I went to the warm and sunny Verona Beach to talk about the tale of two young lovers, but now I'll be going to the icy cold Russia and study Ivan the Terrible by Sergei Eisenstein.
Before starting talking about the movie I'd like to reference two things, being, how these films came to be, and the history behind Ivan.
Ivan IV Vasilyevich or Ivan the Terrible was the Grand Prince of Moscow from 1533 to 1547 and Tsar of All the Russias from 1547 until his death. His reign is known for countless conquests and victories in battle, and by also being the first ruler to be crowned as Tsar of All the Russians. Meaning, all of the Russian territory submited to his will, something that had never happened before. Ivan's legacy is complex: he was an able diplomat, a patron of arts and trade, founder of Russia's first Print Yard, a leader highly popular among the common people of Russia, but he is also remembered for his paranoia and arguably harsh treatment of the nobility. The Massacre of Novgorod is regarded as one of the demonstrations of his mental instability and brutality. Not to mention the Tsar's personal life that had many misfortunes from family deaths to treason and several other affairs.
Sergei Eisenstein, a Russian film-maker is considered the father of montage as we know it in movies, he's had many works, but most of them are known for the colaboration between the director and the Communist government, with movies such as "Strike", "Battleship Potemkin" and "October" all made during Stalin's recent gain of power. Although he made many contemporary communist movies, Eisenstein also did historical movies, this one being one of them, and also the most anticipated by Stalin.
This piece was going to be a trilogy telling the whole story of the reign of the great Tsar. The first film, Ivan The Terrible, Part I, was filmed between 1942 and 1944, and released at the end of that year. The film presented Ivan as a national hero, and won Joseph Stalin's approval (and even a Stalin Prize). The second film, Ivan The Terrible, Part II: The Boyars' Plot, finished filming at Mosfilm in 1946. However, it offended Stalin because it depicted state terrorism at the hands of a mad Ivan. The unshown film received heavy criticism from various state authorities who had seen it, along with Stalin, at a special showing. It was only during the Khrushchev thaw that followed the death of Stalin in 1953 and the denunciation of Stalin therein, that the film was finally released in 1958, 10 years after Eisenstein's death. A third film, which began production in 1946, was halted when the decision was made not to release the second film. After Eisenstein's death in 1948, all footage from the film was confiscated, and it was rumored to have been destroyed (though some stills and a few brief shots still exist today).
The first movie begins with the coronation of a young Ivan, as he is declared Tsar of all the Russias. He then proceeds to make a speech proclaiming his intent to unite and protect Russia against the foreign armies outside her borders and the enemies within - a reference to the boyars, who are already seen as discontented with his coronation. We then follow to Ivan's wedding with Anastasia Romanovna, and it is here that we witness the first great loss for the Tsar, his two friends now seem to dislike him, Fyodor Kolychev for the Tsar's new politics, and Prince Andrei Kurbsky for being madly in love with Anastasia.
During the wedding Ivan's aunt Efrosinia, head of the boyards tries to attack the Tsar using the common people, and so the marriage feast is interrupted by news of the burning of several boyar palaces, carried into the Tsar's palace by a mob of the common people who also complain that the Tsar is being led astray by the Tsarina's family. Ivan calms the crowd, but is interrupted by envoys from the khanate of Kazan, who send him a ceremonial knife with the suggestion that he do himself a favor by using it to commit suicide. Ivan immediately proclaims that his kingdom is at war with Kazan.
And so begins the conquests and wars for Ivan, after a swift and clever victory in Kazan, Ivan returns home but falls ill and is thought to be on his deathbed; Orthodox priests come to give him the last rites before he dies. Ivan sends for his relatives and orders them to swear allegiance to his son, the infant Dmitri, reminding them of the need for a single ruler to keep Russia united. All of them seem fearful to do so and his aunt sees it as an oppurtunity to get all of them to swear allegiance to her son Vladimir. Emotionally overwrought, Ivan collapses and is thought dead. Meanwhile, Prince Kurbsky finnaly sees a chance to win the heart of the recently widowed Tsarina, but she, while pushing his efforts aside seems to know the true faith of the Tsar, Kurbsky realizes that Ivan is still alive, and hurriedly swears his allegiance to Ivan's infant son, Dmitri. An act that the Tsar accidentaly witnesses and rewards him by giving him comand of the army in the western border of the kingdom to defend against the Livonians and Poles.
Sending his friend to the war front, Ivan now only has his wife to support him while he is surrounded by his enemies. The boyards see this as an oppurtunity to weaken the Tsar and plot to kill the recently ill Tsarina. At that time Ivan receives terrible news that Kurbsky's army lost, and he most likely switched sides to the Polish. Efrosinia, Ivan's aunt then puts the boyards plan into motion and suceeds in killing the Tsarina with a poisoned cup of wine.
Then, at the Tsarina's funeral Ivan questions his own justifications and ability to rule, wondering if his wife's death is God's punishment on him. However, he pulls himself out of it, and sends for Kolychev his friend that went to a monastery. At this point, Alexei Basmanov a recentl appointed general from the common people, arrives, suggesting that Ivan surround himself with men he can trust - "iron men," the Oprichnina - and offers his son, Fyodor, for service. Ivan accepts, and sets about recouping his losses. He abdicates and leaves Moscow, waiting until the people beg him to return, saying that he now rules with absolute power by the will of the people.
This how the first film ends, and we can see why Stalin loved it so much, from the tormented hero, to the rallying of the people to justify his power while battling the danger inside his own borders, in fact the only complaints that Stalin had was that Ivan seemed too close to his own wife.
Part II opens in the court of King Sigismund of Poland, to whom Kurbsky swears allegiance. Sigismund promises to make Kurbsky ruler of Ivan's territories, once he exploits the Tsar's absence by conquering them. The plan is foiled when an emissary announces that Ivan has returned to Moscow. With his return, Ivan starts distributing all of the boyard's lands to his own trusted men of the Oprichnina. His friend, Kolychev, arrives, now the monk Philip; after a heated debate, Philip agrees to become metropolitan of Moscow, if Ivan gives him the right to intercede for condemned men. This is mutually agreed upon. But as soon as it is settled, Ivan, propelled by Malyuta his trusted spy, finds a way around this: he executes condemned men quickly, before Philip can use his right. In this way he has three of Philip's kinsmen executed.
Fyodor Basmanov, the first of the Oprichniki, helps Ivan figure out that the Tsarina was poisoned, and both suspect Efrosinia of poisoning the cup of wine. Ivan orders Fyodor not to say anything about it until he (Ivan) is certain beyond doubt of her guilt. Meanwhile the boyars, close to desperation, plead their case to Philip and eventually win him over. He vows to block Ivan's abuse of power, and confronts him in the cathedral while a miracle play is being presented. As the argument heats up, Ivan, angry, proclaims that he will be exactly what the boyars call him - terrible - and has Philip seized. The boyars now decide that their only option is to assassinate Ivan.
Ivan, now certain of Efrosinia's guilt, invites Vladimir (her son) to a banquet with the Oprichniki. Ivan gets Vladimir drunk while the Oprichniki sing and dance around them; Vladimir mentions that there is a plot to kill Ivan, and he (Vladimir) is to replace him as Tsar. Fyodor Basmanov notices the assassin leaving, and signals Ivan, who, pretending surprise at Vladimir's revelation, suggests Vladimir try being Tsar for a while, and has the Oprichniki bring throne, orb, scepter, crown and royal robes, and they all bow down to "Tsar Vladimir." Then Ivan tells Vladimir to lead them to the cathedral in prayer, as a Tsar should lead. Hesitantly, Vladimir does. In the cathedral, the assassin runs up and stabs the mock Tsar, and is immediately seized by Fyodor and Malyuta. Ivan orders them to release Pyotr, and thanks him for killing the tsar's worst enemy. Efrosinia arrives, jubilant at the apparent death of Ivan, until she sees Ivan alive; rolling the corpse over, she realizes it is her own son. Ivan sentences her and then relaxes, proclaiming that all his enemies within Moscow are vanquished and he can turn to those outside.
And so ends the second and final part of the movie, the one that Stalin hated, claiming that it was historically wrong, that the Oprichnina looked like the KKK with the robes, and that Ivan had turned into a church hating terrorist. This of course, led to the film being banned until Stalin's death, Eisenstein tried making the third and final part, diferently to appease Stalin, but died before he could. Which, in a way is a good thing, because I see that these two movies are so well made, coherent and, well, good, that a heavilly influenced third part would only ruin the trilogy.
I have nothing but praise for all the actors in these movies. Nikolay Cherkasov did a terrific job as Ivan, showing the slow evolution of a man's journey through power, pain, and victory. He also has a face that shows power, if you told me he was the real Tsar I wouldn't disagree, for he seems to really fit the part. Serafima Birman also did a great job as Efrosinia, playing the part of the villain wonderfully while also showing the compasion of a mother towards her mentally disabled son. Honestly, these movies are filled with great actors, and seeing them act together is a real treat, the intensity and power these actors convey is out of this world.
This is something I really need to talk about, for it is simply brilliant work by the director. This movie relies hevilly on symbolism and the huge sets and clever camera angles with slick effects makes it all the better. One thing these movies use a lot are the shadows, usually Ivan's shadow, to show the several meanings in some scenes and adding a bunch of atmosphere to it.
This is not to mention the great use of metaphors with these shadows, giving birth to many theories about their meaning and history.
All in all this movie rellies hevilly on atmosphere, you can really feel yourself being sucked into this plot. You trully feel intrigued to know what each and every character is thinking and how will they act when trouble shows itself. I myself didn't know much about the history behind Tsar Ivan, and saw this movie as a wonderful introduction to him, it made me curious about his life and about Russian medieval history as a whole. So taking in consideration the story, directing, acting, setting, writting, and my own personal enjoyment of the movie, I've decided to give these movies a solid 9/10. They're great movies, both technically and in terms of overall enjoyment, they can have one or two weird moments due to cultural barrier, but you can easily shake them off. I honestly loved these movies and see them as master-pieces.
If you love movies about historical mad and badass leaders I'd also like to recommend you a couple of movies that I also really enjoyed.
Hopefully you'll find something you like in these two.
And that's all for me today, and this time I don't have any review set, if you'd like, leave recommendations for my next reviews, or your overall feedback. Until next time.