From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The Battleship Potemkin is a 1925 silent film directed by Sergei Eisenstein. It presents a glorified version of the Battleship Potemkin uprising, a real-life event that occurred in 1905 when the crew of a Russian battleship rebelled against their oppressive officers during the Tsarist regime.
Potemkin has been called one of the most influential films of all time, and it was even named the greatest film of all time at the World's Fair at Brussels, Belgium, in 1958. Some of its footage was included in Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle. It is also notable for its early use of the jump cut. The film was banned in Spain from during the Franco era and in the Third Reich.
The Odessa Steps sequence
The most famous scene in the film is the massacre of civilians on the Odessa Steps (also known as the Primorsky or Potemkin Stairs). In this scene, the Tsar's Cossacks in their white summer tunics march down a seemingly endless flight of steps in a rhythmic, machine-like fashion, slaughtering a crowd, including a young boy, as they flee. After the boy falls, his mother picks up his body and yells at the soldiers to stop firing. They do, only to shoot her minutes later. Toward the end of the sequence, the soldiers shoot a mother who is pushing a baby in a baby carriage. As she falls to the ground, dying, she leans against the carriage, nudging it away; it rolls down the steps amidst the fleeing crowd.
The scene is perhaps the best example of Eisenstein's theory on montage, and many films pay homage to the scene, including Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, Brian De Palma's The Untouchables, and George Lucas's Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Several films spoof it, including Woody Allen's Bananas and Love and Death, Terry Gilliam's Brazil, Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker's Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult, and the Italian comedy "il secondo tragico fantozzi" (in English, "The Second Tragic Fantozzi Movie")
The massacre on the steps is fictional, presumably created by Eisenstein for its dramatic venue and effect, as well as for propaganda and to demonize the Czar and the Imperial regime. It is, however, based on the fact that there were widespread demonstrations in the area, sparked off by the arrival of the Potemkin in Odessa Harbour, and both the Times of London and the resident British Consul reported that troops fired on the crowds with accompanying loss of life (the actual casualties are unrecorded). Film critic Roger Ebert writes, "That there was, in fact, no czarist massacre on the Odessa Steps scarcely diminishes the power of the scene ... It is ironic that [Eisenstein] did it so well that today the bloodshed on the Odessa steps is often referred to as if it really happened."