"What are a few maggots?"(1) asks Richard Hough in his book, The Potemkin Mutiny. He answers with the powerful story of the 1905 mutiny of the sailors of the Potemkin in their struggle against the repressive officers of the Russian Imperial Navy. In 1925, the Soviet government commissioned Sergei Eisenstein to direct a film commemorating the events of the 1905 revolution. Due to time constraints, he had to limit his film to just the Potemkin mutiny. His depiction of these events, in his film The Battleship Potemkin, has many significant differences with the historian's perspective that Hough offers in his book. Contrary to the belief of many modern critics, the actual historical events and details are impossible to determine beyond a reasonable doubt, but "there is no dispute on the main events, and their sequence."(2) However, although Hough and Eisenstein differ, they both offer legitimate perspectives. Even if the events are agreed upon, "one and the same event may be incorporated in a work...in different guises: in the form of a dispassionate statement or in that of a pathetic hymn."(3) Eisenstein is creating a narrative film, and Hough purports to write a history, but both are stories of the event with an intended audience and an intended effect. The small differences between the two perspectives offered by Hough and Eisenstein is significant and colors what the audience thinks of the mutiny and how they identify with it.
The mutiny on the Potemkin began after the ship took on some rotten meat. The men complained when they saw the meat hanging out on deck. The doctor was called, and determined that the meat was perfectly fine. The men were clearly not convinced, as they did not eat the borscht made with that meat at the next meal. When the captain and higher officers found out about this refusal, roll was called on the quarterdeck. Some men were chosen to represent those who refused to eat the borscht. The guard was called, and were told to bring a tarpaulin. The first mate gave orders to fire, but the guard did not, and the men mutinied. They took control of the ship and went to Odessa, where insurrectionist activity was also occurring. Three civilians were established as liaisons to the on-shore revolutionary parties. One of the men who died in the mutiny, Grigory Vakulinchuk, was put in state on a quay in the Odessa harbor. The people of the city went to see his body, and the area became a hotbed for the revolutionary factions in the city. The military in the city violently cracked down on the insurrectionists, and the Potemkin replied with some gunfire. The rest of the Russian fleet arrived, still in the control of the authorities, to subdue the Potemkin. The fleet and the Potemkin made one pass at each other, but neither side fired a weapon. Another ship, George the Conqueror, joined the Potemkin in revolt briefly before running itself aground. The Potemkin had many troubles, and after many tribulations, eventually turned herself in to the Romanian government, and the sailors were given asylum in Romania.
Many modern day film critics assume that historians have deduced the actual concrete events of the Potemkin mutiny down to small details and thus assume that Eisenstein's creation "owes more to mythmaking than to historical fidelity,"(4) but their attitudes refuse to acknowledge their distance from the subject and the confused nature of the event. James Goodwin claims that Eisenstein "confused the historical record....The massacre on the Odessa Steps was often attributed by critics to Eisenstein's creation and he did little to correct that impression."(5) David Bordwell says that the film "takes great liberties" with historical fact. Andrew Sinclair says, "Eisenstein's version departs from the facts for the purposes of propaganda and art."(6) However, these perspectives assume a certain historical record and leave relatively little room for historical uncertainty and conflicting primary sources. Hough makes a detailed report of the events, but he acknowledges the uncertainties that underlie his narrative. He says that the Potemkin mutiny "must surely be among the most inaccurately recorded events in naval history....descriptions of the event written by the same eye-witness on different occasions are at variance in detail."(7) Surely if the primary sources disagree with each other one latter day film critic cannot determine exactly what happened and make a judgement upon the historicity of the film. Hough says of the creation of his history, "Where there are conflicting reports I have done my best to reconcile them, and, where necessary, to keep a reasonable balance between supposition and probability."(8) He has done the research, consulted the primary sources, acknowledged the uncertainty of his endeavor, and then offers us his best perspective on the events, working entirely from his sources and reconciling them as best he can. Eisenstein had Konstantin Feldman, a student agitator who functioned as a liaison from the shore revolutionaries, as an actor and historical advisor. He also had the explicit sanction of the Soviet government to create this movie and thus access to all of the historical archives of the government. Bordwell even admits that "Eisenstein was proud of his research into records and mutineer's memoirs."(9) These facts indicate that both Hough and Eisenstein have legitimate reasons for their perspectives on the "reality" of 1905 irrespective of the general critical condemnation of Eisenstein's account. The two accounts agree on the major facts, and the differences between the two accounts represent alternative interpretations of the information available. more...
This essay (C) 1998 by Gregg Severson