I'll let others debate just how great a film Alexander Nevsky is; I don't know. But it certainly is great propaganda. It was made in 1938 when Stalin and Hitler were thinking about dancing on each other's grave. The story is how the Order of the Teutonic Knights invaded Russia in the 13th century and were defeated by the bravery of the Russian people under the inspired leadership of Prince Alexander Nevsky. The heart of the movie is the great battle to defeat the Germans; everything before the battle is prologue and everything after is a quick tidying up.
The knights are fearsome: Armored men on heavy armored horses, wearing white, flowing robes with crosses and featureless helmets. They knights look like merciless, ruthless automatons. The Russians are brave people of the soil, determined to protect Mother Russia and wanting only inspired leadership. They find this in Prince Nevsky.
The great battle between these two forces, held in the depth of winter, is the movie. The battle goes on and on, but you never get lost and never get bored. Eisenstein moves from masses of hacking, slashing soldiers to the actions of individuals in the melees, individuals whom we've come to know. He sets up the battle by having Nevsky explain clearly to his commanders (and to us) exactly what he wants them to do...let the charging wedge of knights penetrate his main force, then hold them at whatever cost, while he attacks from both flanks.
At the start of the battle the Russians are massed with long pikes awaiting the knights. In the distance across the snow we see a long line of mounted knights, all with their white robes flowing in the wind. They gradually move faster and faster, growing larger and larger on the screen, until they crash into the pikes. The Russians give way in places creating corridors within their ranks where the knights are forced, and then all hell breaks loose.
The fighting is brutal, and not just with pikes, swords and arrows. Long hooks are used to yank the knights from their horses, then foot soldiers attack with heavy axes to smash through the armor. There are no great gouts of blood and spilled intestines, and this is long before Computer Generated Flatulence, but there is no doubt about how brutal the fighting is.
At one point Prince Nevsky engages in one-to-one sword combat with the Master of the Teutonic Knights, humiliating him with his skill and then defeating and capturing him. The priests who accompanied the knights are all shown as venal opportunists, and all are slaughtered by the Russian fighters when the knights' camp is overrun. The Germans retreat, the Russians break through, and the remains of the German knights gather for a last stand on the ice. This is one of the great scenes in movies. As the Germans gather, the ice begins to break. The knights and their foot soldiers slip and crash into the water, some try to hold onto the ice and are overturned, some try to flee but the cracking ice catches them. We see helmeted men sinking below the surface, and then just their flowing white robes trailing behind them out of sight and into the depths. It's something to see.
Throughout the movie Eisenstein creates great visual images. Some are vistas of snow and mountains, some gatherings of soldiers around a camp, some corpses strewn on a battlefield, some just two or three peasants talking. By some modern standards this might sound arty, but it gives a kind of dignity and weight to the movie.
Eisenstein had Sergei Prokovief, one of the great composers of the 20th century, write the score for the movie. It is a big, serious score and can easily stand alone.
Is this a great movie? I really don't know. But I'll bet Goebbels hated it.
The DVD is from Criterion's Eisenstein: The Sound Years which includes Ivan the Terrible parts I and II. The transfer looked just fine.
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About the reviewer
C. O. DeRiemer (Charley2)
Since I retired in 1995 I have tried to hone skills in muttering to myself, writing and napping. At 75, I live in one of those places where one moves from independent living to hospice. I expect to begin … more