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500 Five-Star: Alexander Nevsky (1938)

July 1, 2011

Before starting this project, I told my husband that I expected him to join me in watching every single one of the 500 films.  He enjoys a good film as much as the next person, but it’s fair to say he wasn’t particularly excited about this order of mine, and I think films like Alexander Nevsky played a big part in that.  A black and white Russian propaganda piece with minimal dialogue is not most people’s idea of fun (apart from me, that is: being pretty obsessed with Soviet history, I was really quite excited to watch it!).  However, when the film ended, I think even he had to admit that I was right to make him go along with my crazy scheme.  You just do not get to see films like this every day…and I mean this in both the good and bad sense of the phrase.

Alexander Nevsky is considered to be a masterpiece in the history of cinema, due to its epic, groundbreaking battle scene and the use of editing to make the most of Prokofiev’s magnificent score (in the absence of a trailer, I have instead posted a video showcasing this technique of matching the images with sound).  This certainly cannot be argued with.  The thirty minute Battle on the Ice, while in many ways jarringly different to modern day cinematic fights, has also clearly influenced the likes of Lord of the Rings and Gangs of New York in different ways.  The scale of the battle is quite astonishing, especially for its time.

Technical marvels aside, the film is also an outstanding piece of propaganda.  Released at a time when the Soviets feared invasion by the Nazis, it tells the true story of the 13th Century invasion of Novgorod by Teutonic Knights (aka Germans), and their defeat by the Russians, led by the titular Prince Alexander.  The Knights are evil, ugly bastards who (literally) throw crying babies into pits of burning flames, and place a lot of importance on religion.  The Russians are good, proud and strong (aside from the rich merchants who are only out for themselves), and will fight to the death to defend their glorious land.  Alexander is a brilliant leader, yet also a kind, gracious, merciful man who is considered ‘one of the people’ (hmmm, I wonder who he could be based on?) .  No opportunity is passed to drum these themes into the mind of the viewer, and the message is quite clear: the Germans can invade, but under our glorious leader Stalin we will stand firm and rid our glorious nation of this vermin.  It can’t be denied that this insight into the Soviet mindset is both fascinating and genuinely entertaining.

That’s the good stuff.  Now the bad stuff.  I have to be honest and say that the DVD we watched was a quite appalling print with terrible sound quality and even worse subtitles (well, I say the subtitles were bad, but as they appeared to be written by a Geordie Yoda, there was a fair bit of enjoyment to be taken from them).  This will obviously have spoilt things a little, but even trying to take that out of the equation, the melodramatic story, acting and pacing was all fairly ridiculous.  Director Sergei Eisenstein was more comfortable with silent pictures, and it shows.  Again, there’s a fair bit of entertainment to be derived from this, but not of the sort many film directors would want to be associated with (though I admit, I did enjoy some of the cornier scenes more than I probably should have).  The battle scene, while epic, is quite hard to follow, and barely choreographed; it basically consists of a lot of extras hitting thin air with hammers and running around.  Of course though, as this wasn’t meant to be a trained army, it could be said that the battle is most likely a lot more realistic than most cinematic conflicts!  The film is also too long for such a limited story, which means the not-always-intentional entertainment wears a little thin by the end.

Still, it is a fascinating watch and a film I’m very pleased to have gotten the opportunity to see.  I doubt I’ll forget it in a hurry.

Verdict:

Surely a technical masterpiece in its day, but poor quality prints and the strange Russian nature of the storytelling means it hasn’t quite stood the test of time.  It’s entertaining, but I can only give it…

****

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