October (1928)

One of most celebrated scenes from Eisenstein’s October.

The career of Russian film maker Sergei Eisenstein, who lived from 1898 to 1948, can roughly be divided into three phases. In his mid-20s, he made Strike, October, and the iconic Battleship Potemkin. He spent most of his 30s in the wilderness, first in Hollywood, and then in Mexico, where most of his work ended up either incomplete or destroyed. He ended his life as the court film maker for Joseph Stalin’s peculiar amalgam of communism and Russian nationalism, giving us Alexander Nevsky in 1938, Ivan the Terrible: Part I in 1944, and Ivan the Terrible Part II in 1947, which, although suppressed during his lifetime, is arguably is greatest film.

October, sometimes known as Ten Days That Shook the World and made for the 10th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution, is an ambitious yet ultimately unsatisfying film. The Soviet government gave Eisenstein thousands of extras, a huge budget, and full run of the Winter Palace. He gave them more than their money’s worth, turning out a visual recreation of the events of July and October of 1917 so vivid and yet so realistic that it’s often shown in history classes as if it were documentary footage.

What makes October effective propaganda is how Eisenstein re-imagines Lenin’s relentless yet gradual takeover of the Russian state in 1917 as a single dramatic event. Yes, the storming of the Winter Palace did happen in 1917. In reality it was more of a walk into the Winter Palace than a storming of the Winter Palace. Nevertheless, we subconsciously conflate history and myth. It becomes, in effect, not the final stage of a coup, but the second coming of the fall of the Bastille. Indeed, while in our minds, we know that Lenin overthrew the shell of a liberal and social democratic provisional government, setting the final scene at the Winter Palace tricks our emotions into believing he overthrew the monarchy itself. Eisenstein took Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli’s monumental structure, and flipped the script on it. Where Catherine the Great intended The Winter Palace to showcase the eternal power of Imperial Russia, Eisenstein uses it to put the final nail in the Romanov coffin.

Then why did I find myself falling asleep during the last half hour?

October is basically two films, triumphalist state propaganda coexisting with revolutionary agitprop. Strike and Battleship Potemkin are two of the greatest pieces of revolutionary agitprop. Their intention is not to prop up a state, but to condemn one, not to celebrate the Bolshevik victory in 1917, but to protest Czarist and, more importantly, capitalist oppression. Strike ends in a massacre. Battleship Potemkin ends with a call for ongoing struggle, but is mainly known for the massacre on the Odessa Steps. Eisenstein’s intention, in both films, is to fill us with rage against the oppressor, to call us to arms, and, ultimately, revolution. Sergei Eisenstein, like all great poets, was most comfortable when he was in the opposition.

Yet how could he have made a film on the scale of October had the Bolsheviks not already won, had he not had the backing of the state in addition to his genius?  He did go through a period of exile in the late 1920s and 1930s where he made a great but unfinished film in Mexico. But that was all in the future. In 1927, at the tender age of 28, he was commissioned by the Soviet government, which he believed in passionately, to do a film about the storming of the Winter Palace. In the late 1920s, Eisenstein was, essentially, the Bolshevik court filmmaker. Yet unlike Leni Riefenstahl, he wasn’t a fascist. Ivan the Terrible Part II, his final film, which he had intended partly to flatter Joseph Stalin, was suppressed. The intention was to glorify the dictator. The result was a honest, complex film that pissed the dictator off.

October is the dramatic recreation of two events that took place in 1917, the Storming of the Winter Palace and the — much less known outside of Russia — July Days. During the first half of October Eisenstein shows us how the Czar, who had led Russia into the holocaust of World War I, was overthrown in February of 1917 by a spontaneous uprising of workers and mutinous soldiers. St. Petersburg was left with a situation of dual power. There was the liberal, yet ruling class “provisional government,” which was determined to maintain the existing property relations and continue the war with Germany, and the soldiers and workers councils, “the Soviets,” dominated but not exclusively run by the Bolsheviks.

In July of 1917, against the wishes of the Bolshevik leadership, a mass rally was staged to protest the continued involvement of Russia in the war. It’s here where October really shines. The surging masses will remind you of the Battle of Algiers. You’ll gasp when government troops machine gun a group of marchers. It’s here you’ll find the film’s most famous scene, a white horse hanging from a drawbridge raised high over the Neva River. Eisenstein is the poet of industrial civilization. Only he could have combined the image of flesh and metal, both idealized, the beautiful white horse stopped dead in its tracks, the power of engines lifting the mighty span into the air. For anybody who’s tempted to condemn Eisenstein for making a film for the Soviet government, it’s important to remember that the provisional government under Kerensky government did actually kill over 700 people in July of 1917. They were determined to continue feeding Russian peasants and workers into the meat grinder in the west. The Bolsheviks did have popular support. But that popular support, in the end, is what makes the second half of the film so much less vivid than the first. Kerensky fled to the United States. The attempted coup by General Kornilov had been beaten back by red guards, and the Winter Palace was guarded only by a poorly armed and trained group of women soldiers, who quickly surrendered after the Bolsheviks had the palace surrounded. By mid October, the Bolsheviks had already effective seized power. The rest was anti-climax.

Indeed, never was there a more thrilling, heart pounding defeat or a duller more soporific victory than the two halves of October. Eisenstein was working for the Soviet Union, but, to loosely paraphrase William Blake, he was the true poet. He was always on the side of the oppressed and the defeated. Making a film about his own side winning was never easy.

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

In 1905, Russia fought a war with with Japan and lost. The Japanese victory — which sent most of the Russian navy to the bottom of the Tsushima Strait — weakened the prestige of Czar Nicholas II’s autocratic government. In response, the Russian people rose up and forced the Romanovs to establish a limited, and very shortly-lived constitutional monarchy.

Even though it was brutally suppressed, the Russian Revolution of 1905 is usually considered the dress rehearsal for the great Russian Revolution of 1917. One of its most famous incidents took place on a clunky, Pre-Dreadnought battleship in the Black Sea Fleet, the Kniaz Potemkin Tavricheskiy, or, as it is better known, the Battleship Potemkin. With the majority of Russia’s experienced crews having sailed to Japan with Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky, the Potemkin was staffed mainly by raw recruits and bottom of the barrel officers. At the same time, the Social Democratic Organization of the Black Sea Fleet was preparing for a general uprising.

On June 27, as the ship was at gunnery practice near Tendra Island off the Ukrainian coast, many of its crew refused to eat Borscht made with meat that had been infested with maggots. To say that Ippolit Gilliarvosky, the Potemkin’s second in command, overreacted would be an understatement. He ordered a group of the rebellious sailors wrapped in a tarp, so that they could be shot without staining the deck with blood, and summoned a firing squad. At this point, Gregory Vakulinchuk, a radical sailor of indeterminate politics, decided that the time for the planned uprising had come, and started the a mutiny that saved the men about to be summarily executed. Ippolit Giliarovsky — who is described on his Wikipedia page as a “a tall, thin, autocratic officer who fantasized about killing anti-war liberals” — then murdered Vakulinchuk, and was, in turn, killed by the mutinous crew. They killed seven more of the ships eighteen officers, and sailed into the port of Odessa flying a red flag.

Afanasi Matushenko, a Sociel Democrat, now leading the uprising, brought Vakulinchuk’s body on shore, where the political uproar around his funeral became part of the general strike that had already been under way. There was no massacre on the Odessa Steps as depicted in the film, but the Potemkin did shell the theatre where a number of high ranking military officers were meeting in retaliation for the attempts by the police to kidnap sailors who came ashore to view Vakulinchuk’s body. The Social Democrats had also begun to make progress organizing in the rest of the Black Sea Fleet since 5 more battleships sent by the czarist authorities to sink the Potemkin refused to fire on the mutinous vessel, which was then able to slip out of Russian waters and scuttle itself just off the Romanian port of Costanta. Afanasi Matushenko was captured by police and executed after he returned to Russia in 1907 under a false name.

It’s undoubtedly a testament to the ability of capitalism to coopt and neuter subversive culture that Battleship Potemkin is better known in the United States for being taught in film classes than it is for its politics. But it goes beyond transforming a consummate piece of communist agitprop into a tutorial on the “5 types of montage.” Indeed, one of the best known films influenced by Battleship Potemkin is Brian DePalma’s Untouchables, as much an ode to the FBI and the Chicago police as Eisenstein’s film was to the revolutionary sailors of the Revolution of 1905. The most vivid and most justly celebrated scene in Battleship Potemkin — the purely fictional Odessa Steps sequence — shows a group of women murdered by the relentless, almost robotic march of cossacks repressing a political demonstration. Untouchables takes the same sequence, and reconfigures it to celebrate the heroism of FBI agent Elliott Ness, who manages to save the baby killed in Battleship Potemkin even as he shoots it out with the bad guys. Eisenstein shows us female heroism mowed down by the autocratic state. DePalma celebrates the authoritarian state in the form of macho, gun toting cops.

The Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin is a fictionalized event within a very real, very historical Revolution of 1905. I experienced a much less dire, but similar event in the Fall of 2011, the suppression of Occupy Wall Street and its satellite occupations by militarized big city police departments. Eisenstein got everything right. You don’t even have to watch the whole movie, just the clip of the attack on the demonstrators on the Odessa Steps. After the brutal eviction of Occupy Wall Street from Zuccotti Park on November 15, one of the things that kept me sane was watching Battleship Potemkin. Had it not been for Eisenstein’s classic film I might have been overwhelmed by the corporate media’s attempt to demonize Occupy’s protesters as dirty hippies who just needed to get jobs. Eisenstein brought me back into history, the 2 months of Occupy Wall Street in New York boiled down into the 7 brutal minutes of the Odessa Steps.

As the famous sequence opens, you can see the joy in peoples faces, the sense of possibility that they never had before. It was the same in Zuccotti Park. For a few brief weeks, people seemed to think that real change was possible, that maybe, just maybe, the United States would become a democracy again. But then we started to see the coordinated evictions on television and on the Internet, a series of attacks on peaceful demonstrators that culminated in the eviction of Occupy Oakland, and the near death of Scott Olsen after he was shot in the head by a tear gas canister. Eisenstein makes the transition in a few seconds. “Suddenly,” the title card announces before the crowd takes off in panic. We see why, a group of soldiers marching with their guns raised. As the horror unfolds, we see that these soldiers are not really men, not really human. Rather, they are the embodiment of the cold brutality of the authoritarian state, machinelike, relentless, unstoppable, “just following orders.” I remember a similar quality to the NYPD who regularly surrounded Zuccotti Park. You couldn’t talk to them. You couldn’t reason with them. They had no emotions. They were Wall Street’s muscle, capitalist tools, not individuals. When the order to evict came, they destroyed everything in their way. In The Battleship Potemkin, the Cossacks kill a mother and child. During the eviction of Zuccotti Park, the NYPD destroyed thousands of books in the “People’s Library.” I’d rather lose 5000 books than a mother and child, but it’s still a matter of degree, not kind.

In other words, after almost 100 years, Battleship Potemkin is still living history, not a dry tutorial about “5 types of montage.” Eisenstein’s second and most celebrated feature length movie is of course the technical, cinematic revolution people say it is. But for me it’s something more, something that healed my soul after watching my government attack its own people, something that was still shocking to me, even though I was in my 40s when I saw it. Maybe some day, after living through a small scale version of the Russian Revolution of 1905, I’ll get to see the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Strike (1925)

Strike, Sergei Eisenstein’s first feature length film, which he made right before Battleship Potemkin in 1925, holds up so well that I have a hard time thinking of another film about the labor struggle that surpasses it. Set in 1903 in an unnamed city in pre-revolutionary Russia, Strike dramatizes a strike, then a mass uprising, then a brutal crackdown. It spells out the collusion between big government and big business so clearly that the whole film feels almost like some kind of Ur-Narrative that lurks underneath the surface of capitalism.

“The strength of the working class is organization,” we read at the end of the opening credits, a quote by Lenin. “Without organization of the masses, the proletarian is nothing. Organized it is everything. Being organized means unity of action, unity of practical activity.”

Strike is not set in the Russia of serfs and masters, orthodox churches or grand inquistors. It’s not the Russia of Tolstoy, Gorky, or even Dostoevsky. This is a westernized, 20th-century Russia. We could just as easily be in London or Chicago. Inside the factory, the workers organize for the strike they know is inevitable. The factory owners know it too. A government minister looks over photos of spies and provocateurs he’s placed inside the plant. After one of the spies steals a micrometer worth 25 rubles, three weeks pay, one worker, Yakov Strongem, is falsely accused of the theft, and then fired. He hangs himself inside the factory, and the strike is on.

At first it all goes well. The workers at the factory are indeed organized. They have a unity of action and practical activity. The men take over the plant, and conduct what would later be known as a sit down strike. The factory owners, by contrast, are frustrated. Orders pour in they can’t fill. Their scowling faces and debauched luxury testify to their guilt as a class. The proletarian quarter of the unnamed city, by contrast, has become a little utopia. In addition to unity of action and practical activity, the workers now have free time. Children play. Families go on picnics. Husbands get to know their wives.

But if the quotation that opens up the film is by Vladimir Lenin, then the film has a Leninist message. It’s not enough to strike. The workers must take political power, or, like the anarchist communards in Paris in 1870, get crushed when the ruling class and the government recover from the initial shock and organize a counter attack. A set of demands, an 8 hour day, higher wages, limitations of child labor, is not enough. The bosses close the company stores. Children go hungry. People began to sell their property at pawn shops. Married couples squabble.

Then the government and the police make their move.

Here in the United States, we tend to be naïve about police use of agents provocateurs. Even 40 years after the cointelpro papers were stolen from FBI headquarters in Media, Pennsylvania, I still had a difficult time convincing myself that Jim Dwyer’s story in the New York Times was true, that during the Republican National Convention in 2004, NYPD provocateurs really did start a bonfire near the front of the main demonstration against George W. Bush to justify locking up 2000 people without charges. It’s so commonly known that the police sent homeless people, drug addicts and rapists into Zuccotti Park in the fall of 2011, that if you say “take it to Zuccotti” to a veteran of Occupy Wall Street, he immediately gets the joke.

Eisenstein has no illusions. That agents provocateurs are part of the crackdown is something he just takes for granted. Everything unfolds like a TV show you’ve seen 100 times before. Police spies photograph the leaders of the uprising. They’re rounded up, jailed, and tortured. The police then go into the underclass, what Marx would have called the lumpen proletariat, and recruit a team of homeless derelicts as arsonists, who burn down a liquor store and blame it on the strikers. The strikers are onto the plan but it doesn’t matter. They call the fire department, but the firemen, instead of putting out the fire, turn their hoses on the workers and prevent them from clearing the streets.

What’s remarkable about Strike is not that Eisenstein stages a crackdown, but how he stages the crackdown. It’s 1925, only a few years after Mussolini and his black shirts marched on Rome, but Eisenstein knows exactly what’s coming. Indeed, Strike could have just as easily been called The Birth of Fascism in a Russian Factory Town. Eisenstein may have come to adulthood after the Russian Revolution, but he understands Czarist repression in his bones.

After the cops, after the fire department, we get the army. The government in the service of the capitalists does more than just shoot a few strikers and let the rest flee in panic then come back to work the next day. They stage a full scale, almost genocidal campaign against the workers commune that had been founded during the uprising. The final scene, where soldiers shoot down hundreds of strikers while the camera cuts back to a montage of cows being chopped up in a slaughterhouse has been extensively discussed as a good example of the directors “montage” technique.

But it was the last frame, a still, that made me blood run cold. It looks like the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, not one, not ten, not dozens, but hundreds of bodies, a little holocaust in what once had been a center of rebellion. The film actually ends with a sense of optimism. Eisenstein sees the murdered strikers as heroes who gave their blood to make the Russian Revolution possible. But not even he could see what was coming in the 1930s and 1940s.

Ivan the Terrible Part I (1944) and Ivan the Terrible Part II (1958)

While many people in the United States have heard of Ivan IV of Russia, most of us know little more than his nickname. There isn’t much more you can add to a sobriquet like “the terrible.” Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Ivan the Terrible, sometimes a name says it all. A few of us might remember from our high school history classes that the nickname “the terrible” is better translated as “Ivan the Badass” or “Ivan the One Who Shouldn’t Be Fucked With” than “Ivan the Evil.” We might recall how he drove the remaining Mongols out of Russia, humbled the Russian nobility, known as the boyars, and became the first Czar of a united Russia, that he’s widely considered to be the father of his country.

Film enthusiasts will immediately tell you that Sergei Eisenstein, the great Soviet film director, made two films about Ivan the Terrible. The will point out that Ivan the Terrible Part I was made in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic while Hitler’s troops were at the gates of Moscow, and that it was released to great acclaim and to Stalin’s approval in 1944. They will talk about how Ivan the Terrible Part II didn’t pass the censors in 1947, and had to wait until 1958 for its first theatrical run. They will probably rave about its cinematic brilliance, but complain about the plot, praise Eisenstein for his technical wizardry, but speculate about whether or not his relationship with Stalin kept him from writing a better screenplay.

Ivan the Terrible is probably best thought of as a visual symphony of oriental despotism. Eisenstein’s use of shadows, framing, the film’s rich black and white tonality, all of it conjures up not only the terror and majesty of the state, but the flat out weirdness of any autocratic leader. It’s easy to see why Stalin raved over the Part I and rejected Part II. It could have just as easily been the other way around. Ivan IV of Russia, played by Nikolay Cherkasov — the same actor who played Alexander Nevsky — manages to be commanding and sympathetic one moment, a monstrous, paranoid tyrant the next. You can almost feel Eisenstein’s terror in the presence of Joseph Stalin, a man he had to do his best to satisfy or see damage to his career, or worse. Eisenstein spins that terror and confusion into a kind of visual inventiveness that has to rank with the greatest cinematographers and still photographers. I’ve taken tens of thousands of photos over the years. I thought myself long past being easily surprised, but not here. Indeed, I spent half the movie just marveling at what seemed at times to be an El Greco, at other times a Diego Velázquez, and at yet other times a grotesque Rembrandt coming to life before my very eyes.

The plot is much simpler and less inventive than the cinematography, but still a nuanced, psychologically astute portrait of a tyrant made right under the nose of a tyrant. If you want to compare it to a western film, take Anthony Mann’s film from 1961, El Cid. A great, larger than life hero tries to rouse a nation against a looming foreign threat while spoiled, lazy, egoistical and dishonest aristocrats around him scheme and plot for their petty self-interest. Where Charlton Heston’s Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar is dashing and romantic, Nikolay Cherkasov’s Ivan is hard, calculating and ruthless. Where Anthony Mann’s landscapes are vast, open spaces, grand citadels and a broad sky, a medieval Europe that, perhaps, never existed, Eisenstein’s palaces and orthodox churches are cramped and ornate. With their thick walls and low hanging ceilings, they capture the brutalist copies of the Byzantine architecture the Russians learned in Constantinople. Where The Cid is straightforward, noble and chivalric, Ivan is guarded and Machiavellian. The Cid is an idealized knight in shining armor. Ivan IV is a complex, twisted despot, but the narrative is the same, nationalism against the aristocracy, a charismatic leader of the people versus a self-interested and selfish, a scheming and unpatriotic ruling class.

Ivan the Terrible is also a film about Sergei Eisenstein’s demons, more specifically, his fear of homosexuality and domination by woman. Ivan’s main antagonist — a fantastically over the top villain played by Serafima Birman — is his aunt Efrosinia Staritska. Efronsinaia, the leader of the boyar class, has one goal through both parts of Ivan the Terrible, kill or depose Ivan to put her mentally handicapped son, Vladimir Staritska, in his place. Vladimir, a grotesquely effeminate kabuki mask of a man, has no color to his face. He wears lipstick on this thick, blubbery lips. He falls into his mother’s arms when he’s afraid. More idiot child than man, his brain and his will have been turned to mush by the domineering Efronsinaia. This is what happens, Eisenstein is telling us, when a man never becomes a man, when he fails to break away from his mother, or establish himself as an adult. He remains a grotesque, a powerful symbol of the fear of female domination as well as a representative of an idiot, decadent aristocracy.

In the end, Ivan skilfully vanquishes his enemies and saves Russia from the Poles and the Mongols. So why did Stalin have it buried? Perhaps it hit too close to home? There is so much palace intrigue, so many poisonings that it might have brought up in his mind the (probably fictitious) “Doctors Plot” that terrified him during the end of his life. We meet an early predecessor to the KGB, the Oprichnina, an organization recruited from the common people and lower gentry that ruthlessly carry out Ivan’s commands against the boyars. Even more so, the characterization of Ivan himself probably scandalized a dictator who was used to flattery. Ivan shares in Eisenstein’s paranoia over his homosexuality. Now forthright and masculine, now lurking in the shadows, Ivan is half Alexander Nevsky, half vampire king. In spite of the fact that he was writing the film for a dictator, Eisenstein nailed the personality of a dictator so well he was probably lucky he escaped with his life.

Alexander Nevsky (1938)

The Sochi Olympics and the protests in Kiev have forced people in the United States to think about Eastern European fascism and the Russian history of charismatic strong men at the head of their government. So I finally got around to watching Alexander Nevsky, Sergei Eisenstein’s film about the Russian victory over the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Lake Peipus in 1242. That it’s an important film is obvious by the number of western “epic” films, Lord of the Rings, Conan the Barbarian, that have plagiarized, or “sampled” long sequences from the famous “battle of the ice.” But Alexander Nevsky also raises an important question. Was the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany during the Second World War a victory of socialism over fascism, or a victory of Russian nationalism over German nationalism?

Alexander Nevsky is clearly anti-Nazi propaganda. The Teutonic knights, called “the Germans” even though historically most of the Catholic forces at the Battle of Lake Peipus were ethnic Estonians, are the blackest of villains. They murder prisoners in cold blood. They throw toddlers into a raging bonfire. They suborn traitors and collaborators among the Slavic people they intend eventually to exterminate. It’s also anti-Catholic — though not necessarily pro-Russian-Orthodox — propaganda. There is a high-ranking monk who looks like the Emperor Palpitine from Star Wars and a church organist who looks like Igor from Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein.

Incidentally, the most obvious example of western “sampling” of Alexander Nevsky— the ride of the Rohirrim from Return of the King — re imagines the Teutonic Knights as the good guys.

The plot — often considered the weak spot compared to the film’s technical mastery — is simple enough. Alexander Nevsky, the “prince” of Novgorod makes peace with the Mongol Horde in order to focus on the more urgent threat from the west, the Teutonic Knights. “Prince,” of course is a problematic title in a communist film and, indeed, Nevsky, played by the charismatic 6’5” actor Nikolay Cherkasov is more of a “temporary dictator” or “appointed general in chief” than a hereditary aristocrat. If he’s a “king” he’s a king in the Spartan, not the Louis XIV manner. If he’s a superman, he also mends fishing nets with “the people.” In other words, Nevsky is a populist strongman, Stalin, Castro, shirtless Vladimir Putin, or, perhaps, even Lincoln, the rail splitting superman who also became the democratic leader of the United States.

After the Teutonic Knights destroy the city of Pskov, they set their sights on Novgorod. The rich, the ruling class, the fat bourgeoisie, want to make peace. But the “people”want to appoint Nevsky supreme commander. We meet the comic relief, Vasili Buslai and Gavrilo Oleksich, two friends and rivals — think Legalos and Gimli from Lord of the Rings — who crack jokes and compete for the attention of a Russian maiden, named, appropriately enough, “Olga.” If in Lord of the Rings, it’s mainly the ruling class who get all the romantic subplots, in Alexander Nevsky it’s the common people. Even in the right-wing populist Braveheart, it’s still the hero who gets the woman, but here Nevsky is austere, above such petty concerns. Eisenstein, unlike a Hollywood film maker, has no need to give his leading man a love interest. But he gives Vasili Buslai and Gavrilo Oleksich two, the second being the daughter of a Russian boyer who was murdered by the knights in Pskov and who, like Eowyn from Return of the King, disguises herself as a man to ride into battle.

We also meet a pair of collaborators, depicted not as Trotsky or Bukharin, but simply as prosperous merchants who spout American style neoliberalism. There is no society, one of the collaborators says, only individuals and families. “Every man for himself. Home is where the hearth is.”

What’s striking about Alexander Nevsky compared to Star Wars or Lord of the Rings is its rationalism, its focus on class, not mysticism. There is no magical thinking. Nevsky beats the Teutonic Knights not because, like Aragorn, he can summon the dead or wield a magical sword, but because he’s willing to call on the people to rise up en masse against the invader. Alexander Nevsky may vilify the Catholic Church, but the Russian people don’t beat the Germans because of the superiority of the Orthodox religion. The film is not anti-religion. But, unlike Vladimir Putin, Nevsky neither makes an alliance with nor receives a blessing from the Orthodox church. There’s no hero priest fighting with the Russians against the Germans. Nevsky doesn’t pray. The film has an Aragorn but no Gandolf. What’s more, even the Battle of the Ice, while it does have Nevsky engaging in single combat against the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, features stolid Russian peasants with axes, taking down European chivalry in a workmanlike manner. It’s a proletarian, not an aristocratic victory.

So, while Alexander Nevsky may indeed, be as much of a film about Russian nationalism as it is about communist revolution, it’s more in line with the American nationalism of a World War II movie from the age of the liberal New Deal than it is in line with the aristocratic mysticism of a Star Wars or a Lord of the Rings. I’m not sure what Putin would make of Alexander Nevsky. Stalin, apparently, got to review it pre-release, and made only one cut, a scene where the Russian army gets drunk. It’s easy to see why he liked it. Nikolay Cherkasov is far and away a more charismatic figure than Viggo Mortenson. This is the guy who showed have played Aragorn, or, at least, someone like him. Nevsky embodies cool, collected authority, something Stalin, a notorious paranoid, probably aspired to. The traitors and collaborators are unable to demoralize him him, not because of his personal superiority, but because he trusts his subordinates. “Buslai would never surrender,” he says to one of the villains as he contemptuously tosses him aside.

Indeed, however much it’s aged, however badly Mosfilm may have bungled the audio, Alexander Nevsky still makes me long for an American epic, rooted not in mysticism and imaginary creatures designed to be made into toys and marketed to children, but in American history.