or the re-mastered VHS (the latest DVD uses the original sound), the sound quality is abysmal.

Almost as enjoyable as the film is learning about its development. Prior to this film, Eisenstein had just avoided getting caught up in the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s. His mortal sin? Cost overruns. Instead of Eisenstein, Boris Shumyatsky (the head of the Soviet film industry in the 30s) was run through a show trial and shot. The story between those two could be a film in itself.

Given one last chance by Stalin, Eisenstein turned out Alexander Nevsky, saving his career (and his neck). Unfortunately for Eisenstein, Stalin still distrusted him and confiscated the film so it could be vetted as proper for the USSR. It was still being worked on and the result was a mangled soundtrack.

Nevertheless, the film was received with great praise from everyone, Stalin included. It was an obvious allegory about the growing tensions between the Nazis and the Soviets. A piece of propaganda? Yes, but a masterful piece of propaganda.

Unfortunately for Eisenstein, Nevsky came out before the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in August of 1939. Once that treaty was signed, Nevsky disappeared from the theaters, since the Germans were now (ostensibly) the friends of the Soviet people. Only after the Nazis invaded in June of 1941 was it possible to see the film once more. And it was pushed relentlessly by the government.

So, where does this film reside on the list? Its historical accuracy is impeccable. As a story, it’s narrow in focus but expansive in imagery. The score is incredible…if you are able to hear it. A big plus in my book is that you don’t see a lot of films dealing with the Northern Crusades. But there isn’t much emotional depth to the film. Now, that may be because I’m an American with no Russian ancestry. Or it could be because, all of Eisenstein’s talent aside, this is a propaganda film from Soviet Russia in the 1930s.

In the end, I have to place this below Toko-Ri…by a hair. The score is remarkable, a work of art in its own right. And this is way better than sub-standard fare like Battle of the Bulge.

But there is no emotional hook. Nothing grabbed me here like watching Lt. Brubaker die alone in a ditch in North Korea in Toko-Ri. And I feel bad saying that because Nevsky is obviously a great achievement in film and Eisenstein is a remarkable director. I feel compelled to reiterate that these films are the best of the best (in my eyes), and that making the list (Bulge excluded) means its head-and-shoulders above most films in this genre. But I can’t place Nevsky higher.

Nevertheless, you should definitely see Alexander Nevsky, remastered if possible so you get the full effect. It’s an incredible film.


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