Alexander Nevsky (1938): Eisenstein’s Historical Epic

Sergei Eisenstein’s classic epic Alexander Nevsky is a rousing spectacle that features some of the most beautiful imagery ever put on celluloid, with the grandest music score by Prokofiev to match.

This epic is also a reflection of its time. While the film is set in 1242, it could just as easily be taking place in 1938, with a parallel to Hitler’s imminent invasion of the Soviet Union.

Dense in imagery and rich in dramatic power, “Alexander Nevsky” marks a point of departure from the director’s previous work, a spectacle whose pageantry was operatic in scale.

A major critical success in the Society Union as well as abroad, “Alexander Nevsky” restored Eisenstein to his former reputation, based on “Strike,” “The battleship Potemkin” (aka “Potemkin”), and “October (or “Ten Days That Shook the World”).

The tale is set in the part of Russia, which was then under constant invasion by Mongolian raiders. The fisherman/prince Alexander Nevsky (Nikolai Cherkassov, in a brilliant performance) learns of a plot by the Teutonic knights to attack the country.

While some of the Russian leaders would rather pacify the invaders, the masses instead choose to mobilize, selecting Nevsky as their commander. The Teutons win a number of victories, and even capture the city of Pskov. In the finale, an extended sequence, which dramatically overpowers all that has come before it, Nevsky and his forces take on the Teutons in the famous “Battle on the Ice”.

“Alexander Nevsky” ends in a dazzlingly shot, climatic battle on ice, with thousands of soldiers wearing terrifying helmets (which the director fashioned after gargoyles, ogre, and other animals).

The film benefited from the strong support of the regime: Eisenstein had the Soviet army at his disposal and took complete advantage of that.

The parallels between this tale and the world situation in 1938 are unmistakable. Russia was in danger of attack by Hitler and the fascist forces, which were rapidly engulfing Europe. The film served as a strong statement that the Soviet Union would repel any imperialistic aggression.

The film was withdrawn from circulation in the USSR, after the signing of the German-soviet pact in 1939.


Nikolai Cherkassov






Directed by Sergei Eisenstein and D.I. Vassiliev

Photography by Edouard Tisee

Music by Sergei Prokofiev.


Running time: 107 Minutes