Silent Film Review: Battleship Potemkin [1925]

Battleship Potemkin [1925]

Battleship Potemkin [1925]
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Genre: Drama/History/War
Starring: Aleksandr Antonov, Vladimir Barsky, Grigori Aleksandrov
Runtime: 75 Minutes

This review contains spoilers of an 87 year old film.

One of the most powerful propaganda films ever created, and one that could still light a fire under the right audience even today.

Sergei Eisenstein’s second feature film focuses on the (very real) mutiny that occurred in 1905 aboard the Russian battleship Potemkin. Tired of poor working conditions and general disrespect, the ship’s crew reaches a breaking point when they are told to eat rotten meat that is crawling with maggots. The captain, in an attempt to dispel the outrage, orders those who refused to eat the food to be shot and killed underneath a tarpaulin. However, one crew member, Vakulinchu (Antonov), speaks up right before the guns are set to fire and appeals to his squadmates to ignore the orders. They agree, and a massive battle transpires, resulting in the deaths of multiple officers as well as Vakulinchuk. The Potemkin, now in control of the crew, sails to the port of Odessa where Vakulinchuk’s body is put on display, making him something of a martyr to the townspeople.

Battleship Potemkin [1925]

The revolution is underway. As more and more civilians flock to the harbor to see the body, many remain on the large flight of stairs overlooking the water. At this point, the Tsarist regime has noticed the giant gathering and begins to march in their direction, firing at anyone and anything in their paths. Men, women and even children are murdered in a disgustingly barbaric display of violence. The Potemkin fires back at known military locations, but it is too late: countless lives have already been needlessly lost.

Fearing an attack from the shore, the battleship leaves the area only to find a squadron of warships waiting to retake the Potemkin. A tense series of moments occurs as both sides prepare for war, but at the last possible second the battleship is allowed to pass through, and the Soviet brothers wave their hats in friendship. It seems brotherhood has prevailed over politics, at least in this instance.

Battleship Potemkin [1925]

There is no denying the power of Battleship Potemkin. Eisenstein expertly portrays the Tsarist regime as pure evil, especially in the legendary Odessa Steps scene. This display of brutality was unheard of in 1920s cinema, and I looked on in horror as innocent women and children were mindlessly murdered on screen. Who wants to see that? These images are blunt and forceful, and bound to stir up powerful feelings from any viewer.

While the 1905 mutiny really happened, the aforementioned massacre did not. Eisenstein clearly took some liberties with the movie, inserting the violence for dramatic effect. He wanted to hammer the point home, and he easily accomplished this goal.

Propaganda aside, Battleship Potemkin is a fascinating piece of cinematic history. The film shows both the positive and negative sides of a revolution, and it is a perfect demonstration of just how powerful the medium of film can be.

Battleship Potemkin can be viewed in its entirety for free on YouTube.

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21 thoughts on “Silent Film Review: Battleship Potemkin [1925]

    • Eric says:

      Yeah, this is an important piece of cinematic history, and its short length (75 mins) makes for a quick viewing. It’s definitely worth checking out, especially for historical value.

  1. adampbellotto says:

    Great review! The film really does work wonders as a propaganda piece.

    And here’s an interesting fact- films were used for propaganda in early 20th century Russia because there were so many different dialects and languages throughout the country that only a silent film could unite the masses in such a way.

  2. Matt Stewart says:

    Yeah, the word around the block is that this is a great film!

    Good review my man, really glad to see a silent film review, they don’t come around too often from bloggers these days!

    • Eric says:

      Thanks Matt. I was wondering how this post would be received, but I am happy that everyone has enjoyed it. Silent films are so fascinating in many different ways, and I would love to continue writing about them in the future.

    • Eric says:

      No problem, Scott. It took me a while to see this, but it was worth it. It’s available all over the internet, too, so it’s easily accessible.

  3. John says:

    I burst out laughing when I saw your spoiler alert. Nicely done.

    The Odessa Steps scene is jaw-dropping, amazing, etc… everything you’ve ever heard it was. And the film is one of those silents that will inspire you to watch more silents because you didn’t realize that silents could be that engaging.

    The maggoty meat scene is pretty stirring, too.

    • Eric says:

      Haha, glad you got a chuckle out of the spoiler alert. I figured most wouldn’t care, but I wanted to make it clear anyway.

      Totally agree about your second statement. Going into this, I had mostly seen silent comedies so I wasn’t entirely aware of how other genres would be handled. Between the rotten meat, the cruel behavior of the commanders and of course the Odessa Steps scene, there is some pretty gripping material. I am looking forward to digging deeper into more than just comedies.

  4. rtm says:

    I have only seen the Odessa Steps scene on YouTube, I think John mentioned in my post about Untouchables that it’s the inspiration for the stairwell scene.

    Ahah, I think reviews of films almost a century-old doesn’t need to be spoiler-free, but still it’s safe to put that on there 🙂

    • Eric says:

      I still need to see The Untouchables myself. Keep hearing great things about it, and it’s supposed to be one of the best “Chicago” movies (if I remember right). I’m sure there are quite a few movies influenced by Battleship Potemkin, especially the Odessa Steps scene.

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