Was Battleship Potemkin (1925) Popular?

Many critics and academics have examined and written about the work of Sergei Eisenstein in Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin, 1925).  The bulk of the writing concentrates on the aesthetic quality, cinematic technique, and most importantly, Eisenstein’s use of montage to create meaning in this exemplary film.  Few writers focus on the commercial success or failure of the film.

The film is a based on an actual mutiny of sailors on a Russian battleship during the Russo-Japanese War.  While the mutiny was eventually a failure, much like the 1905 Revolution, it did adumbrate the successful 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.  The communist Jubilee Committee commissioned Eisenstein to direct a film, Year 1905 (1905 God), which became Battleship Potemkin. (Cook, p. 147).  Eisenstein found he could not meet his deadline if he attempted to film all the events the committee had envisioned.  Eisenstein settled on one event that would “encapsulate the integral scene, the feel of that remarkable year.” (Taylor ed., p. 50)  He settled on the events of the Potemkin and he chose Odessa to film the famous Odessa Steps sequence because Odessa and Sevastopol are the only two locations in the Soviet Union, where filming can be done outdoors in September. (Taylor ed., p.50)  These developments are clear indications that many developments and innovations in the art of cinema are the result of financial and technical limitations.

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Still from the Odessa Steps Massacre in Battleship Potemkin

While the film was released in the Soviet Union in 1925, it was not exported until 1926.  Germany and the United States both imported the film.  In the United States, it was released as The Armored Cruiser Potemkin and Mordant Hall rated it as one of the ten best films of 1926 in his end of the year film reviews for the New York Times.  His commentary is telling.

Mr. Hall touches on the grim portrayal of the officers of the Potemkin and the Cossacks but he concentrates more on the artistic touches of the film.  He particularly points out the “portrayal of daylight with a mist hanging over the masts of the fishing vessels…illustrating the speed of the vessel by showing the shadow of the two great guns on the water…and the effect is gripping when Mr. Eisenstein switches from the guns to the men, then to the engine room, then to dials, to the bridge, ammunition hoists and other sections of the warship.  (New York Time Film Reviews, p. 343)  His comments show a preoccupation with the artistic elements of the film at the exclusion of a coherent narrative.

A more telling indicator of the commercial success of the film is its treatment in the Soviet Union, Western European Countries, and another major U.S. city.  In the Soviet Union, it was given a significant celebration but its popular appeal only lasted a few weeks before criticism of it began.  Soviet audiences did not respond approvingly to the film, preferring Hollywood narratives, and the film played to half empty houses.  (Bergen, p.116)  These developments increased the earlier criticism of the film.

In Western Europe, it was banned in France and England due to its political content, although it was shown in leftist and intellectual circles.  (Cook, p. 169)  It was released in Germany and enjoyed commercial success for several weeks.  Max Reinhardt, the great German stage producer, stated, “I am willing to admit the stage will have to give way to the cinema.”  Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, who were in Berlin at the time of its showing, were also greatly impressed. (Bergen, p. 117)  It should be noted however that all three of these critics would be considered film or theater elites and the film only played in Germany for weeks not months.  Its German success did bolster its image in the Soviet Union, however, although the alleged figures of popular attendance are disputed.  (Cook, p. 169)

In the United States during the 1920s and 1930s, St. Louis was one of the largest cities in the country with a population of 821,960 according to the 1930s census.  It had a large, developed vaudeville and theatre circuit.  In 1926, the Marx Brothers brought their vaudeville show, Cocoanuts, later a popular 1929 movie, to town on several occasions.  At least thirty (30) theaters operated within the city limits and King Vidor’s King of Kings (1926) was showing prominently.  However, no record of the Battleship Potemkin being shown in the city could be found.  It is not listed in any movie house advertisement, it is not reviewed in the newspaper, nor is it listed among the ten best films in either the 1926 or the 1927 year end listings.  One of the few possibilities behind this development is that St. Louis or the State of Missouri banned the film although no record of a ban could be found.  A more likely scenario is that St. Louis was not considered an “art city” and did not play because movie houses were unsure of commercial success.

While the movie was received well in Germany and New York City, the facts of its reception in other countries cannot be ignored.  While many elites praised the film, the mass of normal movie patrons rejected the film as entertainment.  Much like Citizen Kane (1942), which was popular in New York City but was unsuccessful elsewhere until it’s revival on the art house circuit (Cook, p. 409), Battleship Potemkin is far more popular today than it was on its original release.  This development does not change the fact that the Battleship Potemkin is great cinematic art, worthy of its place with Citizen Kane and other films of note.

Work Cited

Battleship Potemkin.  Dir. Sergei Eisenstein.  USSR, 1925.

Berger, Ronald.  Eisenstein: A Life in Conflict.  London: Little Brown and Company, 1997

Cook, David A.  A History of Narrative Film.  New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1996.

Hall, Mordant.  The New York Times Film Reviews, Volume I: 1913-1931.  New York: The New York Times and Arno Press, 1970.

Taylor, Richard, ed.  Eisenstein’s Selected Works, Volume II. London:  British Film Institute Publishing, 1996.

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