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Film Review: Alexander Nevsky

Alexander Nevsky (1938; Directed by Sergei Eisenstein)

Eisenstein’s seminal historical epic is, in many ways, the model for the vast majority of the epic films that have followed it. The climactic Battle of the Ice exerts the most obvious and easily-traced influence; it was directly referenced by Olivier and Welles for their onscreen Shakespearean battles, but the conventions it established continue to permeate Hollywood action epics to this day. Most prominent in recent years was Peter Jackson’s borrowing of Eisenstein’s effective battle-kickstart for his Lord of the Rings trilogy: inexorable build-up into a rolling charge over swelling, rousing music that cuts out as the battle is joined, replaced by the clanging symphony of clashing weapons. Eisenstein was fortunate enough to have Sergei Prokofiev score his indelible imagery, of course, although Howard Shore was no slouch for Jackson in that regard.

We shall make them PAY for jucing lemons on our helmets!

But, unfortunately, Alexander Nevsky also continues to exert considerable influence on historical epics in other less advantageous ways: the stiffness of its performances, the heroic emptiness of its heroes, and the ruthless vilification of its antagonists. It is, of course, impossible to ever forget that this is a Soviet propaganda film to its very socialist core. Nevsky is portrayed as a great hero, obviously, but also as a noble who fished with the proletariat and put great trust in the bravery and wisdom of his fellow “Russians” (the nationalism is rote, but also historically problematic).

Meanwhile, the Teutonic Knights that he so gloriously defeats are depicted as twisted, robotic zealots hellbent on Russia’s destruction. Encased in their slitted metal helmets, they’re treacherous, violent and cruel, but then, they are “Germans”, after all (more history issues, as most came from what is now Poland and the Baltic States). It’s all pretty damned pat, but then Eisenstein was always fully dedicated to using cinematic imagery to explicate ideology and made no bones whatsoever about it. Here he aims it at the USSR’s Nazi antagonists with little or no subtlety (which hurt his film a year after its release, when the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact made the Nazis not-so-much-antagonists, if only for a brief period). His imagery is undeniable potent, but for such a revered auteur, our comrade can treat his chosen art like quite the blunt instrument.

What’s most odd about watching the film is that one comes to the realization that the majority of Hollywood historical epics follow Eisenstein’s ideological path as well as his stylistic one. The heroes are virtuous and courageous, the villains are dehumanized monsters, stains on mankind’s tablecloth. The genre was forged in the fires of propaganda, and in many ways, it’s never really moved beyond that. For all of its considerable technical and artistic achievements, Alexander Nevsky is a constant reminder of this disappointing reality.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

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