The mutiny, the movie, and the myth

By Andrew Osborn

The story of the battleship Potemkin, whose sailors mutinied after they were given maggot-infested meat and rebelled in an ultimately unsuccessful but heroic act of defiance, spawned one of world cinema's most critically acclaimed films.

It fired the imagination of revolutionaries around the world for decades and was considered to be one of history's defining moments by all good Communists everywhere.

But the people of Odessa, the Ukrainian port city in whose waters and streets the events unfolded 100 years ago, have realised there is one crucial problem with the account. It isn't true.

The Odessans were sold a terrible lie by Communist propaganda chiefs. The lie began with Sergei Eisenstein's superlative 1925 silent black and white film Battleship Potemkin, which purports to chronicle faithfully the uprising.

Cinema-lovers and historians in the West have long known the film was shot in a highly emotive, manipulative, agitprop style. Its aim, after all, was to glorify, immortalise and convince.

But what many have not realised is the extent to which Eisenstein twisted the truth and and how mendacious much of the technically brilliant film is. Knowing you are watching something whose presentation and context is seriously skewed is one thing but, according to the Odessans, Battleship Potemkin is little more than a fairy tale.

Last Tuesday marked the centenary of the beginning of the mutiny, but Eduard Scheglov, head of the City Hall's information department, a historian and self-confessed Ukrainian nationalist, said the centenary would not be observed. He concedes that Eisenstein's film is "a masterpiece", but he finds the extent of its falseness offensive.

Eisenstein's version of events is unambiguous. The film opens with life on board the Battleship Prince Potemkin Tavrichesky, named after a favourite of Empress Catherine II whose erection of fake villages to impress his blue-blooded benefactor gave the world the phrase "Potemkin villages".

Life on board is tough. Eisenstein has his "Potemkinites" - many of whom were local Odessans - sleeping fitfully below deck in a warren of sweat-drenched hammocks.

One sailor is beaten by an officer as he wakes, apparently for no reason, forcing tears of pain and humiliation. "How much of this can a man take?" he asks through the on-screen subtitles.

The sailors contrast sharply with the officers, immaculate and cruelly imperious in their starched white uniforms. Trouble begins when the men examine two hunks of meat to discover they are crawling with maggots which writhe before the audience's eyes. When the sailors complain, the ship's doctor tells them the meat is fine.

The mutineers, led by a sailor - one Grigory Vakulenchuk, who became a martyr in Communist folklore - protest loudly. So loudly that the ship's captain promises to shoot the dissenters "like dogs" and orders some to be executed, a decision that sparks a fully fledged mutiny when the firing squad falters.

In the dramatic scenes that follow, Vakulenchuk is shot dead, and the captain and his officers tossed overboard and killed as the ship passes from Tsarist control into the hands of the revolutionaries.

The sailors then go ashore in Odessa and lay out the body of Vakulenchuk for the townspeople to see. "He died for a spoonful of soup," says a poignant note pinned near his body, a reference to the fact that the rotten meat was destined for the sailors' borscht.

In the film the Odessans, who have already been in a state of unrest over abject economic conditions, are seen fraternising with the Potemkinites. The beginnings of their revolutionary spirit are swiftly crushed, however, in one of the most famous cinema scenes of all time, the massacre on the Odessa Steps.

To say that the scene is powerful would be an understatement. It is one of the most brutal representations of political violence ever.

A faceless phalanx of Tsarist Cossacks methodically advances down the steps shooting everyone in their path, as mounted Cossacks wield their sabres without mercy. It is the archetypal slaughter of the innocent.

A legless cripple is seen fleeing. An old woman is shot in the eye. A woman and a sick child are shot at close range. A child's body is trampled underfoot by the terror-stricken crowds, whose faces are contorted in fear and horror.

Eisenstein's piece de resistance, however, and a scene that has since been copied by Hollywood directors and others, is the pram sequence.

A young mother is shot and slowly dies. As she falls, she nudges the pram holding her baby, which then bounces down the Odessa Steps past various scenes of carnage.

When the dust settles, Eisenstein has the sailors, who did not intervene to prevent the massacre, turn the ship's guns on the Tsarist troops in Odessa.

The film ends on a high note. Tsar Nicholas II sends a convoy of warships to destroy the Potemkin but the sailors on board refuse to fire on their fellow seamen and the rebellious ship sails through the convoy and into Communist history.

Eduard Scheglov is scathing about the film's historical accuracy. "There was no uprising [in Odessa] and there was certainly no massacre on the steps. It was all dreamed up by Eisenstein," he told the Independent.

"[Eisenstein] behaved like a great Hollywood director who rewrites history to make more money at the box office except his goal was not to make money but to make an impression. He succeeded."

Odessans began to realise that they had been duped in the late 1980s. Historians without an axe to grind confirmed there was indeed a mutiny, that it did apparently start because of poor rations and that the people of Odessa were on strike. But they questioned the massacre claim.

Tsarist troops did quell unrest using brute force, not on the majestic Odessa Steps but in the streets around it. And how many people were killed, if any, is a mystery.

The Potemkin's final end was also undoubtedly less glorious than Eisenstein would have us believe. The sailors were forced to surrender, the vessel was blown up by saboteurs a few years later and the "heroic" act did not inspire a wave of similar mini-revolutions.

Scheglov says that so great was the Odessans' disappointment that there are moves to scrap the town's Soviet-era monument to the mutiny and replace it with a statue of Catherine the Great.

SMuranov, who says his grandfather Seaman Savilyev was one of the original Potemkinites and died at the age of 104, agrees many of the mutiny's details appear fabricated. "The more we know, the more we are shocked," he says. "Unfortunately, 90 per cent of our history is made up. We don't know what the truth is."

At the centre of a baroque square, Odessa's striking granite Soviet monument to the mutineer sailors squats incongruously in the bright sunshine. Inscribed along one side is a quote from Lenin, father of the Russian Revolution. "The battleship Potemkin remained an unvanquished territory of the Revolution," it reads.

Long-haired local youths prefer to use the monument's lengthy base as a mini skateboard park. Thick green weeds throttle its paving stones, cigarette butts abound, and there are traces of graffiti.

In Ukraine, which lived through its "Orange" revolution last year, the fact that the mutiny is considered tainted by Communist propaganda is understandable.

But what cannot be disputed is that the mutiny has inspired and fascinated for 100 years.

And the film which it spawned is a masterpiece, both of cinematography and of propaganda. For those reasons alone, perhaps, the Potemkin mutiny deserves to be remembered.

- INDEPENDENT

* The film is being screened in the Auckland Film Festival on July24.

 

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