“I know nothing from defense,” pleads Nikolai Cherkasov in the title role, an ex-warrior prevailed upon by 13th-century peasants to protect Mother Russia from marauding Germans. The moment is primed for disappointment. Then, suddenly, he booms: “We shall attack!” Instances like these—brace yourself for plenty more—make Alexander Nevsky a scarily effective piece of propaganda; it’s easy to see the then-timely resonance with the Western front. After Stalin’s pact with Hitler was dissolved, the film became a national treasure, screened in every movie house and almost certainly helping to save the country from ruin.
Today, we watch Alexander Nevsky for the art. Sergei Eisenstein, master of Battleship Potemkin, was saddled with a government watchdog as a codirector, whom he nonetheless put to excellent use. The movie’s dazzling battle on the ice (shot in a sweltering July) is the progenitor of all action sequences to follow, including George Lucas’s Hoth war in The Empire Strikes Back and Zhang Yimou’s rains of arrows in Hero. Just as significant is the birth of a true director-composer collaboration, with Prokofiev’s original score inspiring Eisenstein’s on-set compositions and subsequent cutting. The movie is strident, yes, but when it soars, it can’t be touched.
Cast and crew