In 1925 the Soviet government decided to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the 1905 revolution with make a grand epic film telling the full story, and Sergei Eisenstein was appointed director. In the event time constraints meant that this film never materialised, and Eisenstein decided to concentrate on one single episode, the mutiny aboard the Potemkin, a battleship in the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
The film is divided into five sections. The first deals with the events leading up to the mutiny, when the ship's crew protested against the rotten, maggot-infested meat they were expected to eat. The second depicts the mutiny itself, when the crew seized the ship from their officers, and the third the funeral of Vakulinchuk, a revolutionary sailor killed during the mutiny. The fourth is the famous "Odessa Steps" sequence, when the Tsar's soldiers massacre the people of the city, who have risen in support of the mutineers. In the fifth the Potemkin puts out to sea to confront a squadron sent against it.
This is, of course, a propaganda film, so some of the criticisms made of it on this board seem rather wide of the mark. Yes, the Odessa steps massacre (if it had actually happened) would have been over much more quickly than the several minutes which Eisenstein allocated to it here, but this was done deliberately in order to heighten its emotional impact. (I say "if it had actually happened" because this event was an invention of the scriptwriters, whereas the rest of the film is based upon historical fact). Yes, the portrayals of the Tsarist officers and the Orthodox priest are exaggerated caricatures, but a film which effectively said "Of course, we need to remember that there were some good things about Tsarism..." would not only have failed in its propagandist purpose but would also probably have earned Eisenstein a one-way ticket to the gulag.
The propaganda message of the film, however, is not simply "Communism good, Tsarism bad!" Marxist historians tended to play down the "Great Man" theory of history, arguing that historical events are brought about by impersonal economic forces rather than by great men, but this did not prevent Soviet propagandists, Eisenstein included, from idolising the Great Men of Communism, not only Marx and Engels but also Lenin and Stalin. "Battleship Potemkin", made a year after Lenin's death, subtly reinforces the idea of the Great Man; Vakulinchuk is portrayed as a heroic, charismatic revolutionary leader, rousing his crewmates to action by his stirring rhetoric. His funeral takes on a quasi-religious character; the Communists might have rejected other aspects of religion but the cult of the martyr was alive and well in Soviet Russia. When the battleship puts to sea in the final scene it is clear that the mutinous sailors are not a disorganised rabble but are able to work together like parts of a machine, something emphasised by shots of the ship's machinery. Someone- we never learn who- is clearly giving them orders. Message to the comrades: "Communism is not about anarchy! We might no longer have a Tsar but we still need leaders!" It is perhaps significant that the actor playing Vakulinchuk combines Lenin's bald head with Stalin's moustache.
"Battleship Potemkin" is often to be found on critics' lists of the "greatest films of all time", and, indeed, has sometimes been ranked at number one on that list, although I suspect that what those critics really mean is that it contains one of the greatest scenes of all time. The Odessa Steps sequence, exemplifying Eisenstein's theories about "montage", is indeed a masterly piece of film-making, heart-stopping and emotionally riveting even if one is aware that these events never happened. The final scene is also well-handled, but there is nothing of similar quality in the first three segments; Vakulinchuk's funeral, in particular, is dull and overlong.
My main reason, however, why I cannot agree that this film is one of the "greatest of all time" is the same reason why I cannot award that accolade to "Birth of a Nation" or "Triumph of the Will". Like Griffith and Riefenstahl, Eisenstein was a highly talented film-maker, but like them he used his talents to make technically accomplished films in a bad cause. In public the Nazis might have denounced him as a "degenerate Jewish Bolshevik", but in private their own propaganda chief, Goebbels, regarded "Battleship Potemkin" as a masterpiece of the propagandist's art. Bad as the Tsarist regime was, it is hard to argue that the Communist one marked a change for the better. The Tsar may have slain his thousands, but Lenin and Stalin slew by the tens of millions. Within a few years of this film being made, the people of Odessa and the rest of the Ukraine would be suffering a famine so severe that they would gladly have accepted the maggot-infested meat which provoked the Potemkin mutiny. 5/10