Perhaps Eisenstein’s idea was misguided when he made Alexander Nevsky. It’s hard to imagine how the story of Russia’s 13th century folk hero could be made as a parable to the rise of the Third Reich and still work. Such obvious parallels to WWII cheapen the film. Fortunately, the idea to include swastikas on the helmets worn by the invading Teutonic Knights was scrapped. Dating the film would have been just one of the problems brought by that decision.
That Alexander Nevsky is an exquisitely made film cannot be denied. Even in the sound era, Sergei Eisenstein remained a visual maestro. As the film opens, cavalry bones and heads of Norse battleships lay on the shores of the Neva River, haunting remnants of a fierce battle.
Prince Alexander himself (Nikolai Cherkasov) is presented like the legendary hero he is to Russians. Much like Robin Hood is in much English literature, Alexander Nevsky is presented in this Russian film as a physically flawless Prince Valiant, having defeated Swedes, Mongols, and finally the Teutonic Knights from Germany. History gives way to legend and Eisenstein’s movie is more about the nation’s collective dream of Alexander Nevsky than history. There’s nothing inherently wrong with such an approach. It was, after all, the same approach Hollywood took for The Adventures of Robin Hood, released earlier in 1938. The difference here is that Eisenstein, perhaps because he was so bent on making the film a morality tale, treats his subject too heavily, as if the legend of Alexander Nevsky were gospel.
While Eisenstein upholds his reputation to keep his film visually sumptuous, the dialogue is unnatural with forced whimsical metaphors masquerading as fanciful draftsmanship. Many chunks of the film play as a silent, however, indicating that Eisenstein was aware of where his strength as a filmmaker lay.
As a straightforward recounting of Russian lore, even with incongruous parables, Alexander Nevsky works. It’s a classical epic of heroism and nationalism at a time when Russia needed it. As the Vichy was becoming an ever stronger threat, Alexander Nevsky was undoubtedly an effective moral booster.
Does the film still matter today? If one can look past the obvious intent and the one-sided anti-clerical stance of the film, it is an acceptably told fable. What remains fascinating today is the groundbreaking camera work. Who can’t be moved by the image of knights throwing children into the fire or Alexander’s army marching off to war?
As clunky as the WWII metaphors become when the Knights invade Russia, one can start to get a sense of Alexander Nevsky’s influence. The summoning of the war hero by the reluctant people of Novgorod contains the ancestral genes of Troy and the later shots of the devastated village of Pskov are the spiritual parent of a scene in Mulan.
Alexander Nevsky fits well into the tradition Hollywood would adopt for its own historical epics. Lavish special effects and striking images coat a simple legend. Most of the film takes place in the battlegrounds by Lake Peipus, and there is a generous amount of effective moments.
As Novgorod prepares for battle, the film puts a face on some of the villagers. Blacksmiths donate armor, shields, and spears. Olga (Vera Ivashova), a young woman of the town, promises to choose a husband based on who returns home from war, her story becoming the micro story of the larger picture. Even the rallying of the townsfolk has its own visual strength. The shot of the Knights praying en masse then starting a rally of their own is also well filmed.
The landscape photography is especially good with its snowy fields, boats half buried in the snow, and the sunset over Lake Peipus. The charge of the Knights is suspenseful and well shot. The carnage itself is impressive as are haunting shots of the dead at the conclusion of war.
The visual legacy of the often brutal battle scenes in Alexander Nevsky cannot be overstated. Practically every war movie since (most notably Saving Private Ryan) owes something to Eisenstein’s work here. His only misstep was accompanying the footage with carnivalesque music. It could have worked if he was going for irony, but he was trying to be rousing. However, this makes it all the more chilling when the fighting starts and the soundtrack suddenly stops.
Alexander Nevsky himself remains a muted figure. Are we supposed to take his monument-like depiction as all we need to know about him in order to keep our interest? What kind of leader was he? What were his personal feelings toward war? Alexander Nevsky is silent on such matters leaving us confused as to who exactly the man we are supposed to be cheering really is. That is why Alexander Nevsky ultimately leaves us as cold as the water in which most of the invading army froze to death when the ice cracked. As stunning as the visuals are, even the shots of the dead, the film is emotionally unmoving.