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Ivan The Terrible - Part 1
Force Entertainment/Force Entertainment . R4 . COLOR . 94 mins . PG . PAL


In the turbulent years following the success of his 1928 masterpiece October, Sergei Eisenstein endured a string of artistic and personal setbacks which would exact their toll on him, made all the more difficult by the constant interfering of uncooperative Hollywood executives and the Stalinist regime. With the advent of sound, Eisenstein was motivated to attend and lecture at film seminars held across the European continent, before securing a directorís contract with the head of Paramount Pictures, Jesse Lasky, in Hollywood in 1930. Despite pitching numerous ideas for film projects to the Hollywood moguls, including a proposed adaptation of Theodore Dreiserís acclaimed novel "An American Tragedy", none of them came to fruition.

Following his catastrophic collaboration with the sensationalist author and ďsocialistĒ activist Upton Sinclair on the doomed feature film Que Viva Mexico! in 1931, Eisenstein suffered a nervous breakdown. Returning to Moscow, Eisenstein was reprimanded for having deviated from socialist realism, the new cultural doctrine of the Stalinist government. Continuing to write, he eventually joined the State Institute of Cinematography in Moscow as a lecturer, before his talents as a director were enlisted in the communist-inspired propaganda epic, Alexander Nevsky (1938), which served as a morale-booster for the Red Army during the German-Russo war (1941-45) and allowed Eisenstein to return to the forefront of Soviet cinema.

The first instalment of an ambitious film series proposed by Stalin himself, Ivan the Terrible Part I sought to revive the infamous Tsar as a great leader and socio-political visionary who served to be the model for the Soviet Republicís iron-fisted rulers. Although he was known throughout history as a tyrannical dictator devoid of compassion, who descended into a maelstrom of acute paranoia, deceit and violence, Ivan IV also proved to be perhaps his countryís most important ruler, creating economical, social, and military reforms that would remain in place for centuries to come. Ironically, before his campaign of orchestrated terror, Ivanís regime was recognised as one of the most stable in Russiaís history; his leadership resulted in the unification of the various Slavic republics into a single collective nation.

In 1941, after his evacuation from Moscow to Alma Ata along with other prominent Soviet film-makers in order to escape the wrath of Hitlerís advancing armies, Eisenstein commenced work on Ivan the Terribleís scenario. While Stalin envisioned the film to be a shining example of historical revisionism, Eisenstein infused it with subliminal and subversive elements, masking Ivan the Terribleís propaganda with a thinly veiled depiction of the Stalinist dictatorship, and a searing indictment on the failure of the Bolshevik Revolution. Hence, this masterpiece is an intricate, complicated study of the corruption associated with absolute power, and achieves a sense of Shakespearean tragedy as Ivan, an idealist man, succumbs to his own personal whims.

Ivan the Terribleís aspiring, if not entirely factual, story arc commences in 1547 with the coronation and subsequent crowning of the sixteen-year-old Ivan (Nikolai Cherkassov) as the Tsar of Russia, a ceremony which is vehemently opposed by the boyars, aristocratic and wealthy families of noble heritage, who fear that their influence and financial benefits will be diminished. Ivan further infuriates his opponents as he makes radical reforms the moral code, the church and the military. Rebelling against the accepted custom of marrying a foreign princess, Ivan weds Anastasia (Ludmilla Tselikovskaya), a daughter of the Romanov family; it is a decision which sends waves of discontent throughout the Russian establishment.

Ivan IV extends the boundaries of his domain, first annihilating the coalition states to the West that threaten Moscowís survival, before focusing his attention on the East. He soon becomes besieged on all sides; his most trusted aides and advisors desert him, as they surrender to the seductive opportunities of self-empowerment and personal gain offered by the boyars, whose attacks on Ivanís leadership intensify as the Tsar commences his offensive on the independent republic of Kazan. His attrition with the boyars reaches its zenith when, in 1553, Ivan demands their oath of allegiance to his new-born son, Dmitry. However, the noble families, headed by his aunt, Euphrosinia (Serafima Birman), refuse; the Tsar is incensed.

In 1560, the Tsarina Anastasia is poisoned by the boyars; his formidable drive and spirit broken by the news of her death, Ivanís fragile mind proposes abdication from the throne. However, the mass procession of dedicated followers, appearing outside his Uglich estate near Moscow and adamant for his return, forces him to re-evaluate his situation.


Ivan the Terrible Part I is presented in a screen aspect ratio of 1.33:1, and is cropped from its original 1.37:1 ratio. Of course, it is not anamorphic.

Black levels are somewhat variable; there is a discernible inconsistency as they alternate between achieving great solidity, which results in good depth, and being rather opaque. Details are similarly problematic, with the transfer exhibiting moments of exceptional sharpness that allow for some beautiful definition, but are inclined on occasions, particularly from the filmís half-way point, to become softer; in these instances, details are quite poor and lack any true delineation. Shadow detail, as to be anticipated for a film of this vintage, is nothing more than serviceable.

MPEG artefacts are present in the form of minor macro-blocking, which is most prominent in the filmís transition screens. There is also an abundance of film artefacts consisting of nicks, scratches, and some indications of significant print damage; also, too, the film exhibits frequent jumps which seem to be the result of poor editorial cuts and print deterioration. However, none of this proved to be too distracting as it was not unexpected. Perhaps the pinnacle of this disputable presentation concerns the embedded English subtitles, whose white lettering is often obscured by the filmís lighting, rendering it difficult to read and follow Ivan the Terribleís intricate political motivations.

There is but one audio selection available, that of the Russian Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound track. Dialogue is horribly restrictive, with no redeeming semblance of frequency range and fidelity, and is plagued with constant minor distortion. Although the filmís narrative is driven by dialogue, the siege of Kazan highlights the transferís woefully inadequate sound: the multitudes of cannons firing in union exhibit no depth whatsoever, and are somewhat muted. In addition, the filmís dramatic and regal score, provided by the great Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, sounds moderately weak and ineffectual due to the transferís poor tonal range.

Extras are limited to a scrolling profile of Ivan the Terrible which, though somewhat brief, is quite informative and provides much-needed background on the tyrant himself.

Although Ivan the Terrible Part I is arguably Eisensteinís finest film, it is also one of his most pretentious. The film is deliberately paced and its proceedings, on occasions, begin to develop a sense of tedium; yet, despite this, Cherkassovís portrait in the filmís title role is nothing short of riveting. Eisensteinís work is heavy on symbolism and light on subtlety, and Ivan the Terrible is no exception: for instance, Ivanís descent into madness is captured in the directorís constant need to film Cherkassov from beneath his pharaoh-bearded chin and using creative lighting to highlight the hollows around his wild, staring eyes.

Ivan the Terribleís transfer is inadequate when compared to the restorative work conducted on Eisensteinís Strike (1924) and Battleship Potemkin (1925). Although it can be recommended, albeit dubiously, to aficionados of Soviet cinema, it would perhaps be best to suggest this film as a rental, rather than as an essential purchase.

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  •   And I quote...
    "The first instalment of Sergei Eisensteinís ambitious revisionist epic... Possesses an adequate transfer, but is marred by an atrocious audio presentation... "
    - Shaun Bennett
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