The Battleship Potemkin; A rip-roaring, swashbuckling silent soviet propaganda movie that should be seen.
Setting the Scene
Battle Potemkin: The Movie
About the Movie
The Famous Staircase Scene
What Happened to the Potemkin?
After living in Beijing with a plentiful supply of knock-off movies and cheap cinema, I was never short of a film to watch. Friends always mentioned that I had one of the finest movie collections in Beijing. However, after moving to Mongolia, a country in the midst of the Covid crisis, my movie options have become a little more limited. Sure, we have HBO, although there are only so many re-runs of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter one can watch.
After writing about the Korean legend Hong Kil Dong, I decided it was time to watch the movie, which turned out to be easily accessible. Then, for some reason, the system chose to recommend the film 'Battleship Potemkin'! As a kid, I used to love the old classic war movies and regularly sat down in front of the TV to enjoy a good old black and white battle pic, so I thought, why not?
After watching this piece of classic cinema, I have decided to write my first (and maybe last) film review! Do be warned; there are spoilers ahead, and yes, the goodies win (kind of)!
The Russian Battleship Potemkin became famous during the 1905 Russian revolution, this revolution is commonly referred to as the "First Revolution", as it was the first of many. In fact, Lenin himself called the 1905 uprising the "Great Dress Rehearsal".
Following Russia's defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1904 -1905), a series of protests, strikes, and mutinies took place across the country. A threat to the tsarist rule of Nicholas II, the Russian empire quickly adopted a series of reforms and social-economic changes; but it was too little too late, as was proved soon after in the autumn of 1917.
It seems that many things caused individuals to rebel and take part in the revolution. Aboard the Russian Battleship Potemkin, it appears that the catalyst was poor meat, but this was just the tip of the iceberg. Much of what is known about the Potemkin, and the plight of the crew, is covered in the movie.
Watching the Battleship Potemkin, it's clear that the movie was made as a propaganda piece, although this doesn't stop it from being quite a badass war film. The film was directed by the Soviet film director and theorist Sergei Eisenstein, a true pioneer of his time.
Sergei was a true communist believer; he rarely used famous actors, instead preferring to use everyday people. Upon casting, he would use actors from the appropriate class or area for his movies. The movie was filmed on location in the port city of Odessa in 1925. As the real Battleship Potemkin was actually in the final throws of being scrapped, the ships Rostislav and Komintern were used for all the swashbuckling shots. The movie is relatively easy to follow, especially as it's divided into five self-explanatory chapters:
1. The Men and the Maggots
The movie opens after the credits and a flash of the first scene title: The Men and the Maggots. Roll stirring music and cue crashing waves on a rugged coastline. We're eventually shown a quote from Vladimir Lenin:
Revolution is war. Of all the wars known in history, it is the only lawful, rightful, just, and truly great war. In Russia, this war has been declared and begun.
These words set the scene, but in some way, they seem to justify the violence that we are about to witness.
Onboard the Potemkin, just before heading down to their quarters, two sailors, Matyushenko and Vakulinchuk, passionately talk about supporting the nation's workers in revolution. It's nighttime as an officer inspects the crew's quarters. As he's navigating the many hammocks, he appears to stumble, as he does so he takes his frustration out on a sleeping sailor.
The commotion caused is enough to rouse an already vocal Vakulinchuk, who begins rallying the crew to the plight of Russia's workers. Once morning comes, a bulk of the ship's company has a mind for rebellion, and the tipping point comes when they catch sight of the meat to be used for mealtime. A number of the crew complained that the meat is of poor quality and full of worms, even declaring that Japanese POWs receive better food. The ship's officers, including the doctor, argue with the crew. The doctor even goes as far as to say the worms are only maggots and can be easily washed off before cooking. Continuing to complain about sailor rations, the crew refuse to eat soup prepared with the meat and instead raid the ship's supplies of canned goods.
The first scene climaxes as a sailor washes a plate inscribed with "give us this day our daily bread". He ponders this for a second before smashing the bowl onto the floor!
2. Drama in the Harbour
This scene begins with the crew being piped to the ship's deck. The captain makes an appearance, commanding all who enjoyed their soup to step forwards. Of course, all the petty officers step forwards and one or two crew members, but a bulk refuses to move. Those who rejected the soup are judged guilty of insubordination and sentenced to death.
Marines line up with guns aimed at the conspirators while a scary-looking priest reads the sailors their last rites. As all seems lost, and the order to fire is called, a brave Vakulinchuk stands up and asks, "Brothers, who are you firing at?" The gunners waver before lowering their weapons. The deck then descends into chaos with punches thrown, and even shots fired.
At first, it is not clear who will win, but eventually, the revolutionary crew emerges victoriously, and the officers are thrown overboard. As the doctor is thrown, the gang shout "food for the worms!".
Unfortunately, in the melee Vakulinchuk, the brave orator and leader of the uprising is killed.
3. A Dead Man Calls for Justice
The Battleship Potemkin arrives at the port of Odessa, where Vakulinchuk's body is carried ashore and displayed publicly by his companions. A note on his chest reads, "killed for a plate of soup".
Slowly more and more mourners arrive, stirred by the uprising on the Potemkin and the sacrifice made by Vakulinchuk. As the crowds gather, speeches are made, and citizens of Odessa are whipped into a frenzy of revolutionary fervor. The people eventually pledge their support for the workers of Russia and declare that they stand together shoulder to shoulder. The scene ends with a red flag hoisted high over the Battleship Potemkin.
4. The Odessa Staircase
As the scene opens, we see the people of Odessa coming together regardless of class, race or age to support, cheer and bring food to the Battleship Potemkin. The mood is almost festive until the emergence of menacing tsarist troops.
The troops appear at the top of a broad set of stairs in central Odessa. The soldiers march robotically downward and begin firing into the crowd. The same people we saw a moment ago cheering and jubilant are now being brutally killed, put to the sword and rifle left, right, and centre. As the violence comes to an end, the guns of the Potemkin open up and shell the Tsarist headquarters, the Odessa opera house.
5. The Meeting with the Squadron
Once the Potemkin has made its stand in Odessa, the crew then realise that the bulk of the Tsarist fleet is on its way. The Sailors of the Potemkin heroically decide it's best to face the other ships head-on and steer out to sea. Along the way, we catch a glimpse of differing ranks mingling and preparing for the impending battle.
The Tsarist ships look menacing with their vastly superior number and trailing thick black smoke. Just when we think there will be a thunderous ending, the tsarist ship's signal that the Potemkin has safe passage and that the sailors on the other vessels are united, reaching solidarity with those aboard the Potemkin.
The Battleship Potemkin is a rip-roaring high seas adventure. True to its period, the baddies are portrayed as wiry, mustache-twiddling, untrustworthy types, along with the odd evil-looking clergyman who appears enveloped in flames. The goodies (revolutionaries) are portrayed as everyday working-class types with the sailors especially shown as rough rugged guys many of whom have jawlines carved from granite! Watch for more than 10 minutes, and you will rediscover the beauty of silent cinema carried along by the exciting music and stereotypes of the day.
For its age, the Battleship Potemkin is a brilliant movie and an absolute classic. Directed by Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein (one of those rare characters from history whose genius and name match their photographic image). Sergei was a true cinematic pioneer famed for his use of montage; he uses it to significant effect in this movie, capturing the mood, feeling, and depth in the masterpiece so much so you'll almost forget it was a piece of Soviet propaganda.
I couldn't finish without mentioning the famous Odessa Staircase scene; those into film will immediately know what I am talking about.
In the movie, we see tsarist soldiers descend upon an unsuspecting joy-filled public. The troops move robotically, with purpose and intent, as they descend the seemingly endless staircase. As they go, the soldier's fire shot after shot into the unsuspecting crowd, only stopping to use bayonets and rifle butts.
At some point in the scene, a mother loses grip of her pushchair; as the troops move on, the pushchair bounces from step to step, heightening the tension one feels as the viewer. The scene is violent and graphic, especially for the age of the movie.
Sergei Eisenstein added this scene later in the filming process, despite the incredible imagery that we see in the scene and the fact that we know there was a massacre in Odessa in 1905, it didn't take place on the steps and not in this fashion. However, due to the effect of Eisenstein's creative decisions, the historical record seems to have now been reworked.
I fell in love with the cinematography used in the sequence on the steps, not from watching the Battleship Potemkin, but from watching the movie the Untouchables as a teenager. The Untouchables is a 1980s gangster flick starring Sean Connery, Robert De Nero and Kevin Costner; in the movie, the director Brian De Palma pays homage to Sergei Eisenstein by artistically replicating the Odessa Staircase scene. Known as the Union scene, we see the movie's heroes arrest Al Capone's bookkeeper. As the scene unfolds an out-of-control pushchair begins careening down steps, innocent bystanders are shot dead in a hail of gunfire and to complete the homage, several well preened sailors are thrown in for good measure.
There was a mutiny aboard the Battleship Potemkin in 1905, and it's said that the poor quality of food was one of the primary triggers, although there would have been more contributing factors. Early into the new century, the air of revolution was ripe across Russia with people looking for a change.
The situation onboard the Battleship Potemkin would have been made worse at the time since almost all experienced naval officers had been sent to fight the Japanese at the battle of Tsushima. The Potemkin's officers were inexperienced, arrogant, bourgeoisie types who had no idea how to command a ship filled with tough, experienced sailors.
Vakulinchuk did exist and did foment rebellion amongst the crew with the primary catalyst believed to be food quality. Vakulinchuk was shot and fell into the sea from where his body was taken to Odessa for his funeral. In Odessa, it's understood that the mutiny aboard the Potemkin stirred an already inflamed populous. During the protests In Odessa, the Potemkin did fire shots into the city aimed at the theatre where a meeting of Tsarist officials was due to be held (both shots missed). When the Potemkin took to the sea, part of the fleet did allow her to pass, this was due to partial mutinies taking place on the other ships which were eventually put down.
The crew of the Battleship Potemkin would eventually seek refuge in Romania, arriving at the port of Constanța; the sailors accepted asylum in exchange for the Battleship. As for the ship itself, its chequered history was to continue.
After an attempt to sink the Potemkin by its revolutionary crew, it was easily refloated by the Russians and returned to active service renamed the Panteleimon. The Panteleimon was the scene of a further failed mutiny, involved in a collision and accidentally sinking of a submarine, bombarded forts on the Bosphorus during the Galipolli campaign and supported Russian troops who landed on the coast of Turkey.
After the 1917 revolution, the battleship would be briefly renamed Potemkin-Tavricheskiy before seeing a fourth and final renaming to the Borets Za Svoboda (Freedom Fighter).
In March 1918, the Potemkin was eventually captured by the Germans at Sevastopol before being surrendered to the British as part of the armistice. During the Russian civil war, the Potemkin would be captured by the Bolsheviks and White Russians eventually sent for scrap in 1923; ironically, the dismantling of the Potemkin would be completed in 1925, the same year as Sergei Eisenstein would release his masterpiece.
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