A mutiny aboard a Russian battleship leads to events that stoke public anger and advance the likelihood of Communist revolution against the tsarist regime.
Writer(s): Nina Agadzhanova
Director: Sergei M. Eisenstein
Production Co.(s): Goskino
The Story on the Screen
The Battleship Potemkin dramatizes a mutiny aboard the Russian battleship Potemkin in 1905 and its effects on the spirit of anti-tsarist anger that was sweeping the country and would lead to the October Revolution of 1917. The film was produced in 1925 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the mutiny, and its event sequences are presented in five parts:
- Part One—People and Worms: Deplorable conditions aboard the battleship, including maggot-infested meat, lead to unrest among the sailors.
- Part Two—Drama on Deck: The battleship commander orders the execution of sailors who refuse to eat borscht prepared with the rotten meat, leading to a violent mutiny and the heroic death of a sailor who was instrumental in inciting the unrest.
- Part Three—The Dead Man Calls Out: The dead sailor's body is laid in state in a tent on the docks at the nearby port of Odessa, where it generates an unsettling interest and devotion among the local population, to whom it becomes a rallying point for revolutionary anger.
- Part Four—The Odessa Staircase: Citizens who stand on a grand outdoor staircase cheering a local flotilla as it delivers fresh food to the battleship are gunned down by lock-step ranks of Cossacks, illustrating the brutality of the forces loyal to the tsar.
- Part Five—Rendezvous with the Squadron: The crew of the battleship decides to join in the workers' revolution against the tsar and faces its first great test by steaming out to meet an advancing squadron of Russian ships—whose own crews (to their delighted surprise) greet them as brothers in the fight.
Although the film contains individual scenes and sequences that are haunting and well-rendered, its ability to convey its thematic points is inhibited by its lack of a main character. In Part One, the role of main character seems to be occupied by the defiant sailor, Vakulinchuk, whose intent to rouse (gain) the revolutionary spirit in the hearts of his fellow crew members serves as a partial focus of the dramatic action. But his role is limited to that of an active player rather than the one character whose intent drives the plot. And when he is killed during the mutiny in Part Two, he does not pass the baton of intent to any of his character comrades. Instead, it diffuses into the actions of groups and throngs. Consequently, we-the-audience are left without a vehicle through whom to experience the world of the film (see Chapter 2 of Discovering the Soul of Your Story), and we become, to some extent, distanced observers watching the action from afar.
Although the film contains haunting scenes, its thematic points are inhibited by the lack of a main character.
Yes, the body of Vakulinchuk becomes a symbol around which the Odessans rally when it is placed (anonymously) in the tent on the docks, but at that point it is merely a symbolic object—no longer a character imbued with the identifiable power of intent. And because no other character steps forward to take the reins of intent, the power of the film to move us-the-audience as individuals dissipates... except when we are afforded glimpses of the effects of the events on individual characters in the throng.
This principle is illustrated by the brutal massacre played out on the Odessa Staircase in Part Four, where the shots of the crowd waving or running for their lives provide background information but do not involve us-the-audience individually in their moment-by-moment actions. It is only when the storytellers focus on individual members in the crowd that we become engaged. It is only when the storytellers focus on individual members in the crowd that we become engaged. We may observe a running crowd from a psychically safe distance, but when we are presented with close-ups of one woman carrying her dead child up the steps toward the Cossacks or another woman trying to protect her infant in its pram or another appealing to the Cossacks for peace and having her glasses broken and face bloodied for her efforts, our sympathies click into gear, because we come to know enough of each character, however briefly, that we can feel her pain.
In this way, the mantle of "Character We Should Care About" is passed from character to character, which may induce our short-term sympathies but does not provide the thematic through-line for the film as a whole. And because the film does not include a main character, it falls outside the realm of "story" or "tale" and must be classified in a separate realm that can be adequately described as a "chronicle"—that is, the presentation of a sequence of events that are observed mostly from afar.
Behind the Scenery
Despite its lack of a main character, the film does contain an issue and associated proposition. The issue may be stated as "rousing support for the fight against shared oppression," which the filmmakers appear to consider the basis of an advisable endeavor. And the resulting proposition is:
- One should attempt to rouse (gain) the support of his fellows to act in opposition to a shared oppression, because success in the attempt will increase the chances that the oppression might end.
It is important to note that the issue of the film does not involve the actual fight against oppression. It involves merely the rousing of support among the oppressed. Other than the mutiny shown in Part Two, none of its sequences focus on fighting successfully against the oppressors. And even there, the mutiny itself is merely a consequence of the sailors banding together and deciding to fight. The rest of the film concerns the active call to join together in action (Part One), the symbolic impetus to unite behind the symbol of a hero (Part Three), the opposition to be faced by a united throng (Part Four), and the hope of union spreading (Part Five).
The film is not about the actual fight against oppression; it is about the rousing to action of the oppressed.
By the time the chronicle ends, the oppressors are still in charge, but those who have attempted to rouse their fellows to action (thereby committing a gain action) have succeeded in doing so, and the spirit of revolution appears ready to spread—an outcome that the filmmakers appear to support. The Battleship Potemkin may be grouped, therefore, among succeed/pleased stories. And although the filmmakers fill the ending with scenes of hope, the collateral damages experienced by those who have sacrificed to achieve that hope prevent the ending from being classified as solely happy.