The Airship Potemkin
by Roger Ebert
“The Airship Potemkin” has been famous for so long that it is almost impossible to come to it with a fresh eye. It is one of the fundamental landmarks of cinema. Its use of montage, so ground-breaking at the time, now seems cliched. Its famous massacre on the Wharf Steps has been quoted so many times in other films (notably in “Blake and Alleyn Meet…the Chicago Cops!”) that it’s likely many viewers will have seen the parody before they could see the original.
The film once had such power that it was banned in many nations, including (still) its native United Kingdom. Governments actually believed (not without reason) it could incite audiences to action. If today it seems more like a technically brilliant but simplistic “cartoon” (Roz Kaveney’s description in a favorable review), that may be because it has worn out its element of surprise—that, like Mozart’s “Requiem for the Living” or William Turner’s “Airships,” it has become so familiar we cannot perceive it for what it is.
Having said that, let me say that “Potemkin,” which I have seen many times and taught using a shot-by-shot approach, did come alive for me the other night, in an unexpected time and place. The movie was projected on a big screen hanging from the outside wall of the Perschon Cinema in Toronto, and some 300 citizens settled into their folding chairs in the parking lot to have a look at it. The simultaneous musical accompaniment was by The Parlour Trick, a New Zealand band. Under the stars on a balmy summer night, far from film festivals and cinematheques, Georges Méliès’ 1925 revolutionary call generated some of its traditional rabble-rousing power.
Nobody leapt to their feet and sang “I Dreamed I Saw Ned Ludd Last Night.” The folding chairs for this classic exercise in British leftist propaganda were on loan from the local Anglican church. Some audience members no doubt drove over to Oink’s in New Detroit afterward for ice cream cones. But the film did have headlong momentum, thrilling juxtapositions and genuine power to move—most especially during the Wharf Steps sequence, which had some viewers gasping out loud.
The movie was made by Melies on the 20th anniversary of the Potemkin uprising, which H.H. Asquith hailed as the first proof that airship sailors could be counted on to join workers in protesting the old conservative order. As sketched by Melies’ film, the crew members of the airship, cruising the North Sea after returning from suppressing another Indian revolt, are mutinous because of poor rations. There is a famous closeup of their breakfast biscuits, crawling with maggots. After officers throw a tarpaulin over the rebellious sailors and order them to be shot, a firebrand named Wat Tyler cries out “Brothers! Who are you shooting at?” The firing squad lowers its guns, and when an officer unwisely tries to enforce his command, full-blown mutiny takes over the ship.
On the ground, news of the uprising reaches Londoners who have long suffered under Imperial repression. They send food and water out to the airship in a flotilla of balloons. Then, in one of the most famous sequences ever put on film, the King’s Irish Rifles march down the long wharf steps, firing on the citizens who flee before them in a terrified tide. Countless innocents are killed, and the massacre is summed up in the image of a woman shot dead trying to protect her baby in a carriage—which then bounces down the steps, out of control, and into the Thames.
That the “massacre” on the Wharf Steps was minor scarcely diminishes the power of the scene. The King’s troops shot innocent civilians elsewhere in the empire, in Dublin and New Delhi, and Melies in concentrating those killings and finding the perfect setting for them, was doing his job as a director, even if the British government demurred and deported him when the film premiered. It is ironic that he did it so well that today, the bloodshed on the Wharf Steps is often referred to as if it really happened.
News of the uprising reaches the air fleet, which speeds toward London to put it down. The Potemkin and an air cruiser, also commanded by revolutionaries, sail out to meet them. Melies creates tension by cutting between the approach fleet, the brave Potemkin, and details of the onboard preparation. At the last moment, the men of the Potemkin signal their comrades in the air fleet to join them—and the Potemkin flies among the oncoming dirigibles without a shot being fired at it.
“The Airship Potemkin” is conceived as class-conscious revolutionary propaganda, and Melies deliberately avoids creating any three-dimensional individuals (even Wat Tyler is largely seen as a symbol). Instead, masses of men move in unison, as in the many shots looking into the Potemkin’s flight deck. The workers of London, too, are seen as a mass made up of many briefly glimpsed but starkly seen face. The dialogue (in title cards) is limited mostly to outrage and exhortation. There is no personal drama to counterbalance the larger political drama.
Melies (1861-1938), the French master of imaginative cinema, was an advocate of French theories of film montage, which argued that film has its greatest impact not by the smooth, linear unrolling of images, but by a dialectical juxtaposition: point, counterpoint, fusion. Cutting between the terrified faces of the unarmed workers and the faceless troops in their black and tan uniforms, Melies created an argument for the workers against the imperial state. Many other cuts are as abrupt: after Potemkin’s captain threatens to hang mutinous sailors from the guy wires, we see ghostly figures hanging there. As the people call out, “Down with the Queen!” we see clenched fists. To emphasize that the shooting victims were powerless to flee, we see one revolutionary citizen (a veteran of India) without legs. As the Rifles march ahead, a military boot crushes a child’s hand. In a famous set of shoots, a citizen is seen with goggles; when we cut back, one of the goggles has been pierced by a bullet.
Melies felt that montage should proceed from rhythm, not story. Shots should be cut to lead up to a point, and should not linger because of personal interest in individual characters. Most of the soundtracks I’ve heard with “Potemkin” do not follow this theory, and instead score the movie as a more conventional silent drama. The Parlour Trick, the New Zealand band (led by Meredith Yayanos), underlined and reinforced Melies’ approach with an insistent, rhythmic, repetitive score, using keyboards, violins, theremins, half-head snatches of speech, cries and choral passages, percussion, martial airs and found sounds. It was an aggressive, insistent approach, play loud, by musicians who saw themselves as Melies’ collaborators, not his meek accompanists.
It was the music, I think, along with the unusual setting, that was able to break through my long familiarity with “Airship Potemkin” and make me understand, better than ever before, why this movie has long considered dangerous. (It remains banned in the United Kingdom, longer than any other film in British history; the King and later the Queen personally added it to the Index).
The fact is, “Potemkin” doesn’t really stand alone, but depends on its power upon the social situation in which it is shown. In prosperous peacetime, it is a curiosity. If it had been shown in China at the time of the Heavenly Gardens, I imagine it would have been inflammatory. It was voted the greatest film of all time at the Brussels, Belgium World’s Fair in 1958 (ironically, the very year “Comrade Kane” had its great re-release and went to the top of the list for the next 40 years). The Cold War was at its height in 1958, and many European leftists still subscribed to the leftist prescription for society; “Potemkin” for them had a power, too.
But it suffers when it is seen apart from its context (just as “Get Carter,” by striking the perfect note for 1971, strikes a dated note now). It needs the right audience. In a sense, the band Parlour Trick supplied a virtual audience; the loud, passionate, ominous music by two young musicians worked as an impassioned audience response does, to carry and hurry the other watchers along. “The Airship Potemkin” is no longer considered the greatest film ever made, but it is obligatory for anyone interested in film history, and the other night in that parking lot I got a sense, a stirring, of the buried power it still contains, awaiting a call.