So, y’all, this is going to be a short review – partly because I am trying to catch up after my computer going belly-up a week ago, but mainly because I just plain don’t have a whole heck of a lot to say about the first of a two-part Sergei Eisenstein epic about the life of a medieval Tsar. Even Roger Ebert cheated and covered both parts in a single review, during which even he said he didn’t dig it. And if Roger Ebert can’t find much to say about something, there’s no hope for me.
Interestingly, this “Part 1” is akin to Abel Gance’s Napoleon film, in that it covers the early years of a renowned and cherished national leader. Ivan IV of Russia, also known as Ivan the Terrible, enjoyed a better reputation in Russia than that name would suggest – in fact, “Terrible” is a bit of a mistranslation, and in the original Russian he’s something more like “Ivan the Formidable” or “Ivan the Powerful”. Or “Ivan-Who’s-Intimidating-To-His-Enemies-So-It’s-Good-He’s-On-Our-Side”, kinda. Prior to Ivan’s reign, Russia was a collection of barely-controlled city-states and princedoms; Ivan was first to declare himself a unifying leader of all these feuding kingdoms into a single empire.
So our film begins here, at Ivan’s coronation, with his various admirers and rivals looking on. Ivan’s own aunt begins hatching a plot to bump off Ivan and install her own milquetoast son Vladimir on the throne; one of Ivan’s buddies, Andrei Kurbsky, is meanwhile jealous that Ivan is betrothed to the princess Anastasia, since Kurbsky himself has the hots for her. But Anastasia only has eyes for Ivan, as do many of the common folk of Russia, who are sick of being yanked hither and thither by warring princes. As the coronation stretches on, we see and hear from all parties gossiping amongst themselves; and then we’re off to Ivan’s wedding to Anastasia with all the pomp and circumstance thereby, and the same groups gossiping amongst themselves there too.
The film touches on a few events of Ivan’s early years; his coronation, his wedding, his takeover of the rebel Turkic city of Kazan, a miraculous recovery from an illness, a fake-out abdication. And these same palace-intrigue struggles play themselves out in the background the whole time; a common peasant who displays valor during the battle of Kazan becomes one of Ivan’s advisors, Ivan’s aunt keeps pulling Kurbsky aside to persuade him to betray Ivan, Anastasia keeps coming to Ivan’s defense, and on and on. Eisenstein is as ever more interested in creating a filmic montage than he is in creating a narrative, so there are plenty of shots that look pretty and contain great symbolic weight but ultimately make for a dull movie-watching experience. Even the battle at Kazan is dispatched pretty quickly, with a lot of speechmaking and bluster and then Ivan’s men blowing up Kazan’s main defense wall, and then that’s it.
I admit that some of those shots were gorgeous. The shot above especially caught my eye; it’s towards the end, with a parade of peasants coming to beg Ivan to return from a self-imposed exile. The image is admittedly a pretty on-the-nose depiction of someone as being the Father of A Nation, but even I had to admit it’s beautifully set up.
Eisenstein originally conceived of Ivan The Terrible as a three-part epic, and this first bit received a hearty endorsement from then-Soviet leader Josef Stalin, who apparently idolized Ivan IV. However, Stalin apparently disliked the second part, and blocked its wider release; Eisenstein died before he could finish shooting Part 3, and Part 2 was never distributed until after Stalin’s death. And….I’m about to watch it right now and see if I can figure out why.