Ivan Grozny - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

(Ivan the Terrible)

USSR, 1944 (Part I: Ivan Grozny) and 1958 (Part II: Boyarskii Zagovor—The Boyars' Plot)

Director: Sergei Eisenstein

Production: Part I—Alma-Ata Studio, Part II—Mosfilm Studio; Part I—black and white, 35mm, Part II—black and white and Agfacolor, 35mm; length: Part I—2745 meters, Part II—2373 meters. Released Part I—1944, Part II—1958. Shooting for Part I was begun 1 February 1943; Part II was shot September-December 1945, though not released until 1958.

Scenario: Sergei Eisenstein; photography: A. Moskvine and E. Tisse; editor: E. Tobak; sound: V. Bogdankevitch and B. Volsky; production designer: I. Chpinel; music: Sergei Prokofiev; songs: V. Louzowsky; costume designers: L. Naoumova and N. Bouzina for Part I, and L. Naoumova and M. Safonova for Part II; ballet choreographer: R. Zakharov.

Cast: N. Tcherkassov ( Ivan ); M. Jarov ( Maluta Skouratov ); A. Boutchma ( Alexei Basmanov ); M. Kouznetzov ( Fedor Basmanov ); Kolychev ( Monk Philippe ); A. Mguebrov ( Pimen, Architect of Novgorod ); V. Balachov ( Piotr Volynetz ); S. Birman ( Efrossinia Staritzkaïa ); P. Kadotchnikov ( Vladimir Andrevitch ); M. Nazvanov ( Prince Andrei Kourbsky ) (Part II only); P. Massalsky ( Sigismond, King of Pologne ) (Part II only); Erik Pyriev ( Ivan as a child ) (Part II only); L. Tzelikovskaïa ( Czarina Anastassia Romanovna ) (Part I only); Vladimir Staritsky ( Son of Staritzkaïa ) (Part I only); M. Mikhaïlov ( Archdeacon ) (Part I only); V. Pudovkin ( Nikolai ) (Part I only); S. Timochenko ( Ambassador of the Livonien Order ) (Part I only); A. Roumnev ( The Stranger ) (Part I only).



Eisenstein, Sergei, Ivan the Terrible: A Screenplay , New York, 1962; script of unpublished third part published in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), nos. 50–51, 1965.


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Bergan, Ronald, Sergei Eisenstein: A Life in Conflict , New York, 1999.


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Ivan Grozny
Ivan Grozny

Leyda, Jay, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Spring 1959.

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* * *

Ivan the Terrible is in structure an unfinished trilogy of three films: Part I, Ivan the Terrible, Part II, the Boyars, Part III, Ivan's Struggles . Recent criticism has made the mistake of viewing the two extant parts as one film. Each part presented to Eisenstein different formal and ideological problems which he solved with varying degrees of success; thus, Parts I and II will be considered separately in this essay before any generalizations will be made on the trilogy as a whole.

Part I takes up the history of Ivan when he is about to take on the trappings of the Byzantine Emperors and the title of Czar (Caesar) instead of the title of his predecessors—Grand Prince of Moscow. The first scene shows his second coronation—that as Czar. This scene also sets the style of the trilogy, in that it prepares the audience for the extremely stylized expression and gestures modeled on Wagnerian music-drama, Marinsky ballet, and Japanese Kabuki theatre. Further, the first scene acts as a sort of overture introducing the three main themes of the trilogy: the personal life of Ivan; domestic problems within Russia and foreign problems of war and trade. The interweaving of these themes into a complex tapestry makes Part I one of the supreme masterpieces of cinematic art.

Ivan, in the solitude of absolute power, is often shown seeking companionship; with two friends, Kolychev and Kourbsky, who eventually betray him and side with his enemies, the boyars; in Anastasia, who is poisoned by Efrossinia, the leader of the boyars; and finally, near the end of the film, with the Oprichniki . Problems with the boyars are crucial to the structure and ideology of the work because Ivan seeks to create a monarchy with a centralized power at the expense of the fragmented powers of the aristocracy. The film is an attempt at embodying in art a part of the Marxist theory—the step from the feudal order to the stage in which the urban merchants (that is, budding capitalists) form an alliance with the monarch to break the power of the aristocrats. Of equal importance is Ivan's desire to change Russia's foreign policy from that of a princedom to that of an empire. He seeks to break the backs of the Poles and Germans to the west, as well as the Tartars to the south and east. Important too is the idea of foreign trade; for in an essay written in 1928, Eisenstein said that if he ever made a film on Ivan , it would show a "merchant-czar" rather than a character from a horror story by Poe. In Part I , Ivan seeks to establish trade with the other great developing European nation-state—England; but his way is blocked by the Poles and Germans.

All three themes come together in the finale of the film: Ivan, after forming the Oprichniki , retreats to a monastery outside Moscow; word is brought that English trading ships have bypassed the Germans and Poles by means of a northern route through the White Sea; and, the townspeople arrive from Moscow to join with their monarch in the great alliance against the boyars. This final scene, which Ivan refers to as his true coronation by the people, formally recapitulates the coronation in the opening scene of the film. The shots of the large figure of the Czar and the tiny figures of the people beyond and below—capture the quintessential relationship between the people and their leader.

Part II remains flawed by its problematic genesis: both it and the aborted Part III were to form one film and were to carry forth the three main themes. Unfortunately, the decision was made to divide this original second part into two and expand the material of the boyar's plot. Part II unfortunately resulted in a hypertrophy of the "cloak and dagger" material. Since Ivan's final victory against the Poles and the Germans was now saved for the third part, only two out of the three themes were allowed to be developed in the second part.

The personal aspects of the Czar, as Eisenstein admitted himself, are developed at the expense of the public figure. At one point, this symbol of ineluctable power all but grovels before his childhood friend Kolychev. The Oprichniki , important figures in his war against the boyars, are shown as mere companions for an orgy. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these aspects of Ivan's character, except that each, when developed out of proportion to the whole sacrifices any formal and psychological integrity found in Part I . The Oprichniki -orgy scene proved to be a perfect chance for Eisenstein to experiment for the first time with color film stock. At several points in this scene, the filmmaker transcends the usual naturalistic use of color in order to suggest psychological states. In keeping with its excessive emphasis on the private man, the second part makes Ivan's power struggle seem more like a palace soap-opera, and less like a political struggle of national significance. Family jealousies and murder/revenge become the motive of what in the first part had been a fully rounded historical figure, Ivan IV. Worst of all, the theme of foreign policies is awkwardly tacked onto the conclusion of the film in the form of a speech by Ivan.

Taking both parts as a unity, Ivan the Terrible stands as one of the most courageous experiments in film art. The two completed parts of the trilogy (particularly the first) stand as a testimony against film theorists who claim that filmmaking demands by its very nature a realistic approach. Ivan also demonstrates that film can draw upon the other arts and yet not lose its aesthetic integrity. In this work, the great talents of Eisenstein were supplemented by those of the important Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev to create a work that can be termed operatic—a film in which words, image, and music achieve a perfect dramatic union. Moreover, Part I taken by itself stands as perhaps the only masterpiece of any art which fully embodies the aesthetics preached by Stalin—namely, Soviet Socialist Realism. The first part of Ivan the Terrible offers a figure who is both positive and fully rounded in human complexities, yet who does not wallow excessively in the darker side of the human psyche.

—Rodney Farnsworth

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