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Film / Ivan the Terrible

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Ivan the Terrible (Russian Иван Грозный, Ivan Groznyy) is a 1944 Soviet Russian historical drama film duology, Sergei Eisenstein's second (and last) sound film and a Spiritual Successor to Alexander Nevsky, with Nikolay Cherkasov in the main role once again.

This highly stylized film duology chronicles the life of the (in)famous Ivan IV "The Terrible", from his rise as a Prince henpecked by the Boyars, feudal nobleman, to a powerful Tsar who will unite Russia into a gigantic kingdom. Part I chronicles the Prince's marriage, his benign and happy early years, his wars in the Kazan, personal tragedy and eventual rise. Part II shows the Prince preparing to stave off the Boyars from making a resurgence, establishing his special secret police, the Oprichniki, and finally embracing his destiny as Groznyy (The Terrible).

The first film was made during World War II, and had the support of Josef Stalin, whose Cult of Personality invoked Ivan. Eisenstein conceived of the film as a trilogy, yet only two parts were finished, with Part III being cancelled in mid-production because Stalin was very critical of Part II, followed by Eisenstein's death a brief while later. Part I released in 1944 earned the director the Stalin Prize (Soviet Nobel Prize-cum-Oscar) and was well received internationally. The second part, shot back-to-back with the first one, was completed in 1946. However it was shelved, and it was released only in 1958 long after Eisenstein's (and fives years after Stalin's death). Part II became especially famous for its color sequence, which was shot on Agfacolor film stock looted by Red Army troops in Germany.

It is regarded as a classic of Soviet/Russian and world cinema and is available on The Criterion Collection.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation: Malyuta, Ivan's Side Kick, chief of Oprichnina is a peasant who wants to execute aristocrats. That trope easily fits the movie format. Historical Malyuta was a low-ranking aristocrat who resented high ranking aristocrats, explaining the Side Kick's character arc would have taken too long.
  • Anti-Hero: Ivan the Terrible and his Terror Squad, the Oprichniki.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: All of them, save for the Tsar and Anastasia Romanovna Zakharyina-Yuryeva, his wife and Morality Pet.
  • Artistic License – History: The movie takes many, many liberties with history. For instance, most of Ivan the Terrible's opponents are conflated into Eufrosinia Staritskaya and her son. In reality, Ivan the Terrible had seven wives; only one is shown in the film. Many events from his life are omitted or rearranged in sequence, etc. All this was done to present him, at least in Part I, as a positive figure.
  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: The movie begins with the coronation of Ivan as Tsar of Moscow and Autocrat of All Russia. The scene is quite lavish and lasts 10 minutes, and culminates with Ivan being showered with gold coins.
  • Batman Gambit: The tsar's plan to eliminate his opposition.
  • Black-and-Grey Morality: The boyars are a wicked and callous lot, but Ivan the Terrible is no angel, either. This makes it, ironically, the most balanced of Eisenstein's films.
  • The Caligula: Ivan during the Oprichnik dance scene (see below).
  • The Chessmaster: Both Ivan and his nemesis Efrosinia Staritskaya. ("Yevrosinya"; your subtitles may vary).
  • Costume Porn: There's quite a multitude of lavish costumes, especially for the coronation scene.
  • Crapsack World: Medieval Russia seems to be a really, really, really nasty place to live.
  • Cultural Posturing: Both Ivan the Terrible and his enemies (e.g., the Tatar envoy and the Polish king) go through their share of national chest-thumping.
  • Decadent Court: The boyars.
  • Defector from Decadence: Prince Kurbsky is hailed as one at the Polish court.
  • Drag Queen: Fyodor Basmanov. Yes. In a 1945 Soviet Movie.
  • Epic Movie: One of the most lavish spectacles of Stalinian cinema.
  • Ermine Cape Effect: The tsar wears some really wealthy clothing.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Efrosinia, of all people, has one of these moments in Part 2, when the Bishop[?] tells her he plans to let Philip be condemned, so they'll have a saintly martyr for their crusade against Ivan: "White is the cowl but black the soul!"
  • Face–Heel Turn: Andrey Kurbsky and, arguably, Feodor Kolychov
  • Foreshadowing: To Real Life, paralleling Russia's suffering in the time of Ivan the Terrible with its suffering in the Great Patriotic War.
  • Face of an Angel, Mind of a Demon: Fyodor Basmanov is angelically beautiful. He is also Ivan the Terrible's fanatically loyal right hand man in crime and happily sings about murder and burning in hellishly lit banquets
  • Freudian Excuse: Ivan IV hates the Boyars and is paranoid because as a young Prince, they separated him from his mother and killed her.
  • Good Angel, Bad Angel: Anastasia as the Good Angel, Fyodor as the Bad Angel
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: A lot of it, very historically accurate as well. Especially impressive considering this was made during World War II when even the cast and crew had to live on rations.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: While fighting against insidious, immoral, and corrupt boyars, the tsar slowly descends into brutality, paranoia and outright madness. Most notably in Part II, Ivan IV gives a Motive Rant as to why he hates the boyars, noting that as a child they separated him from his mother. At the end of that, Ivan IV kills Vladimir in front of his mother Efrosinia. Film historians, noting the subtext and the Freudian themes in the film, suggest that this was part of the film's critique. Ivan IV is a populist monarch who appeals to the people rather than the nobleman, but he ends up becoming the tyrant he had opposed to start with, noting that this was part of Eisenstein's Self-Deprecation on the entire Soviet generation.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Ivan IV was always better regarded in Russia than across Europe. Even aside from the Stalinist propaganda, the film does highlight the Tsar's drive to unify and centralize the monarchy and curtail the power of the corrupt noblemen, one reason for his real-life popularity. Part 1 does exaggerate the Tsar's "populism" however. The second part, however, shows Ivan IV building and empowering the Oprichniki.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: The Oprichniki in Part II, according to Stalin and the Central Committee. They are depicted as Ku Klux Klan-type fanatics rather than, in Stalin's words, "the progressive army"note .
  • Kick the Dog: Kurbsky's needless cruelty towards the Tatars foreshadows his betrayal of the tsar.
  • Knight in Shining Armor: Both Ivan and Andrey Kurbsky wear ornate, shining plate armor during the siege scene.
  • Kubrick Stare: Lots. In the coronation scene that kicks off Part I, all of Ivan's rivals and enemies are looking at him this way.
  • Lonely at the Top: The entire premise of the movie, and the reality at the end of Part II.
  • Lost in Translation: Ivan's sobriquet, "Groznyi", really means more "Fearsome" than "Terrible"—but the modern English connotation of the word makes it sounds like, say, Pope John XII (AKA "Pope John the Bad").
  • Morality Chain: The Czarina
  • Name Drop: Averted (in Part 1)—nobody calls Ivan "the Terrible". Then played totally straight in part 2, when Ivan declares, quite melodramatically, that
    "Henceforth, I shall be as you name me! I shall be...Ivan the Terrible!!"
  • Necessarily Evil: The Oprichnina terror campaign.
  • New Era Speech: Ivan makes one right after the coronation, much to the boyars' dismay.
  • Police State: The Oprichniki establish this in Part II, and Part III would have shown them at the height of their power. The only surviving scene from Part III, available on the Criterion DVD, shows them bullying Heinrich von Stadten.
  • Protagonist Journey to Villain: Ivan's slow journey from heroic young king to bitter tyrant is the core of the story, and infamously a reason for Stalin's poor reception to Part II. Stalin related entirely too hard to Ivan Groznyy, and didn't like the implications for his own tyrannical rule.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: The oath of the Oprichniki, also a quote from Ivan himself, ends "For the sake of the GREAT! RUSSIAN! KINGDOM!" (Ради русского царства великого!)
  • Reign of Terror: What Ivan and the Oprichniki establish at the end of Part II.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: Ivan the Terrible personally commands his army during the siege of Kazan and tirelessly works to strengthen his realm.
  • Rule of Symbolism: The movie is rife with symbols, some pretty obvious, some quite intricate. The Other Wiki does a good job of sorting them out.
  • Sanity Slippage: In the second film, Ivan slowly descends into madness and wickedness, culminating in the colour sequence.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Eisenstein conceived the film as a historical film in the tradition of William Shakespeare's history plays (also propaganda for the Tudor and Jacobean monarchs) and so deliberately modelled the film on Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth.
    • Visually, the film is filled with a range of artistic and literary references. It alludes at several times to Paul Gauguin, Giotto and other historical paintings in its compositions and references.
  • Splash of Color: The Oprichnik banquet scene is filmed in color, making it look nightmarishly surreal.
  • State Sec: The Oprichniki.
  • That Russian Squat Dance: Performed during the banquet scene.
  • Then Let Me Be Evil: The Czar decides to become a terror after repeated Boyar attempts against him.
  • Villainous BSoD: Efrosinia has one at the end of Part 2.
  • Villain Protagonist: By the later parts, Ivan has become the villain of his own story.
  • Villain Song: Two or three of them, one sung by Feodor Basmanov and the oprichniks, another by Efrosinia, the third... if you consider the tsar a villain, that would be the theme song.
  • Wicked Cultured: Ivan is shown to be quite knowledgeable and refined for his era.
  • World of Ham: The entire cast is fond of theatrics, eye-rolling, hand-waving and bombastic speeches.
  • Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: Everybody speaks a highly stylized language with a veneer of antiquity that has actually little to do with actual Old Russian.