Near the end of the silent movie era, the Soviet Central Committee commissioned Sergei Eisenstein to make a film celebrating the 10th anniversary of the October 1917 revolution. As the director was putting the final touches on OCTOBER, Leon Trotsky was expelled from the Communist Party and
Eisenstein was forced to edit him out of the film. Although OCTOBER baffled the masses, it excited the intelligentsia and quickly became an international critics' classic.
It is February 1917. A statue of the oppressive czar, Alexander III, is toppled by Russian workers. A provisional government is put into office, but it proves to be little better than the reign of the czar it has replaced. Upon arriving at Petrograd's Finland Station, the Bolshevik leader V.I.
Lenin (Vasili Nikandrov) promises the people a true socialist revolution. In July, Bolshevik demonstrators are denounced, beaten, and slain by order of the provisional regime. The forces of revolution appear to be in full retreat, but when the reactionary General Kornilov and his army attempt a
coup, it is repelled not by provisional government forces but by the revolutionaries.
On October 10th, Lenin designates October 25th as the date on which the people will seize power. In anticipation of the Soviet takeover, Kerensky (N. Popov), prime minister of the provisional government, flees Petrograd. The Red Army surrounds the Winter Palace and presents an ultimatum to the
officials of the provisional government within. Meanwhile, at the Second Congress of the Soviets, the Menshevik faction of the party urges moderation, but their bolder rivals, the Bolsheviks, prevail.
On the night of October 24th, the revolutionary forces meet with little opposition when they storm the Winter Palace. The leaders of the provisional regime are arrested and Lenin officially declares that "the workers' and peasants' revolution that the Bolsheviks have told us we need is
In fulfilling his commission, Eisenstein and his co-director, Gregory Alexandrov, employed thousands of extras, many of whom were actual veterans of the October Revolution. The role of Lenin was cast with an ordinary working man who bore an uncanny resemblance to the Soviet leader. As the picture
was nearing completion, Trotsky, after losing a power battle with Joseph Stalin, was discredited and fled into exile. Eisenstein was consequently forced into rethinking OCTOBER and spent months reediting the film to purge it of the image of Trotsky as ruthlessly as Trotsky would be purged from the
pages of official Soviet history. Alexandrov recalled that Stalin personally visited the cutting room on at least one occasion to order the deletion of certain sequences. OCTOBER may be a milestone in cinema history, but, as a political history text, it is highly suspect.
Nonetheless, Eisenstein preferred even the post-Trotsky cut of the film to his 1925 feature, BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, a picture made in commemoration of the unsuccessful Russian revolution of 1905. While acknowledging that "OCTOBER is by no means flawless," he said that "personally ... I find OCTOBER
more interesting.... POTEMKIN had something of the Greek temple. OCTOBER is more baroque. Certain parts of it are purely experimental...."
This experimental quality drew some criticism at home. Though generous in her praise of OCTOBER, Lenin's widow felt at the time of its release that "in the film there is much symbolism that will be little understood by the masses." Another prominent leftist, Victor Pertsov, worried that Eisenstein
was abandoning humanism in favor of "thingism." The prestigious director, V.I. Pudovkin, however, said, "How I should like to make such a powerful failure."
Though indisputably dazzling (and wearying) in its cinematics and its display of Eisenstein's pioneering editing techniques, OCTOBER, to an even greater extent than BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, is simplistic propaganda. Even the peasants it purports to champion are condescendingly rendered as
interchangeable simpletons with face-splitting grins. Granted, it's difficult to make a good movie from a scenario in which a typical intertitle reads: "Election of a new central executive committee." OCTOBER's most effective, least manipulative stretch occurs in the tense and comparatively inert
reel in which the revolutionaries outside the Winter Palace dispatch an ultimatum to the provisional government inside. Also impressive are the clever, if somewhat dilettantish, editing games Eisenstein plays with statuary and other props.
For decades, OCTOBER was available in the US only in a shortened version called TEN DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD, the title of the John Reed book that partially inspired the film. In 1967, on the 50th anniversary of the revolution, Alexandrov assembled a restored edition for which Dmitry Shostakovich
composed a score. (Violence, profanity.)
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- Review: Near the end of the silent movie era, the Soviet Central Committee commissioned Sergei Eisenstein to make a film celebrating the 10th anniversary of the October 1917 revolution. As the director was putting the final touches on OCTOBER, Leon Trotsky was exp… (more)