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Film / Alexander Nevsky

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"Go tell all in foreign lands that Rus lives!"

"Let all come and be our guests. But he who comes to us sword in hand, by the sword shall he perish. On this Rus stands and will forever stand."

Alexander Nevsky (Russian: Александр Невский) is a 1938 Soviet Russian epic historical drama film directed by Sergei Eisenstein, also known for The Battleship Potemkin and Ivan the Terrible. Sergei Prokofiev composed the soundtrack, and it stars Nikolay Cherkasov in the title role.

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 the Soviet Union in 1941, after which it was hurried into theaters again, being just the kind of propaganda that was needed. The film is considered an excellent work and enjoyed great success and continuing influence both in and outside the Soviet Union/Russia.

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.
  • Battle-Halting Duel: Nevsky and the Grandmaster duel each other. Unfortunately; it ends up looking somewhat silly to modern audiences (at one point the Grandmaster seems to teleport into the middle of the screen).
  • Beard of Evil: Inverted. The Russians have beards while the Teutonic Knights are all clean-shaven, which is a departure from history: their rule required them to sport a beard. 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 differences from the Russian perspective.
  • Big Bad: Hermann von Balk, Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights invading Rus.
  • Big Badass Battle Sequence: The Battle on the Ice, which takes up the entire middle portion of the film. It was probably the largest example of this trope that existed in 1938, and had an enduring influence on subsequent battle scenes in movies.
  • Black Cloak: Many of the Teutonic monks, which makes them immediately recognizable as Obviously Evil.
  • Black-and-White Morality + Obviously Evil: You immediately tell the bad guys from the good ones.
  • The Blacksmith: Ignat.
  • 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 in the 1930s.
  • Braids of Action: Vasilisa has these, though to be fair, all the women seem to have them, regardless of whether they participate in the battle.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: At the end, Alexander makes a speech about how people who forget the victory are Judases. He looks directly at the audience several times.
  • Canis Latinicus: The Ominous Latin Chanting that serves as a leitmotif for the Teutonic Knights is a Word Salad that was made up by Sergei Prokofiev and Vladimir Lugovskoy.
  • Casual Danger Dialogue: Between Alexander and Ignat while fighting off Teutonic Knights.
  • 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, medieval Russians as portrayed by Eisenstein are either pagans or non-Hollywood Atheists. This was enforced by Soviet state policies, which were pro-atheism.
  • Cock Fight: Olga promises marriage to the man who fights more bravely in the battle, leading Vasili and Gavrilo to compete during the battle. Ultimately subverted, as Gavrilo is mortally wounded and Vasili refuses to marry Olga as it would imply that Gavrilo was a coward.
  • Colour-Coded for Your Convenience: In the battle on the ice, the Teutonic Knights wear white surcoats and bucket-shaped helmets, the Russians wear dark clothing and conical helmets.
  • 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".
  • Danger Thin Ice: As the Rus prepare to meet the invading Teutonic Knights on Lake Chudskoenote , Alexander is warned that the ice is thin and might crack. In response, Alexander notes that the Germans' armor, not to mention their warhorses, are heavier than those of the Rus, with the implication that the invaders are at greater risk from the ice's condition. During the ensuing battle, the famous "Battle on the Ice", the retreating German force blunders onto or is driven onto a section of the lake where the ice is relatively thin, and many of the knights drown when the ice gives way.
  • Death Is Dramatic: Gavrilo Olexich, who gets his own Dying Speech.
  • 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.
  • Due to the Dead: A lengthy sequence after the battle pans over the Russian dead, with some of them calling out the names of their loved ones with their dying breaths, with the lyrics on the soundtrack being an ode to those who gave their lives for the freedom of Rus.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Oh God, that was one difficult battle.
  • Epic Movie: A Battle Epic, to be specific. It was one of the largest cinematic productions in Russian history at the time, backed directly by the Kremlin.
  • Evil Overlord: The Pope, as represented by the archbishop; the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights.
  • Exposition: Done in a very archaic, silent-era way.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: Just as The Teutonic Knights are used as Nazis By Another Name, the Mongols represent the Japanese.
  • Fate Worse than Death: Possible the fate of the Grand Master. Being defeated in a duel and held by his enemies for ransom is certainly a great humiliation.
  • 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.
  • Foreshadowing: Ignat the blacksmith notes that the chainmail shirt he got is too short. He notes the same thing after he's stabbed in a neck by a prisoner.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: The film features a Russian Orthodox saint as a protagonist, presents medieval 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.
  • 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.
  • Hate Sink: The entire army of the Teutonic Knights, since they slaughter innocent civilians and throw crying toddlers into bonfire. Grand Master in particular since he is their leader is this.
    • The Bishop counts too. He might not directly ordered the crimes, but he gave his blessings to them.
    • Finally, Tverdillo qualifies big time. He betrayed the Russian people and helped the German Teutonic knights in their crimes. It was very satisfying to see him being torn by the mob.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade:
    • Prince Alexander was a very shrewd politician who spent most of his life feuding with other Russian princes. Also, he submitted to the Mongols and paid tribute to them after seeing them obliterate nearly every other Russian state - in fact, the army he led against the Teutonics did include some mongol cavalry. The film — following a tradition much older than Stalinism — focuses on his younger years.
    • 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".
  • I Surrender, Suckers: Tverdilo surrenders to Ignat, then grabs his knife and stabs him in the throat before running away.
  • In Its Hour of Need: The prince personally leads his army into a battle against overwhelming odds.
  • Karmic Death: Tverdilo, the traitor, is turned over to the people of Novgorod by Nevsky, and is subsequently killed by the mob.
  • 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.
  • Love Triangle: With Vasili and Gavrilo competing for the affections of Olga. Ultimately subverted, as Gavrilo dies and Vasili chooses to marry Vasilisa instead.
  • 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 Rus to be portrayed as a Dung Age filled with superstitious nitwits.
  • Mickey Mousing: The Battle on the Ice is edited to sync with Prokofiev's soundtrack. Eisenstein and Prokofiev got the idea after a visit to Walt Disney himself.
  • 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).
  • Hollywood Mosfilm Tactics: Some instances, but the writers tried to follow the course of the battle as described by Old Russian chronicles.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: It is possible that the archbishop is supposed to represent particularly the then Pope, Pius XI, who was ardently anti-communist; the cardinal bears a very superficial resemblance to the rather emaciated pontific. Alexander, of course, stands for Stalin, as he wished to be considered, though there is no physical resemblance.
  • 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.
  • Protagonist Title: Alexander Nevsky.
  • Putting on the Reich: The helmets worn by the Teutonic soldiers resemble exaggerated versions of German soldiers' Stahlhelm from the early 20th century. And the archbishop wears a mitre with swastikas! Quite possibly the earliest example of the trope (five years after the Nazis took power).
  • 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.
  • Satellite Love Interest: Olga to both Vasili Buslai and Gavrilo Olexich. She doesn't get much characterization beyond being happy when the Russians win and sad when Gavrilo dies.
  • 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.
  • Sinister Minister: The bishop who rides with the Teutonic knights.
  • The Sociopath: Grand Master Hermann von Balk, a fanatic who is willing to slaughter villages and personally throw babies into fires to conquer Rus.
  • 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.
  • Spiteful Spit: Gavrilo Olexich does this to one Teutonic knight before putting an axe in his neck.
  • Take No Prisoners: Averted. At the end of the film, Alexander asks what is to be done with the German prisoners. One of his lieutenants says to let the mooks go free because "they were forced to fight," and Alexander then says that the Knights (including the Grand Master) will be kept for ransom.
  • Tin Tyrant: The Grand Master and the higher-ups in the Knights wear horned or decorated helmets that would make a fantasy Black Knight proud.
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Vasilisa and Olga, respectively.
  • Translation Convention: All German characters speak Russian (not the butchered version (see below), but completely modern and normal).
  • Uncertain Doom: The German bishop is last seen lying down on the ice and later we see the knights drowning. As he is not seen with the arrested leaders afterwards, it can be assumed he drowned along with the majority of the knights.
  • Unexplained Recovery: Vasiliy and Gavrilo
  • 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.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The Knights are introduced tossing live children into bonfires.
  • 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. Unusual word order have the English subtitles on DVD versions.
  • You Killed My Father: The reason why Vasilisa goes to war.