The Battleship Potemkin; or Potemkin  (1925) – Eisenstein

Following my previous blog post on Movies About the Russian Empire, it seems only right to return to the films of Sergei Eisenstein to set the scene for the Russian Revolution. Indeed, his widely-known masterpiece, Potemkin does exactly that. It tells of a 1905 event in Odessa, on the Black Sea, that prefigured the revolution of 1917.

 October: Ten Days that Shook the World  (1928) – Eisenstein

On a gray Sunday in April 2014, I had occasion in my barn studio to feel, in my small way, fully engaged in the 21st-century. Because of my progressive disability, my studio has been outfitted with an array of electronic devices that aid in my work. As I neared the halfway point in writing this website, I came to the subject of the Russian Revolution and found that I could access October: Ten Days that Shook the World on YouTube. Using my AppleTV, I sent the movie wirelessly to the large TV screen that hangs over my electrically adjustable bed. With the room suitably darkened, I settled myself comfortably and viewed Sergei Eisenstein’s famous black and white montage of the critical days of the October 1917 revolution in Petrograd (Saint Petersburg). It was, to use the operative word of the present decade, an  “immersive experience,” which was redoubled by memories of my visit to St. Petersburg two years earlier. The film uses music by Dmitri Shostokovich, but no voice narration and only minimal print legends. It was a great help to have walked the halls of the Winter Palace (now the Hermitage Museum) and to have looked across the River Neva to the Peter and Paul Fortress. Our local guides oddly ignored most associations with the Revolution and concentrated their attention on the fabulous mansions and palaces that were nationalized by the Bolsheviks in 1917. On a boat trip along the canals of the city and out onto the river, we passed the cruiser Aurora but no mention was made of it. The mutiny aboard this naval vessel became a microcosm of the Revolution, and it was a shot from one of her guns that signaled the start of the October uprising.

 

Reds  (1981)

I have put this ambitious film by Warren Beatty in an out-of-sequence position because it is built around the character of Jack Reed who wrote the book Ten Days that Shook the World in 1919. Jack was a New York progressive, a friend of Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson) among others. His fervently wrought book has not always been accepted as balanced reporting or reliable history over the last century. Even so, the work has the force of experience behind it. The author was in St. Petersburg as the events of the October Revolution unfolded. Beatty received an Academy Award for Best Director while many other nominations fell by the way. The film performed satisfactorily at the box office and remains the director’s most admired work. He also played the lead role opposite Diane Keaton.

Doctor Zhivago  (1965)

Foremost among the mainstream movies that play out their dramas against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution is David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago. While in Russia I learned that this film was not so much appreciated by Soviet citizens because it was overly romanticized, and more particularly because it treated the Revolution as a mere backdrop for its a love story. Part of the burden must go to author Boris Pasternak, who won the Nobel Prize and the hostility of the Russian government for his work. The other half of the responsibility goes to esteemed director, David Lean, who went overboard in making this movie beautiful. All the ingredients for greatness were in place, but it fell off the tracks in the end. Not to be too discouraging, this film is invaluable for anyone wishing to view the circumstances of the Russian Revolution from many angles. There are many who love this movie and buy the music boxes that play “Lara’s Theme.”

Nicholas and Alexandra  (1971

This film aspired to epic status in the wake of David Lean’s films. True to the formula, it had ample star power and grandeur of theme in its favor but it failed to engage the movie-going public. This may well have been because the last Czar and Czarina of Russia were somewhat pathetic figures despite the efforts of the movie to give them a romantic gloss. Even more than Dr. Zhivago, however, this almost three-and-a-half-hour movie offers a range of historical characters that covers the story of the Revolution in thoroughgoing detail. In the Movie Archive, there are three movies about Rasputin. The most dramatic of these is Rasputin and the Empress (1932), starring all three of the elder Barrymore siblings. The evil influence of the mad monk over empress Alexandra is fully demonstrated, as is his debauchery and paranoia. The scenes of the assassination of Rasputin are true to the legend of his indestructibility, but short on historical facts.

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