Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1943)




Director:  Sergei Eisenstein.

Starring:  Nikolai Cherkassov, Ludmila Tselikovskaya, Serafima Birman.


Spoiler warning:  below is a summary of the complete Part I of the movie.

In the 16th century, Ivan the Terrible was the first to unite Russia.  He was a prince of Moscow and the Tsar of all the Russias.  Archduke and sovereign Ivan Vasilievich crowned Tsar of Moscow  --  the absolute sovereign of all the Russias.  He put an end to the power of the Boyars (i.e., members of the highest rank of the feudal Russian aristocracy, second only to the ruling princes) and founded a professional army, while also making the church pay into the state's coffers.  And he retook occupied Russian lands.  This made a great many enemies and he is called dictator by his opponents. 

Ivan's closest friends (he believes) are Prince Andrei Kurbsky of Yaroslav and Fyodor Kolychev.  But Kurbsky wants to be the Tsar (and wants the Tsarina Anastasia) and Fyodor Kolychev will take Holy Orders. 

News arrives that the people of Russia are rising.  They are shouting against the Glinskys and Zakharins and Moscow is in flames.  Insiders say that the Tsar is bewitched by the Tsarina's family, the Glinskys and Zakharins.  To add to the Tsar's problems, Kazan revolts.  Three envoys of the Great Khan arrive to tell the Tsar of the revolt.  Ivan decides to put down the rebellion.  He puts Prince Kurbsky in charge of the military operation.  After a month's siege of the Kazan fortress, Kurbsky attacks and takes the fortress. 

On the journey back to Moscow, the Tsar becomes ill.  Kurbsky, pushed on by his ambitious mother, sees his opportunity.  (Malyuta, the eyes of the Tsars, is suspicious and keeps an eye on Kurbsky.)  Ivan wants his son Dmitri acknowledge as the heir apparent, while mother Kurbsky wants her dim-witted son. Vladimir, to be the Tsar to be manipulated by mother and Prince Kurbsky.

Kurbsky won't swear allegiance to Dmitri, nor will the Boyars.  Ivan shouts "traitors!" and puts a curse on Kurbsky and the Boyars.  Ivan then dies.  The Boyars say that the next Tsar must be a Tsar of the Boyars.  Kurbsky is very pleased and pleads with Anastasia to be his wife. 

But all this changes when Ivan suddenly appears, obviously not dead.  He is ignorant of the plots of Kurbsky and promotes him to the leader of the military forces to attack the Baltic states.  Ivan then appoints Alexi Basmanov to defend Russia's southern border against the Crimean Khan.  This Basmanov and his family are unknowns to the Boyars and they are infuriated.  Their attitude in turn infuriates the Tsar and he dismisses the Boyars.  The Boyars feel that the Tsar is persecuting them and even going so far as to arrest them.  When the Boyar's attempt to use the Archbishop to get pardons for the accused Boyars fails, the Boyars decide that they must resist.  Mother Kurbsky says that they must separate Anastasia from Ivan and she will accomplish this. 

The Boyars prevent Basmanov from protecting Ryazan and now Basmanov is ready to surrender.  More bad news: Kurbsky is beaten at Revel.  And then disaster strikes.  Mother Kurbsky slips poison into a cup of wine and, unknowingly, Ivan gives it to his wife to drink.  She dies and the Tsar is distraught. 

The bad news is not finished.  Prince Kurbsky has fled to King Sigismund of Poland and has surrendered his army to the Poles.  And the Boyars are rousing a rebellion.  At this dark point, Alyoshka advises the Tsar that he must get around him all new men who will owe everything to Ivan.  Ivan agrees and withdraws to the hamlet of Alexandrov to await the coming confusion and to force the people of Russia to ask for his return to Moscow.  He has the people told that, because of the Boyars, he is abandoning the state and the capital. The Tsar invites those of humble origins to join him in Alexandrov.

British arms and munitions arrive via the White Sea, which emboldens the Tsar.  And then what he was expecting comes to fruition.  Thousands march from Moscow to Alexandrov to ask the Tsar to return to Moscow.  Feeling vindicated and more powerful, the Tsar returns to Moscow. 


Good movie, but it is propaganda.  Under the Soviets, the story of Tsar Ivan the Terrible is turned into a story of class conflict and it is the Boyars who are the bad guys, not the Tsar.  The Tsar is a victim of the greedy Boyars and any bad actions of Ivan are the result of his having to counteract the evil moves of that class of men.  So, this movie is obviously more fiction than truth.  But it is still a good movie.  There are some great scenes in the movie.  Eisenstein loves to use Big Faces, close-ups of the faces of the characters  -- faces that fill the complete screen.  Especially great is the scene of a close-up of the face of Ivan covering the right two-thirds of the screen while from a distance we see an overview of this long, long line of Moscow residents coming to Ivan to ask him to return to Moscow.  

Continued in Part II.  


Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

Historical Background:


1512-1520 Sultan Selim I of the Ottoman Empire.

1520-1566 Sultan Sleyman I of the Ottoman Empire.

Tsar Ivan IV, the Terrible

1533 -- born

1547  --  Ivan IV came to the Russian throne. 

1547-1560 -- period usually regarded as one of sound government and institutional reform

The Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Suleyman I, faced a new and unexpected threat from Russia. The Ottomans had not been too concerned with the expansion of the principality of Muscovy into an empire of its own, but by the mid-16th century, the Russian Empire began to challenge the Ottoman Empire in the Black Sea and Caucasus regions. Ivan IV even annexed the Muslim Khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan (remnants of the Golden Horde).

1559  --  Suleyman I successfully kept Ivan from also annexing Azov.

1559 -- Ivan's beloved Czarina Anastasia dies; after her death, his character undergoes a bad turn. The Tsar thinks Russian nobles are his slaves. He becomes an Anglophile and (in his delusions) actually wants to marry Queen Elizabeth I of England. When, of course, he receives the rejection, he heaps scorn on Queen Elizabeth I for living among and being too influenced by common merchants.

Like the Mongols had done, Ivan the Terrible ruled by terror. He created a special bodyguard that resembled the Khan's Imperial Guard (known as the oprichniks) that then added duties as a secret police. Ever since, the rulers of Russia have protected themselves with a secret police force (even including the Communist's KGB).

1553 -- Ivan falls ill; nobles refuse to take an oath of allegiance to his son. He recovers and his secret police wage a fierce, relentless war on the nobles, confiscating their estates, exiling them, and/or killing them.

1560s  --  the hostilities between the Ottoman Empire and Russia die down.  Suleyman I allows Ivan to keep Kazan and Astrakhan, in return for Ottoman control of the Khanate of the Crimea.

1566-1574 Sultan Selim I of the Ottoman Empire.

1574-1595 Sultan Murad III of the Ottoman Empire.

1584 -- dies; by the time of his death, Russian administration had degenerated to a state approximating chaos.

1584-1598 -- Ivan's son and heir, Fedor, was an imbecile. He ruled as Tsar Theodore I. 

Upon Fedor's death the cliques of rival nobles intrigued for power. Fedor's brother-in-law, Boris Gudunov, emerged as the dominant figure among the states.

1595-1603 Sultan Mehmed III of the Ottoman Empire.

15981605  --  reign of Tsar Boris Gudunov.

Troublesome times follow.

16131645  --  Michael Romanov. 


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