Director: Sergei M. Eisenstein
Writer: Nina Agadzhanova
Stars: Aleksandr Antonov, and Vladimir Barsky
Battleship Potemkin is a propaganda film commissioned by the Soviet government to commemorate an actual Battleship mutiny off the Port of Odessa. The story begins with sailors complaining of the poor quality of the meat being served on ship. In response to the complaints the ship’s Doctor inspects the meat, ignores the obvious maggots, and deems it suitable for consumption. Later the officers discover not all the seamen have eaten the borsch and call all men on deck. Once the entire crew is present Commander Golikov (Vladimir Barsky) demands all the personnel who did not eat the borsch to make themselves known. Once identified the Commander orders them to be covered by a tarp, marines assembled, and the sailors executed. When the marines hesitate Seaman Vakulinchuck (Aleksandr Antonov) takes the opportunity to speak-up and call for an upraising. Calamity ensues and the sailors mutiny. In the process of rebellion both the Commander and Vakulinchuck are killed, and the officers defeated.
That night Vakulinchuck’s body is brought to shore and left in a tent made to be a shrine with a note explaining what happened. The following day when the body is discovered and news spreads through the city, the people show their support for the sailors. They bring supplies to the ship, honor Vakulinchuck, and come to the port. It is as the citizens gather that the Tsar’s forces come to exact their revenge on the citizens, and massacre them as they march down the Odessa Steps. And as the sailors watch the carnage being inflicted, a fleet of Tsarist ships sails to the port to retake the Potemkin.
Both the story and its execution are epic. With the full backing of the government the Director, Sergei Eisenstein, has a cast of thousands and full access to the Navy and its ships. Thousands of extras gather at the port, hundreds run down the infamous steps, and hundreds of boats sail to the actual battleship.
The acting, as in the style of its day, is over exaggerated and affected–more theatrical than subtle. Importantly though, it never takes you out of the story.
Eisenstein shows the tsarist forces only as marching legs down the steps or from the back, never showing their faces; mindless machines not to be empathized. The officers aboard ship are the personification of dastardly villains, while the revolting sailors are completely self-sacrificing. The victims on the steps are pure innocents–women and children and the elderly.
Edits are used to prolong the massacre of the steps. Shots of soldiers perpetually marching down and firing are intercut with civilians constantly running down and trampling each other. The back and forth leading you to believe the stairs and the slaughter are never-ending.
With the exception of one too many establishing shot edits, Battleship Potemkin is as epic and great today as it was when it was first released. The film gets and holds your attention as it shows you its story.
Grade = A