Alexander Nevsky (1938)

These guys are in it.

These are the bad guys.

This is possibly the only talkie you’ll ever see on Saturday Silents.

The dialogue can be ignored. Stalin’s secret police collaborated on the screenplay for this excellent action movie by Sergei Eisentein.

Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

The movie almost didn’t get made

It’s a propaganda film – because “Stalin” – but Eisenstein was able to unleash all his awesome in it.

This, even though, as Criterion puts it, the real title of the movie could have been Please Don’t Kill Me Comrade Stalin.

The good guys.  At least Stalin allowed his favorite actor, Nikolay Cherkasov, to appear in the film.

The good guys. At least Stalin let his favorite actor, 6-foot 6-inch Nikolai Cherkasov, appear in the film.

I’m not sure why Stalin was furious with Eisenstein, but he was. The director therefore made an apparently very safe pitch for a movie about a 13th century national hero and his glorious moment in Russian history.

Stalin approved, though he put Eisenstein on a very short leash (the secret police really did collaborate) and gave him very little financial support.

The director wisely spent his limited cash on better things than fly swatters.

Then, right after the completed anti-German movie came out, Stalin signed a treaty with the Nazis, so Eisenstein was back in trouble again.

But then the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union (they should have watched Alexander Nevsky), and Stalin demanded that it be shown in every cinema in the country.

When the rest of the world got a look at Alexander Nevsky, they loved it.


I especially like the way Eisenstein uses the wide land and big sky here to help tell the story, a technique John Ford also did well…that’s probably a chicken/egg thing when you start to wonder about influence, though.

Alexander Nevsky undoubtedly has had just a tad of influence on other film makers over the years.

Eisenstein and George Lucas had more in common than wild hair.  Check out the inspiration for the battle of Hoth below.

Eisenstein and George Lucas have more in common than wild hair.

As Paul Tatara at TCM puts it, “Alexander Nevsky is one of those films in which sheer artistry manages to overwhelm an undercurrent of questionable content.”

Glory and chintz

Yeah, when it’s bad, it’s horrible. You’ll see flies onscreen during the Russian “winter” and other blatantly lousy production values.

However, you will also see this:

Tatara again:

If D.W. Griffith invented the language of film, through the introduction of such techniques as close-ups and tracking shots, Eisenstein, a Russian, contributed film’s elements of grammar.

But what are the actors saying?

Alexander Nevsky is directed and acted like a silent movie and therefore you can get the gist just by watching.

In that clip above, for instance, you don’t need to be told who the good and bad guys are, or what’s the general situation (hint – it’s bad, real bad).

Even though the evil mastermind behind those knights can't shoot lightning out his fingertips.

Even though the evil mastermind behind those knights can’t shoot lightning out his fingertips.

You can’t just shut the tinny sound off, though, because Sergei Prokofiev (who also did a little thing called “Peter and the Wolf”) wrote the soundtrack music for Alexander Nevsky.

It’s easy to take the background music for granted. However, this is the score that inspired all the John Williamses and Hans Zimmers of today.

Here’s what Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky sounds like today – yes, they still play it at classical concerts. It even includes a little of the noise of battle in that one part because everyone is reliving that entire scene!

Still, you might be wondering what’s going on in each scene. Luckily, IMDb has a lengthy, scene-by-scene plot summary that can help.

Now, without further ado…ladies and gentleman, here’s Alexander Nevsky!

Categories: Saturday Silents

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