Monday, October 24, 2011

#47 - Battleship Potemkin

BACK-STORY: “Battleship Potemkin” is a combination war movie / propaganda piece. It was meant to be one part of an eight part series on the Revolution of 1905. It turned out to be the only one in the series that ended up being made. It did not have the intended inspirational effect as it was not warmly embraced by the Russian people. It actually lost the box office to “Robin Hood” the opening week. It was a big hit outside Russia, however. The movie is justifiably famous and is considered Sergei Einstein’s masterpiece. It has been oft-copied by other directors. The film is divided into five parts: (1) “Men and Maggots” (2) “Drama on Deck” (3) “A Dead Man Calls for Justice” (4) “The Odessa Staircase” (5) “The Rendezvous with a Squadron”. Interestingly, the staircase scene was not planned as part of the movie and was added during production.

OPENING: Waves are crashing on a breaker. The screen tells us Russia is in revolution. “The individual personality, having hardly had time to become conscious of itself, dissolved in the mass, and the mass itself became dissolved in the revolutionary elan.” On board the Potemkin, two soldiers talk about supporting the workers. Vakulinchuk urges the men lounging in their hammocks to revolt against mistreatment.

SUMMARY: The men are upset about rancid meat, but the officers (including the doctor) insist it is edible. The men refuse to eat the borscht. In response, the Admiral orders the execution of those who are insubordinate. The rebels are gathered on the deck and a tarpaulin is thrown over them. A wild looking Rasputin-like preacher condones the execution. Vakulinchuk demands the firing squad back down and they do. The mutiny begins. There is mass chaos as the officers are thrown overboard. Unfortunately, Valulinchuk is shot and killed, thus becoming a martyr.

      Valulinchuk’s body is carried ashore at Odessa. A mass of people come out to view the body. The whole city apparently. There is a montage of various emotions. The anger builds, symbolized by clenched hands recurring. “Down with tyranny!” The crowd joins with the crew and raises a red flag of revolution. An armada of sail-boats comes out to bring food to the battleship while a crowd cheers from a stairway. Uh, oh!

      Next is the famous Odessa Staircase scene. Einstein shows off his innovative cross-cutting technique as he bounces from the robotic czarist soldiers advancing with bayonets fixed down the seemingly endless steps and the panicked civilians reacting to the tsunami of violence. Some of the focus is on a boy and his distraught mother. Another group tries vainly to reason with the soldiers. Most famously, a mother is shot and her baby carriage goes bouncing down the steps unguided. The violence is graphic for that time period of black and white / silent movies.

CLOSING: The fleet is coming! What will happen? The Potemkin will obviously be outnumbered and outgunned. The crew prepares for battle in a good tutorial of how a dreadnaught would be readied for naval combat. The music builds, the tension rises. At the last moment the squadron allows the Potemkin to pass through unimpeded to the accompaniment of cheers from the other crews who have refused to obey orders to open fire.


Acting - 6

Action - 6

Accuracy - 9

Realism - 6

Plot - 6

Overall - 6

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? It depends on if they a film buff. Everyone who claims to be a movie lover should see this movie. It is a true classic. It is not particularly macho and since it is not in smell-o-vision, females should be able to get into the story. Certainly the staircase scene tugs at female emotions as many of the victims are women.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The movie is surprisingly accurate for a propaganda piece. There was a mutiny on the battleship Potemkin in 1905 and it apparently started over the gross food. The movie does not give background (which makes the causes of the rebellion unclear), but the crew was already low on morale because of the aftermath of the terrible ass-kicking at the Battle of Tsushima. The Japanese fleet destroyed a Russian fleet and rumor threatened that ships like the Potemkin might be sent to the war zone. To make matters worse, the officer class had been diluted in quality to bolster the fleet that had been sent to Tsushima. The Potemkin’s officers would have probably been similar to the arrogant bourgeoisie of the film. However, it seems unlikely that Einstein’s heroic, saintly proletariat sailors were accurate representations of the actual crew.

      The mutiny did break out under circumstances similar to the film. A sailor named Vakulinchuk did foment the rebellion against the food. The sailors who were refusing to eat were being threatened by marines when Vakulinchuk started the mutiny. He was shot and fell into the sea, was rescued, and subsequently died. His funeral in Odessa was attended by a large crowd and incited more civil discontent.

      The movie has had such an impact that the staircase incident has been read into history. The fact is that it never happened. However, there were incidents in Odessa involving troops firing into crowds.

      Surprisingly, the sailing of the Potemkin through the fleet unmolested is true. The movie does not carry it from there, but the battleship took refuge in Rumania where most of the crew went into exile. The ship was eventually returned to the czarist government.

CRITIQUE: “Battleship Potemkin” is a remarkable movie. It is a classic that holds up well. You do not have to be a film historian to recognize the brilliance of Einstein’s direction. His innovations of montages and cross-cutting are apparent in their importance to the evolution of movie-making. The staircase scene alone is worth the price of admission. The story-telling is terse, but effective. The subtitles mostly explain instead of translate. To tell the truth, the film could have used more subtitles. The music is effective and matches the scenes well.

      Unlike other true classics (like Casablanca), the movie is not flawless. Some of the scenes linger too long. We get your point, Sergei! The movie also tends to be heavy-handed at times, but for a propaganda film it is remarkably restrained. The acting is mediocre. This is not surprising considering several key players were not professional actors.

CONCLUSION: Once again we have a movie that is obviously one of the “greatest” war movies, but not necessarily one of the “best”. It is interesting and does a good job covering an important historical event. It is very influential and is still studied. This influence has been basically on films in general, not particularly on war movies, however.

       I think the editors of Military History magazine got its ranking of #47 pretty right considering their apparent definition of “greatest”. There are many movies that I have already reviewed from the 100 Greatest that are better and more entertaining, but you have to give “Battleship Potemkin” some credit for being ground-breaking.


  1. I watched this when I was 17 or so and was suffering through the whole film. I thought it was two hours long. It's only short, if I remember correctly. If I had know in advance it wouldn't have been so painful. Despite my suffering, I must say, it's an absoluetely impressive movie and, yes, ground-breaking. The scene on the stairs is one of the most famous of film history. It's well worth watching but maybe not as a teenager.

  2. the war movie buffOctober 26, 2011 at 7:29 PM

    Have you seen "The Untouchables"? It has an incredible homage to the baby carriage. I have to say I am glad it was short. I am not one of those that thinks older is better. I prefer modern technology - like color and sound.

  3. Thanks for letting me know, no, I haven't seen it. Will have to have a look.


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