Features Films

The Movie that Created a Medieval Myth

Modern movies rarely depict the Middle Ages accurately, and sometimes they get the period entirely wrong. However, one film managed to create a myth about a battle that persisted for decades.

The movie is Alexander Nevsky, released in 1938 and directed by Sergei Eisenstein, considered one of the great filmmakers of his era. It tells the story of Alexander Nevsky, Prince of Novgorod, as he fights threats to his homeland in the 13th century. Alexander Nevsky was a huge hit in the Soviet Union and gained even greater popularity during the Second World War for its patriotic depictions of Russia.


The climax of the film is when Nevsky leads his people in battle against the Teutonic Order. The battle took place on the frozen Lake Peipus and would become known as the Battle on the Ice. The Russians prevail and the Teutonics flee. However, as they try to regroup, the ice gives way underneath them. Here is that dramatic scene:

While this might be good filmmaking by Eisenstein, this part of the battle never happened. However, for decades after Alexander Nevsky was released, the story of soldiers drowning after falling into the icy lake became the standard depiction in books and articles.


Historian Donald Ostrowski explains how this came to be. In an article he wrote for the journal Russian History in 2006, he describes how the sources actually portrayed the Battle of Lake Peipus/Battle on the Ice and how the legend spread after the film.

Alexander Nevsky led the forces of Novgorod and Vladimir-Suzdal in a battle that took place on April 5, 1242. However, he was not fighting the Teutonic Knights, but rather a coalition of Estonian, German, and Danish troops that included about a hundred members of the Livonian Order, an offshoot of the Teutonic Order.

The earliest accounts of the battle provide few details. For example, the Laurentian Codex of the Russian Primary Chronicle, completed in the early 14th century, offers this:

Grand Prince Iaroslav sent his son Andrei to Great Novgorod in aid of Alexander against the Germans and defeated them beyond Pskov at the lake and took many prisoners. Andrei returned to his father with honour.


A mid-14th-century work known as the Suzdal’ Chronicle contains a little more information:

In the year 1242 Prince Alexander with the men of Novgorod and with his brother Andrei and the men of the low country went to the Chud land against the Germans…. Prince Alexander and all the Nov gorodians drew up their forces at Lake Chud at Uzmen by Raven’s Rock. The army of the Germans and Chuds rode at them driving themselves like a wedge through their army, and there was a great battle with the Germans and Chuds. God and Holy Sophia and the Holy Martyrs Boris and Gleb, for whose sake the Novgorodians shed their blood, by great prayers of those saints, God helped Prince Alexander. The Germans fell there and the Chuds gave shoulder [fled], and pursuing them [the Novgorodians] fought them for seven versts on the ice to the Subol shore. There fell a countless number of Chuds, and of the Germans 400. They captured 50 and brought [them] to Novgorod. They fought on April 5, the Commemoration Day of the Holy Martyr Claudian, to the glory of the Holy Mother of God, on a Saturday.

Later works from medieval Rus’ offer a few more details, while German and other European sources have almost nothing to say about the battle. The Battle on the Ice became viewed as an important event in Russian history, in which Novgorod and other Rus’ states were able to fight off attacks from Western Europeans.

Russian stamp for 750th anniversary of the Battle on the Ice – image by A. Sdobnikov / Wikimedia Commons

Ostrowski, a Lecturer in History at Harvard University and a leading expert in the medieval and early modern periods of Russia, researched the historiography of the battle, finding that no account mentions the European troops falling through the ice. Nor was this something that modern history books told.


Then, in the years after Alexander Nevsky, Ostrowski finds the story included in several books and articles. This includes A History of Russia, by Nicholas V. Riasanovsky, which was first published in 1963 and then reprinted several times, becoming a leading textbook used for university classes. Here is how this book describes the battle:

The crucial battle took place on April 5, 1242, on the ice of Lake Chud, or Peipus, in Estonia. It became known in Russian historical tradition as “the massacre on the ice” and has been celebrated in song and story – more recently in Prokofiev’s music and Eisenstein’s brilliant film Alexander Nevskii. The massed force of mailclad and heavily armed German knights and their Finnish allies struck like an enormous battering ram at the Russian lines; the lines sagged but held long enough for Alexander Nevskii to make an enveloping movement with a part of his troops and assail an enemy flank; a complete rout of the Teutonic Knights followed, the spring ice breaking under them to aid their destruction.

Riasanovsky was not alone in including the ice-breaking detail. Most surprisingly, there is another article on the Battle of the Ice in the same issue of Russian History as Ostrowski’s article. That author assuredly states, “the Livonian forces were encircled and forced into a small space on the ice. The ice would not hold them, and gave way.”

We also must admit that this false detail about the battle appeared on too.


While Ostrowski’s research has definitively shown that the myth about the breaking of the ice only started after Alexander Nevsky was released, he also offers a theory on why Sergei Eisenstein filmed that scene. The director was inspired by the 17th-century epic poem Paradise Lost by John Milton (1608–1674) and used it as a model for his Battle on the Ice. The poem includes a description of the ‘Battle in Heaven’, in which the ‘Host of Satan’ are defeated. This ends with the evil forces falling into a “bottomless pit.” Eisenstein recreated that part by having the evil Teutonic Knights falling into their own bottomless pit – that of Lake Peipus.

Donald Ostrowski’s article, “Alexander Nevskii’s “Battle On the Ice”: the Creation of a Legend,” can be found in Russian History, Vol. 33 (2006). You can access it through JSTOR.