Ivan the Terrible, Part II (1958) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • As Ivan the Terrible attempts to consolidate his power by establishing a personal army, his political rivals, the Russian boyars, plot to assassinate their Tsar.

  • His wife dead from poisoning and his chief warrior, Kurbsky, defected to the Poles, Ivan is lonely as he pursues a unified Russia with no foreign occupiers. Needing friendship, he brings to court Kolychev, now Philip the monk, and makes him metropolitan bishop of Moscow. Philip, however, takes his cues from the boyars and tries to bend Ivan to the will of the church. Ivan faces down Philip and lets loose his private force, the Oprichniks, on the boyars. Led by the Tsar's aunt, Euphrosyne, the boyers plot to assassinate Ivan and enthrone her son, Vladimir. At a banquet, Ivan mockingly crowns Vladimir and sends him in royal robes into the cathedral where the assassin awaits.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • The opening scene is in the throne room of the King of Poland, which has a floor resembling a giant chess board. The costumes are rich and ornate, and Polonaises, the music of Poland, play in the background throughout. Prince Andrei Kurbsky (Mikhail Nazvanov), formerly a best friend to Ivan, enters to hand his sword to the King, who receives it, then returns it, symbolizing a new vassal to lord relationship. Some of Kurbsky's formerly Russian lands are thus passed to Polish control. The courtiers in attendance are all smiles and welcoming faces. Many good looking ladies are sizing up Kurbsky. The ladies use their eyes to show interest either in the man or in the words he says.

    The happy atmosphere is interrupted by a disheveled courier who arrives and breathlessly announces that Ivan has returned to Moscow as Tsar. At this news, the party is over, and all present quickly leave the throne room.

    Ivan (Nikolai Cherkasov), back in Moscow as Tsar, looks older and more tired, and there is even a glint of madness and fear in his eyes. Stung at having had one boyar, namely Kurbsky, defect and put Russian land in foreign hands, he wants a new system where the land is always part of Russia and the boyars are caretaker managers of their districts with no power to transfer the land to outsiders. Since this increases his power at the expense of the hereditary landowners, the boyars, they unite in opposition to his plans, and he is alone and friendless.

    When he laments that he has no one to trust, the only he could trust was his wife and companion, now dead, the chief of his landless supporters, Czar's Guard Aleksei Basmanov (Amvrosi Buchma) tells Ivan that he is a true friend who can be trusted. Ivan immediately scolds him, telling him he cannot be a friend, since he is a hired servant.

    Basmanov and the Oprichniki help Ivan consolidate his power over the boyars with terror, arranging for the elimination of some of them.

    Needing friendship, and wanting to have somebody around to trust, he brings to court his old friend Kolychev, who has become Philip the monk, and makes him metropolitan bishop of Moscow. Philip is not willing to help Ivan in any way, insisting that the Tsars role must be to guarantee that old traditional ways of doing things will be maintained. Ivan is so sad and obsessed to have company that he even begs Philip on his knees to remain his friend.

    Philip agrees, but his intent is to try to bend Ivan to the will of the Church, and exacts a promise that he will have the right to intercede for anyone condemned to death. Philip is frustrated by what he sees as Ivan's misuse of power, as he takes his cues from the boyars.

    Meantime, Ivan has become used to using executions to consolidate his political power, killing not only those who openly defy, plot or disobey, but even people that he guesses might resent one of his upcoming decisions, such as the person Philip replaces in Moscow.

    Ivan faces down Philip and lets loose his private force, the Oprichniks, on the boyars. Although as Tsar he must keep his word, he circumvents his promise to Philip by executing those condemned so quickly that they are dead before Philip has even the news that might lead to a plea for intercession. In this way he has three boyars executed. About this time his nickname the Terrible begins to be used.

    As a sort of explanation of Ivan's relentless will to crush the Boyars, we see a flashback to Ivan's childhood. His mother was poisoned by boyars, and her last words to him were "Don't trust the boyars." Although young Ivan (Erik Pyryev) is given to wear the trappings of authority in Muscovy, decisions are made by a couple of old boyars who mock him when he asks questions. A bit later he learns that even very young he can assert his authority if he persists and has the will.

    The boyars, close to desperation, plead their case to Philip and win him over. He vows to block Ivan's abuse of power. In the cathedral a mystery is in process, the songs and representation telling about the terrible torments of fire that await those who refuse to do the will of God. Philip confronts Ivan, and as the argument heats up, Ivan, angry, proclaims that he will be exactly what the boyars call him, the Terrible, and has Philip seized.

    Fyodor Basmanov (Mikhail Kuznetsov), the first of the Oprichnina, helps Ivan figure out that the Tsarina was poisoned, and both suspect Ivan's aunt Efrosinia (Serafima Birman) of poisoning the wine cup. Ivan orders Fyodor not to say anything about it until he (Ivan) is certain beyond doubt of her guilt.

    Led by the Tsar's aunt, Efrosinia, the boyars now decide that their only option is to assassinate Ivan and enthrone her son, Vladimir (Pavel Kadochnikov). The novice Pyotr is selected to wield the knife.

    Ivan, wanting to ascertain Efrosinia's guilt, invites Vladimir to a banquet with the Oprichnina. Vladimir doesnt want to go, but Efrosinia insists that he go and take Pyotr with him, thinking that a magnificent opportunity for the murder has arisen.

    Ivan gets Vladimir drunk while the Oprichnina sing and dance around them. Ivan manipulates Vladimir, telling him he is a dear cousin, that its too bad they aren't good friends who tell each other confidences. The drunk Vladimir mentions that his mother wants him to be Tsar, even though he himself doesn't want it. Later he lets on that there is a plot to kill Ivan. With this, Ivan is now absolutely sure that Efrosinia was his wife's poisoner.

    Fyodor Basmanov notices Pyotr leaving, someone who did not belong in the party, and signals Ivan.

    Ivan, pretending surprise at Vladimir's revelation, suggests to Vladimir that being Tsar is not so bad. He convinces Vladimir to try being Tsar for a while, and has the Oprichnina bring throne, orb, scepter, crown and royal robes. Vladimir is dressed up as Tsar and they all bow down to "Tsar Vladimir."

    Then Ivan tells Vladimir to lead them, in full regalia, to the cathedral to pray, as a Tsar should lead. With much hesitation and fear, 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 sees it is her own son, screeches in desperation while holding Vladimir in a pose reminiscent of Michelangelo's Pietá.

    Ivan sentences her. Then, in a final soliloquy, Ivan proclaims that all his enemies within Moscow are vanquished so he can now concentrate to those outside.

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