D.W. Griffiths made his share of epic films in the 1910s in America, but the Russian filmmaker Sergei M. Eisenstein broke brand new ground with Battleship Potemkin. The film is an epic to be sure, set during several of the most crucial moments of the war between Russia and Japan in 1905. But each of the five moments covered are set almost exclusively within the battleship, and the whole Revolution is seen from the view of the soldiers on that one battleship. It’s the first intimate epic and without it there would never have been a Gone with the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, or Barry Lyndon.
Battleship Potemkin is barely an hour in length but immerses us fully into every detail of this group of soldiers and their involvement with each of the five important moments of the war. The first section is an introduction to the battleship and the horrible conditions that the soldiers are subject to. It’s made clear that the military officials have access to much better and do not need to feed the men with the rotten meat they’re always given.
The first section sets the stage as the foundation for the episodic way that the rest of the movie is going to unfold. We’re shown the injustice of the Russian military and the greater Russian government of the time all through the horrendous conditions of the soldiers aboard this one war ship. The rest of the episodes show the soldiers’ revolt, a mini-revolution as part of the bigger Russian Revolution that coincided with the war against Japan.
More than anything Battleship Potemkin is a cry for justice. Just as the soldiers are unnecessarily forced into conditions that are not fitting for any human, their actions during the four later episodes are filled with heroic stances against tyranny. Their own victimization brings urgency to their stands, but none is doing it for himself. The last two episodes take a outside the battleship for a very short time, but it’s just long enough to know that the stances these men have taken against tyranny has had an effect on the whole nation.
The actions of heroism depicted in Battleship Potemkin are selfless acts of sacrifice. Within the ship, every act is done for the protection of the brotherhood created in that battleship. We know they have bigger views and bigger ambitions that see their service as for their country and possibly the world, but whoever it is they’re fighting for and whoever they’re fighting against, there is never an ounce of self interest in what these people do.
Eisenstein’s film is an extremely powerful picture of the power of unity and brotherly love. Although it was a very small victory that didn’t stop the tyranny already existing or prevent the rise of the further tyranny that marred most of 20th century Russia, it was still a victory. The movie shows this victory as entirely the result of selflessness and unity.
There’s a scene in the fourth episode that looks a lot like what we saw on the news a couple weeks ago from Charlottesville, Virginia. The soldiers get off the battleship celebrating what looks like a victory with many people greeting them when an ambush is arranged against them that looks a lot like the way the car suddenly became a weapon in Charlottesville. The evil of the tyranny around them and the system allowing it to happen is a lot like our own political climate where the hate groups have a newfound voice thanks to our president who won’t admit any responsibility in the attacks, but anyone who heard him talk during his campaign knows that he made the way for this to happen and for many more situations like it.
But even in the midst of that reality that was opened to our eyes, there is hope as long as there are people willing to selflessly stand against hatred and injustice. The mutinous soldiers of Battleship Potemkin are a wonderful example of that through their unity and brotherhood. Their example shows us that there is always room for victory even if it looks like we’re losing the war, but that victory only can come through selfless acts of unity, love, and peace.