Sergei Iutkevich: The Great Albanian Warrior Skanderbeg (Velikii voin Albanii Skanderbeg, 1953)

reviewed by Andrei Rogatchevski© 2016

skenderbeuGeorge Castriot, or Skanderbeg (1405-68), was an Albanian nobleman who successfully fought against the Ottoman rule. His nickname—a version of Iskender Bey, itself a Turkish form of Lord Alexander (after Alexander the Great)—was given to him by the Turks to mark his exceptional military talents. A hostage at the Ottoman court in Edirne since his childhood (to keep his vassal father in check), he converted to Islam in 1423, received military training and distinguished himself in Ottoman campaigns against Christians, in particular on the border with Hungary. Skanderbeg even served as an Ottoman governor for a while. However, in 1443 he deserted the Sultan’s forces on the battlefield, returned to his ancestral lands in Albania, converted to Christianity and became the leader of Albanian resistance managing to keep the Turks away from his domain for a quarter of a century. A potent symbol of Albanian independence to this day, his equestrian statue adorns a central square in the capital city of Tirana, his coat of arms being a model for the Albanian national flag.

skanderbegSkanderbeg’s 1953 biopic was filmed at the height of Soviet-Albanian friendship, partly as a favor to the fledgling Communist Albanian film industry, which had neither the means nor the expertise to deliver an ambitious project showcasing the highest point of medieval national history. With Albanians in supporting and consulting roles (except for the PM Enver Hoxha, who personally supervised the production), the demanding task was entrusted primarily to the screenwriter Mikhail Papava (a recipient of the 1950 Stalin Prize for a feature film about the physiologist Ivan Pavlov, a Nobel laureate) and the director Sergei Iutkevich, a student of Vsevolod Meyerhold and a founder of the Factory of the Eccentric Actor (FEKS), who ten years previously, on a government’s commission, had made a documentary called Ankara, the Heart of Turkey (Ankara – serdtse Turtsii), to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Turkish Republic. Not unlike Skanderbeg, Iutkevich switched sides over time: if in Ankara Turkey is called ‘welcoming and friendly’, The Great Albanian Warrior mostly refers to Turks disparagingly as ‘dogs’ (pre-WWII Turkey had been Soviet Russia’s debtor and ally, while post-WWII Turkey had to join NATO to protect itself from Soviet aggression). Other than that, despite Ankara’s different genre, black-and-white look and relatively modest scale, both films employ the same visual components: exotic costumes, landscape and architecture (including Roman and Byzantine artifacts); large groups of extras participating in mass events, such as ethnic dancing, a political rally or a military action of sorts (including parades); ostentatious play-acting; and leaders’ speeches about peoples’ greatness.

skanderbegThe plot of The Great Albanian Warrior broadly follows the well-translated early 16th-century Latin chronicle by Marin Barleti. Skanderbeg (played by Akaki Khorava, an actor of formidable presence) struggles to secure domestic and international support: Albanian, Venetian and Serbian noblemen are reluctant to confront the powerful Ottomans at his request, for fear of consequences. The singer Aleksandr Vertinskii almost steals the show in the dodgy Doge cameo, while the particularly nasty impersonation of the Serbian despot George Brankovic by Vladimir Belokurov may have something to do with Hoxha and Stalin’s conflict with the leader of Yugoslav Communists Josip Broz Tito (Tito himself was not Serbian, of course, but he was in charge of the country where Serbians constituted a majority).

skanderbegThe film’s love interest is subjugated to political expediency. Thus, Skanderbeg’s sister Mamica (Adivie Alibali) and Pal (Naim Frasheri), a son of Skanderbeg’s wet nurse Dafina (Veriko Anjaparidze), love each other in vain. The problem is not class difference (this is disposed of in one elegant compliment from Pal to Mamica: “You are a princess but you plough like a peasant”). A personal sacrifice has to be made in the name of patriotism: Mamica’s marriage into the aristocratic Muzaka family is expected to strengthen Skanderbeg’s anti-Ottoman alliance. As for Skanderbeg’s own wife Donika (Besa Imami), the chief reason for her screen appearance seems to be issuing a male heir, which denies the chance of inheritance to Skanderbeg’s nephew Hamza (Semen Sokolovskii).[1] Still, women’s roles in the film are not always limited to traditional family functions: in a battle scene, Mamica is shown on a horseback, dealing Turks mortal blows with a sword (and is killed by an arrow).

skanderbegApart from early vestiges of feminism, the film contains geopolitical statements (according to a nameless Venetian poet, ‘Albanians are defending Europe from Turkish barbarians’) and even some philosophy of history: according to the Greek chronicler Laonicus (Sergo Zakariadze), all empires rise and fall, as if on a wheel of fortune; ancient Greeks had gone, Romans followed suit and Turks would inevitably follow too (and so, incidentally, would Communism, even though it is unlikely that Laonicus’s words were meant as a thinly veiled warning for Hoxha and Stalin). Also, the film’s message of decolonisation resonated well with the spirit of national liberation movements that defined much of the second half of the 20th century. All this lends additional depth to suspenseful Eisenstein-inspired battle scenes and memorable depictions of local customs (such as blood feud, which Skanderbeg apparently tried to ban, proclaiming that Albanians should kill the enemy, not each other). It is hardly surprising, then, that, despite its deficiencies,[2] The Great Albanian Warrior made a strong enough impression at the 1954 film festival at Cannes to receive an International Prize and a Special Mention – and to be released not only in selected satellite countries of the USSR but also in the USA and Scandinavia, among others. For all we know, it may have influenced Kubrick’s Spartacus!

skanderbegThe Great Albanian Warrior clearly transcends the purely historical relevance. The sequences portraying Skanderbeg’s guerrilla war tactics, such as locking the enemy in a gorge before the attack, are similar to actions carried out during the recent Chechen wars, while scenes of destruction of the classical Greek and Roman monuments may remind one of ISIL. All in all, the film can be examined as a fictionalized visual representation of a temporary autonomous zone (or TAZ, where a successful attempt is made to escape an externally imposed control).[3] A re-recorded HD version of The Great Albanian Warrior, released in 2012 for the 100th anniversary of Albanian independence, may well give the film a new lease of life.


Notes

1] Subsequently, Hamza betrays the Albanian cause and becomes an Ottoman commander. In the end, he and Skanderbeg have to go mano a mano in view of their troops—guess who emerges victorious from the duel!

2] There are several inconsistencies affecting the film’s credibility. For example, in an opening scene, Skanderbeg is taken away from his family as a ten-year old boy, at the most. Yet upon his re-appearance after what is presented as a twenty year long hiatus, Skanderbeg looks much older than thirty (in fact, Khorava was in his late fifties at the time). Also, the film strives to create an impression that Skanderbeg’s rebellion engulfed Albania as a whole; actually, he was barely able to keep his own lands—a relatively small territory–—free from the Ottoman domination.

3] The term has been coined by the anarchist writer Peter Lamborn Wilson, aka Hakim Bey.

Andrei Rogatchevski
UiT – the Arctic University of Norway

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The Great Albanian Warrior Skanderbeg (Soviet Union/Albania, 1953)
Color, 113 minutes
Director: Sergei Iutkevich
Script: Mikhail Papava
Cinematography: Evgenii Andrikanis
Production Design: Iosif Shpinel’
Music: Georgii Sviridov, Çesk Zadeja
Cast: Akaki Khorava, Besa Imami, Adivie Alibali, Semen Sokolovskii, Veriko Anjaparidze, Georgi Chernovolenko, Naim Frasheri, Aleksandr Vertinskii, Oleg Zhakov, Sergo Zakariadze, Vladimir Belokurov
Executive Producers: Iakov Svetozarov, Iakov Zvonkov
Production: Mosfilm Studios (Moscow) and Novaya Albania (Tirana)

Sergei Iutkevich: The Great Albanian Warrior Skanderbeg (Velikii voin Albanii Skanderbeg, 1953)

reviewed by Andrei Rogatchevski© 2016

Updated: 15 Mar 16