"Go tell all in foreign lands that Russia lives!" Alexander Nevsky
(Russian: Александр Невский
) is a 1938 historical drama film directed by Sergei Eisenstein
, also known for The Battleship Potemkin
and Ivan the Terrible
The film depicts the attempted invasion of Novgorod in the 13th century
by The Teutonic Knights
of the Holy Roman Empire
and their defeat by the Russian people, led by Prince Alexander, known popularly as Alexander Nevsky. (In order to deal with the Knights, he foregoes a campaign against the Mongols
.) It begins as the knights invade and conquer the city of Pskov with the help of the traitor
Tverdilo and massacre its population. In the face of resistance by the boyars
and merchants of Novgorod (urged on by the monk Ananias
), Nevsky rallies the common people of Novgorod and in a decisive Battle of the Ice, on the surface of the frozen Lake Chudskoe.
It is worth noting that because the movie was made during the Stalinist regime, it also contains quite a few Soviet political subtexts, such as the anti-religious, anti-German stance of the communist government of that time and the portrayal of Nevsky as a wise and courageous leader―reflecting how Stalin had himself portrayed during his "cult of personality" campaign. Unfortunately for Eisenstein, the film debuted just months before the non-aggression treaty between the USSR and Nazi Germany, and he was forced to pull the movie from theaters―until the German invasion of Russia in 1941, after which it was hurried into theaters again. Despite its (very
Soviet subtext, the film is still considered an excellent work and enjoyed great success and continuing influence both in and outside the Soviet Union.
This film provides examples of the following tropes:
- Action Girl: Vasilisa of Pskov. She avenges her father's death by gearing up and taking to the battlefield. Contrary to another trope, one of the other heroes actively pursues the amazon.
- All Germans Are Nazis: And this was before World War II.
- Aristocrats Are Evil: Novgorod boyars are depicted as a corrupt and cowardly lot, willing to sell out the city to the enemies. Prince Alexander is an exception — mainly because, in the movie, he is portrayed as a hero of the common folk.
- Bad Ass Beard: Alexander, and, what the heck, almost the entire Russian army. The Teutonic Knights are all clean-shaven, which is a departure from history: their rule required them to sport a Beard of Evil. This was probably for patriotic reasons, as the Russian Orthodox Church also once required its members to have beards and not shave, so it serves as an easy way to highlight difference from the Russian perspective.
- Beam Me Up, Scotty!: A variation of the phrase "all who draw the sword will die by the sword", tends to be attributed to Alexander since it appears in the movie. In reality, there is no mention of him ever saying it in public, and the phrase is actually attributed to Jesus.
- Black and White Morality + Obviously Evil: You immediately tell the bad guys from the good ones.
- Bloodless Carnage: Not a single drop of blood is shed in the film, despite an impressive body count. Perhaps due to a Special Effects Failure, as it was much more difficult to create realistic gore 70 years ago.
- Christianity is Catholic: Orthodox Christianity is almost completely absent from the movie. Only in the end does Prince Alexander pay a visit to the Archbishop of Novgorod. Russian churches have no crosses on top, Russian banners represent some fantastic beasts (in reality, they would feature an icon of Christ), and there are no priests in Alexander's army. Essentially, mediaeval Russians as portrayed by Eisenstein are either pagans or non-Hollywood Atheists. Why, you ask? Two words: Executive Meddling.
- Combat by Champion: Played with. It takes place near the end of the battle, but it's still only after Alexander's victory in the duel that the outcome becomes clear.
- Corrupt Church: The hideously withered archbishop and the black monk Grigory wish to subject the Russian people to The Pope, while the Russian monk Ananias is willing to betray the people of Novgorod to The Teutonic Knights.
- Church Militant: "There is one God in Heaven, and one servant of God on Earth. Everything that does not bow before Rome shall be put to death".
- Dawson Casting: 35-year old Nikolay Cherkasov, a superstar of Stalin-era Soviet cinema, was cast as the title character — who was 22 at the time of the battle. Due to Pop-Cultural Osmosis (see below), most Russian people think that the prince was in his 30's when he fought the battle.
- Doomed Moral Victor: The mayor of Pskov at the beginning of the film.
- Dressing as the Enemy: Vasiliy pulls this off in the middle of the battle.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: Oh God, that was one difficult battle.
- Epic Movie
- Evil Overlord: The Pope, as represented by the archbishop; the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights.
- Executive Meddling: The production of the film was an important affair of the state, rigorously monitored by Soviet authorities. The film's ultimate censor was Stalin himself.
- Exposition: Done in a very archaic, silent-era way.
- Expy: Just as The Teutonic Knights are used as Nazis By Another Name, the Mongols represent the Japanese.
- Faceless Goons: The soldiery of The Teutonic Knights wear helmets covering the entire face except for a narrow slit for eyes which cannot be seen.
- Fake Nationality: All German characters, for obvious reasons, are played by Russian actors. The Mongol envoy is Chinese, but Mongol extras are played by actual Mongols (foreign students of Soviet universities or members of Soviet Mongol minority; Mongolia's first modern government independent of China was backed by the Soviet Union.)
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: The film features a Russian Orthodox saint as a protagonist, presents mediaeval Russia in a positive light, and glorifies non-Communist Russian patriotism. All these things were looked down upon by Soviet authorities and intellectuals critical of what was termed Great Russian Chauvinism, yet Eisenstein got away with it.
- Eisenstein even smuggled in a friggin' Biblical quote! At the end of the movie, Alexander says: "He who comes to us with a sword, shall die by the sword". It's a paraphrase of Matthew 26:52.
- Actually, in media and literature, paraphrasing the Bible (typically in a nonspecific manner, without citation) was not uncommon even in this time period.
- Good Republic, Evil Empire: Novgorod at its height was a feudal republic with the prince being elected by the city council, severely limited in power and mostly just a figurehead — unless there was an imminent military threat. By contrast, the Knights were vassals of the Holy Roman Empire, and the Mongols... You get the idea.
- Historical Hero Upgrade: Prince Alexander was a very shrewd politician who spent most of his life feuding with other Russian princes. The film — following a tradition much older than Stalinism — focuses on his younger years and his Crowning Moment of Awesome.
- Knowing the Bylins (heroic folk stories) makes Vasiliy Buslay look more like Heroic Comedic Sociopath. Remember his plans of going to Volga to "play with the axe"
Hollywood Mosfilm Tactics: Some instances, but the writers tried to follow the course of the battle as described by Old Russian chronicles.
- In Its Hour of Need: The prince personally leads his army into a battle against overwhelming odds.
- Kick the Dog: Just to show how evil they are, a Mongol warrior lays a whip across the back of a young Russian peasant for daring to stand in the presence of the Mongol ambassador; and the ambassador climbs into his carriage on the back of one of his servants.
- Later, the Teutonic Knights toss infants onto a bonfire.
- Knight in Shining Armor: Nevsky and his troops wear shining armor, with helmets shaped like Russian church spires.
- Knight Templar: The Teutonic Knights ruthlessly slaughter all who oppose them, in Pskov going so far as to burn their opponents' children alive.
- Light Is Not Good: The Knights and monks are wearing pristine-white capes and robes.
- The Man Makes the Weapon: Alexander tells the blacksmith that it is man's arm not the tempering that gives the sword its strength
- Medieval Morons: Boldly subverted, despite the fact that Soviet cultural conventions of the time basically required Old Russia to be portrayed as a Dung Age filled with superstitious nitwits.
- Modest Royalty: During his exile in Pereyaslavl, Alexander wears simple peasant clothing and hangs out with local fishermen. Even after being restored as Prince of Novgorod, he refrains from showing off his status (Truth in Television, because in Novgorod, the prince was more of a provisional military leader rather than an all-powerful sovereign).
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: It is possible that the archbishop is supposed to represent particularly the then Pope, Pius XII, who was ardently anti-communist and was regarded by some (then as now) as inclined to favor the Germans; the cardinal bears a very superficial resemblence to the rather emaciated Pontiff◊. Alexander, of course, stands for Stalin, as he wished to be considered, though there is no physical resemblence.
- Notable Original Music: Prokofiev's score.
- And Crowning Music of Awesome during the battle scene, and the 'field of the dead' sequence afterwards, and... oh hell, all of it.
- Oh Crap: Lots of freaked-out stares during the battle, by both sides.
- Ominous Latin Chanting: Scenes with the Teutonic Knights are accompanied by a sinister Latin chorus, which rises in a crescendo during the battle scene, to indicate that the Teutons were evil Catholics fighting the good-guy Russians. Prokofiev's scoring for this scene sounds similar enough to Carl Orff's Carmina Burana to have inspired, perhaps, the use of "O Fortuna" in subsequent movies. (The Orff piece was written earlier ―- by one year.) The chanted words "Peregrinus expectavi pedes meos in cymbalis" are themselves snipped from various places in Igor Stravinsky's A Symphony of Psalms, quite possibly as a subtle Take That to his contemporary. Prokofiev evidently realized that practically no-one in the audience would know Latin: the assembled chant is Word Salad meaning something like "A pilgrim — I awaited — my feet — on the cymbals."
- Patriotic Fervor: Hell, yeah. Although it's useful to consider that it was a very unusual thing at that time and place.
- Pop-Cultural Osmosis: The enormously successful film cemented the Battle on the Ice in Russian imagery. Most later takes on the subject (paintings, historical novels, etc.) drew more on Eisenstein's film than on scant historical sources.
- Also, few people in Russia know about the Biblical origins of the famous "die by the sword" quote. And it's very often misquoted.
- Proper Lady: Olga Danilova.
- Putting on the Reich: The helmets worn by the Teutonic soldiers resemble exaggerated versions of German soldiers' Stahlhelm from the 20th century. And the archbishop wears a mitre with swastikas!◊ Quite possibly the earliest example of the trope (five years after Those Wacky Nazis took power).
- Referenced By: The film has been cited in a number of subsequent fictional works.
- Royals Who Actually Do Something: Not only does Prince Alexander lead the Russian troops, but when we first see him in the film, he is among a number of fishermen setting their nets.
- Scenery Gorn: The frozen lake, strewn with bodies of fallen warriors. Oh, and the Mongol-induced devastation at the beginning.
- Sidekicks: Alexander has two, Vasiliy Buslay and Gavrilo Oleksich.
- Shown Their Work: Despite heavily fictionalizing the story and throwing in a few inaccuracies for ideological reasons, the writers took pains to research the period. For instance, a Teutonic monk is playing an organ during the battle: this was taken from the Livonian Chronicle, albeit it really happened in another battle.
- Sorting Algorithm Of Villain Threat: Prince Alexander decides that the Knights represent a greater threat than the Mongols.
- Spikes of Villainy: The Knights' helmets emphasize grasping eagle talons or animal horns.
- Tin Tyrant: The Grand Master
- Translation Convention: All German characters speak Russian (not the butchered version (see below), but completely modern and normal).
- Warrior Poet: Alexander is as good with words as he is with swords. His Sidekick Gavrilo Oleksich also qualifies.
- The Wise Prince: Alexander is presented as an excellent ruler who actually cares about his people.
- Unexplained Recovery: Vasiliy and Gavrilo
- World of Ham: The entire cast is quite hammy. Justified by the relatively recent transition from silent cinema, where eye-rolling and emoting was much more common.
- Ye Old Butcherede Russhyanne : All the Russian characters speak faux Old Russian, sometimes bordering on Yoda Speak.
- You Killed My Father: The reason why Vasilisa goes to war.