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Battle on Ice in Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky Film Essay

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Updated: Jun 20th, 2022

Music has been an integrated part of the narrative in film since the very beginning of cinema, so it is only natural to analyze one of the early examples of filmmaking. Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, filmed in 1938, immensely popular after its release, and recognized as a classic ever since is as good a case to study music’s narrative functions in cinema as any. It becomes all the more appropriate to do so because the movie’s orchestral score, composed by Sergei Prokofiev, is a well-recognized piece of art in its own right. As a result, Alexander Nevsky offers a wealth of examples of music functioning as a narrative device within a film. The climax of the movie, when heroic protagonists prepare to face their menacing opponents in a pitched battle, is a particularly interesting case. The famous ‘Battle on Ice’ sequence demonstrates perfect adherence to Gorbman’s principles of composition, mixing, and editing, only violating the principle of inaudibility to capitalize on the music’s narrative potential to its fullest.

Before delving into the analysis, it is necessary to provide a concise overview of the scene chosen. Alexander Nevsky is a Soviet patriotic epic about the legendary warrior-prince from medieval Russia famous for thwarting the invasion of the Teutonic knightly order in the mid-13th century (Bordwell, 2016). The particular scene analyzed in this paper is the beginning of the long ‘Battle on Ice’ sequence when the Russian army faces its Teutonic opponents. The scene begins with the knights performing Mass before the battle, after which they quickly form ranks and advance against the Russian lines in perfect order (Eisenstein, 1938). While the menacing, heavily armored Teutons advance across the frozen lake, Russian soldiers look at their inexorable advance with a mix of anticipation and fright (Eisenstein, 1938). The scene ends with the clash of two armies and the beginning of the battle proper, and the music dies at this very moment. Within the specific time limits outlined above, the scene is just over four minutes and is accompanied by Prokofiev’s orchestral score throughout its entirety.

The theoretic foundation for this paper is Gorbman’s (1987) principles of composition, mixing, and editing outlined in Chapter 4 of her Unheard Melodies. The author lists seven principles that, in one way or another, all apply to the sequence analyzed. The first principle is invisibility, meaning that, if the music is non-diegetic – that is, its source is not situated within the narrative – instruments should not be visible (Gorbman, 1987). The second one is inaudibility – the score should be subjugated to the visuals rather than stand on its own (Gorbman, 1987). Apart from that, music should also signify emotions and serve the narrative cueing to better instill the audience with the mood of the scene (Gorbman, 1987). Two more requirements for a movie score are continuity and unity: music should accompany the consistent and rhythmic progression of the shots and provide the unifying structure for the progression of on-screen events (Gorbman, 1987). Finally, the seventh and last principle states that the music may violate any single one of the first six if it does it in service of the other five (Gorbman, 1987). As will be shown below, ‘Battle on Ice’ addresses each of Gorbman’s principles, either by upholding or violating.

In the entire duration of the scene, Prokofiev’s music is extremely efficient in both invoking the emotion of the scene and serving as a narrative cue. The low rumbling of the horns accompanies the advance of heavily-armored knights on their steeds, moving forward with almost machine-like precision and implacability (Eisenstein, 1938). When combined with the section of strings accompanying anxious and frightened Russian soldiers looking at the oncoming enemy, the music captures the feeling of dread before the mortal danger closes in. Arsenjuk (2018) probably sums this emotion best when describing it as the awe before the “great and terrifying order” (p. 116). At the same time, the music never ceases to provide narrative cues. As the knights’ steeds pick up their speed to deliver the cavalry charge, the music quickens its pace as well (Eisenstein, 1938). As such, it signals that the long-anticipated climax is nigh and raises tension before armies engage in melee. Thus, the scene conforms fully to the principles of signifying emotions and narrative cueing.

The situation is much the same in terms of continuity and unity, as the music in the ‘Battle on Ice’ conforms to both. Throughout the entire sequence, the rhythm is constant and ever-present, repeating the same sections over and over again and providing structure to the events happening on the screen (Bartig, 2016). As for unity, music is crucial in bringing the separate sections of the pre-battle narrative together. While horns accompany the knights’ advance, quick sections of strings cut in when Russian soldiers look at the enemy with frightened anticipation (Eisenstein, 1938). Music binds the action and reaction – that is, the Teutonic attack and Russian preparations to face it – together, creating consistent continuity and rising tension that holds the viewers’ attention (Smith, 2014). Thus, Prokofiev’s score not merely facilitates the progression from one frame to another within the scene but also cements the scene as a whole as a distinct part of the narrative.

When it comes to the principles of invisibility and inaudibility, the things do not look as simple because Eisenstein and Prokofiev toy with the former and blatantly violate the latter. In one instance – during the knights’ Mass before the battle – a pipe organ is physically present at the right side of the screen, meaning that the music is diegetic (Eisenstein, 1938). As the Teutonic knights surge forward, accompanied by the sound of horns, it is not clear whether the music is diegetic. It is entirely conceivable that a medieval army would use horns, but none are shown (Eisenstein, 1938). It is an example of what Gorbman (1987) called “diegetic ambiguity inherent in film music,” but since the only instrument physically presents is diegetic, the principle of invisibility is not violated (p. 22). The principle of inaudibility is: that the score utterly dominates the scene, as there is little action and no dialogue, save for Nevsky’s brief exchange with his lieutenants (Eisenstein, 1938). Yet this violation serves other principles: audibility fortifies music’s contribution to narrative tension, stresses the emotions of dread and anticipation even more, and provides structural unity to the scene. This violation of one principle for others’ sake is exactly in line with Gorbman’s (1987) approach.

To summarize, the beginning of the ‘Battle of Ice’ sequence in Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky demonstrates how Prokofiev’s score to the film corresponds neatly to the principles of composition, mixing, and editing. The low rumbling of the horns and quick string sections emotionally signify the menace of the approaching enemy and the fear and anxiety of Russian soldiers. The quickening pace of the music serves as a narrative cue for the impending cavalry charge. The constant and even repetitive rhythm builds continuity, and the score also facilitates unity by binding action and reaction together. Although the scene is an example of diegetic ambiguity, the only visible instrument refers to a clearly diegetic part of the score, meaning that the principle of invisibility is at least technically upheld. At the same time, Eisenstein and Prokofiev violate the rule of inaudibility – but do so in order to facilitate its other functions in full accordance with Gorbman’s (1987) principles.

References

Arsenjuk, L. (2018). Movement, action, image, montage: Sergei Eisenstein, and the cinema in crisis. University of Minnesota Press.

Bartig, K. (2017). Sergei Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky. Oxford University Press.

Bordwell, D. (2016). The Cinema of Eisenstein. Routledge.

Eisenstein, S. (Director). (1938). Alexander Nevsky [Film]. Mosfilm.

Gorbman, B. (1987). Unheard Melodies: Narrative film music. Indiana University Press.

Smith, T. J. (2014). Audiovisual correspondences in Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky: A case study in viewer attention. In: Taberham, P. and Nannicelli, T. (Eds.) Cognitive Media Theory (pp. 85-105). AFI Film Readers.

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