|The 5th of November:
The Past and Present of Revolution in Film
Spring 2011 Dystopia in Global Cinema
April 22, 2011
Abstract: Revolution has been seen in films since its early creation. In this paper I will use Crane Brinton’s Anatomy of a Revolution to examine two films, Battleship Potemkin (1925) and V for Vendetta (2006). Though these films are more than eighty years apart from each other, I will discuss how, as seen within these two films, the theme of violent revolution as a means to forming a utopian society is universal and timeless.
Revolution in cinema reaches back all the way to when the art of making a film was still in development. In the German expressionist film Metropolis (1927), director Fritz Lang presents a dystopic world run by a wealthy upper class that in turn oppresses an entire underground city, where the lower class lives, by being forced to slave away at the machines that keep the city alive. The upper and lower class are devoid of a mediator that can bring the two together to reach a utopic world, and it isn’t until the lower class violently revolts against the machines that they reach utopia. It is through this violent revolution that utopia is finally reached. Though this is the first feature length science-fiction film, it is not the first film to feature a violent revolution as a means of reaching utopia. One of the first major films to present this is Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). Between this and Lang’s Metropolis, a formula arises for telling a tale about change that can be seen in modern films such as V for Vendetta (2006). This formula is very similar to the formula of revolution itself. Crane Brinton’s Anatomy of a Revolution provides a tool that of which we can apply to all films depicting revolution within a dystopic society. In looking at one of the earliest films depicting a revolution, Battleship Potemkin (1925), and a modern film V for Vendetta (2006), we can see that violent revolution is one of the greatest tools in reaching utopia, and that Brinton’s stages of revolution have not changed over the course of eighty plus years.
Brinton details four distinct phases of revolution1, the first phase being the preliminary stage where the old regime is politically and economically weak. For Brinton, this is the foundation or primordial soup for revolution. The people begin to ask for change or for justice from its less than competent government figurehead, as the intellects start to speak out against the old regime. Phase two, or the first stage, has the rebels to the old regime upping their tactics. There are more protests and symbolic acts made against the government. Furthermore, the government at this point cannot stop the rebellion. It will inevitably move into phase three also known as the crisis stage. In crisis stage, violent revolution emerges. The radicals take over by force and will sometimes try to eliminate the old regime’s figurehead to establish their new role as victors. This is where the violence emerges. Everything builds until it cannot build any further. Revolution ignites, and the old regime is overthrown. This stage, once it essentially burns itself out, leads to the final phase or what Brinton calls the recovery stage. In this stage, revolution dies down, people who do not agree with the new ideologies have accepted the changes by this point, and everything slowly goes back to normal. In a sense, they trade liberty for security. All four stages of Brinton’s revolution are explicitly shown in both Battleship Potemkin and V for Vendetta. We will now look at the pivotal scenes, in regards to both plot and to Brinton’s revolution, in both Battleship Potemkin and V for Vendetta.
Visionary director Sergei Eisenstein, a filmmaker who may well be considered the father of Soviet Montage, created Battleship Potemkin in 1925 after the Soviet government selected him to commemorate the failed Russian Revolution of 1905. The movie details a mutiny on board the Battleship Potemkin that causes the death of sailor Vakulinchuck. When the ship makes berth at Odessa, the entire city comes to mourn his death. As they walk to his resting place to pay their respects, a Tsarist militia arrives and takes aim at the crowd, in what is the film’s most famous scenes: the Odessa Steps Massacre. Potemkin leaves Odessa as news reaches that a squadron has been sent to neutralize them. With one heart, they go to face the squadron. As the battleships approach, Potemkin arms its cannons, but also sends a signal, “Join us!” To everyone’s shock, the other battleships let Potemkin pass without being attacked. The story of this film is simple and very effective. The first scene we will examine in relation to Brinton’s Anatomy of a Revolution comes from the film’s first episode, “People and Worms.”
The conditions on Potemkin are unbearable – the sailors are being forced to eat meat full of maggots. The sailors are upset with these conditions. “We’ve had enough rotten meat! Even a dog wouldn’t eat this,” an unidentified sailor shouts. The ship’s doctor, Smirnov comes over and examines the meat. He looks at the meat as a close up reveals maggots crawling all over it. We cut back to his face as he tells the crew that they can wash the maggots off to make the meat suitable for consumption. The sailors protest this decision by not eating. The episode ends with a sailor cleaning what can be presumed to be the commanding officer’s dishes. These dishes are very ornate. The last one has lettering around the rim that reads, “Give us this day our daily bread,” a line from the Lord’s prayer. The sailor reads this and becomes enraged, smashing the plate on the table. This episode shows up the first phase of revolution almost exactly. The “classes” are struggling with each other and the symbolic acts of refusing to eat as well as destroying a superior officer’s religiously charged plate all move the building tension of revolution forward.
In the second episode entitled “Drama on the Deck” we see Commander Golikov take matters into his own hands. He calls all of his men to the ship’s bow. Those who ate the borsch are ordered to step forward. For their loyalty they are dismissed. Everyone else is covered by a tarp and are ordered to be shot by a firing squad. Vakulinchuk, one of the few sailors to be singled out at the beginning of the film, then begs his shipmates to rise up against the oppressing commander. All the officers are killed and the ship is liberated. During the uprising, however, Vakulinchuk dies. In this episode we witness a revolution upon Potemkin. The tension comes to a head and Vakulinchuk the intellectual of the sailors asks for revolution.
In Battleship Potemkin there are two revolutions: one for the Potemkin and one for the people of Odessa if not all of Russia. For Odessa the call to arms comes when Vakulinchuk is laid to rest in the city and a letter is read to the mourners. “Citizens of Odessa! Lying before you is the body of Grigoriy Vakulinchuk, slain by a senior officer…Let’s take revenge on the bloodthirsty vampires! Death to the oppressors!” This sets the stage for the crisis stage in the Odessa Steps scene. To move forward we must now examine V for Vendetta for its scenes that portray Brinton’s phases of revolution.
In 2006, the comic book adaptation film V for Vendetta, directed by James McTeigue and written by the Wachowski brothers, was released by Warner Brothers. V for Vendetta is the perfect example of a dystopian film that utilizes revolution as a tool for reaching utopia. The year is 2020 and the United Kingdom is now under a totalitarian rule of the fascist party Nosefire. V, a vigilante who has been labeled a terrorist by the old regime, blows up a building to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture in a way to wake the citizens out of their fear-induced paralysis. The first scene2 we will examine from this film is when V broadcasts a call to arms to the people of 2020 UK, fitting directly with Brinton’s first phase of revolution.
Upon entering the British Television Network (BTN) with a vest made of bombs strapped to his chest, V makes his way to the control room of the studio where cuts broadcast and has a network employee play a mini-disc on the emergency broadcast channel. People have gathered around their television sets at this point, as normal broadcast has been interrupted by dead air. Then, V appears. He sits at a desk with a red background, and at the lower right hand section of the frame is a design, “VTV.” In a monologue that is eerily similar to Bush Administration America, V talks to the people directly:
Good evening, London. Allow me first to apologize for this interruption. I do, like many of
you, appreciate the comforts of the everyday routine, the security of the familiar, the
tranquility of repetition. I enjoy them as much as any bloke. But in the spirit of commemoration - whereby those important events of the past, usually associated with someone's death or the end of some awful bloody struggle, are celebrated with a nice holiday - I thought we could mark this November the fifth, a day that is sadly no longer remembered, by taking some time out of our daily lives to sit down and have a little chat. There are, of course, those who do not want us to speak. I suspect even now orders are being shouted into telephones and men with guns will soon be on their way. Why? Because while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn't there?
The scene cuts between V and groups of citizens watching the broadcast. Their faces are full of concern as though they know he is right, but they don’t want to admit it.
Where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance, coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission. How did this happen? Who's to blame? Well certainly there are those who are more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable. But again, truth be told...if you're looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn't be? War. Terror. Disease…Fear got the best of you and in your panic, you turned to the now High Chancellor Adam Sutler. He promised you order. He promised you peace. And all he demanded in return was your silent, obedient consent…More than four hundred years ago, a great citizen wished to embed the fifth of November forever in our memory. His hope was to remind the world that fairness, justice and freedom are more than words - they are perspectives. So if you've seen nothing, if the crimes of this government remain unknown to you, then I would suggest that you allow the fifth of November to pass unmarked. But if you see what I see, if you feel as I feel, and if you would seek as I seek...then I ask you to stand beside me, one year from tonight, outside the gates of Parliament. And together, we shall give them a fifth of November that shall never, ever, be forgot!
This scene acts directly in accordance to Brinton’s first and second phase of revolution. As previously mentioned, the first phase shows the old regime and the weakness of the government. V wants the people to see as he sees, and for those who don’t, he hopes that this message will help them turn towards the light at the end of the cave. This monologue is also very full of exposition. It sets up the dystopian world in an eerily similar post-9/11 America setting, where its citizens have blindly given up their freedoms for security. V by broadcasting is here to make people realize how they’re being controlled. It also depicts the world as one filled with fear and desperation. The old regime is controlling them through this fear. The monologue acts as a call to arms. In one year V wants them to join him in destroying the Parliament Building. For Brinton’s second phase there are symbolic acts made against the old regime, which this broadcast is. V is planting a seed within society’s head that in one year will hopefully ripen and be ready for the revolution that the country so desperately needs. Like Battleship Potemkin both films use this rallying call to arms to gather steam. Revolution cannot happen with only one person. It can be done by a small group of like-minded people though. This is shown in both films through this call to action. With that being said, this is not the quintessential phase two scene however. This is simply the call to arms, the inciting incident, which prepares the revolution process. Our second scene3, however, is what starts the revolution.
As the 5th of November draws closer, V’s tactics do too. In what has become known as the “domino scene” we see V’s plan fall into place. V has sent out several hundred thousand packages containing the Guy Fawkes masks that he himself wears. He hopes to create chaos. Inspector Finch realizes that this is V’s intent. “With so much chaos, someone will do something stupid.” As Finch says this, we see a young girl in the Guy Fawkes mask, hat, and cloak running down the street after she has completed another one of her “V” graffitis, when a law enforcement officer takes aim and fires on her. Blood shoots from her chest. As she falls to the ground, the mask flies off with her glasses still taped to it. We cut to a shot of the dead girl as the officer walks up to her, shocked at what he’s done. Finch continues, “And when they do. Things will turn nasty.” The people who were once controlled by fear, now gather around the officer, one man striking him with a wrench. The revolution begins. Riots are seen throughout the city, and Sutler reacts the only way he can, by force, in exact accordance to Brinton’s phases. It is through the death of this young girl, like in Battleship Potemkin when Vakulinchuk dies, that the people are thrust into a violent revolution.
In Battleship Potemkin the Odessa Steps Massacre is the violent revolution that causes the Potemkin to find utopia. In the film’s fourth episode, the people of Odessa lived harmoniously with the “rebellious ship” in what appears to be a utopic scene when all of a sudden a group of Tsarist militants come and slaughter the townspeople without just cause. The Potemkin tries to protect the people but they can’t, a squadron has been sent to get them. This massacre sends Potemkin out of Odessa to face the other battleships who eventually join them. If it were not for the massacre, the uprising met by force, Potemkin could not have gotten the other battleships to join them in the revolution against the Tsarist regime. In the film’s final scene, Potemkin sails by the other battleships as the crew yells triumphantly, “brothers!” Utopia has been reached. The rebellion continues. Unlike modern films, this does not give us a great sense of closure. There is still a lot to be wanted. The rebellion is still happening, yet at the same time, the Potemkin has sailed into utopia by means of a violent uprising. In V for Vendetta we see the ultimate act of violent revolution that we would today consider to be an act of terrorism4.
The 5th of November has finally arrived and V has taken a hold of the citizen’s minds in our final scene. V is dead, but not his ideals. A sea of V’s wash upon the city and approach a line of soldiers. They ask their commanding officers as well as High Chancellor Sutler for orders. Unbeknownst to them, before V’s death, in his last act, he killed Sutler and his key followers. They are now on their own to face the tide of revolution. Below in the Underground, Finch finds Evy and attempts to persuade her away from following through with V’s plan. The sea of V’s continue to choke the streets. In the Underground, Evy has her hand on the lever to send the bomb filled tube train to the Parliament building. Finch asks, “Why are you doing this?” She responds, “Because he was right…This country needs more than a building right now. It needs hope.” Finch stands down. We cut above to see the V’s feet away from the soldiers and their barricade. They too stand down as the V’s wash over them, causing now harm. The 1812 Overture begins to play on the loud speakers as the Parliament building erupts into a series of large explosions followed by celebratory fireworks, destroying the largest symbol of the old regime. The V’s all begin to unmask themselves, as they no longer need the protection of the guise. Revolution has succeeded. Brenton’s crisis stage has been reached and has now moved into the final phase: the new beginning; the utopia.
The Impact of Revolution
When Battleship Potemkin first came out in 1925, it was considered to be a revolutionary piece. Now it is considered to be a classic, yet not as impactful. V for Vendetta, being a modern film that directly alludes to post-9/11 America, however, is impactful. The reason Battleship Potemkin is not effective is because times are different. It was a film made about a specific revolution. What is interesting to note though is that in the film’s companion book written by Richard Taylor, he notes that, “Time, and propaganda, have so clouded the truth of the ‘Potemkin’ mutiny that it must surely be among the most inaccurately recorded events in history” (Taylor, 60). Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps Massacre was a complete fictionalization of the events. He added them to add drama to the story. So then one begins to wonder how effective this film truly was to its original audience. It’s effectiveness did not stand; however, the universal message of revolution did.
Similarly, V for Vendetta will lose its effectiveness in the years to come, but that message will last. In Brian Ott’s article The Visceral Politics of V for Vendetta: On Political Affect in Cinema, he states, “Although critics were intensely divided on the film’s merit, they were strikingly unified in their interpretation of the film’s message. V for Vendetta, critics agreed, was an allegory for life in George W. Bush’s America, and an unwavering critique of his administration and its policies (both domestic and foreign) surrounding the war on terror. This message was confirmed by James McTeigue, the film’s director, who publically noted, “We felt the [graphic] novel was very prescient to how the political climate is at the moment. It really showed what can happen when society is ruled by government, rather than the government being run as a voice of the people.’” (Ott, 40). Between these two films, even though they are more than eighty years apart, we can see the same steps of revolution that Crane Brinton details. We can also see that the universal message of standing up against an oppressing force lasts over time.
Brinton, Crane. The Anatomy of a Revolution. New York: Vintage, 1958. Print.
Ott, Brian L. "The Visceral Politics of V for Vendetta: On Political Affect in Cinema." Critical Studies in Media Communication 27.1 (2010): 39-54. Print.
Taylor, Richard. The Battleship Potemkin: The Film Companion. London: I.B. Tauris,