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The Theme of Uprising as Illustrated in The Movies The Battleship Potemkin, Matewan, and The Square

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Injustice often breeds opposition. There isn’t always an immediate violent outbreak, but a sense of alienation from as well as anger towards those in power builds up over time. Even as early signs emerge, those in power are not often willing to give up their power. And so the oppressed unite in a common frontier, often putting aside differences. They instead coalesce into a crowd, where the goal is the absolute and divergent thinking can be drowned out. They set out to correct the wrongs and establish the right, to establish their version of morality. In the three films that I analyze, The Battleship Potemkin, Matewan, and The Square, riots occur when a group of people perceive to be wronged by those in power. The riots portrayed in these films are framed as justified protests. Although violence occurs in several parts of each film, they are seen as a necessary conduits for change, or a side effect that is part of the overall package.

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The Battleship Potemkin and Matewan both feature a crowd that protests wrongs done by their superiors and rebels violently. The Battleship Potemkin is a silent film by Sergei Eisenstein that dramatizes and propagandizes the events of the mutiny of the soviet battleship Potemkin. In the film the sailors of Potemkin are outraged by maggot-ridden meat. They refuse to eat it and are set to be executed for their disobedience. However they mutiny successfully, although the leader of the rebellion dies symbolically in the fight. The crew lands at Odessa to mourn their leader with the civilians. However they are found and shot at by soldiers of the tsar who mercilessly shoot civilians, not discriminating children or women. The sailors fight back and set out to fight reinforcement fleets from the tsarist army. However the tsar’s soldiers refuse to fight them, and the battleship Potemkin is allowed through, waving a red flag.

Matewan is set in a small town in West Virginia, from which the film takes its name. The coal miners there are initially outraged by black workers that are imported by the mining company as strikebreakers. However Joe Kenehan, the protagonist, manages to convince the black and white workers to strike together. The company, which owns the town where the workers live, tries to dissuade the workers by threatening their resources as well as living space. The strike is seemingly ineffectively, which makes certain members jump to violence. After a series of scheming, accusations and other minor plot devices the conflict escalates into a full-blown fight. Kenehan is killed as well as various members from both sides. There is an epilogue narrated by one of the surviving characters who tells the audience that life moves without significant improvements for the miners, but they still maintain their spirits.

Both films are sympathetic to the rioters. They portray the rioters as those who are wronged by those in power. And the reason why they rebel against those in power is also cast in a sympathetic light. Although for the sake of a plot device both films feature catalysts from which very obviously stem the conflicts, the tensions that are underneath are made apparent. Battleship Potemkin shows the attitude of the officers towards sleeping sailors, the deceitfulness of the doctor on board and the captain, and the sailors’ awareness of the revolution occurring back home. In Matewan the poor wages of the workers as well as discontent are able to be revealed by the characters’ dialogue, unlike in the silent film Battleship Potemkin. The workers fear for their jobs, housing, and everyday needs, as the coal company owns all of these things in their town. Both films portray the rioters as those who are at their wit’s end, who are rebelling because they are pushed by the source of injustice.

Also both films portray in a positive light the embracement of a common identity. Individualism gives way to a core group identity as members set aside differences as well as certain freedoms. It should be noted that Battleship Potemkin was a propaganda film promoting the views of communism and the Russian Revolution. Communism especially espouses the power of the crowd, the power of the unity of class, the common workers against the elite, or in this case the officers who represent the old tsarist regime and ideals. The solidarity is especially outlined at the end of the film when the tsarist soldiers lets the Potemkin pass without a fight. And although Matewan does not promote communism like Battleship Potemkin, it embraces and even ennobles the idea of solidarity of a group. Kenehan is seen given an empowering speech to the workers regarding the unification of all workers, whether they are black, Italian, Hispanic. His phrase “That’s what a union is” idealizes the setting aside of differences to form a common front against those who have wronged them. The crowd is idealized thus in both Battleship Potemkin and Matewan in a way that villainizes the opposition while framing the crowd in an sympathetic way.

The third film I watched was The Square, a documentary by Jehane Noujaim. The film covers the Egyptian Crisis starting from the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. The film starts at the end of Hosni Mubarak’s 30 year reign. The protesters are shown to be happy to be a catalyst for a historic change in Egyptian politics. However as Mubarak steps down the country is put under military rule. Another round of protests begin, and this time is met by much more violence than before. Many civilians are hurt and even killed. The military strikes a deal with a group that had been a key player in the first round of protest; the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists take control of the newly formed parliament, while Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, takes presidency in 2012. Morsi grants himself an almost unprecedented amount of power, angering civilians. However he has the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood. The secularists, Christians, and some Muslims who have been alienated by Morsi’s presidency start another mass riot in 2013. Although violence erupts once more, Morsi is ousted from power. The rioters rejoice, but this time are more wary of celebration.

The Square clearly discusses the pitfalls of a revolution. A revolution, often driven by sentiment, is vulnerable to weakening once a goal has been met. Although rioters did want Mubarak to step down in 2011, they were not able to play a part in the larger politics by aiding in the drafting of a constitution or toppling the rest of the system in the regime. Although Battleship Potemkin did not discuss these pitfalls, Matewan does so in its epilogue. The narrator of the movie, Danny, says that the workers took the brunt of the damage. This chillingly reflects Ahmed’s words in The Square, where he says that the protesters take the beatings while the elite play their political game. Although the riots are shown to set precedents that will affect future events, they are not panaceas to the problems that the people face. That is not to say that riots are portrayed as being ineffective. They are simply shown to be limited in reach and direction.

As it was in the other two films, the solidarity found in crowds is idealized in The Square as well. The beginning of the film especially shows the unity that the Muslims, Christians, and secularists put aside in order to demand the stepping down of Mubarak. The crowd is shown chanting “Christian or Muslim, we are one”. The conflicting parts of each individual identity are put aside while the common group identity forms; every member is an oppressed civilian under unjust autocratic rule. The de facto protagonist Ahmed especially uses rhetoric praising the effect of the crowd, saying that unity empowers both the individuals and the purpose within the crowd various times in the film. He is also upset when members abandon or betray the crowd, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

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The three films all portray the riot in a positive light; they are seen as catalysts of change, a necessary tool to fight oppression. The story are told to attract sympathy for the rioters, while villainizing the opposition. Umberto Eco said “Real literature is about the losers”. Although internal flaws may or may not be admitted, the story told here mirrors the underdog stories that people love.

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The Theme of Uprising as Illustrated in The Movies The Battleship Potemkin, Matewan, and The Square. (2019, March 12). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 28, 2023, from
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