Watching Old Movies: Battleship Potemkin (1925)

1925

 

What happened this year?

Lotta kinda crappy stuff, to be honest. Hitler started writing Mein Kampf, the SS were first formed (as a bodyguard unit for Hitler), the Ku Klux Klan organised a parade in Washington DC with over 30,000 marchers (which was a lot in 1920’s terms) to show off their popularity, Mussolini began his dictatorship in Italy and The Great Gatsby was published, bring torture and pain to the thousands of schoolchildren forced to cover it decades later in English class.

(Alright fine, maybe that last one isn’t quite in the same league.)

As for famous births, we’ve actually got quite a few, some of whom, while not household names now, are still a pretty big deal in regards to film history. Paul Newman, Lee van Cleef (aka the Bad in the Good, the Bad and the Ugly), Jack Lemmon, Robert Altman, Rod Steiger (of Night of the Hunter fame), Johnny Carson (aka the ‘Johnny’ in ‘Here’s Johnny!’), Richard Burton and Julie Harris. And on the more well known side, we have people like Peter Sellers, Dick van Dyke and Angela Lansbury.

We also have a bunch of controversial people that I won’t comment on as well like, Margaret Thatcher, Malcolm X and Pol Pot. Oh, and Audie Murphy. Who isn’t actually that controversial at all, but I wanted to bring him up because he’s awesome.

Anyway, onto the movie. And it’s sure as hell a big one today…

 

Battleship Potemkin

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Plot:  Based on the real-life mutiny, Battleship Potemkin tells the story of the sailors on the titular battleship who, after being denigrated and abused by their (literally) moustache-twirlingly evil officers, decide to revolt. They successfully take over the ship and sail to the near port of Odessa where they inspire the citizens to revolt in the spirit of the glorious Russian Revolution (you know, before it got all totalitarian and mass-murdery).

Trivia: The famous Odessa steps sequence was not originally in the script, but was devised during production.

Helped Inspire: God, where do I even start? Um… The language of cinema? Seriously, this is one the most influential films of all time for a reason. Oh, and I guess it also inspired that baby carriage, train station shoot out from The Untouchables.

 

My Thoughts:

So I gotta admit, I wasn’t entirely certain what to expect when I started watching this movie. Sure, I definitely know of its importance in film history and its status as an all-time classic and so on and so forth. But I also knew that about Dr Caligari and that still didn’t stop me from feeling somewhat lukewarm on it. Yet, once I actually watched this movie and digested it, the more I thought about it, the more I realised that Battleship Potemkin actually very reminded me incredibly strongly of another movie I recently watched. Not necessarily in style, story, execution or any real surface details, but more in how it engaged me and how I viewed it and ultimately how I think I felt about it.

And that other movie was……. the 2017 Cambodian Martial Arts movie Jailbreak.

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(Wait wait wait, don’t leave, I’m going somewhere with this, I swear!)

Now, to explain fully why I think this is the case, I need to go into the backstory of Jailbreak a little. As those of you who were following my 2017 film ranking list might know, I first saw Jailbreak at the London Film Festival. And, before the screening, there was a short talk from Jean-Paul Ly, one of the film’s stars and stunt choreographers, who told us a bit about the film’s production. I won’t go into full details here, but basically Jailbreak was possibly the first Cambodian action movie ever and was made on a shoestring budget with a team of extras who, before Jean-Paul arrived, barely knew the slightest thing about martial arts or how to be stuntmen or almost anything else.

And, I should note, all that definitely showed. The movie wore its pitiful budget and its relative inexperience on its sleeves, with cheap sets constantly reused and a rather basic plot and acting and so on. Yet, in spite of all of that, it still ended up being one of my favourite films of the year. Why? Because while it may have been cheap and sloppy and lacking in the sorts of things most movie studios take for granted, there was one aspect that the movie was not only good at, but managed to hit into fucking orbit again and again and again. Specifically, the martial-arts action. Which I won’t gush about too much here, but I honestly think is every bit as good as The Raid. And ultimately, it was so good at said action that, honestly, all those other problems not only felt insignificant, but honestly almost gave the movie kind of an underdog vibe and made it all the more meaningful that in spite of all its limitations and problems it still somehow managed to be so damn good at what it tried to do.

Now, why am I bringing all this up, you may ask? Well, because I kinda feel Battleship Potemkin is sorta in the same boat (pun not intended). The movie itself came off as sloppy and unpolished and weird to me in a lot of ways, in large part because so much of what we consider modern cinema had yet to be properly developed. Yet, like Jailbreak, the movie had things that it was so good at, so genius and incomparable and brilliant at, that when it started really utilising its talents, all those minor problems and awkwardness just seemed to melt away in the face of how freaking amazing it was.

Seriously, when the movie really, really started pushing the boundaries of cinematic language during the boat revolt, I was freaking transfixed in a way that very few movies have ever managed to achieve from me. And it kept the hits coming and coming and coming, culminating in the infamous Odessa Steps sequence which was just pure cinematic magic. There were techniques that I’d seen other filmmakers use before, yet never as effectively as they were used here. And in some ways the sloppiness and rough-around-the-edges nature of a lot of the film honestly emphasised the emotion, making it feel less robotically perfect and more human and visceral and real. I was genuinely blown away by how good it was and not in the precise ways I was expecting it to be.

In conclusion, I do think Battleship Potemkin is a flawed film and I’m not entirely certain everyone whose used to more modern cinema will necessarily appreciate it. But, honestly, I almost feel like its flaws made it shine even further. That imperfectness that, like Jailbreak, added almost an underdog element, that ultimately made the effort put in feel all the more real and meaningful and meant that when the movie starts to shine with its dramatic montages, it shines all the brighter. As it is, while I’m not certain I’d give it a straight A+, I do still feel it definitely deserves its place as a true film classic. A+/A

 

Rankings:

  1. Battleship Potemkin- A+/A
  2. Sherlock Jr- A
  3. Nosferatu – B+
  4. Safety Last – B+
  5. The Goat (1921) – B+
  6. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) – B-/C+

 

 

Okay, the next film up should be fairly interesting. After all, as some people might know, I freaking love animation. And the next film coming up is possibly the oldest (surviving) feature-length animated film ever.

What? No, not Snow White. Fuck that Disney poser. I’m talking about something else entirely…

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