by Ken B.
Battleship Potemkin is first and foremost a propaganda film, but it is also a great action movie. Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 classic, presented in five segments, is always compelling and sometimes just incredible. Here is a film with one sequence so famous (the Odessa Steps, where the Tsars brutally massacre the local residents in the town where the recently revolted Potemkin has docked), yet also fictional, it has managed to have people under the assumption that it too was based on fact.
This brief 69 minute film is a dramatization/fabrication of the events that occurred on the actual Potemkin in 1905. It starts with the sailors aboard rejecting the order to consume rotten meat, and ends with a conflict with other ships, complete with rapid camera cutting. The movie is definitely better towards the end, sparked with the Odessa sequence.
Not a lot of characters are given names. There’s the commander of the Potemkin, Valkulinchuk (ALEKSANDR ANTONV), and the major heads of the navy, part of the Tsar regime. They are bad. They are very bad. This was the entire point of the film – in the Odessa Steps sequence, they shoot a boy. Then they shoot his mother. And then they shoot a baby carriage down the steps themselves. Eisenstein hammers in the message very well, which is to be expected in a propaganda film.
But this movie would not have been remembered just because it was a propaganda film – it is remembered because it is a good film, intriguing, entertaining, and gripping. While the plot is (expectedly) a little flaky at times, no one can take Battleship Potemkin’s legacy away, which is both a fascinating experiment in episode-based filmmaking, and a heavy influence in the evolution of the action movie (whether or not this is a good or bad thing is a subject of personal opinion).
Eisenstein said that he wanted the film to remain fresh through the generations, and suggested that there be a new score every twenty years or so for that reason. For restoration purposes, this has happened more or less. The copy currently (as of September 2013) streaming on Netflix Instant uses a 2005 restoration of the original score by Edmund Meisel, and it is very good. It builds in sync with the visuals on screen, making it an ideal silent movie score.
Battleship Potemkin has the ability to reach over historical context and be just an enjoyable movie in general. This, indeed, is why it holds up today. For a better understanding of the action film, the propaganda film, or maybe the human interest of rebellion and war, this movie and its cultural impact has a masterful insight and direction on these concepts.