Part I begins with Ivan's coronation as Tsar of all the Russias, amid grumbling from the boyars. Ivan makes a speech proclaiming his intent to unite and protect Russia against the foreign armies outside her borders and the enemies within - a reference to the boyars, who are already seen as discontented with his coronation. Shortly after, Ivan marries Anastasia Romanovna and there is a wedding celebration. This causes him to lose the friendship of his two best friends, Prince Andrei Kurbsky and Fyodor Kolychev. The latter receives Ivan's permission to retire to a monastery, while Kurbsky attempts to resume his romance with the Tsarina, who repels his advances.
The marriage feast is interrupted by news of the burning of several boyar palaces, carried into the Tsar's palace by a mob of the common people who also complain that the Tsar is being led astray by the Tsarina's family (the Romanovs), the Glinskys and the Zakharins. Ivan calms the crowd, but is interrupted by envoys from the khanate of Kazan, who send him a ceremonial knife with the suggestion that he do himself a favor by using it to commit suicide. Ivan immediately proclaims that his kingdom is at war with Kazan.
The next scene shows the siege of Kazan, in which Ivan's army digs saps underneath the city and fills them with gunpowder. Kurbsky, nominally in command, is reprimanded by Ivan for senseless brutality (he ties Tartar prisoners to palisades within earshot of the walls of Kazan and tells them to shout to the city to surrender; the defending archers immediately shoot the prisoners). The city of Kazan falls to the Russian army.
During his return from Kazan, Ivan falls seriously ill and is thought to be on his deathbed; Orthodox priests come to give him the last rites before he dies. Ivan sends for his relatives and orders them to swear allegiance to his son, the infant Dmitri, reminding them of the need for a single ruler to keep Russia united. They demur, with Ivan's aunt, Efrosinia Staritska, openly urging the others to swear allegiance to her son, Vladimir, instead. Emotionally overwrought, Ivan collapses and is thought dead. The relatives, celebrating, all begin to swear allegiance to Vladimir, the "boyar tsar" they have hoped for; meanwhile, Kurbsky is uncertain of his own loyalty, trying to decide between the two sides. However, when the Tsarina says, "Do not bury a man before he is dead," Kurbsky realizes that Ivan is still alive, and hurriedly swears his allegiance to Ivan's infant son, Dmitri. He is sent, as a reward, to the western border of the kingdom to defend against the Livonians and Poles. At the same time, Ivan dispatches Alexei Basmanov, a commoner he sympathizes with, to the south to take care of the Crimean border.
The Tsarina now falls ill, and while Ivan is receiving bad news from all fronts, the boyars plot to kill her. Efrosinia comes into the palace with a cup of wine hidden in her robes, in which she has put poison. Just as the royal couple receive word that Kurbsky has defected to the Livonians, Efrosinia slips the cup of wine into the room and listens from behind a wall. The Tsarina has a convulsion and Ivan, looking around for a drink to calm her, takes the poisoned wine and gives it to her.
The scene changes to show the dead Tsarina lying in state in the cathedral, with Ivan mourning beside her bier. While a monk reads biblical verses over the body, Ivan questions his own justifications and ability to rule, wondering if his wife's death is God's punishment on him. However, he pulls himself out of it, and sends for Kolychev. At this point, Alexei Basmanov arrives, suggesting that Ivan surround himself with men he can trust - "iron men," the Oprichnina - and offers his (rather startled) son, Fyodor, for service. Ivan accepts, and sets about recouping his losses. He abdicates and leaves Moscow, waiting until the people beg him to return, saying that he now rules with absolute power by the will of the people.
Part II opens in the court of King Sigismund of Poland, to whom Kurbsky swears allegiance. Sigismund promises to make Kurbsky ruler of Ivan's territories, once he exploits the tsar's absence by conquering them. The plan is foiled when an emissary announces that Ivan has returned to Moscow.
Ivan begins by reforming the land distribution: he takes the boyars' lands, then reinstalls them as managers, increasing his own power at their expense. His friend, Kolychev, arrives, now the monk Philip; after a heated debate, Philip agrees to become metropolitan of Moscow, if Ivan gives him the right to intercede for condemned men. This is mutually agreed upon. But as soon as it is settled, Ivan, propelled by Malyuta, finds a way around this: he executes condemned men quickly, before Philip can use his right. In this way he has three of Philip's kinsmen executed.
Fyodor Basmanov, the first of the Oprichniki, helps Ivan figure out that the Tsarina was poisoned, and both suspect Efrosinia of poisoning the cup of wine. Ivan orders Fyodor not to say anything about it until he (Ivan) is certain beyond doubt of her guilt.
The boyars, close to desperation, plead their case to Philip and eventually win him over. He vows to block Ivan's abuse of power, and confronts him in the cathedral while a miracle play is being presented. As the argument heats up, Ivan, angry, proclaims that he will be exactly what the boyars call him - terrible - and has Philip seized. The boyars now decide that their only option is to assassinate Ivan, and the novice Pyotr is selected to wield the knife.
Ivan, now certain of Efrosinia's guilt, invites Vladimir to a banquet with the Oprichniki. Ivan gets Vladimir drunk while the Oprichniki sing and dance around them; Vladimir mentions that there is a plot to kill Ivan, and he (Vladimir) is to replace him as Tsar. Fyodor Basmanov notices the assassin leaving, and signals Ivan, who, pretending surprise at Vladimir's revelation, suggests Vladimir try being Tsar for a while, and has the Oprichniki bring throne, orb, scepter, crown and royal robes, and they all bow down to "Tsar Vladimir." Then Ivan tells Vladimir to lead them to the cathedral in prayer, as a Tsar should lead. Hesitantly, Vladimir does.
In the cathedral, the assassin runs up and stabs the mock Tsar, and is immediately seized by Fyodor and Malyuta. Ivan orders them to release Pyotr, and thanks him for killing the tsar's worst enemy. Efrosinia arrives, jubilant at the apparent death of Ivan, until she sees Ivan alive; rolling the corpse over, she realizes it is her own son. Ivan sentences her and then relaxes, proclaiming that all his enemies within Moscow are vanquished and he can turn to those outside.
Ivan Vasilyevich (Nikolay Cherkasov) - The movies show Ivan more as monarch than man, detailing his struggles to unite Russia and his difficulties in overcoming the traditional, boyar-run government. While not exactly sympathetic, Ivan is shown as having to fight fire with fire—having to be ruthless and brutal for the good of the country. In some ways, he is a victim of the boyars, especially during flashbacks to his childhood and early adolescence. The movies also detail Ivan's gradual slide into suspicion and paranoia.
Efrosinia Staritska (Serafima Birman) - Ivan's aunt Efrosinia, usually dressed in black, is the chief villain of the piece, willing to do anything to get her son Vladimir on the throne. She is adamantly traditionalist and hates the Tsarina, relentlessly pushing the other boyars to oppose Ivan in any way they can, and is instrumental in the assassination plot against him. She also foments discord between Ivan and Kurbsky, saying that Ivan plots to kill Kurbsky in the future.
Vladimir Staritsky (Pavel Kadochnikov) - Vladimir, Efrosinia's adult son with the mind of a child, is the main challenger to Ivan as tsar. He is Ivan's cousin but has none of his intelligence, forcefulness, or drive, and is content to drink and listen to his mother sing.
Malyuta Skuratov (Mikhail Zharov) - Malyuta, Ivan's aide, is shown as one of his secret police. He is the one who suggests executing condemned men quickly to circumvent Philip's attempts at intercession, and is portrayed as sneaky, ruthless, and something of a sycophant.
Alexei Basmanov (Amvrosy Buchma) - The elder Basmanov is a commoner, a self-described hater of the boyars and a great opportunist. He rises to power, commanding armies in the Crimea, and becoming one of Ivan's trusted lieutenants.
Fyodor Basmanov (Mikhail Kuznetsov) - Alexei Basmanov's only son, Fyodor is, at the beginning, awed by the Tsar and his mystique; his personality changes dramatically en route to Part II. After becoming one of the Oprichnina, Fyodor is shown as ruthless, bloodthirsty, and fanatical.
Tsarina Anastasia (Lyudmila Tselikovskaya) - Though she appears only in Part I, the Tsarina is one of her husband's staunchest supporters and is completely loyal to him, rejecting the advances of Prince Kurbsky. She urges Ivan to be firm in dealing with the boyars, which creates enmity toward her. Her murder by the boyars in the hopes of breaking Ivan will lead to Ivan´s gradual slide into madness.
During World War II, with the Axis forces approaching Moscow, Eisenstein was one of many Moscow-based filmmakers who were evacuated to Alma Ata, in the Kazakh SSR. There, Eisenstein first considered the idea of making a film about Tsar Ivan IV, aka Ivan the Terrible, whom Joseph Stalin admired as the same kind of brilliant, decisive, successful leader that Stalin considered himself to be. Aware of Eisenstein's interest in a project about Ivan, Stalin ordered the making of the film with Eisenstein as author-director.
The scenario of Ivan the Terrible had been accepted by Mosfilm in the form of two full-length films. Eisenstein considered splitting the screenplay into three parts and discussed this with Grigori Alexandrov, who was against this. But he ended up ignoring Alexandrov's advice and changed the film from two parts to three.
Stalin and Eisenstein met in late February 1947 regarding Ivan the Terrible Part 2 and the never completed Part 3.
The first film, Ivan The Terrible, Part I, was filmed between 1942 and 1944, and released at the end of that year. The film presented Ivan as a national hero, and won Joseph Stalin's approval (and even a Stalin Prize).
The second film, Ivan The Terrible, Part II: The Boyars' Plot, finished filming at Mosfilm in 1946. However, it offended Stalin because it depicted state terrorism at the hands of a mad Ivan. The unshown film received heavy criticism with some calling the picture "anti-historical", from various state authorities who had seen it, along with Stalin, at a special showing. It was only during the Khrushchev thaw that followed the death of Stalin in 1953 and the denunciation of Stalin therein, that the film was finally released in 1958, 10 years after Eisenstein's death.
A third film, which began production in 1946, was halted when the decision was made not to release the second film. After Eisenstein's death in 1948, all footage from the film was confiscated, and it was rumored to have been destroyed (though some stills and a few brief shots still exist today).
Cinematography was divided between Eduard Tisse, who shot the exteriors, and Andrei Moskvin, who filmed all interior scenes. The color sequences of Part Two were also filmed by Moskvin.
The score for the films was composed by Sergei Prokofiev. Eisenstein remarked that Prokofiev was able to grasp the emotional mood, rhythm and structure of a scene immediately and have the score ready the next day.
The entire production was shot in Kazakhstan at Mosfilm's substantial production facility in Alma Ata. Although most of the film was shot in black and white, there are color sequences in the second part, making this one of the earliest color films made in the Soviet Union.
Eisenstein wrote about Ivan The Terrible's tone that they wished chiefly to convey a sense of majesty; the actors spoke in measured tones, frequently accompanied by music.
Nikolai Cherkasov's style of acting was realistic and he was said to have been in a state of nervous exhaustion when the second part of Ivan the Terrible was completed.
Certain symbols are constantly repeated within the films, notable examples include the single eye which refers to truth. Other symbols include icons, which are symbolic of the Russian Orthodox Church, and then contemporary views of the Church and theology. At the end of Part II during the dance scene, Fyodor wears a mask and cross dresses as a woman, representing gender confusion and the growing debauchery.
Shadows are also used, to visually explain a character's power and control over other characters. This is especially evident in the Throne room scene when Ivan's shadow dominates the globe, and all those around him referring to his political power.
Colors are used with precision to add to the overall atmosphere. Almost all the film is in black and white, but at the very end of Part II, just for 10 minutes color film is used to emphasize the transition from good to bad as well as its general importance. At the end of color part Ivan decides to put his cousin under assassin's knife by robing him in tsar's dress. The use of black and white also is a visual cue to aid in the dualistic breakdown of characters and their personalities. Certain characters wear colors to refer to their personalities, such Efrosinia wearing black to visually allude to her evil nature. Beyond that, swans are served at two feasts within the film, the first are white representing innocence and goodness, the second are black representing the wickedness that has come to pass.
Most of the major characters are portrayed as animals through facial and body gestures, as well as their speech.Ivan is portrayed as a bird, with his robes acting as his wings, the constant thrusting and tilting of his head, and the feathery like nature of his hair and beard. The bird symbolism will shift from prey to predatory throughout the films.
Efrosinia is portrayed like a snake, to reinforce her evil nature. Camera shots always have her coming from the floor up, much like a snake coils up to attack. Her clothing is always black, a traditionally evil color, and she wears a head covering giving her the appearance of a snake's bald head.
Alexei is portrayed as a dog to emphasize his loyalty. His hair is designed to mimic a dog's long, floppy ears, as well as his general mannerisms.
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Neuberger, Joan. Ivan the Terrible. London: I.B. Tauris, 2003.
Nesbet, Anne. Savage Junctures: Sergei Eisenstein and the Shape of Thinking. City: I.B.Tauris, 2003. ISBN 978-1-85043-330-9
Minturn, Neil. The Music of Sergei Prokofiev. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997. ISBN 0-300-06366-0
Thompson, Kristin. Eisenstein's "Ivan the Terrible": A Neoformalist Analysis. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981. ISBN 0-69110-120-5
Tsivian, Yuri. Ivan the Terrible. London: B.F.I. Publishing, 2002. ISBN 0-85170-834-X