“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” —John F. Kennedy

I first saw Sergei Eisenstein’s black and white silent film “The Battleship Potemkin” in a tiny movie theater in the village of Fuchu, where I lived just outside of Tokyo, in 1952. I had no film background at the time and had no idea what I was seeing. My Japanese neighbors applauded and cheered at what was unveiling on screen. I didn’t realize at the time that this tiny village, like many others, were hot beds of the local Communist Party, and what we were watching was one of the most influential propaganda films of all time.

This week, watching the beautifully re-mastered 35 millimeter print of the historic film, I understood what ignited that audience of young students and old World War II veterans who were still nursing the old wounds.

“Battleship Potemkin” gives us a highly dramatized version of the famous mutiny of 1905, when the crew of the Russian ship rebelled against their officers who served the Czarist regime.

No serious film student can leave school without learning about Sergei Eisenstein and his 1925 silent film. Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma and George Lucas, all graduates of UCLA film school, honored and paid homage to the film, particularly the iconic Odessa steps massacre. Brian De Palma honored the scene in his film “The Untouchables” by duplicating it on the steps of the Chicago Union Station.

In Eisenstein’s famous scene, as the Potemkin and its crew, having won their mutiny against their oppressive officers, moved into the harbor at Odessa, thousands of citizens filled the docks and wide flight of concrete stairs leading to the city. As the crowd cheered the rebellious sailors standing atop their ship, the Czar’s soldiers, all fitted out in their summer white uniforms, arrived in trucks and came marching down the steps four rows deep, all firing into the crowd. Hundreds were massacred, women and children alike.

In Eisenstein’s depiction of the massacre, his most famous shots were of a young boy trying to flee and his head being blasted away, teenage students murdered, and one, the most famous, of a woman pushing her baby in a carriage. She is shot point blank by a soldier and falls, and her baby and the carriage roll dramatically down the steps toward the water. In De Palma’s homage shot in “The Untouchables,” a woman with a carriage is shot as a gun battle breaks out between the law and gangsters. Her carriage rolls down the steps with a tiny baby inside. This time, a lawman catches it before it crashes. When it was shown in Los Angeles and New York, film students in the movie houses applauded and roared, recognizing the famous scene.

This scene, played out beautifully in this restoration, shocked audiences throughout Europe and had a big hand in many riots, even though — are you ready for this? — it never actually happened. Despite the fact that the brutal Czarist regime was responsible for the bloody suppression of many such gatherings, Eisenstein wrote and inserted it for purely dramatic effect and to throw more mud on the Czarist regime.

It was so well done that for many years after, people thought it actually occurred.

None of that however diminishes the power of this great film.Yes, it is a silent film with black and white cards inserted throughout for narration, but it is one of the greatest silent films of all time because of Eisenstein’s brilliant use of editing. In fact, many film historians give credit to Eisenstein for inventing modern editing.

The background and history of the film comes in a detailed booklet included in the beautiful two-disc DVD of the restored film that gives us all of Eisenstein’s work. The film is laid out in four short chapters. The first is “Men and Maggots,” in which the men refuse to eat the rotted meat. Eisenstein gives horrifying closeups of maggots on the meat.

Then comes “Drama on the Deck.” Here, the sailors mutiny and their leader is killed.

Then the Odessa staircase scene and the most stirring of all, “Rendezvous with the Squadron.”

In that final scene, after the Potemkin moves on, the Czarist government sends a squadron of fighting ships to pursue, capture and sink it. Eisenstein builds this with dramatic sliced segments, one following the other, as the Potemkin approaches a wall of seagoing steel guns raised for battle.

Suddenly, he shows the fire of revolution pulsing through the hearts of the opposing sailors. When the Potemkin comes into their line of fire, the Czarist sailors, defying their officers, refuse to fire. Eisenstein shows the big guns being lowered as the sailors stand atop their ships and raise their caps in salute to their rebellious comrades. The ships move apart as the Potemkin is allowed to pass.

The scene, though silent, is so powerful, so emotional, that one can imagine hearing the Moscow symphony banging out “The Internationale” with the Soviet Army Chorus joining in.

Now I know why my Japanese neighbors in that tiny theater were cheering. It was truly a “Rocky” moment.

“The Battleship Potemkin” is unfairly labeled a “silent” movie. There is nothing silent about it. It is so well done, so clever and professional, so way ahead of its time, that after a few moments, you can hear the words shouted from the moving lips of the players.

“Battleship” will be played one time only, at 3:30 p.m. today at the Given Auditorium at Colby College in Waterville.

Don’t miss it.

 


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