Latent Images
Portraits of Nations: Eisenstein’s ‘Alexander Nevsky’ and Ford’s ‘Young Mr. Lincoln’
by Aidan Collins

“And perhaps that reveals another secret, why I love this film so much. It attracted me even before the War: I saw it first almost on the eve of the World War. The perfection of its overall harmony and its rare skill in all the areas of means of expression immediately enthralled me. And most of all it was the actual resolution of Lincoln’s image. But my love of this film did not cool and was not forgotten. On the contrary: it grew and became stronger, and the film itself somehow became ever dearer to me.”

—Sergei Eisenstein

Sergei Eisenstein’s love for John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln is infectious. It is a portrait of an incredibly flawed country. Eisenstein knew that a capitalist state such as America worked to exploit the working class. And Lincoln was no perfect legend that he has been made out to be. Yet Ford twists that ideal that has been repeated for so long into something tangible. Henry Fonda portrays the lanky president in his early days just as he had begun practicing law. He was not the man “shot dead at Ford’s Theater” nor was he “The Great Emancipator.” Ford wittles down his morals to knowing there is a difference between right and wrong. And that the young Lincoln would fight for what is right. Strikingly similar to LincolnAlexander Nevsky portrays a strong yet battered nation fending off enemy forces from all sides. They had just narrowly escaped all out war but a new threat was near. The German knights of the Teutonic Order had been seizing Russian land for the Holy Roman Empire. This film was released a year before the beginning of WWII, and serves as a warning to Nazi Germany that if they try what the Teutonic Order had done, they too would fail. Eisenstein had foreseen the great sacrifice the USSR would make. Political and geographic opposites, John Ford and Sergei Eisenstein made films that are symbolic of their respective nations.

Eisenstein begins his film with Nevsky living as a part of a clan of fishermen. They are subsequently hoarded together by a small band of invaders offering Nevsky a place within their ranks as a warlord. Nevsky refuses to leave his homeland as he would rather die than betray his people. The invaders leave with Nevsky then being informed that the German knights are near. The knights pillage and destroy Russian towns and warn that Novgorod will be next. Nevsky, having recently fended off the Swedes, decides to put the armor back on to protect his country. Nevsky gathers his forces to defeat the German knights. Every peasant is armed and ready to fight. They travel to the edge of Russia to fight the Germans before they even set foot on Nevsky’s land.

Just as Nevsky begins with the hero detached from the world, Ford begins his prologue to Lincoln’s first trial as a small-time lawyer when he lived in the small town of New Salem, Illinois. He reads through books on law to learn everything he can. Lincoln is encouraged by Ann Rutledge to become a lawyer to fight for the rights of everyone. Her untimely death serves as Lincoln’s impetus to go through with his dream. He moved to Springfield, Illinois to open his law practice. Lincoln is welcomed into Springfield as one of their own. At the Independence Day celebration, Ford portrays the town as a tight knit, loving community. They all cheer on Lincoln in every competition. He wins the log splitting tournament, the tug-o-war, he judges the pie-baking contest. Lincoln is at the center of the town. Everyone places their trust and love in him. Later that night, two young men, the Clay Brothers, are framed for killing the sheriff’s deputy. Ford emphasizes through this juxtaposition that the American people are quick to become violent, hateful, and angry. They are ready to kill these brothers and Lincoln if he stands in their way. The community reveals their true selves by going out for blood. They did not care if the brothers killed the deputy as long as someone dies they will be happy. Placing this event on the Fourth of July solidifies Ford’s criticism of America. He makes the act of lynching synonymous with America. Ford knows America to be a deeply evil and flawed country. Making Lincoln the naive hero for these brothers tells of Ford’s criticism for America. Though Lincoln is individualized amongst the townsfolk he is still able to protect these brothers as he believes it to be right. Ford and Eisentsein propagandize their characters as beacons of hope in times of division and war.

Where Ford seeks to criticize, Eisenstein inspires. Nevsky creates the plan to fight the Germans on the ice. Great big clouds power over the Germans in their robes of white. They almost blend within the snow above the ice. But there is movement at the bottom of the frame. They are coming ever closer. The score becomes louder. Their horses slam down on the ice while Nevsky’s army watches them. Nevsky’s legions prepare their weapons. Their bodies clash into each other with the Russian peasants gaining a small advantage over the German knights. To contrast the small framing of the Germans, Eisenstein frames his countrymen taking up the entire frame with only a little space left for the Germans to occupy. Eisenstein witnessed revolution and war firsthand during World War I. With World War II imminent, he emphasized his hope for the Soviet Union’s survival against the Nazi regime through Nevsky.

Before WWII began, by the time this film had been released, the Soviet Union was a nation still in its infancy. Nazi Germany rose to a superpower in a matter of five years. They were working towards annexing the USSR. Early on in the film, Nevsky mentions that the German knights invading breaks the peace treaty they had signed. Reflecting the non-aggression pact the USSR offered, out of necessity, to Nazi Germany. The film shows a weak nation battered by war forced to comply with an aggressive nation. The Soviet Union pleaded with other nations to help defend against invasion but no one answered their call. Eisenstein uses Nevsky as a means to warn the Nazis of Russia’s unexpected strenght and resiliency. The Soviet Union was able to defeat the Nazis against all odds.

Lincoln is alone in this trial unlike Nevsky’s army. Lincoln witnesses the high society that Mary Todd represents. He is socially unaware, keeping to himself and contemplating the case. Ford makes this great American myth human. He is flawed, scared, introverted. Almost as if Ford breaks down the President to just a man. He leaves this party to stare out at the water, watching the river pass him by. He stands there alone. Like any Ford picture, he uses the landscape to evoke a deep feeling of prosperity. Lincoln rides his horse across the river. In a tracking shot, Lincoln moves as if he is one with the river. He is deeply ingrained into American soil. He is a part of our very history. Ford makes it clear that he feels no matter how flawed the country is there was always Lincoln who defended Matt and Adam Clay from certain death. In visiting his client’s family he sees what life could have been for him if his mother had not died. If he had stayed in New Salem with Ann Rutledge. Ford contrasts their life to Lincoln’s; pulling him back into this life he never had. Had he not become a lawyer, the brothers would have been hanged that night on Independence Day. Ford’s critical story of America contrasts Eisenstein’s vision of love for his country.

It is clear that Eisenstein has a dream for future generations. When readying for battle, the peasants shout to the lords that they will break the bones of anyone who refuses to fight. Eisenstein wants a nation, a world even, where one fights for their people – for the right to exist. Prince Nevsky, antithetical to everything Eisenstein believed in, is portrayed as the one who works with the people. He helps create the fishing nets, he is out in the sea with others doing the fishing, and only takes his role as a leader when his people’s lives are threatened. The small Russian cities are set on fire, destroyed, by the Germans. Yet in every scene, the Germans are placed into a small corner of the frame or at the bottom.

Eisentstein not only perfects his imagery and cutting, but also his use of sound. Working with Sergei Prokofiev, they created an ambitious score to accompany the images. As the horses glide across the ice, the score heightens the tension. These knights hold their spears aimed right at the army of peasants. Bursts of strings compound into each other as their horses float up and down with every move they make. Eisenstein uses Prokofiev’s score to match the fear Nevsky and his army of peasants must have felt against their uncertain fate.

Nevsky fights alongside his subjects to defeat the knights. He defeats the leader of these knights in battle, sending the rest of the foot soldiers running. The ice breaks and the Germans slip into the freezing water to their deaths. Eisenstein films the drowning knights from above as if we were there. As if we were a part of this battle. All the work, all the fighting that had been fought, the audience finally sees the invaders lose against their best effort.

Ford places Lincoln’s final battle in an intellectual setting. The climax has Lincoln telling jokes while in the tense courtroom. The largely bourgeois audience in attendance laughed at his jokes, as well as the trial. They smile as if it were a show. These two innocent lives are left in the hands of the young  Lincoln while the people can not help but smile and laugh. One of these in the audience is his future wife, Mary Todd. By the end of the film, Lincoln saves the lives of the Clay Brothers discovering that the true murderer was the other deputy. Lincoln sends the Clay Family on their way back to their farm. He stands on a hill alone as he watches them leave Springfield. A solemn look on his face. The young Lincoln says goodbye to a life he never had. The rain pours down. His jacket flutters in the wind while he holds his top hat to his head. He begins to slowly follow them down the road. Symbolic of American ideals, Lincoln is individualized whereas Nevsky ends with the collective hero that is Nevsky’s army.

Though filmed and released before Young Mr. Lincoln, Ford’s influence is clear. Eisenstein films the Russian landscape so beautifully. The vast open fields laid bare with the skeletons of dead soldiers contrast the timid landscape underneath the great and beautiful sky. Every John Ford western values the landscape to relay a powerful visual. Eisenstein’s films use the same visual storytelling to show the cold landscapes of the Soviet Union. Eisenstein’s battle on the ice utilizes the horizon to show his vision of the war to come. By the end, Eisenstein portrays the soldiers, not Nevsky, as if they were the USSR. Ready for whatever comes next, ready to defend their people against the threat of Nazi Germany.

John Ford recognizes that Lincoln is a fabled figure. Though his entire life is now well documented, Ford created a story that tells Lincoln’s past before it was fully known. Eisenstein knew even less, yet this film became his favorite American film. Lincoln regularly corresponded with Karl Marx, Eisenstein’s hero, yet there is no mention of him in any of the Soviet filmmaker’s proclamations of love for this film. Eisenstein focused on his admiration for Young Mr. Lincoln for what it meant to Americans, not Soviet audiences. Both Ford and Eisenstein use portraits of important national heroes to depict the souls of their countries. The traditional seal of the United States, says e pluribus unum – out of many, one. Ford constructs the American identity through the figure of Lincoln, idealized, and yet imperfect, Ford understands that American nationalism quintessentially favors the individual. Eisenstein, on the other hand, constructs a film in which the theme is out of one, many. Eisenstein believed in a world, and a country, in which a nation’s strength came from the collective not the individual. Although both films are focused on national figures and folk heroes, the filmmakers capture the fundamental differences between the Soviet and American spirits.