A guide to three historical films by Sergei Eisenstein =
3. "OKTIABR" ["October", the 1917 Soviet Revolution]


"Aleksandr Nevskii"
[VIDEOTAPE 02959 with a printed guide;
there are other versions of the film in the library]

HERE IS A LESS-THAN-PERFECT YouTUBE VERSION (in Russian, with subtitles)


Start at the beginning of Nevskii. Enjoy the music. It is one of the most famous film scores of all times, written by Sergei Prokofiev.

The director of this film, Sergei Eisenstein, is not easy to appreciate at first. The film was made in 1938, but that’s not the only reason it seems so "choreographed" and "stagy". Eisenstein was a fan of Japanese theatre called No or Noh theatre, very formal, very deliberate, very "artificial" [YouTube EG#1 | EG#2].

At times, costumes, haircuts, makeup, and props (like the big ax we see at the armorer's shop about 10 minutes into the film) seem cartoon-like. Another cultural quote embodied in Eisenstein's historical dramas was the Russian illustrator Ivan Bilibin [ID]. Here's an example:

bilibin.jpg (243142 bytes)

Eisenstein and his great cameraman Eduard Tisse liked to control frame and motion. Notice the "big sky" scenes at the beginning. The US director of great westerns, John Ford, learned a lot from Nevskii.

Run this film for only about 20 minutes if you want to limit your viewing of these two films to one hour. Notice the way the patriotic Stalin-era film maker treats, first, the Tatar. The Tatar leader looks more like a Chinese official than a Mongol warrior. Quite a contrast with Tarkovsky's image of the Tatar in his film "Andrei Rublev". Then notice the attitude toward "Germans". The film shows some finesse in its treatment of Nevskii's relationship with enemies to the west ("Germans") and enemies to the east (Tatars), don't you think? Might that have something to do with international relations at the time the film was made?

First six parts

  1. Credits: NB! music of Sergei Prokofiev, photography by Eduard Tisse, actor Nikolai Cherkasov
  2. The 13th century: After Tatar destruction, after Nevskii defeated Swedes, now Alexander practices the peaceful pursuit of the fisherman, working among village fishermen on Lake Pleshcheevo (north of Vladimir). The Tatar khan comes to exact tribute, but Alexander intervenes and even placates the khan and encourages commercial ties. He promised his angry associates that they will deal with the khan later, but for now there is a more dangerous and vicious foe: the Germans (Teutonic Knights [ID])
  3. Lord Novgorod the Great: NB! the scene is set on the commercial side of the town where a lively market thrives. We see across the Volkhov River to the kremlin of princely power = Economy on one side (and medieval version of "society"), and military/political power on the other side (medieval version of "state"). We hear sonorous examples of the Russian art of the carillon.
  4. Summon Alexander: NB! the Veche [ID] bell calls out to the people to assemble. Probably the Veche was seldom so "democratic" as it is shown to be here in this Soviet era film. The alarm is caused by the Teutonic capture and devastation of Pskov (a sister city a few miles to the West of Novgorod). At the Veche assembly we learn that the Novgorod merchant elite has “signed a peace with the Germans”. In other words, they have bartered away the life and treasure of “Rus” in order to enrich themselves. Perhaps this is a twisted reference to the Hanseatic League [ID]. In any event, the contest between commerce and military/political power is resolved with approval on the side of military power. Enthusiasm for war grips the crowd and brushes all objections to the side. Summon Alexander to lead, to heal divisiveness, end the squabble, unite Rus against its common enemy.
  5. Pereslavl-Zalesskii (a town north of Vladimir and south of Lake Pleshcheevo): NB! Alexander is indolent and restless in his fabulous wooden “palace”. Notice the bug (possibly a fly) on the carved decorative post. The “delicate” work of fishing is not in his nature. Some are born to fish, others to rule, and, when need be, to fight. A delegation comes to ask him to rule in Novgorod and protect the city from the Germans. Alexander says he will not defend, he will attack; and he will attack not in the name of the one city Novgorod but in the name of the whole Russian land. This stand puts the question of federal independence of Novgorod in the background, in favor of a unified Russia under centralized princely rule.
  6. The army goes to Novgorod. NB! the civilian deliberative assembly (Veche) is clearly swept to the side by military considerations. Listen to the church bells, a high chattering rhythm punctuated by a slower, resonating bass bell.







KNIGHT LIBRARY has an English-language translation of the screenplay [pg3476.e54I84]

Part One of "Ivan the Terrible" was made during WW2, 1942-1943 in Alma Ata [Almaty], Kazakhstan, at safe distance from advancing Nazi troops. The published screenplay (1943) shows that Eisenstein planned the movie in two parts with a significant Prologue before Part One.

Here are a few thoughts on the question of film and history. Eisenstein's goal was to rehabilitate the "terrible" reputation of Ivan, not with a whitewash but with careful attention to the environment that both inspired his cruelties and defined the noble "cause" which inspired his actions. Eisenstein explained his guiding purpose in the following way =

The personality of Ivan the Terrible and his historic role had to be thoroughly reconsidered. Ivan the IV's principal aim was to create a strong centralized sovereign State in place of the scattered, mutually hostile feudal principalities of Old Russia. [...] The heirs to the feudal lords [boyars and royal clans with ambitions to rule] did not scruple to resort to treachery and conspiracy. They secretly prepared the ground for an invasion of Russia by their western neighbors [Livonian Knights, Lithuanian and Polish forces], and it was they who cried to heaven about the cruelty and bloodthirstiness of the Moscow Tsar [EI4:12]

The film thus not only takes up certain complex problems of human relations in power politics, but also reflects the wartime rise of a new "great-Russian chauvinism" in the beleaguered Soviet Union. It captures a very old suspicion of foreigners' intentions in Russia, Stalin's respect for the memory of a resolute centralized leader, Ivan IV, and the need to justify decisive suppression of domestic conspiracy, historically [ID] and more recently [ID].

However, Eisenstein did not complete the film according to the original screenplay. The Prologue composed for the screenplay:23-41 [pg3476.e54I84] was dropped from the film. Part Two was named "The Boyars' Plot" and represented only the first half of the original Part Two plan. The foreshortened Part Two was ready to be shown in 1946, but Soviet officials would not allow it. It was not shown in the USSR until after Stalin's death. Eisenstein worked on the last half of Part Two (now thought of as Part Three) up to his death in 1948, but he did not finish it. Four completed reels have disappeared.

Eduard Tisse was again Eisenstein's cameraman.

I-4 by Cherkasov Nxi.jpg (74607 bytes)
Actor Nikolai Cherkasov
communicated tsar Ivan IV's haunted suspiciousness
[from Part Two]


Here are some very crude notes to provide link of film subjects to SAC.

The film is in two parts
Part One =

Scene One = Coronation in Uspenskii Sobor
[Read the following, then hop to the YouTube footage]

"Ivan" begins with the great 1547 coronation. Glorious church bells ring out, and fabulous church choirs intone the royal ceremony -- much medieval church/state ceremony. The deep base voice is that of Metropolitan Pimin.

We see foreign ambassadors questioning the legitimacy of Ivan's claim to be "tsar of all Rus". The Pope will refuse to recognize him as such. The Holy Roman Emperor will also refuse. Europe will reject him. The sardonic Livonian ambassador says, "If he's strong, they'll recognize him".

The foreigners discuss other claimants to the throne, for example, the Staritskii clan who are, like Ivan, direct descendants of grandfather Ivan III and Zoe Paleologus. We see Princess Evfrosinia Staritskaia (Ivan's aunt) who has high hopes for her feckless and somewhat addled son, Vladimir Staritskii (Ivan's cousin). The foreigners pronounce "Vladimir" in the Polish/Lithuanian fashion, "Waldemar". Simple Vladimir adores Ivan and stays close to him through the ceremony.

Of course, say the foreign dignitaries, Ivan has his supporters. We see Ivan IV's future wife, Anastasia, who was born of the Zakharin family. The powerful Zakharin clan promoted her to become Ivan's bride [Pavlov&Perrie:36-7].

Ivan takes center stage in the great cathedral to present something like a "state of the union" address. Russia now is ruled by one tsar. Boyars will no longer rule. The army will be a national army. Everyone will participate. He who does not fight will pay for that army. The Church will also contribute out of its great wealth.

Church officials are astonished. Metropolitan Pimin drops his heavy crosier, but a boyar beside him catches it. We see Boyar Fedor Kolychev wince.

Ivan turns to the foreign dignitaries and states his meaning of "sovereignty" = The tsar is absolute both with respect to his subjects within Russia and with respect to foreign powers. The power of the tsar cannot be contested domestically so that it cannot be contested in the international arena. Turning to the foreign guests he says further = Russia needs access to the sea. Therefore I crown myself also sovereign over Russian lands now in foreign hands. (Dignitaries are now quite agitated.) And then Ivan quotes the doctrine of the Third Rome =

Two Romes fell, but the third -- Moscow -- shall stand, and a fourth shall never be! And in that Third Rome -- as ruler of Muscovy -- as sole Master from this day forth shall I reign.

Then follows the liturgical chant "Long Life", specifically addressed to the new tsar "and autocrat [samoderzhets] of all Russia".

The mounting confusion among the congregation begins to define contestants in the unfolding struggle for power. Eisenstein portrays the old elite boyars (votchinniki) and the foppish darling Andrei Kurbskii with contempt, but with some degree of understanding, maybe even sympathy. Kurbskii is the most complex of the old boyar conspirators because he is a most significant lieutenant to the young Ivan. But we see clearly that he has a crush on Ivan's future bride. That doesn't bode well. If we are not taken by the historical drama unfolding, we can get behind this unexpected soap-opera twist.

Beginning with this Scene#1 then jumping to Scene#4/5


Scene Two = Banquet in the Hall of Gold

Revelers at the banquet shout, "Bitter, bitter" (a Russian wedding tradition which means the wedding party want the bride to kiss the groom to bring sweetness to this bitter life). Ivan kisses Anastasia. But we can hear serious clamor from outside. Some great disorder has broken out.

As nuptial godmother, Aunt Evfrosinia Staritskaia assures Ivan that it is just the joy of Muscovites spilling over usual bounds. She gives Metropolitan Pimin a conspiratorial glance.

We shift focus to the rioting mob, led by agents of the Staritskies, rousing the rabble to burn the homes of the rival clans, the Glinskies and Zakharins. The Glinskii clan derived their status from the fact that Ivan IV's mother was born Glinskaia.

Back in the banquet hall, Ivan does not notice the noise from without. He turns to Kurbskii who quotes an old Russian proverb about how "when marriage begins, friendship ends". Anastasia understands his meaning.

Ivan turns to Boyar Fedor Kolychev asking his views. Kolychev warns Ivan that he has broken all tradition and discord will follow. And we see the mob pushing forward in its destructive rage. Kolychev says he would not go against the tsar, yet he cannot go with Ivan, so he asks and gets permission to go into the monastery. Ivan makes Kolychev promise not to oppose him, to come to him if called. Pimin blesses Kolychev and on the spot appoints him abbot at Solovetskii monastery.

[Later Kolychev became Metropolitan under his monastic name "Filipp". He criticized Ivan's violent ways, was deposed by Ivan IV's agents, imprisoned, and finally strangled [id].]

Loud celebration is mixed with clangorous riot. Servants enter the hall bearing magnificent roasted white swans.

Soon it is clear to all that the city across the Moskva River is burning. Agents of the Staritskies are cutting bells loose from their towers. Ivan sees instantly what is up. "You boyars would rouse the people against me. You ask not for peace but for the sword. Well, you shall get the sword." The crowd bursts in. Kurbskii and Kolychev rush to protect the tsar from the people, but Ivan says, "Let the people pass!" One rioter attacks Ivan with a cudgel, but Kurbskii flings himself over the tsar to protect him. Rioters recognize the tsar and fall to their knees, asking him to punish the Glinskies whom they have heard described as sorcerers. Glinskies have called down the bells by magic spells, all this a bad omen, requiring that the tsar punish them.

Ivan boldly approaches the leaders of the riot and ridicules their superstition. Ivan has a great common touch, and he wins the crowd over. Bells have to be cut to fall, he says. And those who cut bells shall have their own heads cut off!

The Staritskies react with alarm at this early adumbration of the later "terrible" Ivan. They know it was not Glinskii sorcery but Staritskii sedition that caused the bells to fall and Staritskii demagoguery that caused the people to think the Glinskies were responsible.

Ivan goes on, brushing the little episode of riot aside. He quotes the famous Chronicle story about the invitation to the Rus = "Our lands are great and bountiful, but of order there is little in them". He continues, however, by saying no outside force needs to be summoned. We can bring order ourselves. "We shall stamp out sedition. Working people, tradesmen, merchants -- we shall not let be harmed."

Suddenly envoys from the Kazan Tatars enter with insulting challenge to Ivan. He responds with bravado, and the people love it. "To Kazan..."

Ivan steadies his people with war enthusiasm. The elite palace regiment, the Streltsy [musketeers], and the newly forged heavy cannon, bearing names like "Lion", "Wolf", and "Bully-Boy", head for the great Tatar stronghold at the Kama and Volga River confluence [g]


Scene Three: The taking of the Tatar fortress at Kazan

As the work of military sappers and miners prepares for the assault, we see among them many of the rioters at the earlier banquet. The mob is now mobilized and disciplined. Tension mounts between the now loyal rioter and Boyar Prince Kurbskii. The sapper witnessed Kurbskii in an act of anger directed against Ivan and was prepared to assault Kurbskii in defense of his tsar. But Kurbskii extricates himself from this delicate situation when he again puts himself between Ivan and serious harm. He deflects arrows sent Ivan's way by Tatar defenders.

1555: Andrei Kurbskii deflects arrows from tsar Ivan 
during the assault on the Tatars in Kazan
[1943mr:Sergei Eisenstein's plan for a scene 
in his famous movie "Ivan the Terrible"]

Black-powder for muskets, for artillery and for mining fortress walls played a key role, and the loyal commoners took naturally to this new technology. In a sense, it was all beyond Kurbskii (thus suggesting a vast historical transition from feudal military to modern and a perfectly natural reason to jettison the old boyar elite, treasonous or not).

We first meet Military commander Aleksei Basmanov-Pleshcheev, delivering a warning against boyars to Ivan. Upon introduction, Ivan says, "The name of a boyar hater shall not slip my memory". At this time we also meet Basmanov's son Fedor who serves as his father's aide at this battle.

The elder Basmanov in the future will be commander in the Livonian wars (and captor of the key coastal city Narva), then, with his son, a leader in the Oprichnina.

A complex episode follows in which the native Russian sappers are accused of treachery when the explosive charges they laid and fused under the walls of Kazan fail to ignite when the commanders expected. Kurbskii, the haughty foreigner military engineer, Rasmussen, and even Ivan have no faith in the sappers. They are about to be strung-up when the slower burning candle in the cave finally ignites three very effective wall-bursting explosions.

Kurbskii then shows his valor as he mounts the broken fortress wall and Kazan is taken. The tsar bathes in the glory of his victory, receiving even congratulations from English Queen Elizabeth.


Scenes four and Five = Palace Corridors [Ivan falls deathly ill]

On the way back from Kazan, Ivan fell ill. Boyars and diplomats gather outside his sickroom. Foreign ambassadors are starting to admire Ivan, but the boyars still plot. Staritskaia tries to provoke Kurbskii's jealousies, political and personal. She taunts him for having lost his princely status as he allowed himself to become a simple servant to Ivan. She emphasizes what small allotments Ivan gives to his service aristocrats [pomeshchiki]. She predicts he will soon lose his head. Even if Ivan forgets the arrow episode at Kazan, there are those who will remind him =

In the shadows we see the sinister shape of "Maliuta" (proper name, Grigorii Skuratov-Bel'skii), future commander of Ivan's notorious Oprichnina. It will be Maliuta, legend says, who strangles Filipp.

Staritskaia tries to get Kurbskii to swear allegiance to her simpleton son Vladimir.

Cut to Ivan's sickbed where a flock of seven priests place over his face the open text of the Bible. A choir intones "Hospodi, pomilui" [Lord, have mercy]

Boyars near Vladimir Staritskii discuss the likelihood that Kurbskii might be brought over to their side. Maliuta watches them carefully.

In Ivan's bedchamber we see wife Anastasia and infant son Dmitrii, with Maliuta lurking watchfully in the corner. Ivan asks the notables present to swear an oath of allegiance to his son Dmitrii. Apparently dying, Ivan senses reluctance. "Kiss the cross to my son Dmitrii!" Not for me or for Dmitrii, he insists, but for Russia. Without dynastic stability, the Tatars will be upon Russian again. The Polish-Livonian state will move to occupy Russian lands. He crawls from bed and implores the boyars to do the right thing. Ivan faints, but Anastasia takes up the cause and begs the boyars to accept Dmitrii. A mother's plea is answered with another mother's powerful refusal = Staritskaia menaces Anastasia and puts her own son, Vladimir, forward for the throne.

Kurbskii is torn between ambition and love for Anastasia. Maliuta watches with close attention to Kurbskii's inner struggle. Kurbskii gives Ivan a close once-over and summons all the boyars into the hall.

Kurbskii grabs Anastasia in front of a giant icon of Christ. He tries to persuade her to join him in taking the throne at Ivan's death. She refuses, saying no one should plan to take the throne from a tsar who still lived. "He lives?!"

Kurbskii rushes into the room where everyone expects him to pledge his allegiance to Vladimir, but instead he kisses the cross in allegiance to Dmitrii Ivanovich [son of Ivan].

To everyone's surprise, Ivan hobbles into the hall behind them, supported by Anastasia and Maliuta. He goes straight to Kurbskii and grants him the high honor and responsibility of leading Russian troops now toward the west, against Livonia.

Ivan then grants Aleksei Basmanov the commander's post on the southern frontiers, against the Crimean Tatars (boyars are confused by this appointment = "who's this Basmanov?")


Scene Six = The Staritskii Palace

Staritskaia foments discontent among gathered boyars. Their heritable status as votchinniki is being usurped by Ivan. He distributes their land to pomeshchiki

But we quickly learn that Ivan's indifference to traditional heritable rights of the well-born is only the beginning. Metropolitan Pimin bursts into the Staritskii Palace to announce that Ivan refused his intervention and, in fact, removed Pimin from his high Church post and reassigned him to Novgorod.

The boyars are all atwitter, but Staritskaia is like a pillar of strength. With Kurbskii gone to Livonia, we can deal with Ivan, but we must get Anastasia out of the way. "The task is mine -- I'll take in on myself", says Staritskaia


Scene Seven = Ivan's Quarters

Ivan is in a "terrible" fit. He must have the Baltic cities. The remains of the old Livonian order, concentrated in and around the cities Revel and Riga [center right on this MAP], still had a stronghold on the territories of the Estonian, Latvian and northern Lithuanian rural folk. In league with Hanse merchants, they blocked international trade into Russia.

By Ivan's time the threat of Livonia and the decrepit Hanseatic League had dwindled to near nothing [ID], but here we see that in his view Livonia posed both an opportunity and a challenge to Moscow [ID].

In another room, Anastasia lies sick, under the care of Staritskaia [!!].

Back at his now cooling scene of rage, Ivan confers with his ambassador to England. He seeks a close alliance with England and sends a set of chessmen to Elizabeth as a gift. He instructs ambassador Nepeia to make clear to Elizabeth

that the Tsar Ivan at Moscow is the sole merchant. To whom he wishes -- he gives leave. Whom he wishes not -- he allows not in his State. Whom he fancies -- to him he will open the road to the East.

This statement is a close paraphrase of the historical Ivan's own words to Elizabeth. They represent Ivan's powerfully mercantilist approach to economic life [ID] in Russia, just as they show yet a further extension of tsarist authority -- not just into the privileges of the aristocracy and the church but also into the economic life of the merchant soslovie [social estate]. As of Ivan's time, it was by no means certain that a tsar could restrain or even manipulate English imperialist ambition in Russian lands [ID].

Meanwhile, Staritskaia slinks away as Ivan comes in from his meeting with ambassador Nepeia to see Anastasia. He laments the lack of trust around him. Kurbskii is in Livonia. Kolychev is praying in Solovetskii monastery. Only Anastasia can console him.

A dispatch is delivered from Basmanov in Riazan, on the Crimean Tatar frontier. He reports that the boyars are hoping to turn Riazan over to the Tatars.

Anastasia urges him to be firm! Staritskaia snarls in the shadows and fumbles for her vial of poison. She manages to get it in a goblet without Maliuta noticing. She hands it to Ivan who in turn gives it to thirsty Anastasia.


Scene eight = Dark Cathedral Interior. Night.

Anastasia lies dead in her coffin. Ivan mourns beside the hollowed-out oak coffin. Ivan engages himself in a one-way conversation about whether he is doing the right thing. Nearby, Maliuta reads a dispatch from the Livonian front which describes the rout of Russian forces. Aleksei and Fedor Basmanov enter with even worse news = Kurbskii has gone over to Lithuania, to King Sigismund [ID]. All seems lost as Maliuta adds the news that the boyars are fomenting dissent again.

Ivan takes heart. He has one ace yet to play. He orders that boyar Kolychev be summoned from Solovetskii monastery, "my true friend, the last, the only one".

Father Basmanov warns, "Tsar! Trust not Boyar Kolychev". He urges Ivan to surround himself with wholly new people, and he offers as the first his only son, Fedor.

Ivan agrees to create an organization of his own men apart [this the meaning of Oprichnina]. They will move to Aleksandrov Sloboda [settlement, quarter, neighborhood, suburb] and build a mighty force.

Maliuta says, "Launch a march on Moscow".

Basmanov cries out, "Return as conquerer...." Instead, Ivan decides to wait for the people to call him back to rule = "In that summons -- I shall find power unlimited. A new anointing, that I shall use for the great cause -- AND RELENTLESSLY!"

Maliuta and Basmanov are not convinced. Without support, Ivan seems to appeal to Anastasia in her coffin. Then the young Fedor Basmanov speaks out = "You are right!"


Scene Nine = Aleksandrov Sloboda

The people learn that the tsar has abandoned Moscow for the village Aleksandrov [ID]. They learn that if they want him, they must summon him.

At Aleksandrov Ivan gets the word from his ambassador to England, Nepeia, that indeed Elizabeth has sent ships into the White Sea to help Russia, rather than into the Baltic to help the Livonians [this touch most certainly influenced by the WW2 situation (IS)].

Then the people march in a long column to fetch their tsar back to Moscow, a fine wintry scene with much soulful song =


Thus Part One Ends. Part Two accounts how Ivan takes revenge on his international foes, the Livonians, and on his domestic foes, the boyars. Part Two opens with a prologue originally intended for Part One, scenes in which Ivan's troubled boyhood and the plots of the evil boyars are portrayed. Then Part Two takes up the epoch of the Oprichnina and the Livonian Wars. As it does so, it wrings much pathos from the disappointment that Ivan suffers when Kolychev (now elevated to the Metropolitan See and ruling that office under his monastic name Filipp) refuses to support him. Eisenstein does not shirk from the extreme cruelties that became a feature of Ivan's later years, a cruelty that rebounded against some of the most faithful of the oprichniki, e.g., the Basmanov's, father and son.



Oktiabr' [OCTOBER]
Ten Days that Shook the World
Sergei Eisenstein
[YouTube | Excellent print & Shostakovich soundtract. BUT NIKOLAI PODVOISKII is misspelled in the subtitles]
It is said that more died making this film
than were killed in the actual Revolution

Brief outline of main scenes =

Fall of Autocracy | Angry people pull down the statue of Emperor Alexander III [YouTube excerpt]
Continuation of WW1
Bread shortage
Vladimir Lenin in the April days
Discontent with the Provisional Government
July Days | Famous portrayal of draw bridge lifting to cut off worker ghetto from downtown Petersburg [YouTube]
Aleksandr Kerenskii at the Winter Palace
General Lavr Kornilov
Essay on religion
Two Bonapartes
Bolsheviks decide to take power
Kerenskii flees
Second Congress of Soviets
Election of Bolsheviks
Second Congress continues to debate. Is the army with them?
Coordination of truce terms and debts
In Winter Palace