Written and directed by Sergei Eisenstein, Ivan IV struggles against the boyars to become the first czar of Russia.
In a cathedral the Prince of Moscow has himself crowned Czar Ivan IV (Nikolai Cherkasov), sovereign of all the Russias by Novgorod's Archbishop Pimen (Aleksandr Mgebrov), but aristocrats are critical. The Russian Orthodox religious authorities pray for him and pour coins over his crowned head. Ivan announces that for the first time the archduke of Moscow is czar of all the Russias, and he will contain the boyars. He founds a regular and permanent army, and those who do not fight must contribute. Monasteries must also share their funds. They must have unity to crush those who oppose unity. He wants to reclaim the ports of their rivers which are under foreign control. Two Romes have fallen, but Moscow is the third and last. Europeans say he will be opposed. His wedding day is set.
Prince Andrei Kurbsky (Mikhail Nazvanov) is urged to be ambitious, and he goes to the banquet. Ivan is kissing his bride Anastasia Romanovna (Lyudmila Tselikovskaya), and they drink from a bowl. Men shout for them to kiss. They kiss as people drink toasts.
At his table Ivan asks why his friends are sad, and he is told that marriage ends friendships. Fyodor Kolychev (Andrei Abrikosov) is serving him wine and foresees trouble. He will not go against the Czar but asks to join a monastery. Ivan asks him to pray for us sinners. If he needs him, he will call upon him.
A man tells Ivan’s aunt Efrosinia Staritskaya (Serafina Birman) that the people are rising up. As food is brought in to the banquet, people sing. Kurbsky looks at the Czarina and breaks his bowl. Peasants with torches enter the castle. Soldiers with halberds keep them away from Ivan who pushes his way toward them. Aristocrats kneel before the Czar, and the peasants follow. The poor people make their complaints against the aristocratic families. An aristocrat accuses them of witchcraft, but Ivan ridicules the idea. He warns that those who cut down bells will be beheaded. He will stop the treason of the boyars. He offers rewards to those who serve him. The Czarina takes the hand of Prince Kurbsky while the Czar is speaking; but she warns him not to dare that. Ivan says they will crush the treachery and help the workers and shopkeepers. An Asian from Kazan enters and speaks to the Czar. Ivan says he does not want war, but he will not tolerate their invasion of Moscow’s territory. Czar's Guard Malyuta Skuratov (Mikhail Zharov) shouts, “To Kazan!” The peasants cheer, and Ivan shouts the same thing.
Soldiers are marching and pushing large cannons while others are on horses. Ivan in armor comes out of his tent on a hill and surveys his men. Soldiers walk by and put coins in a bowl. Soldiers move things through tunnels while others sing. The Czar plans to use gunpowder, and men roll the barrels. Prisoners are tied to a fence and are ordered to shout, “Kazan, surrender.” Soldiers from the Kazan fort shoot arrows that kill the prisoners. Kurbsky uses his shield to keep an arrow from hitting Ivan, who is warned to beware of the boyars more than the arrows. Some men light a fuse which causes explosions by the fort. The Russian cavalry charges, and men bring ladders and towers to the walls. Ivan orders supporting fire from cannons for Kurbsky. Ivan announces he is the true czar of all the Russias.
Kurbsky tells courtiers that Ivan is ill. Boyarina Efrosinia tells Kurbsky that Ivan stole Anastasia from him and has all the glory even though Kurbsky conquered Kazan. She predicts he will lose his head. They see the Czar's Guard Malyuta, the “eyes of the Czar.” Monks take the Holy Sacraments to the Czar and chant. Ivan holds a candle and lies on his back. Priests put a large, open book over his head. Ivan says, “Lord have mercy.” Efrosinia asks Kurbsky to whom he will swear allegiance, and he says to the Czar’s son Dmitri. She says adds, “And to Anastasia.” She urges him to swear allegiance to Vladimir Andreyevich Staritsky (Pavel Kadochnikov) who is feeble-minded.
Anastasia is by Ivan’s bed when Efrosinia and men come in and bow to her. Ivan asks them to swear allegiance to his heir Dmitri. Efrosinia pushes forward Vladimir. Ivan sees them and tells them to swear allegiance to his baby son. Ivan gets out of bed and speaks but falls down. From the floor he appeals to several aristocrats including Kolychev. They do not respond, and he says they will be cursed. He stands up to curse them and falls on the bed. Anastasia protects her child Dmitri from Efrosinia. She warns them that their feuds will deliver them to their enemies. An aristocrat says the Czar must favor the boyars. Efrosinia opposes her. She asks the aristocrats to swear allegiance to Vladimir. Kurbsky goes to Ivan and kneels before Anastasia. Efrosinia stares at them both and then leaves with Vladimir. Kurbsky and the other boyars follow them out. Kurbsky prays whether he should go with Anastasia or Efrosinia. Anastasia finds him, and he offers to rule Russia with her. She says one does not bury a man before he dies, and she leaves. He figures if Ivan lives, he will die. He goes to the others but swears by a Bible that Dmitri is the true heir. Ivan is helped by Anastasia and approaches, and many bow. Ivan commends Kurbsky for passing a supreme test. He gives him a sacred mission to lead Russian forces to the West since they have already consolidated the East. Ivan embraces Kurbsky. Ivan appoints Aleksei Basmanov (Mikhail Kuznetsov) to protect their southern borders from the Crimean Khan. Some asks who he is, and he comes in and kneels before the Czar.
Aristocrats complain to Efrosinia that Ivan chose the unworthy Basmanov. Ivan Ivanovich says he will flee to Livonia, but she reprimands him. The Czar’s confessor comes in and says he has been stripped of his position and that the Czar will not forgive them. Efrosinia urges them to stay and fight. The Archbishop says Kurbsky is away and that they must oppose the military campaigns and not contribute to the Baltic wars. Efrosinia says that Anastasia must be removed, and she will see to it.
Ivan announces that he needs the Baltic towns. He will use force to stop others from restricting their commerce—Germans but also the boyars. He stamps his foot, and the listeners leave. Ivan sends a man to Queen Elizabeth in England to instruct her how to avoid the Baltic states. He hands the man a scroll, and he leaves. Ivan sits at his desk.
Anastasia is sleeping while Efrosinia watches her. Efrosinia gets up before Ivan enters, and she hides. Anastasia awakes and comforts Ivan as he lays his head on her chest. A message from Basmanov in Ryazan is brought in. Ivan says the boyars betrayed him again, and he will confiscate their estates. Efrosinia heard this and puts something in a cup. Anastasia shouts in pain, and Ivan examines a cup by the bed. Efrosinia puts the cup on a wall, and Ivan picks it up and takes it to Anastasia. She drinks from it.
Anastasia is laid out in a coffin surrounded by candles as Ivan kneels. The Archbishop prays. A messenger reads how boyars have fled, and some princes have been captured. Ivan asks what he has done wrong and collapses on the floor. He asks if his struggle is right. An aristocrat tells Ivan that Kurbsky has fled to King Sigismund. Ivan wonders if Kurbsky coveted his crown. The advisor tells him the boyars are rising during the Baltic crisis. Ivan shouts at the Archbishop and knocks over two large candles. Ivan asks them to send for Kolychev, his last true friend. Alyoshka offers his only son and suggests he get new men. Ivan agrees they can form a brotherhood under his iron leadership. They say he will return to Moscow a conqueror, but Ivan says he will not return as a soldier. Ivan says he will turn to the people, and they will express God’s will. Common people with torches come in, and Ivan kisses Anastasia.
An official announces that the boyars have refused to defend them from their enemies and that they oppress the people. Therefore the Czar is abandoning Moscow, but he does not hold the people responsible. A man says the Czar is summoning the people.
Inside the Czar is waiting for a message from Moscow. Thousands of people are walking in the snow. A messenger tells Ivan that the English have landed. Ivan puts on a fur and goes out to the people, who urge him to return. They kneel, and he bows. Ivan goes up the stairs, and the people stand up. Ivan orders horses saddled so that he can return to Moscow to work for the future of the Russian state.
This historical drama begins in 1546 when Ivan was 16. The story appeals to Russian unity during its struggle in World War II as an ally of the West against the Nazis.