Alexander Nevsky (1938)
The story of how a great Russian prince led a ragtag army to battle an invading force of Teutonic Knights.
It is the 13th century, and Russia is overrun by foreign invaders. A Russian knyaz', or prince, Alexander Nevsky, rallies the people to form a ragtag army to drive back an invasion by the Teutonic knights. This is a true story based on the actual battle at a lake near Novgorod.
- ALEXANDER NEVSKY
In the 13th century, Russian lands suffer from foreign invasions.
The opening shows an undulating field with relics of a battle: moldering uniforms, human skulls with helmets and a horse's skeleton.
In 1242, attacks come from the East by Mongols and from the West by Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire.
The first sight of Alexander (Nikolai Cherkasov) is as a fisherman.
A courier arrives with news that neighboring Pskov has been conquered by Teutonic knights.
A mongol governor in an impressive carriage escorted by soldiers approaches.
Soldiers force the fishermen to kneel and answer questions.
When the soldiers consider the attitude of a young fisherman insolent, they whip him and a skirmish starts, but stops as Alexander approaches.
Alexander was known to the Mongols for having chased a Swedish army away.
The mongol ruler is looking for Alexander to propose for him to join his forces with the rank of captain.
Nevsky diplomatically refuses and replies: "Die in your homeland, don't leave it".
He intents to fish, build ships and trade.
Nevsky warns his followers that the Germans are a more dangerous enemy.
The scene shifts to Novgorod, busy with trade, the last unconquered city in Russia.
A pretty maid Olga (Vera Ivashova) is shopping for fabrics.
Two friends who have recently fought in battle, Vasily and Gavrilo (Nikolai Okhlopkov and Andrei Abrikosov) are looking at weapons made by Ignat, a Master Armorer (Dmitriy Orlov).
They talk about wanting a peaceful life with a wife and family, and recognize Olga.
They are both attracted to Olga, and Gavrilo approaches speaks to her asking permission to send a matchmaker to her father.
Gavrilo is serious and devoted, while Vasili is jolly and garrulous.
Vasily says he is just as interested, and asks Olga to choose between the two, but she smiles and says she needs time to think it over.
In the square in front of the church, a wounded warrior speaks to the crowd, giving news of the conquest of neighboring Pskov by the Germans, and telling of their bloody oppression.
More inhabitants join the crowd as various individuals give speeches.
Rich merchants want to purchase their liberty, but the common people want to resist.
Olga, Gavrilo, and others say they want Alexander as their leader to fight.
Despite opposition from the boyars and merchants of Novgorod, urged on by the monk Ananias, the crowd in Novgorod to decides to battle the invaders.
Visitors from Pskov are present and wholeheartedly approve.
It is arranged for emissaries, led by Gavrilo to call on Prince Aleksandr Nevsky, who had led the battle against the Swedes, to organize a defense.
Nevsky is busy with fishing when the emissaries arrive.
He first asks to be dressed in his prince costume, and receives the envoys.
He agrees to lead, but not for defense, as he prefers to attack.
He takes charge with the condition they all fight for Russia and not for themselves. Putting aside petty differences and issues, an army is raised from peasant volunteers.
The scene shifts to Pskov.
Pskov is burning, conquered with the help of the traitor Tverdilo.
The marauding occupation forces distribute the loot.
The Grand Master of the Teutonic Order (Vladimir Yershov) speaks: a blond, cold, arrogant man of regal bearing and extreme pride.
The teutonic knights feel invincible and have just a smug smile for the Russian women who witness helplessly how their fathers and sons are killed at the least sign of resistance.
When a prominent Pskov elder speaks in protest, he is bound in ropes. Before he is led to hang over the large fire, his daughter Vasilisa ( Aleksandra Danilova) pleads for his life but she is yanked off him and he is led to his death.
As punishment for resistance offered, children are ripped from their mothers arms and thrown in the fire while high dignitaries of the church look on.
Back in Novgorod, Nevsky arrives, and the inhabitants promise to make weapons and armor for a thousand fighters.
Vasilisa puts on a helmet and armor.
In scenes at the invaders camp, the invaders attend religious services and boast of wanting to bait the "russian bear".
On the Russian camp, Nevsky's plans are described. He decides to battle on the ice.
His men know the territory but the Germans, who are heavier, will break through the ice...
Olga promises to marry whoever proves the most valiant of her two suitors, each of whom is given command of an important sector.
The night before the battle, the Russian troops gather on shore, and the old man tells a funny fable about how a hare trapped a wolf.
In the battle with the Germans, Nevsky uses his fisherman's knowledge of the ice as well as his experience of their military tactics to defeat them.
Batle scenes follow: masterful, repetitive, with people advancing, swinging weapons around, people riding horses, people getting bopped on heads, some arrows flying.
The Germans have heavier steel weapons, and more horses but the Russians have poles, hooks and axes of greater reach.
Closeups of the battle concentrate on Vasily, Gavrilo, a blond youth, an old man, and Vasilisa, who come to rescue each other from time to time.
Wave after wave of advancing Germans are defeated, so they regroup and move in again.
After some give and take, the entire German fighting force forms a sort of fort surrounded by a shield wall, and sallies from the inner protected area take a heavy toll on the Russians.
In a wedge attack, Gavrilo breaks the shield wall, the fight continues inside the formerly protected area, and when attacked in a pincers movement from outside, they are forced to regroup and mass towards the West side of the lake, where the ice is thinner.
The turning point of the battle comes when Gavrilo battles single handedly against the Grand Master, a duel with ordinary fighters from both camps surrounding and watching
The old man who came to the battle is killed by treachery by Tverdilo after feigning surrender, and only because his iron shirt was too short and the knife pierced him in the open part of his neck.
In the disordered rout of the Germans, most knights are killed or drowned as the thin ice cracks and breaks.
At the end of the battle, heaps of corpses are plunged in cosmic light under an endless horizon.
At nightfall, Olga and other women search with torches for survivors.
A devoted falcon sits on his master's dead body while a crow waits for the right moment to pick out the eyes of the deceased.
The song after the battle as Olga is looking for her suitors is emotionally devastating.
Olga finds Vasily and Gavrilo, wounded and unable to walk without help, and holds them up as they walk very slowly back.
In the early morning, victors and vanquished file into the walled area of the town, first the dead, then the prisoners, and finally the victors Slain heroes are conveyed on sleds, burning candles in their hands.
The most striking is the blond youth, shown on the screen in profile from head to hands.
The wind is blowing and his blond hair is dancing in the wind, in tune with the flicker of the candle flame.
At the end, Nevsky displays his generosity, as he pardons and frees the foot soldiers and keeps the knights as prisoners for ransom.
Only the bearded traitor Tverdilo and a traitorous cleric who played organ are turned over to the mob.
We see the gloomy faces of the angry Russians who had lost their relatives in the battle, and when they start tearing the traitor apart.
The trials have ended. The time for celebrations arrives.
Vasily publicly states that neither he nor Gavrilo was the bravest in battle: that honor goes to Vasilisa, and that after her came Gavrilo.
Vasilys mother (Varvara Massalitinova) objects that her son has never been second to anyone, but Vasily respectfully insists.
Gavrilo and Olga are united, while Vasily chooses Vasilisa as his bride to be, with her consent amply expressed in body language, and his mother acquiescing with broad smiles.
Nevsky gives a final warning: He who comes to Russia with sword in hand will die by the sword.