Battleship Potemkin


Battleship Potemkin

Critics Consensus

A technical masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin is Soviet cinema at its finest, and its montage editing techniques remain influential to this day.



Reviews Counted: 45

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Average Rating: 4/5

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Movie Info

After the success of Strike (1924), Sergei Eisenstein was commissioned by the Soviet government to make a film commemorating the uprising of 1905. Eisenstein's scenario, boiled down from what was to have been a multipart epic of the occasion, focussed on the crew of the battleship Potemkin. Fed up with the extreme cruelties of their officers and their maggot-ridden meat rations, the sailors stage a violent mutiny. This, in turn, sparks an abortive citizens' revolt against the Czarist regime. The film's centerpiece is staged on the Odessa Steps, where in 1905 the Czar's Cossacks methodically shot down rioters and innocent bystanders alike. To Eisenstein, this single bloody incident was the crucible of the successful 1917 Bolshevik revolution, and the result was the "Odessa Steps sequence," which is often considered the most famous sequence ever filmed; it is certainly one of the most imitated, perhaps most overtly by Brian De Palma in The Untouchables (1987). This triumph of Eisenstein's "rhythmic editing" technique occurs in the middle of film, not as the climax, as more current film structure might do it. All the actors in the film were amateurs, selected by Eisenstein because of their "rightness" as types for their roles. Pictorial quality varies from print to print, but even in a duped-down version, Battleship Potemkin is must-see cinema. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

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Alexander Antonov
as Vakulinchuk
Vladimir Barsky
as Cmdr. Golikov
Mikhail Gomorov
as Matushenko
Ivan Bobrov
as Humiliated Soldier
as Boatswain
as Woman on Steps
as Officer
Alexander Lyoshin
as Petty Officer
M. Brodsky
as Intellectual
Beatrice Vitoldi
as Mother With Baby Carriage
Andrei Fait
as Officer on Piano
Konstantin Feldman
as Student Feldman
as Old Man
as Legless Veteran
Yulia Eisenstein
as Lady Bringing Forth Fruit to Mutineers
as Aba's Mother
N. Paultautseva
as School Teacher
as Intellectual
N. Poltautseva
as School Teacher
as Student
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Critic Reviews for Battleship Potemkin

All Critics (45) | Top Critics (15)

Audience Reviews for Battleship Potemkin

Propaganda films have ranged in variety over the past hundred years or so, but the best ones oftentimes remain classic not just because of their subject, but the way they are filmed, what they change about the state of cinema, and what they intend to change in their viewer's mindset. After seeing "Triumph of the Will," I had thought I had seen the masterwork in the genre of propaganda films, but this treasure is beyond what is commonly referred to as propaganda. Taken from a true account of a ship mutiny in 1905, Sergei Eisenstein changed the way films were made, especially because he was one of the first to use montages. These five sequences, spliced together to create a narrative about the Bolshevik Revolution to come, made for emotional turmoil on the part of the viewer. Yes, there are some overtly political elements and definitely enraging sequences, but this film does not shrink from reality. The story goes that these shipmates were being fed rotten meat infested with maggots, that citizens are murdered, bloody in the streets, and that these men, fueled by the good tide of Communism, rose to the challenge of overthrowing their oppressors. It's definitely a film that leans to the goodwill of the Russian government, but there is also some shocking imagery and poetic visuals that will astound you. It's simply awe inspiring how some of the more violent and cruel deaths of these citizens are actually shown even though the times were ridden with censorship. An old woman is shot through the eye, and her blood runs down her chin while her glasses sit broken on her face! The visual alone will haunt your dreams, but that's not the worst death to accompany this film. There's also truth to this violence, and so it becomes even stranger to watch the film, knowing it's more than a propaganda film, but one made to encroach sympathy and anger for the ills of old. Breathtaking for its simplicity and yet irrevocably strong, it definitely stands the test of time.

Spencer S.
Spencer S.

Super Reviewer

When assessing any classic film, one has a duty to point out any flaws or shortcomings even while accepting whatever historical significance the film holds. While it's pointless to criticise an old film without knowledge of its artistic, social and technological context (in other words, what could and couldn't be done at the time), it's every bit as asinine to go all rose-tinted and claim that someone has great worth purely because of its age. We might admire silent films as a genre, but that does not mean that every silent film is up to the standard of The General. We might acknowledge the contribution that The Birth of a Nation made to the art of editing, but that does not excuse its inherent racism. Likewise, it is possible to admire Battleship Potemkin for its advances in the art of montage and for its spectacular set-pieces. But admiration of either aspect is not enough to excuse its overwrought tone, poor storytelling and its abject failure as a piece of propaganda. Battleship Potemkin could be called the high point of Sergei Eisenstein's first career. Prior to falling out with Joseph Stalin in the late-1920s, the eccentric Soviet filmmaker had won the favour of the Communist Party with his first feature Strike, an episodic recreation of a 1903 strike at a Russian factory. As part of his theory of montage, Eisenstein intercut scenes of factory workers being suppressed with footage of cattle being slaughtered, using unrelated images to generate an emotional response. The film impressed Stalin and Eisenstein was commissioned by the Party to make Battleship Potemkin as a follow-up. Both Strike and Battleship Potemkin use a past event in pre-Soviet Russia to illuminate the class struggle of the present. Bolshevism, and the Marxism upon which it was based, rested on the principle that history is based upon struggles between the workers and the bourgeoisie, with the former eventually leading a revolution to overthrow the latter and create a society based upon equality and communal ownership (a rank generalisation, but for these purposes it will suffice). By invoking examples of revolts or struggles which occurred before the Bolsheviks swept to power, Eisenstein would instil in people the idea that they were part of a greater struggle, and that liberty was now within their grasp. There is no denying that Battleship Potemkin deserves credit and admiration on a technical level. While the age and variable quality of surviving prints makes it difficult to judge Eisenstein's visuals, the use of montage has never been replicated to quite the same effect in any other film. We tend to think of montage as an editing technique to denote the passage of time - cutting together scenes of, say, a couple together in various poses or locations to show how long they have been together. Eisenstein's montage, on the other hand, is driven by emotional response: shots of people are intercut in such a way as to provoke a reaction from the crowd. One example of this comes early on, when the crew are arguing about being served maggot-ridden meat. Eisenstein intercuts gruesome shots of the meat with the sailors' faces, to reinforce their degraded state. While the direct practice of Russian montage has been virtually non-existent since the 1950s, Eisenstein's work represents a huge step forward in the language of editing: his use of cutting to convey emotion is as radical as D. W. Griffith's use of panning shots to show battles on a huge scale in The Birth of a Nation. There are also several moments in Battleship Potemkin which are exciting, or at least impressive. The Odessa Steps sequence, depicting a bloody but completely fictitious massacre, has entered the canon of all-time great scenes, and remains without question the best part of the film. The shot of the pram running down the eponymous steps was famously parodied in The Untouchables, which was itself parodied in the third Naked Gun film seven years later. But the scene is also memorable for its shocking moments, from the sight of a young boy being shot to the silent scream of a woman with shattered spectacles, an image which Francis Bacon used as the basis for several of his paintings. So far, then, Battleship Potemkin would seem to be as much of a classic as it has been revered to be. But once we get beyond admiring its technical achievements, or experiencing brief shock at the violent moments, or gaining some small understanding of the context in which it was made, what we are left with is a lot more underwhelming and poorly constructed than its reputation would lead us to believe. Its flaws are not enough to completely turn our hearts, but all the admiration in the world can't make up for them. For starters, the film is thinly written and poorly paced. Silent films relied primarily on physical expression to tell their stories and flesh out characters, since having actors mouth long speeches intercut with lengthy inter-titles would not be dramatically engaging. By using exaggerated movement and meticulous facial expression, the likes of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin were able to convey in a second what the talkies would need a whole minute to say. This gave silent films an in-built modesty and efficiency, so that when they did run longer than an hour (or two, as Metropolis did), they usually earned the right to do so. Even at 74 minutes, Battleship Potemkin is about three times longer than it needs to be to serve such a simple story. Eisenstein's use of montage may generate a certain amount of emotion, but it has the side effect of dragging out the action long after the point has been made, and made, and made again. Compared to later propaganda works like Triumph of the Will, the point the film makes about class unity and power is insultingly simple, even to an audience who were potentially illiterate and therefore couldn't read inter-titles. While Eisenstein may have the subtlety of a hammer, he lacks the sharp edge of a sickle. There's no point trying to assess Battleship Potemkin in terms of characters, because the point of Soviet propaganda was to instil collective identity and prioritise class unity over the satisfaction of individual wants and needs. Complaining that there is no discernible protagonist, or that the only charismatic character is killed off after 20 minutes, is nothing more than a reflection of our own film discourse; we expect things to be a certain way because we have been taught that that is the only way. Even if we accept this, however, the film is massively overwrought and narratively fanciful. Because this is a propaganda film, it's a waste of time trying to separate fact from fiction, because everything has been dressed up both in the language of Eisenstein's editing and the political views it takes. But even with that level of acceptance, it is frankly ridiculous to believe that the whole fleet would refuse to fire on the Potemkin having been impressed by their bravery. Not only is it a huge anti-climax, it's so out of the blue and illogical that it threatens to undo whatever hard work Eisenstein had done up to that point. Worst of all, Battleship Potemkin fails because it does not cut the mustard as propaganda: it does not do what is says on the tin. Just as all good comedies should make you laugh, and all good horror movies should scare you, so a properly made propaganda film should draw you into the story or ideas so that you are convinced by them, even if only for the moment when the film is playing. Propaganda films are the exception to the rule that you cannot judge a film by its box office. Triumph of the Will worked because it appealed to ordinary men and women, many of whom didn't vote for the Nazis in the first place: it was a hit because, to quote Leni Riefenstahl, it "impressed an audience which was not necessarily interested in politics". Battleship Potemkin, which had all the distribution you could ask for, failed to become a popular hit. This is not because punters in the 1920s were stupid: it is because the film preaches to the converted. The Party's message had become so saturated in popular art and culture that there was no need for anyone in the Soviet Union to see it. Time has not been kind to Battleship Potemkin. Certainly the decision of the Brussels World's Fair to name it the greatest film ever in 1958 looks every bit as foolish as the Academy's decision to give the Best Film Oscar to How Green Was My Valley over Citizen Kane. Its innovations in editing and structure still stand, and as an historical artefact it retains some degree of importance. But otherwise there is precious little to celebrate about it, falling short on an emotional level of both Griffith and Riefenstahl.

Daniel Mumby
Daniel Mumby

Super Reviewer

Well, it kicks the shit out of Birth of a Nation, at least.

Drew Smith
Drew Smith

Super Reviewer

Eisentsein's "Battleship Potemkin" is an undeniable game changer for film and he ushered in a whole new way of perceiving editing theory, but as for the story?... well, it's extremely overwrought, melodramatic and nonsensical, well too me at least. Just because it features fine examples of the birth of a vision, editing and scoring does not mean what were watching is good. Sure, it's a very influential picture, but as far an enjoyment goes, it's batting zero.

Steven Carrier
Steven Carrier

Super Reviewer

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