When legend becomes fact, print the legend!

One of the most celebrated combat sequences in cinema is the ‘Battle on the Ice’ from Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938), which depicts the Novgorodian prince’s victory over a crusading army led by the Teutonic Knights at Lake Peipus in 1242, the theme of the latest Medieval Warfare IV.1. It is, of course, both unwise and unfair to expect historical accuracy from any dramatic film. Filmmakers have different aims and operate under different rules than historians. Nevertheless, it is always interesting to explore how history and art converge or diverge in any film based on actual events (see also Murray Dahm’s article on history and film). Eisenstein’s epic presents an especially complex interplay of drama, history, propaganda, and legend, and demonstrates how the lines between these various strands can sometimes become nearly indistinguishable.

 The film came at a critical juncture in both Eisenstein’s career and the history of the Soviet Union. The critical success that the director had achieved with The Battleship Potemkin (1925) had been followed by a series of failed and aborted projects. More dangerously for Eisenstein, a penchant for cinematic experimentation and a lengthy sojourn to the U.S. and Mexico which included an extended stay in Hollywood had left him ideologically suspect in the eyes of the increasingly doctrinaire and oppressive Stalinist regime. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union faced the imminent danger presented by the expansionistic ambitions of Adolf Hitler.

Eisenstein needed a ‘safe’ project to revive his flagging career and restore his political credentials, and Stalin needed a film that would rally the Russian people in the face of the ever more likely prospect of a German invasion. When Eisenstein took the helm of Alexander Nevsky, he intended to give Stalin exactly what the leader wanted, stating unequivocally in a contemporary article, “My aim is patriotism!” Nevertheless, the authorities were careful to surround him with sturdily dependable party loyalists who would insure that the mercurial director hewed closely to the Stalinist line. Eisenstein’s ‘guardians’ included his co-director, D.I. Vasiliev, and the scenarist, Piotr Pavlenko, who may have moonlighted as a spy for the Soviet secret police. Even the film’s leading man, Nikolai Cherkasov, was a member of the Supreme Soviet.

The finished product, though highly dramatized, generally conforms to the broad outlines of mid-thirteenth century Russian history.  Novgorod stands as the last bastion of Russian independence. The Mongols have subdued vast stretches to the south and east, and a crusading army spearheaded by the Teutonic Knights advances from the west. At the opening of the film, Alexander Nevsky, is living in exile, having been expelled in a dispute with the Novgorod’s boyars and merchants following his defeat of the Swedes at Neva River in 1240. But with the crusaders fast approaching, a delegation from the city implores Alexander to return to confront the invaders. The prince accepts the invitation, and after arranging a pragmatic peace with the Mongols, turns his attentions to the more immediate threat from the west. Alexander gathers his forces and delivers a crushing defeat to the enemy on the frozen surface of Lake Peipus on August 5, 1242.

The film makes clear, however, that Eisenstein’s primary motive was not to record the events of the past faithfully, but to hold a mirror to the contemporary situation of the Soviet Union and to glorify the Russian people and contemporary Soviet doctrine. He frequently simplifies matters in order to make his message clear. For instance, the ethnic diversity of each army is ignored. Alexander’s forces would have included Lapps, Finns, Balts, Turco-Mongol horse-archers, and others. In the film, all are simply ‘Russians’. Likewise, the crusading army that probably was dominated by Estonians and counted among its numbers several other groups including Balts, Finns, and even Russians, here is conflated into a singular horde of ‘Germans’.

The masses of the Russian people are celebrated in diverse ways. Alexander is portrayed as a champion of the ‘proletariat’ who shares a solid bond with the workers, bother rural and urban. When the audience gets its first glimpse of him in exile at Pereyaslavl, he is calf-deep in the local river working alongside the common fishermen. The army that fought at Lake Peipus probably was comprised largely of the druzhinas — the elite military entourages — of Alexander and his younger brother Andrey, along with the Novgorod urban militia, as well as Finno-Ugrian and perhaps Turco-Mongol units. At best, it likely included only a very small percentage of true peasants. But in Eisenstein’s work, the poor Russian farmers flock to Alexander’s cause in enormous numbers to form an army consisting overwhelmingly of peasants. Representing another variety of worker, the patriotic armorer, Ignat, operates as a sort of one-man 5 Year Plan, selflessly distributing his martial wares to the departing army. And, in a particularly striking expression of the communist ideal of the universal brotherhood of the proletariat, at the conclusion of the battle, Alexander allows the surviving German foot-soldiers to return home unharmed because, “they were forced to fight”. 

Whereas the film idealizes the common folk, the wealthy are vilified. The merchants and aristocratic boyars of Novgorod who fear that war will disrupt trade resist Alexander’s return. Acting as the spokesman for the masses, Ignat caustically rejects a proposed accommodation with the enemy: “For them, the rich folk, it’s all the same (…) wherever there’s a profit, that’s their native soil. But we poor folk face certain death under the Germans.” 

Churchmen are portrayed in an equally negative way. The only Russian cleric featured in the film, the faithless monk Ananias, collaborates with the enemy. While the Orthodox Church was well entrenched in and around Novgorod by the mid-thirteenth century, in the film there is absolutely no indication of religious feeling among Alexander’s followers. The object of their devotion is Mother Russia, and Alexander even describes traitors to her as ‘Judases’. Not at all surprisingly, there is no hint in the film that Alexander was later elevated to sainthood by the Russian Orthodox Church.

The frightening and violent religious fanaticism of the Teutonic Knights and their religious leaders stands in stark contrast to the secularism of the Russians, and no doubt was equated in the minds of Soviet audiences with the brutal, blind fervor of Nazi true-believers. In one remarkable scene, the Grand Master of the order casually, one-by-one, drops the still-living children of the captured city of Pskov onto a blazing pyre: a gruesome portent of the fascist excesses soon to be unleashed on a massive scale in Eastern Europe.

The director’s intentions are also evident in the film’s martial details. As documented in his notebooks, Eisenstein oversaw each detail of costuming, including the arms and armor of the opposing armies. In spite of some obvious errors such as the incorrect design of the cross worn by the Teutonic Knights, there seems to have been at least some attempt at historical fidelity. Generally speaking, the swords, axes, mail and other armaments and protection employed by the combatants on both sides do not seem out of place. For instance, Alexander’s soldiers wear the typical conical, tapering helmets with aventails, and many carry the kite-shaped shields common to the place and period. Likewise, the elaborate crests that decorate the great helms of the leading Teutonic Knights, including the imposing, curving horns sported by the Grand Master, were clearly drawn directly from illuminations in the fourteenth-century Manesse Codex and other medieval manuscripts (see the examples below) Yet, even if jousting knights of the fourteenth-century actually sported such ornate headgear while competing, such unwieldy adornments seem rather impractical for the desperate, life-or-death combat at Lake Peipus.

But historical precision was clearly secondary to propaganda in Eisenstein’s mind, and other aspects of the costuming plainly illustrate his aim to depict the Teutonic Knights and their followers as “the ancestors of contemporary fascists” (Bordwell, p. 210). It has frequently been remarked that the great helms worn by the knights serve to transform individuals into dehumanized cogs in a faceless horde, interchangeable in Russian consciousness with the mass of soulless, fascist marauders then threatening to overrun their homes. Likewise, the design of the helmets worn by the crusader infantry deliberately evoke the modern German stalhelme. 

More pointedly, the extended hand that tops the helm of one of the Teutonic Knights appears to be giving a Nazi salute (Bordwell, p. 215), and the bishop who accompanies the crusaders wears a mitre decorated with stylized swastikas.

The extended ‘Battle on the Ice’ marks the climax of the film. As staged by Eisenstein, Alexander is urged by his commanders the meet the enemy on the eastern side of Lake Peipus, which marks the boundary between Livonia and Russia. Alexander peremptorily rejects this suggestion, vowing, “The dogs shall never set foot on Russian soil!” and determines to meet them on the frozen surface of the lake itself. When one lieutenant points out the risks of fighting on ice that is already beginning to thaw in the early spring weather, Alexander retorts that the dangers will be much greater for the more heavily-armored Germans. Taking up position near the eastern shore, Alexander places his footsoldiers in the forefront to bear the brunt of the first assault, and holds his cavalry in reserve on each flank. The ‘countless’ German host initiates the action with a cavalry charge, followed by a full assault by their footsoldiers. The Russian infantry initially falls back, then rallies and begins to turn the tide. At the decisive movement, Alexander spurs his cavalry into action, catching the enemy in a classic pincer movement, and the battle soon turns into a rout. As the Germans retreat en masse toward the western shore, the ice begins to give way beneath them, and many sink into the freezing waters to the descending notes of Sergei Prokofiev’s famous score.

There is no doubt that Eisenstein has taken considerable dramatic license in his recreation of this encounter. To cite just one instance, in the film the Teutonic Knights are led by a Grand Master. Just who commanded the knights at Lake Peipus is not clear in the sources, but it is evident that no Grand Master was present. Indeed, it is very likely that the Teutonic Knights made up only a very small part of the crusading army (Nicolle, p. 41; Urban, p. 94). 

Further, Eisenstein own vision of the battle was inspired by the ‘Battle in Heaven’ in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Like the Teutonic Knights in the film, the Host of Satan in Milton’s epic: “Brstl’d with upright beams innumerable / Of rigid Spears and Helmets throng’d and Shield / Various.” And Alexander’s minions substitute for the Heavenly Host who pursued their diabolical foes “into the wasteful Deep” (Seton, p. 380-1). 

It is, however, impossible to judge with any precision how closely the director’s recreation of the battle reflects actual events, because the course of the historical battle is itself difficult to determine from contemporary sources. The earliest chronicles disagree on several significant points such as the size of each army and the numbers of crusaders who were captured or killed. At places, the same sources directly contradict details of the battle as presented by Eisenstein. For example, the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle of the 1290’s asserts that Alexander’s forces outnumbered the knights by a ratio of 60-1, and also records that the battle commenced with a charge by Alexander’s horse-archers, a group which does not even make an appearance in the film. Most interestingly, although the earliest Rus’ chronicles make mention of a lake and indicate that at the close of the battle fleeing crusaders were pursued by Alexander’s troops, the same sources give no indication that any part of the battle or pursuit actually took place on the lake. The Rhymed Chronicle does not even mention a lake or a pursuit. In fact, it states that during the fighting, “Many from both sides fell dead on the grass.” (quoted in Ostrowski, p. 292).  

The Harvard historian Daniel Ostrowski has carefully traced the growth of what he calls the “legend” of the battle through several layers of sources following these earliest accounts (p. 290-1). The first source to allege that any part of the battle took place on the ice is the older redaction of the Novgorod Chronicle which did not appear until at least the fourteenth century, and Ostrowski makes a reasonable case that this assertion results from the author combining details of the battle in 1242 with an earlier engagement fought on a frozen lake in 1016 (p. 305-7). The first sources to claim that the ice gave way beneath the combatants are the Moscow Chronicle Compilations of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century. And illuminations from the 16th century Litzevoi Letopisnyi Svod appear to indicate that some of Alexander’s men drowned along with their opponents (Ostrowski, p. 302-3).

Ostrowski argues, as had David Nicolle before him, that the legend of the battle — in which the battle was fought on the ice, which gave way under the fleeing crusader army with fatal results — was cemented in the popular imagination by Eisenstein’s epic (Ostrowski, p. 308-9; Nicolle, p. 69). More intriguingly, Ostrowski also posits that the film version of the battle had a significant impact on subsequent historiography. As evidence, he cites a passage from a popular textbook of Russian history which might very well serve as a brief synopsis of the battle sequence in the film:

“The massed force of mailclad and heavily armed German knights and their Finnish allies struck like an enormous battering ram at the Russian lines; the lines sagged but held long enough for Alexander Nevskii to make an enveloping movement with a part of his troops and assail an enemy flank; a complete rout of the Teutonic Knights followed, the spring ice breaking under them to aid in their destruction” (Raiasanovsky, p. 74).

Although the film served to shape historical perceptions in the long run, its short term fortunes were subject to the shifting tides of immediate events. It generated great enthusiasm and attracted huge domestic audiences following its initial release in November of 1938 and garnered numerous honors for Eisenstein, including the prestigious Order of Lenin. But with the conclusion of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact in August 1939 — and the abrupt reversal of the Stalinist line on Germany — the film quietly but quickly disappeared, only to be rushed back into theaters in the wake of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. During its re-release, the film achieved even greater popular success.

In the following year, the Soviet military introduced a new decoration, the Order of Alexander Nevsky, awarded for “showing initiative in the choice of a felicitous moment for a sudden audacious and successful attack to the enemy, inflicting a major defeat with few losses among one’s own forces” (Dobrenko, p. 69). In just one more instance of the film’s impact upon collective memory, the medal was adorned with the striking profile of Nikolai Cherkasov, the star of Eisenstein’s recent hit.

Further reading 

  • Alexander Nevsky.  Directed by Sergei Eisenstein. 1938. Liner notes by J. Hoberman. New York 2001. DVD.
  • D. Bordwell, The Cinema of Eisenstein. Cambridge 1993.
  • E. Christiansen, The Northern Crusades. London 1997.
  • E. Dobrenko, Stalinist Cinema and the Production of History. Edinburgh 2008.
  • R. Michell & N. Forbes (eds), The Chronicle of Novgorod. London 1914.
  • D. Nicolle, Lake Peipus 1242: Battle of the Ice. London 1996.
  • D. Ostrowski, “Alexander Nevskii’s ‘Battle of the Ice’: The Creation of a Legend”, in: Russian History33, n. 2,3.4 (2006), pp. 289-312.
  • N.V. Riasanovsky & M.D. Steinberg, A History of Russia. New York and Oxford 2011 (8th ed.).
  • M. Seton, Sergei M. Eisenstein. London 1978 (revised ed.).
  • W. Urban, The Teutonic Knights: A Military History. London 2003.
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