”The Battleship Potemkin” is an iconic movie. One of those movies that many people will have seen stuff from without actually knowing it and most people will have heard of it, but never seen the movie itself.
On the other hand after seeing “Strike” I do not blame anybody for being hesitant about seeing “The Battleship Potemkin”.
In many ways “Potemkin” is similar to “Strike”. This is also a movie with a clear political agenda and it is also sporting the montage style that makes “Strike” (in)famous. “Potemkin” is also a group film rather than a movie about individuals. But “The Battleship Potemkin” is a better movie than “Strike”. I can image the group behind “Strike” met afterwards to evaluate and decided to improve on all the weak points from “Strike” and the result is “Potemkin”.
First of all the movie is a lot more tight, especially in the story. We are not floundering like in “Strike”, but know exactly what is going on, and the story flows a lot more naturally. This is not a difficult movie to follow. The story is also a lot more interesting and has a much better grip on my attention.
The sailors on the impressive battleship Potemkin are unhappy with the management and the event that sets the story in motion is when the sailors are complaining that their meat is rotten and crawling with worms. “These are not worms”, says the ship doctor, “They are just maggots. Wash them away with brine”. That meat is so disgusting! Yack! This of course gives us a lot of sympathy for the sailors and they respond in the only meaningful way by refusing to eat it.
The officers consider this insubordination and are determined to crack down on it hard. The penalty is monstrous. Those most reluctant to announce that they enjoyed the soup and step forward, and we are talking 10 to 15 of the sailors, are covered with a sail-cloth and mariners are lined up to shoot them. The remaining sailors appeal to their brethren and make them waver and the uprising is on. The mutiny of the Potemkin is not like the mutiny of the Bounty a matter of replacing a despondent leadership with a benevolent leadership, but the replacement of an illegal parasite elite class with the common rule of the subordinate class, the sailors. It is notable that not a single of the officers or even petty officers are seen henceforth and also that we see none of the sailors actually giving orders but rather make common decisions in a comity. The socialist ideal indeed.
Meanwhile on land in Odessa the civilians learn about the uprising (it has a nicer ring to it than mutiny) and mourn the sailor that died a martyr. This draws a large crowd and the rebellion is about to spread to the town. Before it gets this far however the Cossacks move in and in what is probably the most famous scene of the movie they coldly fire into the crowd and kills indiscriminately men, women and children. The scene is drawn out to maximum effect: The woman carrying the wounded child in front of the soldiers pleading for mercy and brutally shot down. The women determined to stop the madness but totally ignored and most heartbreakingly the young mother killed protecting her infant child in the carriage, which then rolls uncontrolled down the stairs with a screaming infant inside.
If there was any sympathy for the authorities allowing such an atrocity it is certainly gone now.
For the Potemkin this has minimal influence. They decide to fight their own battle at sea instead of sending troops inland and so steam out to meet the overwhelming force of the squadron sent out to deal with them. These final scenes are filled with suspense and nervous sweat, but after the Odessa stairs I am almost too drained to absorb the naval battle.
The battleship itself is awesome. Eisenstein really had some backing to let him use a real battleship. The boy in me really got excited about this sailing fortress. This is potency with a vengeance!
When you are watching political films you are forced to consider the political message as well. This is a very non-political blog, yet I cannot help thinking that the Russian state had it coming. Any society that leaves a lot of people with nothing to lose is a keg of gunpowder that can go off from a random spark. I do not think it is a coincidence that most unrest, rioting and revolution takes place in countries with a large destitute population compared to the middle class. Once you have tv, car and career opportunities rioting just seems less attractive.
So you can “The Battleship Potemkin” as the alibi for revolution or you can see it as a warning of what happens when you press a population too far, whether it be sailors or civilians.