Alexander Nevsky (1938)

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  • directed by Sergei Eisenstein and Dmitri Vasilyev
  • starring Nikolai Cherkasov, Andrei Abrikosov, Nikolai Okhlopkov
  • A Russian prince leads an army to battle an invading force of Teutonic knights

“I won’t let those dogs set one foot on Russian soil.”

There was a time as I was organizing my titles from 1938 that I realized I might not want to give Alexander Nevsky a chance. I knew nothing of the Russian statesman nor the conflict that elevated him to hero status. Furthermore, many accounts I read on the film seem to confirm that there was something of an updated WWII propagandistic bent on the 13th century tale. Maybe that’s putting it lightly. Let’s just say that the film is presented through a pair of thick-lensed Stalin Goggles.

But then I read about the way composer Sergei Prokofiev scored the film, writing notes on the page to match perfectly to the physical motion on screen—a billowing cloud of smoke, or a stampeding mass of warriors–and the epic scale in which Eisenstein and Vasilyev filmed the Battle of the Ice and, well, this is something of a movie blog after all.

The abridged crash course I put myself through prior to watching has Nevsky being banished from his home of Novrogod due to a clash with the Boyars, the bourgeois, high-ranking members of the feudal class. This despite Nevsky’s important victory in the Neva Battle of 1240, which resulted in his political star rising and his reputation among the townspeople beginning to soar to almost mythical levels. A year or so later he was summoned to defend Novrogod from the crusading Livonian Knights, aka in this film, the Teutonic Order, aka the allegorical Nazi Germany. Yes, a whole other level of the film is it entirely being a thinly veiled account of the threat that Russia faced at the onset of WWII. Add in a few anti-catholic sentiments and a theme of the importance of the common people above all else and you basically have “What the Russian Government Wants You to Think: The Movie.” If there was ever any doubt how in the pocket this film was, I’ll just point out that a year or so after it was released, it was eliminated completely from all distribution channels after Stalin and Hitler signed a non aggression treaty. When Hitler broke the treaty, as Hitler tended to do, the film reemerged with its hero unscathed and even more ready for his shiny legacy.

The film picks up with Nevsky in banishment, still contemplating the threats that face his beloved Novrogod, a town that has turned its back on him. To get a sense of the nuance at work here, if there was ever any doubt as to who the villains of this movie were, you need look no further than the shady group of German knights that we first meet overseeing the throwing of Pskovian children and babies into a raging firepit. To spot our hero, just glance at Nikolai Cherkasov, who plays Nevsky as if he were posing for a monument at every moment—puffed-out chest, arms constantly akimbo, and a serene gaze upon the horizon, even while indoors.

Funny enough, the best sequence of the film does involve a horizon. With Prokofiev’s score complementing the action gloriously, we sit gradually watching an expanse of land go from barren to filled with a truly impressive army that races to clash with the waiting Novrogod forces. Aside from a few clunky moments during the battle itself, this whole 30 or 40 minutes, especially the advancing of the enemy sequence, is just a great feat of filmmaking—music, horses, flailing swords, pain, glory–all working as one big mass of energy. No wonder it’s been the decades-long inspiration for many a future cinema battle scene.

In the end…well anybody could guess how it ends. A 2008 public poll commissioned by a leading Russian newspaper had Alexander Nevsky being named the most important person in Russia’s history.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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