Today: February 21, 2024

Alexander The Warrior Saint

Nothing quite beats nostalgia.

Nothing quite beats nostalgia. Which is perhaps why Eastern European cinema is
experiencing something of a boom in historical epics at the moment. Alexander
Nevsky is the latest figure to get the biopic treatment in this joint Russian
and Kazakh production which made its cinematic debut in 2008 under the title Aleksandr: Nevskaya Bitva (Alexander:
The Neva Battle).

The Russian film director, Serge Eisenstein filmed his take on the
Alexander Nevsky story in 1938 and, to this day, it’s one of his most admired
talkies. Eisenstein’s Nevsky was a
Stalinist period piece in which Alexander was restyled as a folk hero, leading
his people to victory against the twin evils of the Papacy and Nazi Germany. In
fact the Teutonic Knights even wear modified, German, World War I Stahlhelm
helmets! The film’s 30-minute battle scene, on the frozen Lake Peipus, and
Prokofiev’s rousing score, has since become legendary (and been cribbed and
reused in a 1001 movies).

So it’s no surprise that Director Igor Kalyonov hasn’t tried to remake the
master’s original. Instead, Alexander: The Warrior Saint returns the tale to
its pre-Soviet era roots. The real Alexander Nevsky was indeed canonised by the
Orthodox Church, but it was Eisenstein’s film which turned the warrior prince into
a mythic hero. Kalyonov’s Alexander: The Warrior Saint reinvents the young
prince as a more human, fallible character, in a past untainted by Stalinist
politics and pogroms.

The action takes place during the
golden years of the Novgorod Republic, which was one of medieval Russia’s
largest city-states. As a Republic, princes were little more than military
leaders who ‘ruled’ by invitation. The real power lay with the boyars (the
aristocracy) and the church, who relied on the prowess of their prince to keep
the wolves from their door. And in the 13th Century, there were plenty of
hungry nations, looking to gobble up any little piggies whose homes weren’t
strong enough to withstand their huffs and puffs. To the West, looking with
greedy eyes at their neighbour, was Sweden. To the East, the ever-restless
Mongol hoards. While, stirring the mix with malevolent intent, were the
Teutonic Knights – Roman Catholic crusaders – who, during this period of
history, had turned their attention away from the Holy Land, to Europe’s
pagans, heretics and Eastern Orthodox Christians. Surrounded by intrigue at
every turn, it’s down to the 19-year-old Alexander to keep the people and his
principality secure.

Anton Pampushny plays
the young prince with a smouldering intensity that hints at greater depths than
the script allows him to explore. Igor
is the prince’s affable childhood friend, Ratmir, whose charm and
humour makes the perfect foil to the serious young Alexander. While Svetlana Bakulina’s pale princess has
little to do, but still manages to steal every scene, thanks to a fragile
beauty that conjures up memories of Garbo and Gish. The film is atmospherically
shot, with much attention given to the claustrophobic closeness and grim
reality of Medieval life. Sadly, though, Kalyonov is no Eisenstein. The pacing
is erratic and the film’s climax, at Battle of the Neva (which Alexander earned
the title ‘Nevsky’) is strangely muted and in much need of a ‘to be continued’.
If Gladiator is your sort of film
then Alexander: The Warrior Saint probably won’t float your boat. However, if Waterloo (1970) and Stalingrad (1993) are more your cup of
tea, then this flawed flick still has much to offer the curious cinema-goer.

Paula Hammond - Features Editor

Paula Hammond is a full-time, freelance journalist. She regularly writes for more magazines than is healthy and has over 25 books to her credit. When not frantically scribbling, she can be found indulging her passions for film, theatre, cult TV, sci-fi and real ale. If you should spot her in the pub, after five rounds rapid, she’ll be the one in the corner mumbling Ghostbusters quotes and waiting for the transporter to lock on to her signal… Email:

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