In my last review, for Mulholland Drive, I remarked that I don’t enjoy writing reviews of unquestionably great films. I find writing those reviews a taxing experience due to the fact that whatever I write will have been written a million times before. Plus I generally assume that if you’re reading these reviews you’re already fairly knowledgeable in the world of film and are likely familiar with the work already. But I made a decision nearly 2 years ago to review every film I see and, after watching Mark Cousins’ superb The Story Of Film, I have found myself building a collection of classic films I have never seen. And so here I am, with a BFI restoration of Battleship Potemkin, one of the most important films ever made. Often placed at the top of greatest film ever lists and possibly the origin on montage film and the use of editing to manipulate the audiences emotional links to the character. Also, the most praised propaganda film of all time without question. Yes, more so the The Hurt Locker. Well then, click the link for my review. I promise to review something simpler next time.
Battleship Potemkin tells the (mostly) true story of a mutiny about the titular battleship that occurred in 1905 during Russia’s Tsarist era. The story is told in 5 chapters chronicling the reasons for the mutiny, the mutiny itself and the ramifications of the event. What the film does that very few films had attempted at the time was work to encourage the audience to feel empathy for the rebellious crew and depict dramatic events with unflinching reality and brutality. Director Sergei Eisenstein even creates an event so powerfully executed here that people to this day will believe it actually happen. Even the lion statues in the film are horrified by the unfolding drama. If you’re asked to say what happened at the Odessa Steps and given a choice between nothing and a massacre of protesters by the Russian Militia you’d likely choose the latter because of this films powerfully iconic depiction of the fictional event. The scene has been parodied and referred to by everyone from Laurel and Hardy to Brian DePalma. That bit in Untouchables where the baby carriage rolls down the steps at the train station? Lifted straight from this.
Watching this film last night for the first time I was struck by just how well it conveys the emotions of the crew, the tension of the situations they’re faced with and the brutality of some of its violence. Of the 5 chapters two stick out the most in terms of pure drama. Obviously the Odessa Steps is one. The other is the second chapter Drama on Deck. The chapter involves the crew being brought up on deck and being asked by their captain to step forward if they were satisfied with the maggot infested meat they had received and refused to eat. Naturally only the commanding officers and a handful of crewmen step forward. Tensions gradually rise and the remaining crew show their disdain and a number of them are pulled aside to be executed for mutiny. The scene builds and builds towards the moment the officers guns are due to fire. The gradual build of tension is expertly handled to the point where you’ll be willing the crew to begin their mutiny. When it happens you’re treated to scenes of the exacting their justice on the officers that had made their lives a misery. It’s a triumphant moment for sure. The sequence also features some nice little special effect moments, such as when the crew envision themselves hanging from the ship’s mast and the hand colouring of the ships flag to be red. A bright red flag in the middle of this black & white silent film is quite a startling image. It was quite a rare trick for films back then as the film had to be hand coloured frame by frame. Generally if a film maker wanted some colour in his film back then they’d just tint the whole reel.
This BFI remastering of Battleship Potemkin features the film’s original Edmund Meisel score, and what a great score it is. Film scores are rarely as powerful and driving as this one. Naturally, back in the days of silent cinema, a film score was required to run through the entirety of and be played live along with its performance. Eisenstein intended for the film’s score to be rewritten every 20 years so that it could always be made relevant for whatever generation was viewing the film. Over the years composers such as Nikolai Kryukov, Eric Allaman and even the Pet Shop Boys have lent their own renditions to the film. It’s telling of the strength of Meisel’s score that the BFI chose to keep his on this release, especially as the film Battleship Potemkin comes packaged with, the 1929 John Grierson film Drifters, comes with a new modern beatbox style score by Jason Singh.
Its futile to play down the impact of the film. Everyone has taken a little something from Battleship Potemkin, whether they realise it of not. It’s a testament to just how good the film is that even today, in this age of 4k resolutions and 7.1 surround sound that this 4:3 ratio, 18fps, black & white, silent film can carry just as much, if not more impact than anything playing in the cinema today. By today I mean in this modern age. Not literally today because that would mean I would be comparing it to films such as Movie 43 and A Haunted House, two film that are emotionally retarded when compared to Battleship Potemkin. Watch this film for the historical importance, love it for the master-class in dramatic film making that it is.