Part I: Men and Maggots
The battleship named Potemkin is experiencing a night increasingly disturbing unrest while at sea. A sleeping sailor becomes the victim of unprovoked hostility by a petty officer intent on beating him. Seaman Vakulinchuk promulgates revolution against the oppression of the Tsar by urging his fellow sailors to join their striking comrades back home on land. Come the morning and the situation only intensifies as the sailors react angrily to expectations that they should eat maggot-infested meat. The battleship’s doctor, Smirnov, inspects the meat and pronounces it fit for consumption as the fly larvae can merely be washed away. The senior officers order the dispersal of seaman before desire for insurrection turns into outright mutiny. Everybody dutifully performs their expected jobs without incident until the call for lunch which is refused almost unanimously. The officers are angry, but it is an anger without teeth. The anger of the seaman, however cuts deep and is razor sharp. This section draws to a conclusion with a sailor washing dishes driven to smash a plate emblazoned with the slogan “Give us this day our daily bread.”
Part Two: Drama on the Quarterdeck
Officers and crew assemble on the quarterdeck. The captain of the ship, Golikov, orders those who are satisfied with the ship’s food to step forward. Just a handful do and this sends Golikov into a rage culminating in a threat of execution. He then calls up the Marines to carry out this act. One of the seaman breaks rank and urges the rest to move toward the gun turrets. This creates a tense standoff between the Marines and the rebellious sailors while the officers become increasingly anxious about the future state of their own safety. An Orthodox priest prays for those condemned to die and the order is given to fire. The firing squad does immediately shoot, however, and the priest starts counting the lag by tapping a crucifix against his leg as one of the junior officers strokes his sword, thus creating an unavoidable connection between the church and Tsarist oppression. A second order is given to fire, but Vakulinchuk suddenly appears and calls for the Marines to realize they are shooting their own comrades and brothers. One by one, the Marine squad lowers their rifles. The sailors overrun the ship, overthrowing the officers and, ultimately, tossing Dr. Smirnov overboard. The cost for this success is the loss of their leader Vakulinchuk who has been shot in the head by a senior officer.
Part Three: An Appeal from the Dead
The Potemkin arrives at the port of Odessa and the mood is symbolically exhibited by the thick fog that permeates the beginning of the sequence. Vakulinchuk’s dead body is removed from the ship and taken on shore where he is put on display as a symbol of the cost both of revolting and not revolting. A sign placed on his check says it all: “For a spoonful of soup.” The sailors succeed in making a martyr and hero of their fallen shipmate as the people of Odessa arrive to welcome the sailors home. By doing this, they also draw the unwanted attention of the authorities.
Part Four: The Odessa Steps
The most famous section of the film finds a feeling of brotherhood and joy as the people bring food to the sailors. Against this feeling of fellowship and comradeship hangs the watchful eye of the Tsar’s troops. Without warning, the troops head down the Odessa steps and open fire on anyone who might be unlucky to stand between them and their bullets. Cossacks mounted on their steeds wait at the bottom if the staircase and join the assault which turns into a crazed slaughter of the innocent as well as those suspected of being guilty.
Part Five: Rendezvous with the Squadron
Aboard ship, the citizens of Odessa are calling for the sailors to team up with the army in active and open rebellion against the Tsar. The Admiralty squadron has been discharged against the Potemkin, however, and so the sailors choose to head out to sea to engage the battle there. The chaos and anarchic violence which marked the slaughter in Odessa has been replaced by a slowly building tension constructed from the expectation of what might happen when the Potemkin meets up with the Admiralty squadron versus the subdued emotional tenor of the journey that must be made in order for that meeting to take place. Although there is much suspense about what will actually take place when the two ships finally confront each other, nothing can be taken for granted at this point. Amidst the machinery of engagement being prepared and set in place, the tension and suspense reach the moment truth. The question lingers in the air: will the squadron remain loyal to the Tsar and open fire on the Potemkin or has the spirit of revolution spread even to them? The answer comes in the form of songs of brotherhood and shouts of solidarity that unite the Potemkin rebels with their comrades in the squadron no longer vowing loyalty and allegiance to the oppressive regime of the Tsarist dynasty.