The battle on the ice in Sergei Eisenstein's "Alexander Nevsky" is one of the great, magical sequences in all of the cinema.
You may read or hear of it for years, before you see it--but still, it dwarfs every expectation, stuns you with its furious mixture of grace and violence. It's as much ballet as battle; Eisenstein wedded its images perfectly to Sergei Prokofiev's score. On a field of porcelain white, plush with pillowy drifts, two armies face each other: the Russian, largely peasant forces of Prince Alexander Nevsky (Nikolai Cherkassov--also the star of Eisenstein's "Ivan the Terrible") and a marauding army of Teutonic knights. Then, unforgettably, they clash.
The wintry elements are unreal. "Nevsky's" battle was shot in summer, in an open field near Mosfilm Studios; the ice was made of melted glass and alabaster, the snow of salt and chalk. In this grand white illusion, the armies meet in a fiery collision--flags, capes and lances flying, battle-axes crushing against cumbersome armor, camera angles tilted, the cries exultant or agonized, thrust against thrust, wound for wound, death for death.
It has been described as the cinema's greatest battle sequence, but whether it is or not is irrelevant. Years afterward, you may have forgotten much of "Nevsky"--and when you see it again, you may want to forget some of what you're seeing--but this scene never pales.
Does it overshadow the film? Almost, but not quite. "Nevsky" has always been Eisenstein's most popular movie with both Russian and Western audiences--yet purists often dismiss it as a stodgy, compromised film. In a way, they're right. But it's the flawed film of a great director: still luminous with invention. The reasons for its weakness are, oddly, inextricably tied in with its power. It's a consciously popular work, conceived by one of the cinema's boldest experimentalists: a simple, chauvinistic action movie made by an immensely self-conscious and intellectual artist. It's so close to a Western that you're reminded that Eisenstein was an admirer of John Ford, that he once said he would have been proud to have made "Young Mr. Lincoln."
There's a further impurity: Some of the footage wasn't physically directed by Eisenstein. Although Eisenstein co-wrote the script and planned every frame, film historian Jay Leyda says that Dmitri Vasiliev--listed as co-director--actually shot much of the finished film, a necessity of the punishingly short shooting schedule. Some of the staging seems ordinary--particularly the laborious comic romantic triangle between burly madcap Vasili Buslai (Nikolai Okhlopkov), and pretty, golden-braided Olga.
It's tempting to ascribe much of what you don't like about "Nevsky" to Vasiliev and everything good to Eisenstein. In fact, the battle on the ice is Eisenstein 100%. Yet "Nevsky" is probably just the film he wanted to make, the film he had to make to reinstate himself with the increasingly tyrannical Soviet regime--led by a dictator deeply suspicious of the more unsettling works of film makers like Eisenstein, Dovzhenko and Dziga-Vertov and composers like Prokofiev and Shostakovich.
The parallels between "Nevsky" and the 1938 world situation are obvious. In the 13th Century, Nevsky's Russia flings down its gauntlet to the invading Teutons; in 1938, Stalin's U.S.S.R. flings down its gauntlet to the threats of Hitler's Germany. It was the sort of film sure to please the Soviet dictator--with his relentlessly banal tastes, authoritarian rigidity and fondness for larger-than-life heroes. Stalin's regime helped shape the apparent content of "Nevsky"; then, ironically, they withdrew the film after the Stalin-Hitler non-aggression pact. "Nevsky," Eisenstein's stunningly successful "comeback" film, stayed on the shelf until World War II flamed up.
But anyone who really loves "Nevsky" may not be much caught up in its political undertheme. More likely, what grips them is its sheer artistic joy, the passionate abandon and, most of all, the superb interweaving of music and image. There have been a number of dazzling movie director-composer teams: Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann, Maurice Jaubert and Marcel Carne, Satyajit Ray and Ravi Shankar. But, of them all, Eisenstein and Prokofiev stand supreme. Eisenstein himself, in his book "The Film Sense," devotes 44 pages of painstaking analysis to the "vertical montage" (linkage of music and image) in "Nevsky." It's obviously the single element of the film that excited him the most.
Perhaps it had to be. Hampered by the bureaucracy, no longer able to express himself with the explosive brilliance of a "Potemkin" or "Strike," Eisenstein had to make a cautious film in an oppressive time. Maybe, perversely, that's why mass audiences have always preferred it. But the daring is still there beneath the surface. He and Prokofiev put an almost abstract, surging joy in the sights and sounds of their operatic, super-theatrical, insanely poetic battles.