In 1941 Eisenstein, the giant of Russian cinema, began a biographical trilogy of the sixteenth century Tsar. Ivan IV, who united the autonomous principalities and became the first ruler of the Russian Empire.
Although Part I of Ivan the Terrible is well known to film society audiences, Part II has been something of a legend since it was banned immediately upon completion in 1945. Eisenstein was to revise it to conform to the current official interpretation of Ivan's character &ndash: that of progressive statesman, not a degenerate &ndash: but his death intervened, and the original version remains. It was released last year and is recognised as his major creation. Part I was constructed in this sequence: Ivan's coronation and marriage with Anastasia, the seige of Kazan. Ivan's illness and diminishing power. Anastasia's death. Ivan's mourning and retreat, and the petition of the people for his return. Introductory shots from this material open Part II, which concentrates on Ivan's conflict with the Orthodox Church and the Boyars.
Fatigued and deserted, he returns to Moscow. where the poisoning of his long-dead wife is revealed. The head of the Boyars was responsible &ndash: Euphrosinia &ndash: and, with Metropolitan Philip, she now plans the murder of Ivan, whom her effeminate son will succeed. A miracle play enacted in the Cathedral fails to humble the ageing Ivan. Threatened by Philip, who leads the Church's revolt, with the vengeance of heaven if he refuses to submit to the Church. Ivan responds, "From now on I shall become that which you name me . . . Terrible shall I become!" He moves quickly against the flood of treason and treachery, loosing his fury on all who hinder his work of consolidating the Russian nation.
Undivided in purpose and without the dilatory action of Hamlet. Ivan nevertheless presents a comparable figure &ndash: melancholy, introspective, and in constant inner conflict. As Ivan. Nikolai Cherkasov's complex task was. as he explains, to synchronise the development of the character with the development of the film's action &ndash: spread over more than twenty years of the Tsar's life.
Whatever its historical value, it is not the ideological content which makes this film memorable. We become lost in its monumental scale; overwhelmed by the impact of its visuals and music, which are extraordinarily rich and intensely selective.