October (Ten Days That Shook the World) (1927)
Director: Grigori Alexandrov, Sergei Eisenstein
Cast: Boris Livanov, Nikolay Popov, Vasili Nikandrov
Synopsis: In documentary style, events in Petrograd are re-enacted from the end of the monarchy in February of 1917 to the end of the provisional government and the decrees of peace and of land in November of that year.
Let’s face it, a movie like October, Ten Days that Shook the World, Sergei Eisenstein’s propagandistic account of the 1917 Russian revolution and the events leading up to it, is never going to appeal to a mainstream movie fan. For hardcore film buffs it is a must-see because we feel that, as serious buffs, we should have this title under our belt. It’s Eisenstein, after all, the Russian genius, the creator of the ground-breaking montage technique, the guy who influenced generations of film-makers. For a serious buff to admit to not having seen October, is like a Lord of the Rings fanboy confessing to never having read Tolkien’s book. No, wait – bad example. Ok, it’s like a screenplay guru who has no writing credits to his name.
Well, anyway, you get the idea…
Those with a keen interest in the history of Russia and its revolutions would also find only limited worth in Eisenstein’s account. The film was made in 1927 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the revolution, and by then Mad Joe Stalin was well and truly entrenched as the leader of an oppressive Soviet regime which bore little resemblance to that envisaged by most of the leaders of the revolution. Stalin didn’t want Trotsky receiving any praise for the part he played, so he’s portrayed here as something of a wet blanket who timidly prevaricates while the real men of action get things done. The climactic storming of the Winter Palace – which, in reality, was more like a let-yourself-in-through-the-back-door-and-climb-a-few-narrow-stairs-at-your-leisure – is given an epic scale which makes for stirring imagery but bears little resemblance to the truth.
Despite Eisenstein’s attempts to liven up a story which probably didn’t even appeal much to its intended market back in 1927, watching October is a bit like sitting through a history lesson about a subject which has little relevance or meaning to your own life.
It’s not Eisenstein’s fault – he probably does a better job than any other director working at the time could have – it’s just that the film is very much a document of its time and location. The suspicion of political interference and bias in the images we see is too pervasive for us to gain much satisfaction from the story it tells. But we can, at least, admire Eisenstein’s skill and artistry, which is evident in every dramatic shot and extreme close-up of lined and rugged faces that have clearly seen hardship in their time.
Perhaps the biggest weakness of Eisenstein’s direction is his – or his taskmaster’s – lack of confidence in the intelligence of his audience. The way some key points are hammered home – the repeated comparison of General Kerensky, leader of the provisional government, with Napoleon springs to mind – gives the film an even more strident edge than it would otherwise possess. But there’s no denying that he was capable of creating excitement simply from his rapid cutting of shots, and of conjuring up memorably vivid images, such as the famous shot of a white horse’s corpse hanging from a raised bridge, and the arrangement and movement of a dead woman’s hair as it lies across the two separating halves of the same slowly raising bridge.
(Reviewed 1st December 2013)