This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.
Battleship Potemkin is a tricky movie to evaluate. It’s been almost a hundred years since it was released and it doesn’t really resemble what we consider film today. To call it “bad” given its place in the history of cinema would be a scorching hot take, purposeless except to force a reader to the comment section. To call it “good” seems equally difficult, as it’s missing a tremendous amount of what a movie needs to contain to engage a modern audience.
The difficulty with a lot of early cinema is that it very often feels like pushing vegetables around a plate. There is a lot to love in the early days of filmmaking, but it’s really silly to pretend that even a stellar movie like M isn’t just a little bit boring. You run the risk of sounding like some kind of idiot if you say that, but I’d argue that you should be willing to meet the movie where you’re at just as much as you need to meet it where it is in the historical context.
Battleship Potemkin is the story of a Russian mutiny on the battleship Potemkin. The real mutiny happened in 1905 and didn’t exactly happen like this, but that doesn’t really matter. The film was created as propaganda, though that carries a connotation that I don’t intend. It’s a simple story of how starving sailors will rise up and demand a better life, which turns into everyone rising up for the same reason. Joseph Goebbels famously said that it would work as propaganda on anyone who had no existing beliefs. Starvation is an easy bad guy to understand.
The movie is short at roughly an hour, but again, it’ll feel long to a modern viewer. It’s repetitive, as it really does just want to drive that one idea home. It’s the story of class, with obvious villains who have to appear obvious in a silent film to an audience that would bring their own convictions and understanding to the visual representations. It certainly worked differently on audiences in the 1920s, but even now you’ll understand who is good and who is bad. You’ll also understand why, though, because it’s all about obvious things everyone deserves. When the guys in the nice clothes demand the guys in less nice clothes eat rotten meat, it does not matter what you bring to the proverbial table. You get it.
You have to get it. It has to not just work right away, but to smash through what you feel. It’s shockingly violent, with multiple innocents dying at the hands of an oncoming, faceless, evil force. The evil force is “right,” technically, legally speaking, but that’s what revolution is all about. Battleship Potemkin needs to be unambiguous, but to break down your feelings that government, order, society, all of that, is working. When the sailors rise up, there is no assurance that people will go with them and rise. The people do, then they are put down, then another boat joins their cause. This is the story of revolution, the movie tells us, and it will be difficult but it will work.
The story is really powerful. You don’t know, going into the ending, what will happen. I’m going to “spoil” this movie from the year William Jennings Bryan died, but another battleship nearly fires on the rebellious Potemkin and then doesn’t. Disaster is averted and the revolution, for now, is intact.
This would have been the most shocking outcome to the audience at the time. Of course, this is about a real event, so maybe not, but the reminder that rising up works (at least temporarily) is always a revelation. It’s easy to get stuck in what you’re doing, both macro and micro, and the triumph of the movie is the climax selling this idea as a really significant win. Nothing happens, which turns out to be a huge thing.
Sight & Sound does a list of top movies voted on by directors and Battleship Potemkin is on the most recent top 100. The Gold Rush is the only film older than Battleship Potemkin on the list. It was compiled in 2012, but still only four movies from 2000 or later made the cut versus seven movies from the 1920s alone. Film history is obviously going to be something directors want to preserve, but it is a controversial and complicated idea when you get into it. Were we better, as a people, at making films a hundred years ago?
Of course not. But it is easier to be revolutionary when history has fewer firsts, of course, and Battleship Potemkin treads new ground. Everything owes to this, but it’s not just that this was first. It was undeniable, which is why it endures. The three things that happen are all gripping and told in a way that an audience would never have expected, but it’s hard to shake the modern narrative expectation a hundred years later that there should be more than three things. Is that on us, as viewers? Sure, to a certain extent, but we are who we are.
Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I don’t think so, but this really stretches the definition of “better.” What Ever Happened to Baby Jane ushered in a new genre, sure, but not in the way that Battleship Potemkin created a whole language for filmmakers. Every reviewer will feel differently about this, but I think you have to judge a movie both by the context it was created in and the context of present day. It’s why The Birth of a Nation isn’t great, not that you need me to tell you that. It may have been capital-I Important but it’s racist trash that was even racist in the context of the day. Battleship Potemkin isn’t “canceled” or whatever, it’s just a tougher watch in a year that starts with “2” than What Ever Happened to Baby Jane.
Is it the best movie of all time? No, but it’s possible that it was the first “great” movie that’s still something you could enjoy in a similar way today. A lot of early cinema can feel impenetrable, leaving you with the sense that jokes or knowing looks meant something to audiences then that you can’t access now. If you watch Battleship Potemkin tonight, you’ll basically have the same experience that audiences did originally. You won’t react the same way, but that’s not the movie’s fault. That’s the march of time, the development and improvement of recorded sound, and, probably, some people will tell you, your inability to truly “get it.”
You can watch Battleship Potemkin on The Criterion Channel or HBO Max or Vudu. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.