Battleship Potemkin (Броненосец «Потёмкин» / Bronenosets Potyomkin) is a 1925 Soviet film directed by Sergei Eisenstein. It is widely considered one of the finest and most influential movies of all time. In 2012, the British Film Institute named Battleship Potemkin the eleventh greatest film of all time.
The plot – based on a true story
The film is a dramatization of a real-life mutiny that took place on the Imperial Russian Battleship Potemkin.
What happened in real life
The real-life Battleship Potemkin started sailing in the Imperial Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet in 1903. Soon thereafter, war between Russia and Japan broke out.
The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-10-5 left the Imperial Black Sea Fleet and the Battleship Potemkin short staffed. While most Russian sailors were off fighting in the far east, a sparse collection of new enlists and inexperienced officers remained back home.
On June 27th, 1905, an incident occurred on the Potemkin. A group of enlisted men refused to eat maggot-infested meat. In the ensuing altercation, the ship’s second in command, Ippolit Giliarovsky, mortally wounded one of the enlisted men’s spokesmen, Grigory Vakulinchuk. In a fury, the ship’s crew then killed seven of the eight officers on board and took over the ship.
After having taken over the ship, the Potemkin crew sailed to Odessa. In the city at that time, a general strike and rioting were taking place. On June 29th, they held a public funeral for Vakulinchuk, which turned into a political demonstration and clashes with the army.
The following morning, the Potemkin left port. It soon met three loyal Russian battleships, but they turned away from it. After that, the Potemkin met another group of battleships who failed to apprehend it. Instead, one of them, the Battleship Georgii Pobedonosets mutinied and joined together with the Battleship Potemkin for about a day.
After a series of rejections from various harbors, the Potemkin crew undertook to seek asylum in Romania. They arrived in the Romanian port of Constanța July 7th. The rebellious crew disembarked after ten days of gallivanting around the Black Sea and, within a few days, the Russian navy retook the ship.
What happened in the film
Eisenstein’s film copies many events of the real-life Battleship Potemkin story. The film is split into five episodes:
- Men and Maggots (Люди и черви / Lyudi i chervi): the enlisted sailors protest at being fed rotten, maggot-infested meat.
- Drama on the Deck (Драма на тендре / Drama na tendre): the enlisted sailors mutiny and Vakulinchuk is killed.
- A Dead Man Calls for Justice (Мёртвый взывает / Myertvyy vzyvaet): the mutinied Potemkin arrives in Odessa and they hold a public funeral for Vakulinchuk
- The Odessa Steps (Одесская лестница / Odesskaya lestnitsa): this is where things get most dramatized in the movie. Here, loyalist Russian soldiers massacre civilians fleeing down the Odessa steps.
- One against all (Встреча с эскадрой / Vstrecha s yeskadroj): imperial battleships sent to halt the Potemkin let the ship go free in solidarity.
Historical Effect of the Battleship Potemkin
It’s hard to say what exactly the real-life consequences of the Potemkin mutiny were. Perhaps it influenced Tsar Nicholas II’s regime in admitting defeat and ending the Russo-Japanese War in September of that year. Maybe it forced the regime to accept the October Manifesto (in October) which proclaimed a constitutional monarchy of sorts.
Regardless, the Battleship Potemkin mutiny was an undeniably important symbol of the failed 1905 Russian Revolution that swept the Russian Empire. Vladimir Lenin would refer to the 1905 Revolution as a “dress rehearsal.”
As a film, Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin also had important historical impact. Most significantly, the way in which he tested theories of montage (film editing) showed the world how film could wrestle with audience’s emotions. The powerful Odessa Steps sequence in particular caught audiences’ heartstrings, making them sympathize with the socialist rebels. Fearing that Battleship Potemkin would turn viewers into Bolsheviks, the US, UK, and France soon banned the movie.Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels himself remarked that “anyone…could become a Bolshevik after seeing the film.”
A fun fact about the movie is that the red flag flying from the Potemkin after the mutiny was hand painted. During the filming, they shot a white flag, and then they painted it red, frame by frame, in post-production. Given this is a black-and-white film, had they shot a real-life red flag, it just would have shown up as a dark grey.