Sergei Eisenstein, the godfather of Russian cinema, had one more major work left in him before his death, and even then death claimed him before he could completely finish it. Ivan the Terrible comes in two parts (and was intended to be a trilogy), the first released as usual upon completion in 1944, but the second was held back by Stalinist censors until both Stalin and Eisenstein had passed, finally being released in 1958. I include this fact mostly to stress why Ivan the Terrible is on the list, as opposed to being a truly great film from the twilight of Eisenstein’s career. It’s a good one, no doubt, but it was way too overly dramatic in its presentation for me to really say that it is worth it, especially to a modern audience.
The film details, from his ascension to the throne, the rule of the titular Tsar of Russia, Ivan IV, and his continuous battle to keep the throne and a unified Russia in the face of opposing forces, as well as internal affairs courtesy of the boyars who would have the rule of Russia in his stead. The second part is even given a subtitle: The Boyars’ Plot, to emphasize the true threat to Ivan’s rule is within his country rather than outside of it. First off, the film is lavish to an absurd degree, with production value oozing out of every pore. Also, the lighting was very striking, creating bold images both on the screen and in the environment of the actors; clearly, Eisenstein has lost none of the skill at filmmaking he displayed in his silent-era films. However, he also retains a little too much of what made silent films look antiquated and corny in the wake of sound and the changes to the craft of acting and filmmaking that came with it. The acting is a little ham-handed (and by “a little” I mean laughably so), making very frequent uses of cutaways to people deliberately making expressions to reflect on what has just happened, and staging all the action with overblown gestures as if the film were a stage play or Shakespearean adaptation. It was a good deal into the first part that the exorbitant acting style became a little too much for me to take, and I pretty much disconnected from the film in favor of watching the proceedings impassively, which actually worked for me. Eisenstein has unfortunately opted to hold onto everything that made silent film silent film, but try and do it all in a talkie, and it is his resulting effort that shows how such a notion is ultimately a poor one. For what it was worth, it was very well done and very well put together, especially in how it connected the shots together through actions and stances of the characters. It was obvious that all the sound in the film has been added in post, from the dialogue to the foley work to whatever music, on-screen or not, was used in each scene, but it was actually pretty well done, so I didn’t begrudge it as much as I have in the past when it hasn’t been well done. Oh, special mention as well to the color scenes utilized in the second part; even though I knew they were there, I’d forgotten about them by the time they showed up, and were thus a nice surprise.
Boy, did I want to like this one. It had all the technical skill of a masterpiece, but held on too rigidly to the filmmaking techniques of old, and refused to move and evolve with the times, making the actual story itself come off as hokey and maudlin. Plus, while the name Eisenstein is basically synonymous with Russian propaganda, it was still a little disheartening to be able to tell that that’s essentially all this was, and considering the reaction to the second part by the Russian authorities, it wasn’t even the propaganda that the country wanted. It is masterfully done propaganda, but that’s to be expected out of Eisenstein, so I was looking for a little more from this later work of his, and I didn’t get what I wanted. That said, I can’t discount the importance or technical wizardry at play here, so I really shouldn’t give this any lower of a rating. Just be aware that this is basically a talking silent picture before you go into it, and you should be able to handle it a little better.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10