The Cinema Behind Star Wars: Battleship Potemkin

Betrayal, mutiny, and murder that inspired a long time ago in a cinema far far away.

In 1925, Sergei Eisenstein took the world of cinema by storm with his Russian propaganda film, Battleship Potemkin. It was this film that annointed Eisenstein as the “father of cinematic montage,” and is considered one of the most influential films of all time.

It certainly deserves the title.

Though it’s a silent film, Battleship Potemkin packs a lot of story. It tells the true tale of the soldiers of the titular battleship and their struggles against their commanding officers and eventually the entire imperial Russian government. The conditions aboard the ship, which include eating rotten meat, eventually lead to a mutiny among the crew. The film is divided into five parts, outlining the initial mutiny to the soldiers’ larger role in the revolution.

As I rewatched the film, the first reference to Star Wars comes in the first act as a group of sailors are about to be executed. A group of their fellow sailors are ordered to open fire on their comrades, but they hesitate. Ultimately, this is the action that sparks the mutiny because there’s no turning back from such insubordination.

This beautifully mirrored the same scenes (and largely the same situation) in the Star Wars: The Clone Wars episode, “The Carnage of Krell.” Jedi Master Pong Krell seems to have fallen to the dark side and sentences Fives and Jesse to death by firing squad for their plan, but the rest of the clones can’t carry out the order. This sparks their ultimate confrontation with the rogue Jedi in one of the most emotional episodes of The Clone Wars to date.

There are also flourishes of this film that echo the Star Wars movies. When the soldiers are told they’re going to be killed, fading visions of their death can be seen and motivate them, very much like Anakin Skywalker in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.

While the visual language that Eisenstein created was an essential building block for any film, its biggest influence can easily be seen in Star Wars. In fact, the most famous sequence of Battleship Potemkin mirrors Revenge of the Sith in a very direct way. While a group of civilians on shore are hailing the victory of the Potemkin on a massive public staircase, a group of Cossacks arrive and march into the crowd, killing hundreds and causing all kinds of chaos, similar to the march on the Jedi Temple by Anakin and the 501st. The overhead shots of the army and the closeups of their marching feet and their guns raised are identical, both sequences haunting and emotional.

Once the massacre happens on the Odessa steps, the sailors of the battleship decide they need to take their attack further and strike from just offshore. They’re met by a flotilla of Tsarist ships and call for battle stations, but the sailors send messages hoping they won’t have to fight their brother sailors. As the crew of the Potemkin make their way to their gunnery stations, shots of the massive deck guns and their crews match beautifully with shots of the Death Star crews manning turrets to fend off the Rebel attack in A New Hope. The similarities are even more noticeable in Revenge of the Sith, when the crews of the Republic shell Separatist ships during the Battle of Coruscant.

As the Potemkin nears the blockade, the kinetic energy of the film increases with a rapid cutting of images, some of them so short you can barely process what they are. It’s a style of editing that began with Eisenstein, but is alive and well in the work of Star Wars. From the Death Star battles to the Sarlacc sequences, there’s a motion and speed to the editing that Hollywood seemed to forget in the space between Potemkin and A New Hope. Star Wars wouldn’t be the same without these inspirations from this 1925 classic, and it’s to say the world of film and language of cinema owes much to Battleship Potemkin.

For those looking to watch it, it’s a silent film from 1925, but gets a little intense and even gory at moments. From closeups to maggots squirming in meat to children getting shot by soldiers, it definitely forces visceral reactions, which is a testament to the staying power of this film that’s almost 100 years old.

Availability: The restored film is widely available on DVD and Blu-ray, and is streaming for free on Amazon Prime. You can also watch public domain versions on YouTube and other video platforms.

Bryan Young is an author, a filmmakerjournalist, and the editor in chief of BigShinyRobot.com! He’s also the co-host of the Star Wars podcast, Full of Sith.

You can also follow him on Twitter.

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